At only one point in his story did Naji Hamdan cry. Sitting in an office chair as he recounted how he was arrested, tortured and ultimately convicted of terrorism charges in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), his voice barely wavered. Only when he described how Emirati interrogators threatened to rape his wife in front of him if he did not confess to charges of supporting Al Qaeda did he lose control, pausing to accept a fistful of Kleenex before he continued his story.
"For two weeks I could not stand on my feet. I had to use the help of a Nepali guard to drag me to the bathroom," he said of a period following a particularly brutal beating, around three weeks into his two-month detention.
Hamdan, 43, was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States in 1984. He studied aerospace engineering, worked at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as an aircraft mechanic, then for Northrop Grumman, and eventually opened his own auto parts business, HondAcura Palace. In his downtime, he played soccer, camped and hiked, and as of 1992 began raising his son, Khaled. A few years later he became a naturalized citizen. A devout Sunni Muslim, he was active in the Muslim community and helped to found the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, in Southern California.
In 1999 the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited him at home, inquiring about a possible millennial terrorist attack. The bureau also interrogated others in the local Muslim community, asking whether they knew of any imminent plots.
"They asked if I knew any terrorists, would I go and tell them," said Hamdan. "Of course I would. My kids were going to school there. I have businesses there."
Hamdan’s brother Hossam, who goes by the name Sam, got a visit too. At the time, he recalled, "We were like, What the hell are they talking about?"
The FBI kept Hamdan on its radar for the next ten years, contacting him, he estimates, on six occasions. Officials asked about his business, his political beliefs and whether he knew Osama bin Laden (he knew bin Laden as well as anyone else did at the time, "from the media," as he put it). During this time, air travel became increasingly difficult for him; he was often stopped and questioned for hours, on one occasion missing a flight out of LAX.
Hamdan moved his family to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates in 2006, where he hoped to expose his children to Islamic culture and the Arabic language, as well as the American culture of business and entrepreneurship. There, he thought, they could have "the best of both worlds." He had heard it was "more modern and developed" than the rest of the region.
"And peaceful," added his wife, a look of pained irony on her face.
Even after relocating, he continued to face harassment at airports and particularly on trips back to the United States, where he and Sam continued to operate the auto parts business. On one visit in March 2007, he says, he was interrogated at LAX for more than four hours, followed by SUVs with tinted windows and repeatedly photographed. He cut his trip short.