TEXT ON SCREEN: September 17, 2001
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-28-02):
JOHN ROBERTS: Four Arabs are accused of providing support for attacks against American targets.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-20-03): FRED FRANCIS: The Justice Department says the four were part of a sleeper operational combat cell.
NARRATION: It was the first major trial in the new “War on Terror.”
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 8-29-02): KELLI ARENA: Prosecutors say the men belonged to the Algerian terrorist group “Salafiya.”
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-28-02): JIM STEWART: A sleeper operational combat cell’ in a global Jihad against Israel and America.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 8-29-02): KELLI ARENA: Two of the men were found guilty in June of terrorism-related charges.
NARRATION: But were these men really part of a sleeper cell, or victims of overzealous prosecution?
KARIM KOUBRITI: This case was a clear violation of the law. I should not be arrested for terrorism at all.
THE DETROIT SLEEPER CELL
NARRATION: Six days after the 9-11 attacks, FBI agents approached a house in Detroit, looking for a suspected terrorist, Nabil al Marabh.
KARIM KOUBRITI: I heard knocking on doors and someone calling, “Nabil, Nabil, Nabil.” I went down and opened the door and see what’s going on. One of the agents asked me, “Are you Nabil?” I’m like, “No, I’m not Nabil.” “Do you know Nabil?” And he showed me a picture of me through a translator. I’m like, “No, I don’t know this guy.” And he looked like he doesn’t believe me.
NARRATION: The man the FBI was looking for didn’t live there anymore, but FBI agents searched the house and found false identification papers and old Detroit Airport badges, that Koubriti said he and one of his roommates used when they were dishwashers there.
KARIM KOUBRITI: They were on the table. And when the FBI saw the IDs saying Metro Airport…and there you go. They have a nice case.
NARRATION: Koubriti and his roommates were arrested for possessing false documents. But federal prosecutors began to pursue more than just a document fraud case.
KEITH CORBETT (FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY): We found a book which had a series of sketches. They were supposedly showing a plan to attack an American air base in Turkey and also perhaps to attack a hospital. The military said they altered their flight patterns based on these drawings, and people in the CIA gave some credibility to these drawings, and I deferred to their expertise.
NARRATION: Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the case as a major coup in the “War on Terror.”
ARCHIVAL (ATTORNEY GENERAL PRESS BRIEFING, 10-31-01): JOHN ASHCROFT: Three Michigan men suspected of having knowledge of the September 11 attacks, for example, were arrested on charges of possessing false documents.
KEITH CORBETT: Now you have the Attorney General mentioning it, and I think that made the case a bigger issue in D.C. than it had been before that.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-28-02): STONE PHILLIPS: New indications tonight that the world wide web of terror stretches far beyond Afghanistan.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 8-29-02): KELLI ARENA: These men in Detroit are described as a terrorist sleeper cell.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-28-02): PETE WILLIAMS: In the apartment, the FBI says, were rough plans to target a US air base in Turkey and the hospital in Amman, Jordan.
GERALD ROSEN (CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE): It was the first case that included terrorism charges to be brought after September 11th. This is the one case I think that is firmly in the shadow of September 11th.
NARRATION: Among the evidence, this videotape of young Arabic men and women in high profile tourist destinations, which the Justice Department claimed were terrorist casing videos. The prosecution also had evidence that Koubriti planned to get a commercial license to drive hazardous materials and suggested he and the others were providing support for terrorist attacks. All circumstantial evidence, until this man came to the government’s attention. Youssef Hmimmsa, whose false documents had been found during the Detroit raid, was arrested on charges of credit card and ID fraud. He cut a deal with the prosecution, agreeing to testify that Koubriti and the others.
KEITH CORBETT: Hmimssa said that he knew these people. He identified them as potential terrorists. He said they had discussed terrorist activities. So without Hmimssa, I don’t think there would have been a prosecution.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-20-03): JOHN ASHCROFT: Such corporation is a critical tool in our war against terrorism.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-20-03): FRED FRANCIS: The government’s star witness, Youssef Hmimssa, says the four talked about terrorism.
NARRATION: As the trial started, the nation was watching as one of the government’s most important post 9-11 terrorism case was laid out before a jury.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-2-04): FRED FRANCIS: A conviction would be a milestone in the war on terror.
GERALD ROSEN: One of the things we were all concerned about was the white hot publicity. There were death threats, which I’ve never talked about publicly. We were bussing in jurors from a remote location. We received a threat indicating that the person on the phone had discovered the location and had planted a bomb. Needless to say, that was… concerning.
NARRATION: The trial lasted more than 2 months.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-20-03): TOM BROKAW: In Detroit tonight, closing arguments have ended and a jury is set to deliberate the first case against an alleged terror cell inside the US since the September 11th terrorist attacks.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-20-03): FRED FRANCIS: Originally, the Justice Department linked the four to September 11 and al-Qeada. It later retraced that… A jury hearing closing arguments now will decide whether the four are terrorists or, as their lawyers claim, targets of an anxious government.
NARRATION: On June 3rd, 2003, the jury found Koubriti and Elmardoudi guilty of the most serious charge: providing material support to terrorists, while acquitting Ali-Haimoud and convicting Hannan of only document fraud.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-3-03): TOM BROKAW: In Detroit, two Arab immigrants have been found guilty of terror, conspiracy and fraud.
KARIM KOUBRITI: The government is lying, clearly lying. And the jury decided to come back with a guilty verdict. I was angry at the jury, very angry at those 12 American people who decided that I was guilty on terrorism.
NARRATION: As the judge was preparing to hand down his sentence, he got some disturbing information.
GERALD ROSEN: The US Attorney said, “Judge, I have to come and see you. I’ve already talked to the defense lawyers about this, but I have a pretty serious matter to raise with you.” I said, “What’s the nature of it?”
NARRATION: Judge Rosen was eventually given page after page of documents that the lead prosecutor, Rick Convertino, never handed over to the defense. Among them, this letter from a drug kingpin named Milton “Butch” Jones, whose prison cell was next to the prosecution’s star witness Youssef Hmimmsa.
GERALD ROSEN: And I read it and it was pretty shocking.
NARRATION: In it Jones says Hmimmsa boasted how he lied to the FBI, how he fooled the Secret Service agent on his case.
GERALD ROSEN: This was before anything about what Hmimssa was going to say was public. He had so much detail about what Hmimssa later did testify to that he could only have gotten that information at the time from Hmimssa.
NARRATION: Corbett, who was Convertino’s supervisor, defends the decision not to turn Jones’s letter over to the defense.
KEITH CORBETT: Butch Jones, here’s a guy looking at a murder charge. Mr. Jones, why don’t you try to say anything you can to bail yourself out? I don’t think he would have been a credible witness. I said, “Nah, I don’t think we have to turn it over.”
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 12-11-03): ANCHOR: There’s a basic rule of American justice, if the prosecution has evidence the accused is innocent or might be innocent, it must give the accused that evidence. The government broke that rule.
NARRATION: Another issue involved those alleged casing video, which Koubriti says were filmed by one of his house guests.
KARIM KOUBRITI: They were taking pictures everywhere they went, New York, Vegas. And there’s girls dancing, guys talking.
GERALD ROSEN: The Las Vegas FBI office not only had not bought into the government’s theory that this was a casing tape – a surveillance tape, but had specifically said “no it’s not.”
NARRATION: But those doubts were also not revealed to the defense. That left a key piece of evidence – the drawings in the day planner that allegedly showed plans to bomb military sites in the Middle East, which the defense said were scribblings left behind by a former tenant.
KARIM KOUBRITI: If you would have taken that day planner before 9-11 to the FBI and tell them, “hey, look at this,” they’re going to tell you, “take that day planner and get out of here. This is garbage. What is this?” But after 9-11 it looks like it’s something.
NARRATION: Some military experts had also expressed doubts about the drawings. A high-ranking Turkish intelligence official had told the US military that he was “skeptical that the day planner sketches had been drawn by terrorists surveilling Incirlik Air Base and called them “extremely amateurish.”
To get to the bottom of this case, Judge Rosen reached out directly to the CIA for the case file.
GERALD ROSEN: And they said, “well, it’s classified at such a level that we can’t even permit it to leave the agency.” So I said, “well, okay. I’ll go up there and look at it.” And they looked at me like I had said, “Well, I’m going to go to the moon” or something.
NARRATION: In the spring of 2004, Judge Rosen did go to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and reviewed the classified material related to the case. In agreement with the Justice Department’s recommendation, he threw out the terrorism convictions.
GERALD ROSEN: It’s never easy to overturn a verdict. But it became obvious to me, at some point, that the verdicts had to be-had to be overturned.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 9-1-04): DAN RATHER: There’s been a setback tonight in the war on terror.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 9-2-04): REPORTER: A federal judge has tossed terrorism charges against two men convicted last year.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-2-04):
TOM BROKAW: The Justice Department admitted that its prosecutors seriously mishandled the case. This was the first major federal terror prosecution after 9-11.
KARIM KOUBRITI: That was a bad part of my life, very bad. I try to forget it. I try sometimes to say, “okay, I understand.” I really try to understand, but it’s not right. Even if I try to say “okay, it was bad times, things happen,” but it’s not right. It doesn’t matter what time it is, it shouldn’t happen.
NARRATION: After spending more than three years behind bars, Koubriti walked out of prison. He went on to start a successful trucking company. As for the others accused members of the Detroit Sleeper Cell – Ali-Haimoud became a US citizen. Hannan and Elmardoudi were convicted of unrelated fraud charges and deported to Morocco. Convertino, who has denied wrongdoing, did not respond to our requests for an interview. He was charged with obstruction of justice and other offenses, but was acquitted. Corbett, who says he should have supervised Convertino more closely, was transferred, and eventually retired from government. He says the lessons from the frenzy surrounding the sleeper cell case are just as relevant today.
KEITH CORBETT: When you look at the National Security Agency, wiretapping, or data mining, and everybody says, “well, it’s all in the course of security.” I think as a nation we have to ask ourselves, constantly ask ourselves, “is it worth it?” But I think we overreacted in the-in the post 9-11 world. I think we were looking for the boogeyman under every bed. I think in hindsight, a couple of deep breaths would have served everybody better.