Ali Houssaiky and Osama Abulhassan left their homes in this historic Muslim-American enclave as college students and came home as terrorists. On August 8 Houssaiky and Abulhassan drove to an Ohio Wal-Mart to buy hundreds of cheap cellphones, intending to sell them back to a distributor they knew to earn some extra cash for tuition. The Wal-Mart employee, fearing two young men of Arab heritage were terrorists, called police, who promptly apprehended Houssaiky and Abulhassan. Making matters worse, they were in Houssaiky’s mother’s car, which contained a manual outlining airline checkpoints, a necessity for her job at Royal Jordanian Airlines. To the police and the Washington County, Ohio, prosecutor, Houssaiky and Abulhassan were the sum of all fears: two young Arabs with airline manuals and hundreds of devices that could be used as bomb detonators.
Houssaiky and Abulhassan were quickly convicted in the press. “I went to our cell,” Houssaiky remembers. “The inmates showed us on TV, there was a line going across the screen [saying], Is This an Act of Terrorism at Work?” Yet within a week of their arrest, it became clear to prosecutors that there was no evidence linking either student to terrorism. Returning home to Dearborn, Houssaiky and Abulhassan called a press conference to denounce the “paranoia and xenophobia that is gripping the country.” To Houssaiky, the fact that he and his friend were cleared of all charges is no comfort. “The media made us into animals,” he says. “This is going to stick to us the rest of our lives.”
The persecution of Houssaiky and Abulhassan–two former high school football stars–underscores the sense of besiegement felt widely in this community of 35,000. Dearborn has been a magnet for Arab and Iranian immigrants for more than 100 years, and its streets and storefronts proudly display the signs of Middle Eastern-American culture: Mosques and community centers sit peacefully next to McDonald’s and Burger King along Dearborn arteries like Schafer Road and Warren Avenue. Yet over the past few months, and particularly during the Lebanon war, the Justice Department and the FBI have increasingly put Dearborn under collective suspicion. Nearly thirty people in the Dearborn area have been indicted on often-flimsy charges related to terrorism in the past three years, and more than half of them have been accused in the past four months. Assistant US Attorney Kenneth Chadwell, who heads the Justice Department’s efforts to investigate terrorism connections in Dearborn, told the Chicago Tribune in late July, “The question is: Are they loyal to the US or to this terrorist group Hezbollah?”
The answer Dearborn gives is that it’s loyal to both, in much the same way that many American Jews are Americans first, with a sentimental attachment to Israel. There is no doubt that much of Dearborn’s Muslim community, many of whom are Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, is sympathetic to Hezbollah, which the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. Some have gone beyond passive support. In March the US Attorney’s office indicted eighteen men for funneling profits from a Dearborn-operated cigarette-smuggling ring to Hezbollah, two of whom have pleaded guilty.