Two That Didn't Get Away

Admitted felon Ilyas Ali, who once ran a butcher shop in Minneapolis, Minn., is also a master of political spin.

When a reporter visited Ali in a Hong Kong jail last year after Ali had been arrested for trying to trade heroin and hashish for shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles that he intended to resell to al Qaeda, Ali posed as the victim of Attorney General John Ashcroft and his over-zealous Justice Department.

American law enforcement “screwed up 9/11 and now they’re arresting innocent people for political purposes,” Ali, a naturalized citizen born in India, told the Associated Press. “I’m very, very sad that they got an innocent person and they don’t care.

“Ashcroft just used me,” he said. “They just want to make something out of me to prove to the taxpayers they are doing something.

“Nine-eleven, me and my wife cried,” said Ali. “We cried for three days.”

But last month in a federal court in San Diego, Ali pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiring to distribute hashish and heroin and conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda.

What happened to the defiant victim of Justice Department persecution? He ran into the facts developed in a remarkable undercover investigation carried out by daring FBI agents, who were helped along by legal reforms incorporated into the Patriot Act, which was not enacted until Oct. 26, 2001, more than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The FBI’s investigation began in 2000 and focused on Ilyas Ali’s connections to individuals in Pakistan who had an interest in selling narcotics and obtaining weapons,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Skerlos told me. “The investigation was at a preliminary stage prior to the 9/11 attacks and didn’t resume in earnest until approximately March 2002.”

Justice Department officials both in Washington, D.C., and San Diego say the Patriot Act provision that allows information that has been gathered in intelligence investigations to be shared with criminal investigators was particularly helpful here.

The basic facts of the case were revealed in five points that both Ali and one of his co-defendants, Muhammed Abid Afridi, stipulated as “true and undisputed” in the plea agreements they signed last month in federal court. A third defendant, Syed Mustajab Shah, has pleaded not guilty and now awaits trial.

According to Ali’s and Afridi’s plea agreements:

  • On April 11, 2002, in Southern California, Ali, “acting on behalf of defendants Syed Mustajab Shah and Muhammed Abid Afridi, negotiated with an undercover law enforcement officer for the sale of ton quantities of hashish and multiple kilogram quantities of heroin.”
  • On Sept. 15, 2002, Afridi, Ali and Shah traveled from Pakistan to Hong Kong “to meet with undercover law enforcement officers from the United States and to negotiate for the sale of ton quantities of heroin.”
  • The next day, Sept. 16, 2002, “at a hotel in Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China, defendants Syed Mustajab Shah, Muhammed Abid Afridi, and Ilyas Ali negotiated with undercover law enforcement officers from the United States for the sale of 5 metric tons of hashish and 600 kilograms of heroin.”
  • That same day, “defendants Syed Mustajab Shah, Muhammed Abid Afridi, and Ilyas Ali agreed that the purchase price of the 5 metric tons of hashish and 600 kilograms of heroin could be offset against the cost of 4 ‘Stinger’ anti-aircraft missiles, which the defendants stated they were interested in purchasing from the law enforcement officers.”
  • Two days later, “defendants Syed Mustajab Shah, Muhammed Abid Afridi, and Ilyas Ali told undercover law enforcement officers from the United States they intended to sell the ‘Stinger’ anti-aircraft missiles discussed during the meeting on Sept. 16, 2002, to members of the Taliban, an organization the defendants knew to be the same as Al-Qaeda.”

Shah, innocent unless proved guilty, will have his day in court. But Afridi and Ali have admitted guilt to conspiring to distribute heroin and hashish and, as their plea agreements put it, to conspiring to “provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization, to wit, Al-Qaeda.”

Thanks to courageous FBI agents — who worked undercover here and abroad — and thanks to aggressive prosecutors in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, and thanks to the Patriot Act, which U.S. law enforcement did not have at its disposal before September 2001, Afridi and Ali never made big news.

Nor did any special committee need to investigate how al Qaeda got the Stingers that shot down our 747s.