In the years after 9/11, the case of an alleged terrorist “sleeper cell” in small-town California caused a national panic. A young Pakistani-American man was convicted — then the case began to fall apart.
The prison warden’s letter arrived three days before Christmas.
Last fall, I wrote a letter to a medium-security prison in Arizona, requesting an interview with an inmate named Hamid Hayat. He was serving a 24-year sentence after being convicted of receiving terrorist training in Pakistan. Although Hayat’s case made international headlines when he was arrested as part of an alleged al Qaeda “sleeper cell” in Lodi, a rural California town, he had never talked with a reporter before.
Prison interviews aren’t uncommon. Typically, a reporter fills out the required forms and then works with the facility to set a date and time. Hayat’s lawyer and his family assured me that Hayat was a model prisoner, so I was optimistic. I filled out the proper forms in October. A month later, the federal prison asked me to provide a letter from The Intercept, which I did. In early December, a prison staffer assured me that he was working to “clear up one last issue.” But on December 22, the prison warden denied my interview request because of “safety, security, and orderly management considerations.” The warden declined to talk with me, and there was no appeals process.
Hayat didn’t say much about prison conditions, other than that he had little contact with the outside world — just one visit a year, from his family — and that his father hadn’t been granted permission to visit him in eight years. His phone time, too, was limited compared to other inmates.
Although the restrictions on phone calls and visits clearly irritated Hayat, he said the prison had, in an odd way, broadened his perspective by giving him his first exposure to people of diverse backgrounds and faiths. To an outsider, his childhood, split between California and Pakistan, sounds worldly. In reality, he grew up cloistered in a community of rural Pakistanis, who held tight to religious traditions and conservative culture regardless of whether they remained in an ancestral village or moved across the world to Lodi or London. “I was just in my community, so I really didn’t know much about what was going on around me,” he said. “I look back almost every day and think, ‘I wish I could have met more people out there.’”
His experience with other inmates had made him ashamed of some opinions he’d grown up with. As a teen, he’d celebrated the news that Pakistani terrorists had kidnapped and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. In recorded conversations introduced by prosecutors at his trial, the jury listened as Hayat gleefully told an FBI informant, “They killed him. So I’m pleased about that. They cut him into pieces and sent him back. That was a good job they did. Now they can’t send one Jewish person to Pakistan.” In prison, he has remained a devout Muslim, he said, but now takes a more inclusive view of his faith and others and is friendly with Christian and Jewish inmates. “I was wrong, what I said,” Hayat said of Pearl. “I totally disagree with myself. I didn’t know much then. I was pretty much not open-minded then about a lot of stuff.”
At 19, Hayat had just returned to the United States after a decade of studying at a religious school in Pakistan. He had suffered a nearly fatal brain infection and needed a place to recover. He had only an elementary school education and hadn’t spoken English in years. He tried to enroll in high school, but he had aged out. He dabbled in community college, taking a single course in English grammar. He slept on a mattress in his parents’ garage. Most days, he hung out around the mosque. That’s where, in 2002, he first met an undercover FBI informant named Naseem Khan, the man who would befriend him and then betray his trust.
Hayat’s father was the first to catch on — something in one of Khan’s conversations struck him as odd. “He had a bad feeling about him,” Hayat recalled. But even after Hayat’s parents warned their son about his friend, Hayat kept talking with him. He didn’t want to believe that his closest friend was really a paid government agent. But he didn’t get proof of Khan’s involvement in the case until he was already in jail, waiting for his trial, and his lawyer told him that Khan would be the star witness against him. That’s when Hayat realized he’d never really known Khan, that his parents had been right all along.
Hayat remembered their conversations. At first, they talked about movies and cricket — cricket is one of Hayat’s favorite topics, but Khan always wanted to talk politics. They’d hang around their imam’s house or drive to a local park. Khan was frequently at Hayat’s house, even spending the night. When Hayat returned to Pakistan for a visit in the spring of 2003, Khan often called him. At first, Hayat was glad to hear from his friend, but he grew annoyed that Khan aggressively steered their conversations toward jihad.
“Every time he’d call, he always wanted to talk about politics,” Hayat said. “I was like, ‘Why does he always want to talk about this?’ … I started having a different view, thinking different about him.”
Eventually, Hayat got so frustrated by the conversations that he stopped answering Khan’s calls. It’s during this time period, roughly from October 2003 to November 2004, that the FBI claimed Hayat left his village to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Hayat said he’d mostly hung out around his small village, playing video games and taking care of his mother, who suffered from hepatitis. A couple of times a month, he’d venture to the nearest big city, Rawalpindi, for a weekend. Once, he went to a wedding in the southern part of the country, the opposite direction from the alleged camp. In the answers he provided to his lawyer, Hayat remained adamant that he never attended a jihadi camp or received any kind of terrorist training.While Khan was pretending to be Hayat’s confidant in Lodi, he was living a dual life in a town 500 miles to the north in the foothills of the Cascades.
Khan shared a home near Bend, Oregon, with his then-girlfriend, Josée Hennane, who was in the dark about much of what he was doing in Lodi. Hennane, a tall woman with a kind smile and a mane of curly dark hair, agreed to meet me in a coffee shop in early May. She remembered her time with Khan fondly and still struggled to understand its ending.
Hennane and Khan had met around 2000 through Match.com. Hennane fell for Khan immediately. He was good-looking and a great cook. They lived a quiet life. He worked as a clerk at the K Market convenience store. She worked in sales. She envisioned their time together stretching far into the future — kids, a house, an ordinary life. He seemed to be looking forward, too, she said, away from rocky relationships with his family and past heartache.
Then, the September 11 attacks happened. One of only a handful of Muslims in Bend, Khan kept a Quran in his apartment, but Hennane didn’t think of him as devout and certainly not radical. Somehow, Khan’s name and social security number came up during an FBI investigation into an Islamic charity accused of funding terrorist groups. FBI agents showed up in Bend to question him. During their conversation, the agents determined that Khan had nothing to do with the terrorist financing case, but he caught their attention with a fabricated story about seeing terrorist leaders at a mosque he used to attend in rural California.
Intrigued by his story, the agents hired him as an informant. He told Hennane he was going to California for a while to help out on a case. He also said that if he impressed the FBI, perhaps he could work as an agent or get a job with the CIA. Although he didn’t have an American high school degree, he spoke Urdu and Pashto and understood Pakistan’s culture and politics, important and rare skills in a post-9/11 world.
“I think he got drawn in,” Hennane told me. “It fed him, and it fed his ego. Helping out, making this place safer.”
Khan didn’t give her details about his work. He disappeared for long stretches of time and didn’t say much about where he’d been or what he was doing. He began carrying a locked briefcase. She assumed he kept his case paperwork inside. His work strained their relationship, so much so that he invited her to Portland to meet with FBI agents so he could prove he actually worked for the agency. Hennane said she remembered meeting the agents at a coffee shop.
Her boyfriend’s secretive behavior continued until the Lodi case became public in the summer of 2005. As Hayat’s trial neared, Khan told her that he feared for their safety. The FBI paid to install a security system on the couple’s house. Shortly before the trial, Hennane went out to her car in the morning and found a note. In it, Khan apologized and said that he needed to end their romance. Hennane was so devastated and confused that she drove to the Sacramento FBI office, where she begged the agents to tell her Khan’s whereabouts.
“I went to their office, and they said, ‘Let it go, it’s over,’” Hennane said.
Khan vanished from her life. Years later, she said, she received a ticket for a toll violation on the East Coast and assumed that Khan still listed their old address in Oregon. She thought perhaps he’d moved to the East Coast and started over. She never heard from him again.
“Looking back, I think he thought of it as his family, his law enforcement family,” Hennane said. “From the sound of it, I think he wasn’t going to look back.”
In many ways, Khan fits the profile of the type of dubious informant the FBI has used in the aftermath of 9/11. He had a troubled past and a rocky relationship with family — he told his ex-girlfriend that relatives had abused him by dropping him down a well in Pakistan when he was a child. He had falsely accused his mother of abuse when he was a teen, and he had been convicted of burglary in Yuba City, California. But as a Pakistani immigrant, he could slip easily into Lodi’s Muslim community — and this was crucial for the FBI.
“After 9/11, the FBI realized it hadn’t been paying enough attention to terrorism,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who spent 16 years with the agency on undercover operations and domestic terrorism and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The demand to identify people who could provide information was enormous, and unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of solid information by which the informants could be vetted.”
The FBI did vet Khan, checking his immigration, criminal, and employment records, but it didn’t check with the one person who likely had stronger feelings about his truthfulness than anyone else — his mother.
Khan’s mother, Nazhat Shaheen, didn’t learn about her son’s role in the Hayat case until the trial was underway. A relative showed her a news story about the star witness in the trial, a Pakistani immigrant named Naseem Khan. At this, Shaheen began to worry.
It had been years since she had spoken with her firstborn son, but based on her previous experiences with him, she worried that he wasn’t telling the truth about Hayat attending a training camp. Shaheen wrote a letter to Hayat’s lawyer. “While neighbors in Lodi might be surprised by his unconscionable scheming for self-gain, I find his behavior in keeping with his dishonest past,” she wrote. “He is a bagful of lies, deceit, and air. He will betray and deceive any and all parties for his own gain. … He can even take the FBI for a ride without their knowing it.”
It was not easy to find Shaheen. I wanted to find Khan’s family because I thought they might be able to tell me about Khan’s side of this story, but every address and number proved a dead end. When I mentioned to one of Hayat’s lawyers that I wanted to understand more about Khan, the lawyer said that years before, someone on the legal team had gotten a phone call from a man who claimed he was related to Khan. That man turned out to be Khan’s half-brother, who told me the person I really needed to talk to was Khan’s mother.
Shaheen, 67, lives in a quiet suburb in Ohio. I agreed to use her maiden name and not mention the town where she lives because community members don’t know that her son worked as an FBI informant, and she is ashamed of his role. We sat at her dining room table and, over several hours, she told me her story.
Shaheen grew up in a conservative family in Pakistan. Her family supported her ambition for education, and she received a master’s degree before her parents decided it was time to find a match for their daughter. She had a disastrous marriage to a Pakistani military officer that lasted only three months before the couple divorced. By then, though, she was pregnant.
Her parents decided that Shaheen would give her child, Naseem, to be raised by her ex-husband’s parents. Shaheen, meanwhile, moved to the United States, where she settled in the Midwest. Eventually, she married a doctor, had two sons, and became an English teacher. She was living a comfortable, upper-middle-class life when, in 1988, she heard from relatives in Pakistan that Naseem, then 16, wanted to join her.
Shaheen went to Pakistan, sponsored his green card, and brought him to America. The problems began immediately. Khan complained that he didn’t fit into their family. At first, Shaheen pitied her son because he’d told her wild stories that his family in Pakistan abused him, shocking him with electricity, beating him with sticks, locking him in a bathroom, and hanging him upside down in a well.
Then, she said, the lies began. He lied to her about trivial things, like pretending to rake leaves but really just filling garbage bags with air. She thought it was typical teenager stuff. Things turned serious about two months into his stay, when social services knocked on Shaheen’s door. Khan had made a claim of abuse against his mother, telling his high school that he wasn’t getting enough to eat and was being kept in poor conditions. Shaheen said she took the workers through her four-bedroom home and showed them the well-stocked refrigerator and a freezer full of halal meat. No charges were filed, and the social workers determined that “the youth is neither a neglected nor abused child,” and his mother was taking “proper and responsible measures” to care for him, according to a letter from the local social services agency.
The relationship between Shaheen and her son never recovered.
“It was all about tricks,” Shaheen said. “It was all about lying and deceit. I could see that I could not trust him.”
She made arrangements for her son to return to Pakistan. She took Khan’s green card and mailed it to immigration officials with a letter explaining that she would no longer sponsor him. Then, she took him to New York and watched him get onto a plane. “I was devastated,” Shaheen told me. “I went through so much to get him.”
Two or three months later, she heard from her son. He’d somehow managed to get a ticket back to the United States and to convince immigration authorities to let him re-enter. He sent her a cassette tape on which he apologized for his behavior, she said. He tried calling. He told his mother that he had no desire to live with her, but he did want money, a monthly allowance. She refused. He wrote her letters, apologizing for his behavior. None of his efforts swayed her.
She said she believes that once, while she was back in Pakistan for her mother’s funeral, Khan tried to get inside her house, and that he might have been looking for his green card, which she’d already turned over to authorities. When she returned from Pakistan, she noticed that someone had broken in and searched through paperwork. She filed a report with the police, but nothing came of it. The last time she heard from Khan was around 1992 or 1993, when he told her he was living in Texas, she said, and again tried to apologize. She didn’t believe the apologies he offered were sincere. “I was done with him, I really was,” she said.
At the end of our interview, Shaheen said that she wanted to know the truth from her son. She wanted him to promise on the Quran that he believed Hayat really had attended a terrorist training camp. But when we talked again a few months later, she’d changed her mind. She said she didn’t think that promising on the Quran would ensure her son’s honesty.
Like Khan’s mother, I wanted to hear the truth, whatever it was. Did Khan really believe his claims about Hayat? What prompted Khan to tell the FBI that he’d seen al Qaeda leaders in Lodi, something the government later determined was false? Did he continue to work in the intelligence world after Hayat’s trial?
I first reached out to Khan just after New Year’s 2015. Although the Hayat family told me they’d heard rumors that Khan had remained in the Lodi area, working in insurance, public records showed that he first moved to the East Coast, near Washington, D.C., around the time of Hayat’s trial, and had since returned to Oregon. His address at the time was in Salem, the state’s capital.
I pulled off a busy four-lane road of fast-food restaurants and chain stores, down a side street and into an apartment complex of bland, two-story gray condominiums. I walked up the short sidewalk to his door and rang the bell. A few seconds later, the door opened slightly and a thin man in his late 30s or early 40s wearing a white T-shirt answered.
He nodded slightly.
I quickly said that I was a reporter, and as soon as I mentioned Hayat, he began to close the door.
“Can you tell me if you’re still involved with the FBI?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” he said. He took my business card before closing the door.
I followed up by sending a letter explaining that I hoped to sit down and talk with him, that I wanted his perspective. I heard nothing.
In March 2015, I tried again. This time, as I stood at his door and rang the bell, I noticed a small security camera in the window. No one answered. I wrote a note, once again saying that I was writing a story and hoped to hear his perspective. I left it on his door, and I again heard nothing.
All of that happened before I talked with Khan’s mother and his ex-girlfriend, before I’d heard Hayat’s version of events. I felt it was important to try to reach Khan one more time, to give him another chance to respond. Before heading to Oregon, I checked public records and found that he had registered a new company, a tourist shop selling Pakistani fabrics, sunglasses, and earrings in a small beachside town in the state.
In late June, I arrived at his shop. I got there before it opened and waited on a bench outside. Just before 10 a.m., Khan walked past me, clean-cut and athletic-looking in a red T-shirt and dark pants. He unlocked the door to his small shop, which had a sweeping view of the ocean. After he went inside, I knocked on the glass door. When he came to the door, I explained, yet again, that I was a reporter working on a story about the Hayat case.
He shook his head no.
I told him that I’d talked with his mother, who said she didn’t think he’d told the truth about Hayat attending a terrorist camp. He looked directly at me and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not interested,” he said.
He tried to close the door, but my boot was blocking the doorway. He tried again, and I moved out of the way. He closed the door and turned the lock.
The life that Hayat lost when he went to prison no longer exists.
His parents sold their house in Lodi to pay their legal bills. They moved about 20 minutes away to a neighborhood in disrepair. When I visited them one morning, the neighbor across the street was sitting on a car hood, drinking a can of beer and staring with a vacant look. Trash blew across the pavement.
Hayat is no longer a newlywed — far from it. Tired of waiting for him, his wife divorced him in 2012. His mother told him about the divorce during a prison visit. His life is on hold until his scheduled release in 2026.
Hayat says that he won’t agree to a plea deal that might cut his sentence if he drops his appeal and admits guilt.
“I’m not gonna plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” Hayat told his lawyer in response to the questions I submitted.
Hayat continues to fight. In 2014, he asked a federal judge to overturn his conviction, accusing his trial lawyer of ineffective assistance of counsel and claiming that the government failed to disclose evidence that would have helped his case. In August, his case was assigned to a new federal judge, Deborah Barnes, for further proceedings, which are ongoing.
Even if wins his appeal, prosecutors could decide to try the case again. Hayat is ready for that.
“I’ve been through it once, and I’ll do it again,” he said.
Documents published with this story:
Abbie VanSickle is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She also trained as a lawyer and practiced in Washington state.