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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Debbie Schlussel: Has Michigan become TracFonistan?

WASHINGTON - Five young Muslim men are stopped by multiple TracFones in the Midwest. That’s not illegal. Yet, they are charged with terrorism. Just weeks later, the charges are dropped.


There’s a lot more to the story with Adham Abdelhamid Othman, Maruan Awad Muhareb, and Louai Abdelhamied Othman — from Texas with 1,000 cell phones in Caro, Mich. — and Ali Houssaiky and Osama Sabhi Abulhassan — from Dearborn, Mich., with multiple cell phones and $11,000 in southern Ohio.

The Texas men had photos of Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge. The Michigan FBI and state police claimed there was no terrorist threat, just tourist photos. But a top FBI Michigan official admitted he sent his “B-Team” of agents to “investigate.” Prosecutors said it was more like arm-twisting to get them to drop terrorism charges.

WJRT-TV reporter Jeff Piechowski reported that the photos were shots of bridge grates, revealing the bridge supports below. How many tourists take pictures of grates? If there was no threat, why did law enforcement authorities beef up security like never before for a Labor Day march on the bridge?

The men threw away 1,000 cell phone chargers. Not a good business move, if you’re truly in it for the “business.” Prosecutors told Piechowski that boxes of the phones were addressed for Lebanon, aka Hezbollah Central.

The indictment of the men said they installed software on their laptop computers, with which they’d already wired the phones to steal free cell phone service from any company in any location around the world — untraceable. Sounds like a phone any terrorist would want. And it’s certainly a crime to rip off cell phone service providers.

Then there are the Dearborn men in Ohio. If what they were doing was perfectly legal, why did they lie to police about it? Why did they tell police that they were buying them for their fathers’ construction company, so its employees could communicate with each other?

And why does that story match — to the slightest detail — the exact cover story told to police by several other Muslim male cell phone buying teams stopped around Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest? If there’s nothing wrong with it, why are there multiple, organized teams telling the exact lie to police?

Why did Abulhassan tell Sheriffs that he knew he did something wrong, that he knew that buying multiple TracFones couldn’t possibly be for a legitimate, benign purpose?

And why did they have flight and security information in their car? Houssaiky’s mother works Royal Jordanian flights. The airline frequently carries terror, smuggling and other suspects. Authorities complained about her suspicious behavior in connection with passengers on that flight.

Despite that, she continues to load passengers names and luggage information onto flight manifests, something she has been doing for years. Yet, she claimed the information was in the car the men drove because she was training how to do these things. Why would someone suddenly train anew to do something she has done for years?

There’s also a finance issue. Houssaiky and Abulhassan claimed they made $5 per cell phone. But Wal-Mart and Radio Shack, the stores they hit from Michigan to South Carolina, have limits to how many TracFones a customer can buy.

Radio Shack enters the buyer’s name into a computer, and each purchaser can only buy two of the phones per year from all Radio Shack stores in the nation. With gas at $3 per gallon (as it was at the time of their arrest), how economical is it to pay two buys to drive all over the country for $5 per phone? And why would anyone purchase the phones in Michigan — where it was claimed the phones would be resold at double the price?

The TracFones are available everywhere for $19.99. Why would anyone pay $40 for a low quality phone he can buy anywhere for half that price? Unless the phones are being used for something else. Cell phone chips and batteries are frequently used as detonation devices — the reason they were not allowed on British flights to the U.S.

Houssaiky’s family tree is interesting, too. His aunt, Amira Fadlallah, is part of the family of Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, who is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. The principal of his former high school is a Fadlallah, too.

There are too many strange coincidences and questions here. And just because the terrorism charges against them were dropped, it doesn’t mean the questions were answered. They weren’t.

Debbie Schlussel is a columnist, talk show host and Michigan attorney.

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