The following transcript is of a November, 2017 interview with Umaima Jafri, wife of political prisoner Ibrahim Mohammad. Jafri spoke with Muftah about the harassment and subsequent arrest of her husband by the FBI, as well as the difficulties of his trial.
On April 11, 2018, Mohammad accepted a plea agreement that would allow him to be deported from the United States after serving a total of five years in prison. In a statement via email, Jafri insists her husband is innocent, and that the crimes he pled guilty to are ones “he did not abet, conspire or commit.” After considering all options, Mohammad and Jafri saw the plea deal as their only chance at being reunited in the near future. “The government quite literally forces your hand to sign a plea deal versus taking a case to trial where the stakes are tremendously higher for a conviction. Thus is our [justice] system,” said Jafri.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity, but is otherwise presented in its entirety:
Riad Alarian (RA): Who is your husband, how did you meet him, and when did his troubles with the FBI begin?
Umaima Jafri (UJ): My husband is Ibrahim Mohammad, he was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, but moved to India as a young child, where he completed his undergraduate studies. He moved to the United States in 2001 to complete his masters in civil engineering at the University of Illinois. Through some mutual friends, he and I were introduced to each other in 2006 (I lived in Houston, Texas at the time). He struck me as being one of those geeky, dorky engineering guys, but I liked him, and we got married later that year and moved to Toledo, Ohio. Toledo is where he got his first job, with a small engineering firm, and it is where we established our life. Our four kids were all born in Toledo, too. We lived a very average, but pleasant, life—not unlike any other Muslim household in America. Then, our uneventful “normal” life was suddenly turned upside down when—in the midst of a mundane morning getting ready for work and school—the FBI knocked on our door at 8:00 AM on December 8, 2011.
RA: What happened on that day?
UJ: I remember it like it was yesterday. It was insane. I happened to be upstairs getting ready with our infant, while the two older kids were having breakfast with their dad. All of a sudden, there was a deafening bang on the front door. As I looked out the window to see who it could be, I made eye-contact with a woman who had the huge yellow letters “FBI” displayed on her vest. She was looking up at the window expecting to see somebody, and she did. I don’t remember running down the stairs, I remember flying. The door to our home is right at the end of the stairs, so I jumped and threw myself against it. My husband looked at me completely bewildered, because he was on his way to open the door, and in fact he basically had opened the door before I slammed it shut with the weight of my body. Mind you, there is no peephole on our door, so my husband had no idea who was outside. I only happened to know because I saw it from the upstairs window. Shortly after I slammed myself against the door, the FBI began shouting, “you have to open the door!”
RA: Was your husband oblivious to what was going on, even after you slammed yourself against the door?
UJ: Oh, yeah, he was completely oblivious. Like I said, we didn’t have a peephole on our door, so there’s no way you can see outside. So, naturally, when I threw myself against the door, he looked at me like, “what are you doing?” And when the FBI started yelling from the other side of the door, he starting asking “what’s going on?” I don’t even think I looked at my husband while all this was going on. I told them I couldn’t let them in until I put my headscarf on, so the agent on the other side of the door responded with “go put your hijab on” (and without a hiccup in his accent as he said it either). Eventually, the FBI made their way into our home, and neither myself nor my husband had any idea why they were there. They began to search our home, and they were there for countless hours, looking through every nook and cranny. For the first six hours that this was happening, we were so confused and scared. They separated us; they put my husband in the dining room, and they put me in the living room. I kept demanding they show me a warrant, and I was very aggressive with them, because I knew my rights. At first, they tried to pacify me, and kept telling me the warrant would be presented to me “soon enough.” But, eventually they told me to just keep quiet, and that I would “get the warrant eventually.” At that point, I absolutely knew something was very, very wrong. I told the FBI I was going to call my lawyer, but what I actually did was call my dad. I told my dad what was happening, and asked him to get us a lawyer. My father managed to send a lawyer to our house, and through him we were allowed to leave, but only after the FBI agents finished questioning my husband. The FBI agents stayed behind after we left, for probably another two hours, and it was only after they left that we came home. By then, it was sometime in the afternoon.
RA: What happened after the FBI left?
UJ: It looked like we were robbed. They took everything they could get their hands on, especially things that were written in languages other than English, no matter what it was. They even took laptops, hard drives, and old CDs. In fact, when we were still in our home, we saw one of the FBI agents holding things up to a translator, asking him “what does this say?” and “what does that say?” The translator would just be like “uh…umm…just take it, just take everything.” So, clearly, it’s not like they were looking for anything specific, they were just taking anything written in a foreign language that looked “suspicious.”
Initially, I was going from room to room just screaming, yelling, and voicing my frustrations. I couldn’t believe they ruined the kids’ toys and dumped so many valuables all over the place. But my husband eventually calmed me down and told me to stop, because my shouting wasn’t helping. Eventually, we slowly cleaned everything up. Shortly after, a friend of mine in Toledo told me how she heard a number of other families in Dearborn, Michigan were also raided by the FBI around the same time as us. So it’s like the FBI were on a mission to sweep over this general area of the country. Whatever happened to those other people and who they are is something I don’t know. But what I can say with confidence is that this was a pattern, and we were just a smaller part of a bigger community of victims. It makes me wonder whether these agents just sit around and make a calendar for the year to decide whose lives they’re going to try and ruin, and which families they’re going to harass.
RA: Did the FBI ever issue that warrant they said they were going to present you with?
UJ: Actually, they did, but only once they left. The warrant had a condition stating that the FBI had the right to search the house before presenting the warrant, in case we tried to “hide something.” The FBI also issued my husband a subpoena to show up in front of a grand jury. If you know anything about grand juries, basically the defendant does not have a right to a lawyer, and only the prosecution is allowed to speak; the jury is also schooled in the art of Islamophobia. If someone goes in front of a grand jury, they can be indicted on a ham sandwich. So we were very afraid. We went around Toledo and even Dearborn looking for lawyers, before we finally found the right one.
After hearing our side of the story, our lawyer immediately told us not to speak to the FBI anymore without his approval or counsel. He could sense that something was fishy. Why did the FBI want to talk to us when they had neither stated why we were being investigated or what they wanted? Eventually, when my lawyer got in touch with the FBI, they immediately offered a reverse proffer, which is very rare. Basically, the reverse proffer meant they would tell us what information they had on us, in the hopes of baiting Ibrahim into “confessing.” Of course, we cooperated 100% because Ibrahim had nothing to hide. Whatever the FBI asked, Ibrahim answered with full honesty. These were long three-hour, recorded meetings, by the way. A couple of these “sessions” took place; we never really knew when the next would be because the FBI would only say they would “get back in touch with us.” So we were constantly on edge, waiting but not knowing what exactly we were waiting for. Eventually, I had a nervous breakdown because of all this, and asked our lawyer if we could take a two week vacation to Houston, Texas to visit my parents. We had a good time there, and returned to Toledo with the intention of initiating contact with the prosecution. We called the prosecutor saying “we’re back in town, what do you want?” And all we got was “eh, we’ll see.” They dropped off the planet after that; we heard nothing. It seemed they had lost interest. Shortly after this, we moved to Belleville, Michigan, where we lived for two and a half years. Mind you, this was all on the record. We noted our address change with the FBI, and were living “on the grid”—we were opening bank accounts, using our social security numbers, and so on. We certainly weren’t hiding. After Michigan, we moved to Dallas, Texas, in 2015. Four years had gone by, and we had heard nothing from the FBI. Life was resuming normally.
RA: And there was no indication at all that the FBI was watching you during these four years?
UJ: Actually, there were indications we were being monitored. After we moved to Dallas from Michigan, I called the landlord to settle a matter regarding our security deposit. After we sorted that out, he said “oh by the way, the FBI came by here looking for you.” I was shocked. I said, “excuse me?” The blood drained out of my body. The landlord said “I don’t know, I was out of town, but the neighbors told me the FBI knocked on their door asking where you guys were.” So, naturally, we called our lawyer and told him about this, and asked him what we should do. Does the FBI even know we’re in Dallas, if they’re going around asking our old neighbors in Michigan where we are? I honestly don’t even remember if our lawyer even called anyone about that incident. All I remember is that, just two months later, on November 5, 2015, Ibrahim opened the garage to take out the trash, and all these men suddenly rushed in to arrest him, with no warning or explanation.
RA: Describe the moment of Ibrahim’s arrest. What exactly happened, and what were the charges brought against him?
UJ: At the time, I was getting ready in my bedroom. It was in the early morning, around 7:30 AM, right before the kids were supposed to go to school. Our youngest son, who was not even two years old at the time, was feeling very fussy that day. So Ibrahim had him in his arms, and was getting ready to take out the trash through the garage. Suddenly, upon exiting the garage, someone started yelling “Ibrahim Mohammad! Ibrahim Mohammad! Freeze, don’t move!” I was not even wearing my hijab, but I heard what was happening and ran outside. The next thing I knew, an agent was yelling “you’re under arrest!” But they, of course, didn’t say what he’s being arrested for. It was just “you’re under arrest.”
Now, when the FBI first “visited” our home in 2011, they made sure to immediately tell us “we’re not here to arrest anybody, and we’re not going to.” They only said they were there because they were concerned about “structuring of funds.” I had no idea what that meant. I looked at the FBI agent who used the term and said “well, my husband is a structural engineer, does that have anything to do with it?” Of course, it didn’t, but that just goes to show how ignorant I was about the term and its implications at the time. It turns out “structuring of funds” has to do with where our money was going and the potentially illegal or “dangerous” things it was being used for. In fact, when I was first told this by the FBI, I remember laughing and saying “this is ridiculous, you guys have to come up with something more original.” But over time, I realized I did know something about this very problematic term, because it appeared so frequently in terrorism indictments of Muslims in the United States, whether on the news, or in stories we heard from the community after September 11.
By the time Ibrahim was arrested in 2015, the indictment against him was seventy-two pages of the craziest stuff. Of course, “structuring of funds” was in there. But it was also much more than that. It honestly read like a movie script. “Something really dangerous happened, and these people were transferring money, and these bad people were talking to these other bad people, and they all listened to Anwar Al-Awlaki lectures.” It was all just buzzwords, like “Al-Qaeda, Al-Awlaki, money, terrorist, overseas”—stuff like that. The indictment is online, and I recommend everyone read through it. It’s long and nauseating. I can’t really discuss details of the case at this time, but basically the indictment alleges that Ibrahim’s brother was supposedly raising money to send to Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen for a “camp”—which is absurd, and there’s no evidence for it—and Ibrahim was somehow connected to this because he (along with two others, who are also defendants in this case) was CC’d on some random, mass-chain email. Around twenty pages of the indictment are about Anwar Al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda. It’s just a bunch of information that’s meant to scaremonger. It’s an Islamophobic script written by the government without concrete evidence. And where that “evidence” does exist, it’s lacking in crucial context. For example, the indictment tries to paint my husband as this die hard ideological supporter of Al-Awlaki, based on completely random things like his owning of CDs and lecture series by Al-Awlaki. But what Muslim family in America didn’t own or listen to those lecture series at one time or another, especially in the early 2000s? Everyone knows about Al-Awlaki’s audio series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
There are four main charges in the indictment: conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and the actual providing of material support (which is different from the “conspiracy to provide” it). What’s interesting about this is that, in virtually every case in which a Muslim is indicted on charges of “terrorism” in this country, you will find the “conspiracy to provide material support” in there. And if a Muslim is convicted, maybe the other charges get dropped, but that one charge always sticks. Why? Because it can be justified on the flimsiest of evidence. What exactly counts as “conspiracy to provide material support?” Is being CC’d on a “sketchy email chain” enough? Is owning “the wrong type of CD” enough? It seems like it is, and that says something.
RA: Is your husband a citizen of the United States?
UJ: My husband became a permanent resident (green card holder) in 2007. Because we were raided in 2011, we were scared to apply for citizenship for a long time. Finally, we built up the courage to do it in 2014. We spoke to some immigration lawyers, and told them about my husband’s situation and our concerns, but they ultimately told him to apply for citizenship and not to worry. So he did, and everything was going smoothly until his arrest. In fact, just two days after my husband’s arrest, he received a letter in the mail from the immigration office saying his citizenship papers were ready, and all he had to do was come in for fingerprints and an interview. Now, was it just a coincidence that he was arrested two days before he would have become a citizen? Was the FBI looking to arrest him before he became a citizen? Who knows. The truth is we will probably never know. But I will never stop wondering.
RA: Where does the case stand now? Are you hopeful?
UJ: We have a really good case. If you actually look at the facts, our case is strong. And if you actually look at the “evidence” against us, it’s like Swiss cheese: there’s a bunch of holes in it. In fact, the prosecution knows how strong our case is, because they keep coming to us and absurdly “recommending” plea deals. They have told our lawyer “we know you have a case, but he’s facing 80 years, so let’s just cut down the sentence through a plea deal.” That doesn’t even make sense. First of all, if we have a case, as the prosecution claims we do, why on earth would we accept a plea deal? Second, why would my husband plead guilty to something he didn’t actually do? As Muslims, we are obligated to stand on the side of truth. If standing by the truth means my husband has to spend the rest of his life in prison, then so be it. We are not going to compromise on this. Of course, we hope that will never actually happen. But we don’t want to let the prosecution bully us into a “plea deal” either. As far as if I’m hopeful, yes I am. Honestly, I never expected the kind of reaction or attention my husband’s case has received. The support we’ve gotten has been incredible.
RA: How have you and your children been adjusting since your husband’s arrest in 2015?
UJ: I hate that I’ve even had to adjust at all. When people ask how I’m doing, I tell them, straightforwardly, that it’s difficult, and tough, and it quite frankly sucks. It was incredibly hard at first. All I did was hang on to my phone waiting for Ibrahim’s call, and if he wouldn’t call I would get extremely worried. My mind would start wandering and I would think of all the terrible things I heard about prison, and the experiences of prisoners we learn about on television, and I wonder if Ibrahim was going through that. I was scared to death of what was happening to him. But Ibrahim would always quell my worries. “It’s not like what you see on TV or in the movies,” he’d say. And that would relax me for a while. But I still worry. It’s natural.
My four children worry less, but that’s because they know less. Of course, they saw and heard what happened to their father when the FBI arrested him in 2015, so they’re not completely in the dark. The little baby doesn’t know what’s going on, he was too young to remember. He is only four years old now, and he asks “when are we going to baba’s house?” because he thinks the jail is where his father lives. He doesn’t realize that his father belongs in the same house as him. How am I supposed to teach him that? I can try and explain it to him, but he doesn’t get it. Our two younger, middle ones only vaguely remember, but they still ask “where is baba, what happened?” Our older child, who was eight at that time, remembers it all clearly. She cried the hardest, and relentlessly asked me “when is baba coming home?” I hated having to say “I don’t know.” I deteriorated during the first month of my husband’s arrest. I lost around twenty pounds, and I lived day-to-day like a robot. I would take my kids to school and attend to their needs, but was otherwise on my computer doing research for my husband’s case the rest of the time. In comparison, the kids were far more resilient.
I owe a lot to the Muslim community, especially the Toledo community, who have really been there for us since the arrest. Everyone has been extremely generous, caring, and helpful. They have stood by me in more ways than I can think of, and have really helped me with the kids. It’s not easy raising four children on your own, but the community has done everything to make sure we don’t suffer. They constantly remind us that we are not alone, and constantly call to check on us. Of course, none of this could have been possible without Allah. Allah makes it easy for you. When Allah tests you with a difficult situation, he also gives you the tools to navigate that situation. We are thankful, and always will be.
RA: How are your husband’s spirits?
UJ: They fluctuate. Initially, it was very difficult. There was a lot of crying, so much so that you start feeling astonished at how many tears the human body can produce. We were praying to Allah so frequently that we almost started feeling impatient waiting for an answer—any answer. But, of course, we eventually remembered that we had to be patient, and that the answer we were seeking will come in time. We had to remind ourselves of all those who had been tested before us, especially the difficult trials of scholars and prophets. Ibrahim and I began writing letters to one another in which we constantly reminded each other of the need for patience and faith in Allah. Still, his emotions fluctuate. Being unjustly imprisoned takes its toll on you. When he was first denied bond, he called me weeping. What keeps us going is faith in Allah.
RA: What do you want everyone to know about Ibrahim?
UJ: That he’s a really, really, really, really sweet man. We had around thirty letters of support for each bond that we filed. There’s one common factor in each and every one of those letters, and it’s mention of the fact that Ibrahim is always smiling. Ibrahim has a beard, but beneath it is a white, shiny smile. He really is that dorky engineer who is smiling all the time. There’s no way anyone, in all honesty, can believe he’s a terrorist. When Ibrahim is in the courtroom and the prosecution and judge are sitting there, all they see is a somber version of him. But that’s because he has no reason to be smiling in their presence. I sometimes tell myself, if only they could see his smile, they would know this is not a man who could do anybody harm.
I want everyone to know that Ibrahim is a family man. His kids are everything to him. The fact that he’s missed two years of his children’s lives is heartbreaking to him. I also want people to know that Ibrahim studied the Quran with dedication. He holds the Quran very near and dear to his heart. When he memorized the Quran, he did it with passion. You could ask Ibrahim to reference something from the Quran, and he would do it on demand from memory. He sat with the children every day and read Quran with them. So, he’s a teacher. He’s a father. He’s the person who woke up in the morning and would let all his kids jump on him in bed. He loved it. He loved family time. He’s you and me. He’s your neighbor. He’s your friend.
RA: A lot of people who feel moved by your story, and are saddened by what’s happening to your husband, might be wondering how they can help. What can they do?
UJ: There is a petition online, on Change.org, that we are asking people to sign and share widely. We don’t know if the judge will actually read it, but people from all over the world are currently signing on to it. The more people that do, the more likely it is to receive the attention we’re hoping for. So that’s one small thing people can do. But to be honest, this is a difficult question for me to answer, because I’m still trying to figure it all out myself. I never expected the kind of attention my husband’s case received. I’m new to this “game” and I don’t really know how to play it; I’m learning the rules. I’m learning how to “make connections” and “talk the right way.” I’m not really good at all that. I want to tell people to call Ohio representatives, and put pressure on the government, but I’m still trying to figure out myself how best to do that. So, in fact, one great way to help is to give me resources or advice, or even put me in touch with the right people—anything that can make a difference. One thing I know is that the government hates bad attention. If you call attention to something like this case, where it’s so flimsy and full of holes, they will be forced to cave under the pressure of their errors. We have to confront lies with facts. We have to fight hatred with notions of justice and equality. It really comes down to how dedicated we are about demanding justice where it has been obstructed.
Lastly, I want people to remember political prisoners everywhere. Know their names, know their stories, know and reach out to their families. It is easy to forget a story once it’s removed from the front page headlines. These families need constant support, even if their loved one has already been sentenced and their story is “over.” Their lives are not yet over and they still need us. Ali Tamimi, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, Ahmed Abu Ali, Tarek Mehanna, and Ibrahim Mohammad are all names we need to remember together. Political prisoners tend to scare us and we ostracize their families. But this only allows the crime against them—against us—to continue and become the norm. We are strongest when we stand together, and if we stand together to fight this and other ongoing injustices, we can and will make a difference.