Stateless and Stuck

This Palestinian Activist Got Swept Up in the War on Terror. Decades Later, ICE Tried to Secretly Deport Him to Israel.

Dr. Abedalhaleem Ashqar at his home in Virginia on June 20, 2019. Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

Abdelhaleem Ashqar woke up early in his two-story, suburban Virginia home and put on a nice suit. It was June 4, 2019, and according to the Muslim calendar, it was Eid al-Fitr, the joyous holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting. A devout Muslim, he got ready for a day of food, family, and prayer at the Muslim American Society’s Washington, D.C., chapter.

“We were so excited,” said Ashqar. “This was the first time to celebrate Eid in 11 years.”

Before he could celebrate, though, Ashqar had to stop at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Arlington, Virginia.

Accompanied by his wife and son, Ashqar arrived at the ICE office at around 8:30 in the morning for a routine check-in. Like many Palestinians, the 60-year-old born in a West Bank village is stateless. Years in the crosshairs of the post-9/11 national security state had rendered him a deportation target — a reality complicated by the lack of an obvious country the U.S. could send him to.

In a shocking turn of events, ICE agents surreptitiously sent him on a deportation flight to Israel, where he sat on a runway for 28 hours. Then, because of a federal judge’s last-minute intervention, he returned to the U.S., only to remain in ICE custody for another week.

After 10 days of aggressive advocacy by a pro bono team of lawyers in federal court, Ashqar was released and returned home on June 14 with a GPS monitor strapped around his ankle. Now, he remains in legal limbo as his lawyer negotiates with ICE over his future, and Ashqar looks for a safe country he can move to.

His latest stint in detention was yet another twist in Ashqar’s tumultuous life, a reminder that the shadow of the Israeli occupation of his native Palestine looms large, even decades after he moved to the United States. Indicted for alleged ties to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, by the Justice Department in 2004 and convicted in 2007 for refusing to testify against Palestinians the federal government said were linked to Hamas, Ashqar has spent his whole life battling regimes bent on crushing his freedom. The case that ultimately sent him to prison for 11 years was part of a trifecta of post-9/11 prosecutions pursued by the Bush administration that cracked down on Palestinian fundraising efforts by claiming that they were linked to terrorism. He was released from federal prison only to land in ICE’s hands.

ICE’s attempt to deport Ashqar to Israel came after months of negotiations with federal officials, who were trying to send him to Jordan, Israel, or the Palestinian Authority. In any case, a threatened deportation posed a risk to Ashqar’s life, he argued in court; he feared the Israelis, who detained him once before, would torture him due to the U.S. government’s efforts to paint him as a Hamas supporter, and that the Jordanians and Palestinian Authority, who both maintain close security relationships with Israel, would hand him over to Israeli authorities.

That the attempted deportation happened without notice — and following blatant lying by ICE officials — is the latest example of an agency gone rogue, and a U.S.-Israel alliance that, under President Donald Trump and with the involvement of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is stronger now than at any other point in history.

“This is a united effort by the United States and the Israeli security services. It’s about punishing [Ashqar] to show that political dissidents are going to be treated this way.”

“This is a united effort by the United States and the Israeli security services. It’s about punishing [Ashqar] to show that political dissidents are going to be treated this way,” said Iman Boukadoum, a senior staff attorney at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is representing Ashqar as he tries to reopen his immigration file before the Board of Immigration Appeals. “It’s about making sure people understand their place.”

Ashqar’s attempted deportation is in many ways emblematic of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. His case, though, is about much more than that. Understanding his ordeal requires a reckoning with years of FBI surveillance of Palestinians, the ways in which the war on terror has upended the lives of thousands of Muslims in the U.S., and how the unpopularity of individuals accused by the government of supporting terrorism empowered the state to exert its full energy to go after people like Ashqar.

Ashqar’s June 2017 release from federal prison led to a stint in immigration detention that lasted until December 2018, when he was released while his immigration case was litigated. After several months back at home, he received a request in May to appear at ICE’s Arlington office on June 4. Patrick Taurel, one of Ashqar’s immigration lawyers, then requested a delay in the appointment because of Ramadan, but an ICE agent assured him that it was a routine check-in.

“We understand that it is the last day of Ramadan and assure you that when the Ashqars’ report, they will be in and out quickly,” wrote a supervisory detention and deportation officer for ICE, in a May 31 email to Taurel.

Taurel figured that he didn’t have to accompany Ashqar to the check-in. He believed the ICE agent who said his client would walk out free.

But four hours after arriving to the ICE office, Ashqar’s family was still waiting for him. Then, a little after noon, Ashqar’s wife, Asmaa, walked up the stairs to the room where her son Ahmad had been waiting. She had tears in her eyes.

“At that moment, my heart dropped,” Ahmad told me. “This absolute sense of hopelessness took over me.”

Ahmad, 23,  son of Abedlhaleem Ashqar, posing for a portrait with his father's photo in the background  at his house in Northern Virginia. Abdelhaleem Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Ashqar’s son, Ahmad, poses for a portrait in his father’s office at their home in Virginia.

Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

That morning, unbeknownst to his family, ICE agents had put Ashqar in handcuffs and patted him down aggressively. He was still recuperating from a recent knee-replacement surgery, and the pat-down hurt his knee, Ashqar later told Taurel. Then they drove at breakneck speed to the Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia, accompanied by a police escort. The ride was so fast that his knee got banged up again in the process, hurting Ashqar enormously.

As his deportation proceeded, Ashqar repeatedly asked ICE agents to let him call his wife and lawyer. They refused.

“He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his wife and kids. He didn’t bring his suitcase. He had no idea that today would be the day.”

“He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his wife and kids. He didn’t bring his suitcase. He had no idea that today would be the day,” said Taurel during an interview the day Ashqar was taken. “There was no reason to do that. He was trying to get out of here and go live somewhere else like they wanted him to. And then this happened.”

Ashqar, whose arms and legs were shackled by ICE before boarding the plane, overheard ICE officers getting authorization to land in Tel Aviv. He was en route to Israel, the country he’d left decades ago and where he worried that he’d once again be imprisoned — and possibly face abuse. The apparent plan, according to federal officials Ashqar overheard on the plane, was for U.S. authorities to bring him to the West Bank — a fate Ashqar feared because Israeli troops control all entrances to the occupied territory.

“They use physical torture, they use psychological torture, they use any means whether it is humane or inhumane to make their point,” Ashqar told me during our first phone conversation, in January.

The flight to Israel was unexpected: His deportation order specified Jordan as the country he would be sent to, not Israel. Jordanian officials have repeatedly refused to take in Ashqar and, in 2018, stopped cooperating with Trump administration requests to take in Palestinian deportees.

About 13 hours after being placed in handcuffs, Ashqar arrived on a Tel Aviv tarmac surrounded by five ICE agents, with no proper pain medication for his knee. On a scale of 1 to 10, he later told me in an interview from immigration detention, his pain was a 10.

But before he could be handed over to Israel, Taurel frantically filed a petition to a federal judge, who ordered ICE to bring him back to the United States and not to give him to Israeli authorities.

ICE did not respond to questions from The Intercept about why they had misled Ashqar’s lawyer about the June 4 appointment. Taurel believes that ICE did so because the agency wanted to prevent him from filing a legal challenge to a planned deportation. In a statement, an ICE spokesperson said the agency acted “in accordance with [Ashqar’s] final order of removal as issued by an immigration judge” and had complied with a federal judge’s temporary restraining order prohibiting ICE from giving Ashqar over to Israel.

Dr. Abedalhaleem Ashqar (61) posing for a photo at his house in Northern Virginia. Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Ashqar at his home, showing the ankle monitor he has to wear.

Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

Ashqar was 9 years old in 1967, when Israel first occupied the West Bank. They put his town, Seida, under curfew for a few years.

“I remember my father was an old man. He was a clergy. And he couldn’t go to the mosque at night,” Ashqar said in a February interview at his Virginia home. “And one night, he violated [the curfew] and the Israeli army, the border guards, stopped him, took his name, and said, ‘Come tomorrow, you’ll have to report to the military headquarters.’”

Then, in 1981, Ashqar says he was arrested and beaten by Israeli soldiers after he participated in a demonstration at Birzeit University against Israel’s military occupation.

In 1987, the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, broke out in Gaza, where Ashqar had moved for a job. It spread throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, turning into a five-year, mostly unarmed revolt against an army that routinely raided Palestinian homes, arrested scores of people, and protected Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land.

At the time of the Intifada, he was a spokesperson for the Islamic University of Gaza. During the uprising, part of his job was to keep tabs on students arrested and wounded by Israeli soldiers, and coordinate with the Red Cross and the students’ lawyers.

Two years later, Ashqar, after winning a scholarship funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, left Palestine and moved to Oxford, a small Mississippi town of about 25,000 people, to attend the University of Mississippi. He received a student visa to enter the U.S., where he had decided to get a doctorate in business. He would remain on the student visa until the end of 1998.

But he didn’t leave his past behind.

“I didn’t forget what they were going through. I started to give lectures, speeches about what was going on,” said Ashqar. Eight members of his family would eventually be killed by Israeli soldiers, he would later testify, and more languished in Israeli jail.

Shortly after arriving to the U.S., Ashqar established the al-Aqsa Educational Fund, a project he says was to support education in Palestine.

But his overseas bank transfers brought him to the attention of John Hailman, at the time a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Mississippi.

Hailman got calls sometime in the early 1990s from three different banks, who told him that Ashqar was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from overseas. Hailman first thought it was a potential money-laundering case. He called the FBI. The bureau then determined it was a potential terrorism case after consulting foreign intelligence sources, likely the Israelis, said Hailman.

Ashqar soon found himself under scrutiny. He said his home was bugged and he was followed. The FBI obtained permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap his calls on suspicion that he was an agent of a foreign power: Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that arose as a response to Israel’s occupation and used armed attacks as part of its strategy for freedom from Israeli domination.

FBI agents contacted Nancy Rogers, Ashqar’s student adviser at the University of Mississippi, to ask about him and to get help in securing a meeting with Ashqar. In 1996, Rogers asked Ashqar if he would talk with the government agents. Ashqar agreed, but only to educate them about Middle East politics and the Palestinian cause.

But the FBI wanted much more. They wanted him to inform on other Palestinians they said were Hamas members.

The office of Abedlhaleem Ashqar. Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Ashqar’s home office in Virginia.

Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

“He was really at the heart of it. He was very important as far as getting information. The lifeblood of law enforcement and anti-terrorism is information, and that’s what we wanted,” Hailman, who wrote about the case in his 2015 book, told The Intercept.

Hailman threatened him with an indictment, on charges of racketeering for Hamas, based in part on transcripts of phone conversations provided by Israeli authorities. Hailman also threatened Ashqar, who was still on a temporary student visa, with deportation, but offered him witness protection if he agreed to provide information. Ashqar refused.

“What I have control over is not to become a traitor or a collaborator. As long as I live, I’m not going to do it.”

“What I have control over is not to become a traitor or a collaborator,” Ashqar told me, explaining why he would not become an informant. “As long as I live, I’m not going to do it.”

The next year, Ashqar and his wife, Asmaa, moved to Virginia for work.

But federal law enforcement, whose investigation into Palestinian fundraising networks had by then expanded far beyond Ashqar, wasn’t done.

In 1998, New York prosecutors subpoenaed Ashqar, who had by then completed his doctorate, to testify in a grand jury as part of the FBI’s investigation into a network of alleged Hamas financiers in the United States, including Mousa Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas political leader who Ashqar knew. And once again, Ashqar refused to testify.

As a result of his refusal, he was jailed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he was held in solitary confinement for the duration of his detention. He launched a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment and treatment at the hands of the FBI and lost 60 pounds. When he was moved to a prison ward at the Westchester Medical Center in New York, prison guards tied him down while a doctor force-fed him intravenously, but he still refused to testify. A judge ordered his release six months later after it became clear that he would not be talking.

Ahmad Ashqar showing a photo of his father's cell in prison.  Abdelhaleem Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Ahmad holds a laminated photo of the cell at Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, where his father spent 17 months in detention.

Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

The case lay dormant after that initial jailing. Meanwhile, Ashqar, whose student visa by that time had expired, applied for asylum in the U.S., saying that he feared torture if deported back to Israeli-controlled areas. As part of that process, he got work authorization from the government and then got a job at Howard University, teaching business.

In 1999, an asylum officer referred his case to immigration court, where he could have his asylum claim heard. A judge never ruled on the asylum claim. Instead, four years later, Ashqar reached an agreement with ICE to leave the U.S. for the United Arab Emirates where he got another professor job. On the same day he agreed to leave the country, federal prosecutors again subpoenaed him to testify as part of their investigation into Hamas, torpedoing his plan to depart the country.

Prosecutors would not relent. The political landscape changed dramatically after September 11 — and Ashqar was caught in the dragnet.

Before the September 11 attacks, Ashqar was the target of a 1990s-era investigation into alleged Hamas financiers operating in the U.S. For years as part of this investigation, FBI agents had carried out a far-reaching surveillance operation around the U.S., spying on major Muslim-American institutions, spreading fear through targeted communities.

But the FBI closed its investigation, Operation Vulgar Betrayal, in 2000. Its targets were never charged with a crime.

“It was a fishing expedition,” said Assia Boundaoui, a journalist whose film “The Feeling of Being Watched” investigates the FBI’s spy program targeting Palestinians and Muslim-American institutions.

September 11, however, gave the Bush administration an opening to exploit.

“There was a new political will, and also a need to have some cases in court that were related to terrorism, and so they went and excavated these old ones to show that the U.S. government was doing something,” Boundaoui added.

The government launched its first salvo on December 5, 2001, when, during Ramadan, the U.S. seized the assets of the largest Muslim-American charity, the Holy Land Foundation. The group had long provided humanitarian aid to Palestinians, but the Bush administration claimed that they financed Hamas. Five Holy Land Foundation employees were later convicted over material support for terrorism after a controversial trial, though prosecutors never alleged that the Holy Land Foundation sent money for violence. During the trial, the federal government used a roster of people they alleged were Hamas members that the FBI obtained when it secretly raided Ashqar’s home in 1993. In addition to thousands of other unrelated documents introduced into evidence, prosecutors homed in on people on that list who had also spoken at Holy Land events, and documents showing contact between Marzook, the Hamas official, and the Holy Land defendants, to prove their case that the Holy Land Foundation was linked to Hamas.

398211 02: Ghassan Elashi, CEO of the Holy Land Foundation speaks with the media December 5, 2001 during a press conference in Richardson, Texas. The Holy Land Foundation disputes claims made by the U.S. government that it used charitable donations to fund Hamas and their goal to destroy Israel. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ghassan Elashi, center, CEO of the Holy Land Foundation, speaks at a press conference on Dec. 5, 2001, in Richardson, Texas, to address claims made by the U.S. government that Holy Land used charitable donations to fund Hamas.

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then, in February 2003, federal authorities arrested Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor in Florida, charging him with providing material support to the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group. Al-Arian was never convicted by a jury, but he struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one count of support to the group to bring a close to a saga that rocked his life.

Ashqar’s turn came in June 2003. Federal authorities once again asked him to testify against other Palestinians they’d accused of ties to Hamas, and he once again refused. In September 2003, he was jailed for civil contempt for two months and went on another hunger strike. At one point, he said, prison officials cut off his water supply for six days. One year later, a grand jury returned indictments against Ashqar for obstructing justice, along with indictments against Marzook and Muhammad Salah, a Chicago-based Palestinian activist who had earlier been arrested by Israel and was allegedly tortured into confessing membership to Hamas. Prosecutors also charged Ashqar with being part of a conspiracy to advance Hamas’s criminal actions by financing the militant group.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the charges in a press conference, telling reporters that the defendants had taken “advantage of the freedoms of an open society to foster and finance acts of terror.”

Ahmad Ashqar, 23, holding photos of his father Abdelhaleem Ashqar taken while he was on hunger strike serving a 4015 days sentence in prison. Abdelhaleem Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Ahmad holds photos of his father, taken while he was on a hunger strike in prison.

Photo: Eman Mohammed for The Intercept

Prosecutors alleged that Ashqar had helped transfer money to Hamas members and functioned as a communications switchboard, connecting one Hamas member to another. In one instance, they alleged, Ashqar participated in a conversation about possibly killing a rogue Hamas member. But in announcing their indictment, prosecutors conceded that “they were not charged with direct participation in the violence” and were only indicted for assisting Hamas materially as the group carried out terrorism.

Critics of the government’s prosecution of Ashqar say that he was targeted for one reason: refusing to testify against other Palestinians.

“Talk about a completely nasty and vindictive prosecution,” said Wadie Said, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on terrorism law in the U.S. “They wanted someone who would go in and flip, and he wouldn’t do it, and so they came after him.”

The trial got underway in Chicago in 2007, though not before Ashqar, while under house arrest, ran for president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, garnering about 3 percent of the vote in an election Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who Ashqar is a fierce critic of, won.

After three months, the anonymous jury returned its verdict: Ashqar was not guilty on charges of financing Hamas.

But Ashqar was convicted for obstructing justice over his refusal to give testimony, a crime that usually gets about five years or less in prison. A federal judge in November 2007 instead sentenced him to 11 years in prison, slapping a “terrorism enhancement” to his sentence, despite Ashqar not being found guilty of terrorism. To this day, Ashqar says he was never a member of Hamas and did not engage in violent activity.

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2007 file photo, Abdelhaleem Ashqar is surrounded by cameramen as he leaves federal court with his wife, in Chicago. Ashquar who says he fears torture at the hands of Israeli authorities,  is back in the U.S. after a judge's order forced immigration authorities to reverse his deportation and bring him back from Israel before he ever got off the plane.  According to court papers and interviews, U.S. authorities arrested and deported Ashqar Tuesday, June 4, 2019  after misleading him about his need to report to an immigration office to process paperwork.  (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Abdelhaleem Ashqar is surrounded by camerapeople after leaving federal court with his wife, Asmaa, in Chicago on Feb. 1, 2007.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The end of Ashqar’s prison sentence, which he completed mostly in Virginia, was the beginning of another episode. He spent the next 18 months in immigration detention, first at a jail in Virginia, and then in Ohio, a five-hour drive away.

The extended period of incarceration took a toll on Ashqar. He said he felt abandoned because he got little support from Muslim-American leaders on the outside. Ashqar was a prominent Muslim community leader, and among the first targets of the FBI’s surveillance investigation into supporters of the Palestinian cause. But community members who knew Ashqar did not speak up, he said, because they were fearful of associating with an accused financier of terrorism. While he plied his time with reading books by former U.S. officials on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, his health took a dive. When he was finally released in December 2018, he walked with a limp, the result of his knee arthritis. He didn’t get a knee replacement until he was freed because he feared subpar treatment while in prison.

Ashqar had mixed feelings when he was finally released from immigration detention. He struggled to adjust to life without prison guards, without authorities telling him when to eat and sleep. But for the first time in over a decade, he slept in his own bed, spent every day with his son and wife, and ate good food. On the first night he returned home, his wife made him mansaf, a lamb dish popular in Jordan and Palestine.

But after about six months at home, Ashqar was back in prison. His lawyer feared that ICE still wanted to deport him to Israel. ICE’s thwarted attempt to send him to Israel on June 4 only heightened those fears.

“Deportation to Israel could be a death sentence,” Taurel, his lawyer, told The Intercept. “There are strong reasons to believe that, given the opportunity, the Israelis will detain, interrogate, and torture him.” Israeli officials, however, told the Washington Post they were not interested in detaining him.

On June 15, ICE released Ashqar from immigration detention, and his lawyers are still in talks with the agency about Ashqar’s future. He hopes to obtain an agreement from Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia, or another country to take him in so he can move on with his life in a safe country.

Ashqar’s family, however, remain wary of U.S. authorities —“We don’t know what they’re planning,” said Ahmad, his son — but for now, they’re elated that he’s back at home.

“Finally, finally, finally, he’s home,” Ahmad said. “We’re finally happy again.”

Correction: June 21, 2019, 9:43 a.m. ET
This piece has been updated to clarify details of Ashqar’s asylum application, as well as the evidence used in the Holy Land prosecution. 

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