Since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI has dedicated huge resources to recruiting informants, particularly targeting Muslim Americans or immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Saying no can carry serious consequences. This week on Intercepted: Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain tells the story of one man who rejected the FBI’s request. Aswad Khan was visiting his family in Connecticut when the FBI tried to recruit him to spy on mosques, but he wouldn’t spy on people in prayer. That’s when Khan’s life was turned upside down.
Aswad Khan: I was sleeping. I was stuck in bed and I heard a very loud bang on the main door — boom, boom, boom. And, simultaneously, I had a phone call on my cell phone. So I was sleeping. I mean, I just woke up; loud noise — boom, boom, boom downstairs.
Murtaza Hussain: The banging on the front door woke Aswad Khan up. He was staying at his aunt and uncle’s house. The family, along with his cousins, had left for the day, leaving him home alone.
AK: And I pick up my cell. And my cousin’s name is appearing on my cell phone.
MH: Thinking that it was his cousin at the door and that perhaps she had forgotten something, he picked up the phone.
AK: It wasn’t my cousin whose name appeared on my phone. It was the FBI. And the agent is like: “Open the door. This is the FBI. Do not hang up the call. Open the door right now!”
And I’m like jumping out of bed, thinking: What is going on here? Like, what? The FBI, you know? And they’re banging like crazy on the door.
[Intercepted theme song.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
MH: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept focusing on national security and foreign policy.
Aswad Khan was 26 years old when the FBI knocked on his family’s door in Connecticut the morning of February 9, 2012.
A year earlier he had graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied business management. He was an international student from Pakistan. And he was back in the U.S. visiting family.
AK: Basically, in Connecticut, I have my family there, my cousins there. I grew up there in the sense that all of my summer vacations, all of my upbringing in the summers while I was a kid, I used to spend time with them.
MH: When the FBI showed up at his Connecticut family’s door, Khan’s heart immediately began racing. He had no idea why the FBI would be there or how they could spoof his family’s phone numbers to contact him. He went downstairs holding the phone as instructed, while the officers continued to bang on the door.
AK: So, as soon as I opened the door, I see two agents — at that time I thought they were both agents.
MH: They showed him their badges. One man was from the FBI and the other was a Connecticut State Police detective.
AK: Standing at the door, wearing suits and their sunglasses, exactly. like you see in Hollywood movies.
MH: The FBI agent was Andrew Klopfer, and Andrew Burke was the Connecticut State Police detective, according to Khan and an email from one of his attorneys.
Khan, trying his best to suppress his terror, tried to ask the agents what was going on. His lanky 6-foot-1 frame filled out most of the doorway. He gripped the side of it as he spoke to the officers.
AK: And I’m like: How can I help you? What’s going on?
“Is your name Aswad Khan?”
I said, “Yes. That is my name.”
“Do you have any identification on you?”
I said, “Not at the moment. My wallet is upstairs.”
“OK. You have to come with us immediately.”
So I’m like, “Why? Am I in any kind of trouble?”
“No, you’re not in any kind of trouble. We just need to take you to an undisclosed location. It’s for your own safety. And not only is it for your own safety, it’s for our safety.”
And they weren’t really telling me what’s going on. All they kept on saying is, “You have to come with us. You have to come with us as soon as possible. We need to leave your house. It’s not a safe location.”
And I’m saying: “Am I in any kind of trouble? Do I need a lawyer? Do I need to tell my aunt? I’m a visitor from Pakistan. I need to inform my aunt. She’s at work.”
And then they’re telling me, “We know that nobody’s home. You’re home alone. And you have to come with us immediately.”
MH: The officers told Khan that they were going to take him to a local diner in town so that they could talk and have breakfast. Khan quickly changed and followed them out to their car.
The officers drove about 15 minutes to the diner. After sitting him down in a booth, they told him to order something for breakfast. Still terrified, and struggling to comprehend the turn his morning had taken, Khan ordered a glass of juice and an omelet.
The officers began peppering him with questions:
AK: So they asked me, “Tell us your name, tell us your family background. What do you do in Pakistan? Where did you go to school? What was your upbringing like? What are your political views? What are your religious views? What do you think about America? What do you think about Pakistan? What are the faults within Pakistan? Who do you support in Pakistan?”
MH: After about 20 minutes, Klopfer, the FBI agent, got to the point of the encounter: They wanted Khan to work for them.
AK: They started asking me: “We would like to offer you a job.”
And I said, “What type of a job would you like to offer me? What is this job?”
“We want you to work as an informant for the bureau.”
[Low, foreboding music.]
AK: So I’m like: “That’s fine, but what is the job description? What does it entail?”
And for that, he just said: “It’s top secret. We can’t really disclose all the details, but you’ll be going into mosques. You’ll be spying for us. You’ll be, you know, uh, getting us information and blah, blah, blah, and reporting bad to us. And that’s basically what you’ll be doing.”
MH: He told the officers that he did not need a job. He wouldn’t be well-suited for it anyways, he added, describing himself as loud, sociable, and not the type of person who could keep dark secrets to himself. The officers said the FBI could provide him with U.S. citizenship, money, and other perks.
Khan was in the United States on a visitor visa and was nearing the end of his allotted stay.
The FBI declined to comment for this story or to make Klopfer available to answer questions.
Burke did not respond to our request for comment.
The Connecticut State Police said that Burke was retired from the police force, that they do not speak on matters related to federal investigations, and referred further questions to the FBI.
By now, with the purpose of the meeting clear, Khan was only focused on getting home as soon as possible and finding help.
Although he wanted U.S. citizenship — which would offer him the chance to spend more time in a country he loved with family and friends — the idea of becoming an informant was out of the question.
Even though he did not attend mosque regularly, he did not want to be sent by the FBI to spy on people at prayers.
AK: So I politely declined and I said: “I’m really flattered.”
MH: The officers continued to make offers, and Khan kept rejecting them.
AK: “I’m not interested in working for the bureau. I am not interested in becoming a spy or an informant. And that’s it.”
And after I said that, he pretty much got really upset with me and he was very pissed off and his tone completely changed
MH: The officers tried a different strategy.
AK: And they just became really mean after that. Then they started pushing me saying, “OK, alright. If that’s that, then tell us something: What terrorist organizations are you affiliated with?”
So I started laughing. I said: “What does that mean? What terrorist organizations am I affiliated with? I’m not affiliated with any terrorist organization. God forbid.” And I’m like, “I have absolutely no affiliation. I don’t know anything about any of these organizations.
MH: After about two hours of tense conversation, the officers put Khan back in the car and drove him home. Wracked with anxiety, he had been unable to take a single bite of his food. Now he was just glad that this frightening ordeal was about to be over.
AK: And they dropped me home and they specifically told me: “Do not hire an attorney. Do not tell your aunt. This meeting never existed.”
MH: As soon as the officers drove away, Khan immediately called his aunt to tell her what had happened: That the FBI had picked him up at home, that they were offering him money and perks to work for them as an informant, and that he was scared. She and his cousin rushed home from work and called a lawyer to set up an appointment for later that day.
When they arrived, the lawyer, Christian Young, took the numbers of the FBI and Connecticut State Police officers who had picked Khan up. Young called the officers and told them not to contact Khan again without calling him first.
AK: A week later, they call him up. And they’re saying: “We want him to take an interview in front of a U.S. attorney and we would want you to be present there along with your client Aswad, and we recommend that he take this interview.”
MH: Young, the attorney, declined to comment for this story.
The interview with the FBI and U.S. attorney was about a week later. The FBI agent, the Connecticut State Police detective, Khan, and his lawyer sat with then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen B. Reynolds in a boardroom at the FBI office. In the presence of Reynolds, whose identity Khan and an attorney later working on the case confirmed, the officers asked Khan the same questions they’d asked at the diner.
AK: What’s your age? What country are you from? What city do you live in in the country that you’re from? Where did you go to high school? Where did you go to college? What does your father do?
MH: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut declined to comment. Neither Reynolds nor the Department of Justice responded to requests for comment.
The conversation continued until the officers, again, asked about terrorist groups in Pakistan.
AK: So I look towards the U.S. attorney at that time, my lawyer was there, and I’m like: “Look at me. Look at my background. Look at my education. My father has spent over half a million dollars on me. I had a BMW M3 in college. I lived in one of the best apartments in Boston.”
MH: Khan had come from a well-off family in Pakistan who had paid for him to be educated in the U.S.
AK: “You’ve got to be really delusional if you think a college-educated person with an educated background would have any interest in any of these organizations. It’s absurd. It’s disgusting that you are trying to affiliate me or ask me questions about these terrorist organizations.”
MH: After roughly two-and-a-half hours, Reynolds said Khan was free to go. Leaving the office, Khan noticed that neither Klopfer nor Burke said anything to him or made eye contact on the way out.
For a moment, it seemed like his problems were done with. Khan spent the remaining weeks with family and friends. With time, the frightening morning visit from the FBI began to fade in his mind.
A month later, at the boarding area of John F. Kennedy International Airport, Khan was flagged. It was the first time in his life he got SSSS — short for “secondary security screening selection” on his boarding pass. He received a bit of extra scrutiny at the security checkpoint, but otherwise things seemed normal.
He boarded his flight back to Pakistan with his mind clear, already making plans in his head for his next visit.
But that moment at Kennedy Airport, in early April 2012, would be the last time Khan ever set foot in the U.S. It was also the beginning of a dark new chapter in his life: From that moment on, his reputation, his social life, and the promise of his future would begin to unravel.
For Khan — and his circles — the trouble began almost immediately after he arrived in Pakistan, weeks after his last meeting with the FBI and assistant U.S. attorney. Because of the secrecy of the process, Khan has no evidence that Klopfer, Burke, or anyone else put him on a watchlist. But soon after he returned to Pakistan his friends started having problems at the U.S. border and Khan’s name kept coming up.
One of Khan’s childhood friends, Y., has been detained at the U.S. border and questioned about Khan on multiple occasions since 2012. Like several others who shared similar experiences with me, he asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. So we’re calling him Y.
Y is a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, married to a Canadian. In 2017, during a trip back to the U.S. from Pakistan, during a layover, he was stopped and questioned by an agent while in the airport lounge:
Y: And so at first I thought it was just normal because they’re asking security questions, there are security issues, especially out of Pakistan, reasonable things, they’re doing their job asking questions. Good. I have nothing to hide, no issue.
But then he got into specifics. He’s like: “So, who did you meet?”
And I was like: “My friends”.
So then he literally got to it. He’s like: “Did you meet this person?” And he asked about Aswad. And he said like: “Where did you meet him?”
MH: When he and his partner landed in Chicago, officers were waiting for them, again.
Y: They said: “What are you carrying in your bags?” Right? And they did a little bit of that cursory stuff of: “What’s in your bags, what’s in this crate, blah, blah, blah.”
And so that was brief. And then that basically led into: “So what did you do while you were in Pakistan? Who did you meet?” And then they said: “Did you meet this guy? Did you meet Aswad?”
And I said: “Yeah, I did.”
And then they had a printed picture of him, right? Like folded in half, from his Facebook, probably. I don’t know. And then they showed me this printed picture and they were like: “Is this Aswad?”
And I’m like: “Yeah.” I found that pretty crazy.
MH: Customs and Border Protection agents questioned Y for several hours, along with his wife. Officials asked about his friendship with Khan, how Khan earned a living, and what he used his income for.
Y: Everyone’s asking all these questions, [and I’m like]: “What’s going on? Can you tell me what’s going on?”
And they’re like, “No, we can’t tell you what’s going on. But the fact that we’re asking about him is enough for you to understand that you should distance yourself from him. That he’s a bad guy.” Like, these were the words they used. “You should not be associated with this person, because we’re asking about him, and he’s trouble. He’s a bad guy.”
MH: Despite doubting that Khan had been in any sort of trouble, Y felt pressured to cut ties with him.
Y: I always assumed and had heard that there’s a mistake here, that maybe he’s got a matching name or he’s on some wrong kind of list or whatever. Right? Like that’s what was going through my mind. And that’s what I was convincing my partner, too, because, by the end of this trip, it was like, you need to cut ties with this person, because it’s going to impact our lives.
MH: Y has been stopped during travel by U.S. Customs – in the Middle East, in Chicago, and multiple times in Toronto. Like several others I spoke with, Y, who travels frequently to the U.S. for work, deleted Khan’s contact off his phone and his social media accounts. He spoke with Khan and apologized at the time, saying that he was shaken by the harassment he had begun to face. The experience put a strain on their friendship, although, unlike many others, Y had at least talked to Khan about it.
Y: I noticed emotional pain. I noticed mental pain, you know. The fact that he had to deal with this. Iit affected him. He was finding out, he’s like: “I wake up and I just see that I’ve lost my friends on Facebook.”
And to be honest, I deleted him on Facebook and he called me the next morning. He called me and he’s like: “What’s going on, bro?” And that’s when I told him what’s going on. So clearly it had already been happening to him.
MH: One day in 2017, at his home in Pakistan, Khan saw a flurry of text messages, mostly from old college and high school friends in the United States. Khan soon came across a text that revealed what was happening: “Congrats bro your best friend is getting married!” the message read. He couldn’t believe it.
Khan logged onto Facebook to check the page of his childhood best friend. He quickly realized his friend had unfollowed him and restricted his access to the profile.
Khan lay back in bed, tears stinging his eyes. He had experienced so many small betrayals over the years since his problems with the U.S. government began: acquaintances quietly severed ties, phone calls and messages were left unreturned, and even parents of friends told their children it was too much trouble to associate with him.
AK: Everyone is just — like, fear is gripping them. You know? When I hang out with them, they’re like: What is going on? What the hell is happening here, bro? Why is the U.S. government harassing us?”
MH: Khan was a social, young man who had been accustomed to being the center of attention. Even though he had never even been accused of a crime, he was now a pariah.
He had plummeted into a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and sleepless nights. Each friendship lost, or rumor about him overheard, had dealt another blow to his self-esteem. Learning secondhand about his childhood best friend’s marriage, to which he was never invited, was the worst blow yet.
[Low, meditative music.]
MH: In Khan’s mind everything went back to his encounter with the FBI a decade earlier. Ever since, more than a dozen of his friends have told him about serious problems when traveling to the U.S.: They’ve been questioned about him and have even been told by CBP agents to keep their distance from Khan if they wanted to avoid trouble.
AK: After my friends started getting harassed, I could see fear on their faces, you know? Everyone was terrified of me — like, wow, Aswad? Aswad has a problem with the U.S. government.
MH: Over the past two decades, since the 9/11 attacks, one of the FBI’s core activities has been recruiting informants. While up-to-date numbers are unavailable, past estimates have put the number of informants in the U.S. at more than 15,000. Many of these people are Muslim-Americans or immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. For those who decline an offer to inform, the consequences can be serious.
In late 2016, The Intercept reported on a cache of documents provided by an FBI whistleblower revealing how U.S. national security agencies use the immigration system and border crossings to gather intelligence and recruit informants. The documents show how the FBI and CBP cooperated to target people from countries of interest. The FBI would then help identify individuals for additional screening, questioning, and follow-up visits.
No active investigation or suspicion of criminal activity is necessary for the FBI to approach you. The FBI only has to suggest that the person in question could provide useful intelligence.
Individual agents were given broad discretionary power in how they handled such situations. The result, as FBI whistleblower Terry Albury recently said to the New York Times, was a culture of racism and malice, with agents pressuring individuals into spying on their communities and frequently destroying the lives of innocent people in the process.
Here he is on The New York Times’ podcast, The Daily:
Terry Albury: It’s a Ponzi scheme that this whole national security apparatus is built on, because we’re going to perpetuate this mythology, we’re going to maintain this idea that the problem is much larger and more comprehensive than anyone can understand. And so everyone just keeps putting their money into that pot.
MH: The consequences of declining an offer to become an informant could be dire, including placement on one of the government’s secret watchlists.
In 2018, Khan filed paperwork with the Department of Homeland Security’s redress program. The written response from the agency he received in July of that year was vague, stating that the agency, “can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists.”
He had run up against one of the limits governing noncitizens and nonresidents seeking information about their watchlisting: The government does not even have to confirm whether he is on the no-fly list, let alone what is justifying keeping him there.
Slowly but surely, Khan’s reputation was destroyed by scrutiny from U.S. authorities, particularly by what he and his attorneys believe is his placement on the terror watchlist. At home, he did not face any harassment or scrutiny from the Pakistani government. But because of the U.S. government’s harassment of his friends and acquaintances, he now lives under a cloud of suspicion.
AK: They’re harassing my friends. So, whether they’re trying to enter from JFK or Toronto, or Chicago, or Miami, or LA, my friends, some are being allowed to enter the country and some are being detained and they’re being harassed and they’re being asked questions about me. They’re worried. What is going on here?
MH: The issue of reputational harm has come up in previous lawsuits targeting the watchlisting system, though the courts have so far upheld the practice as constitutional.
The very secrecy of the watchlists has protected them from meaningful oversight and scrutiny. And yet the reputational damage they can inflict on innocent people is real.
AK: So, what they were doing was they were trying to isolate me from my friends by putting me on this terrorist watchlist. They were trying to ruin my reputation. They were trying to cause harm to my character. They were assassinating my character sitting thousands of miles away because the system is rigged.
MH: The government’s terrorist watchlisting system remains opaque. The most consequential revelation to date was a 2014 leak, published by The Intercept, about its size and characteristics.
Disclosures in a lawsuit from 2017 established that the watchlist had grown to 1.2 million people, the vast majority of whom were neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents.
Khan believes his placement on the list caused him to be personally ruined by suspicions of association with terrorism.
Khan is still in Pakistan. His past life of frequent visits to the U.S. are now a distant memory. Though he used to enjoy traveling, he has only left Pakistan once since his encounter with the FBI. He has not attempted to return to the U.S. since his last trip, for fear of what might happen when confronted by U.S. authorities.
AK: I never came back. I never came back. Not because I didn’t want to; I never came back because I was terrified. Frankly speaking, this entire situation, this entire experience, it’s ruined my life. It has completely messed everything up.
MH: Unaware what type of rumors have been spread about him by the U.S. government with foreign authorities, let alone people in his own life, he has become wracked by depression and paranoia. Nearly a decade after his fateful morning visit from the FBI, his life has not returned to normal.
AK: I started taking literally sleeping pills. I started seeing a therapist. My life was scarred. I was terrified. And I never thought that this day would enter my life that I didn’t know where to go for help. Like, I would literally have tears at night. I would tell my mom, like: “God, mom, why me?”
What do I want from America? The only thing I want from America is justice. I want that people like me can get justice. People like me can get due process. How is it that they’ve made it so hard to get justice?
And my question is: It’s a democratic country. Right? You’re a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. You’re the world’s best democracy. You are the best country on the planet — I’m not doubting it! But how is it that the best country on the planet is ruining people’s lives openly and not allowing them to stand up?
MH: For now, Khan remains in Pakistan. Uncertain about his status with the U.S. government, or whether he’ll ever be able to have a normal life again.
[Slow, meditative music outro.]
[End credits music.]
MH: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Ali Gharib was our story editor. Legal review by David Bralow. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Betsy Reed, who served as editor in chief of The Intercept, will now be heading to new ventures. She has led The Intercept for seven years, overseeing some of our biggest investigations. Betsy, we will miss you and wish you the best.
If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/join — your donation, no matter how much, makes a real difference.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you enjoy this podcast, be sure to also check out Deconstructed, as well as Murderville, which is now in its second season.
If you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much.
Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussain.