In the last week, federal authorities have arrested three students -- one each from Houston Community College, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas -- and charged them with firearms and other violations related to an attempt to help the Taliban defeat U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The arrests have stunned officials at the three campuses, where officials have reached out to other students to discourage any harassment of Muslim or Arab students. Officials are also worried about the impact the arrests might have on attitudes about foreign students. Two of the students were in the United States on student visas. While more than a half-million foreign students are enrolled in the United States each year, almost always without incident, any blemish on that record is cause for concern at a time that colleges continue to push federal agencies to make it easier for foreign students to obtain visas. Several officials involved with international exchange programs did not want to comment on the arrests.
It is unclear how serious a threat the three students posed, even if one assumes the veracity of the information in the indictments against them. There is no evidence that the three actually met with the Taliban or did anything on the organization's behalf. Several people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified, suggested that the students may have been naïve -- sort of Taliban wannabes -- and perhaps not as committed to the cause as federal authorities have suggested. Others said that any situation in which students are talking about helping the Taliban and managing to obtain firearms is distressing. One student has entered a guilty plea and the lawyer for another is denying the charges and suggesting discrimination against his client, based on his looking like what people think Muslim fundamentalists look like.
The first indictments came Tuesday against Kobie Diallo Williams (also known as Abdul Kabeer), a student at the University of Houston's downtown campus. Williams, an American citizen, issued a plea of guilty to charges of providing money (a few hundred dollars) to the Taliban and training with firearms with the goal of going to help the Taliban. Adnan Babar Mirza, a student at Houston Community College, was indicted at the same time. Mirza, a Pakistani citizen, was accused by the government of remaining in the United States after his student visa expired. Houston Community College officials first told local reporters that was not true, and now are saying that they cannot confirm the status of his visa.
On Friday, charges were brought against Syed Maaz Shah, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, who was charged with illegally possessing firearms (apparently an assault rifle). Shah was not charged with trying to help the Taliban. However, federal agents told a court Friday that his ties to the men arrested in Houston were significant and that the group had talked of going to the Middle East to fight together. A native of Pakistan who grew up in Houston, Shah was enrolled at the university on a student visa, which his lawyer said was stripped because of his arrest.
In a statement on the first two arrests, federal officials described a series of meetings in which the Houston men trained with weapons and studied reconnaissance together on trips in the countryside. The statement acknowledged, however, that the men were not exactly top-notch Taliban fighters. “While these subjects did not operate at a high level of sophistication in comparison with the 9/11 hijackers, the expressed goal was to aid the Taliban by training to carry out jihad against coalition troops in the Middle East,” said Roderick Beverly, an FBI special agent, in the statement.
Officials at both the University of Houston and the University of Texas informed others on campus after the arrests, and sent messages to Muslim student leaders to offer support. No incidents have been reported. The CBS television station in Dallas also reported that Shah had made a number of inflammatory statements on Web sites -- including the forum of the Muslim Students Association at his university, which has since been taken down. Among the statements: praise for those fighting the United States in Iraq, endorsement of the view that the United States deserved 9/11, and speculation that it would have been better for Islam had Nazi Germany been the victor in World War II.
With the defendants in jail, their views could not be directly obtained, and the public defender in Houston said it was too early to comment on defending the students there.
But Donald T. Fulton, a lawyer for Shah, accused federal officials of treating the students unfairly. "It appears to me that these young men were doing things that normal American boys do all the time. They just happened to be here on student visas."
Fulton declined to comment on Shah's views or what he and the others did on their trips, but repeated that going on a camping trip with guns is acceptable and legal. (Federal officials state that student visa holders can't hold firearms legally, although Fulton said that was a misinterpretation of the law.) The problem facing Shah, Fulton said, is that "he looks like an Islamic fundamentalist." Shah's brother is also a student and "is clean-cut and European looking" and isn't facing charges, Shah's lawyer said.
As an Army veteran, Fulton said he wouldn't tolerate "anyone trying to harm our soldiers," and stressed that he was completely comfortable defending Shah. "This is a level-headed, honest person out playing cowboys and Indians with too much firepower."
Tony Kutayli, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that he wasn't familiar with the Texas cases and couldn't comment on them directly. But he said that when there "have been concerns about fairness" with other post-9/11 arrests.
Kutayli said it was important for colleges in these situations to be very public about how the students involved are innocent unless found guilty, and how even if they are found guilty, they are not representatives of all Muslims, Arabs or foreign students. "We're always worried about backlash," he said, "because we see it happen."