By Richard A. Serrano
Los Angeles Times
WILMINGTON, Del. — A pizza cook with dreams of becoming a chef, Raza Nasir Khan does not seem to fit the profile of a terrorist.
Federal prosecutors admit that he is not a menace to society, and a federal judge has declared from the bench that "there is nothing here" to connect the 29-year-old Pakistani immigrant with the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or any other terrorist conspiracy that may be afoot in the United States.
Indeed, were it not for Sept. 11, Khan most likely never would have been arrested. Yet more than two months after that dreadful morning, he remains behind bars, one of roughly 1,200 detainees scooped up in the massive, often frantic, federal investigation. About half still are in custody.
A cook by trade, a hunter by avocation, a bachelor who strayed from much of his rigorous Muslim training, Khan was tramping alone through the woods near Wilmington, hunting for deer one morning, when he came upon a state Fish and Wildlife agent and asked him for a map.
Kahn was carrying a bow and arrow and a global positioning device, a relatively inexpensive electronic compass. It was a week after the suicide attacks, and the forest in which he was hunting is near a nuclear power plant.
Alerted by the wildlife officer, FBI agents visited Khan’s home. There, they found a shotgun, a .22-caliber rifle and a Russian-made semiautomatic pistol. The guns were legal, but it was a felony for Khan to have them because his visa had expired and he was in the country illegally.
Within days, he was arrested and charged as an illegal immigrant in possession of firearms. The judge in the case repeatedly has refused to release him on bail. Prosecutors hope to bring him to trial later this year. A conviction could result in his deportation.
Kahn cannot contact his family, even as his ailing parents telephone from Islamabad, Pakistan, seeking advice from his attorney and mercy from the judge. His best friend cannot see him, either, and has spoken to him only once by phone.
Federal officials refuse to provide details about most of those arrested since the attacks. But they have said that only a few are being held on material-witness warrants relating to Sept. 11, and that about 200 others were rounded up solely on immigration charges.
That suggests that the vast majority, like Khan, are being detained on unrelated federal, state or local criminal charges.
In most of the cases, the court files have been sealed and hearings are held behind closed doors. Prosecutors and judges say that because the continuing FBI investigation is so complex and grand juries are hearing evidence, information about individual cases must be tightly restricted.
Because Kahn was quickly ruled out as a terrorist suspect, his court hearings have been open, and his case record is accessible in the court clerk’s office.
It was the morning of Sept. 19, and Kahn was in the Cedar Swamp forest in northeastern Delaware. He apparently was looking for a particular spot to hunt deer when he met the wildlife agent and asked for a map of the woods. The agent was immediately wary. Kahn, after all, was obviously a foreigner, and the Salem Nuclear Power Plant lay just across the Delaware River in New Jersey.
The next evening, the FBI was at Kahn’s door, and two days later he was in handcuffs. His destination was a federal detention center in nearby Philadelphia.
Even those prosecuting him concede it may have been bad timing more than anything else that led to his detention.
Although Khan was among hundreds swept up in those first frenzied days, Richard Andrews, assistant U.S. attorney in Wilmington, said "that doesn’t necessarily mean he had anything to do with Sept. 11."
"If you ask me," he said, "Mr. Khan was arrested because of Sept. 11 in the sense that they would not have gone out to interview him but for Sept. 11."
From Pakistan, Kahn’s parents appealed for their son’s release.
His father, Nasir Mahmood Khan, 64, is a retired army officer in Islamabad who suffers from a heart ailment. Khan’s mother, Farida Nasir Khan, 55, is a diabetic who also "is under a lot of domestic stress," the parents wrote the court.
There were two other sons in the family; the eldest is married and in the Pakistani army, and the youngest was a student who was killed earlier this month in a car crash in Pakistan.
"Raza is the only one who supported the family while in Pakistan and then from (the) USA," the parents said in an affidavit sent to the court. "Thus he is the only bread-earning member of the family, sending a few dollars whenever he possibly can."
Keeping him in jail any longer, they said, would be "a most inhumane act. … Therefore, for God’s sake and in the name of humanity, have mercy on us and set our child free."