Published September 24, 2003
WASHINGTON – Ahmad I. al-Halabi (search) liked to fiddle with robots in high school. He lived in one of the nation's biggest Arab-American communities, and went straight into the Air Force after graduation. He planned to marry his fiancee days after his tour as an Arabic translator ended on Guantanamo Bay (search).
But now al-Halabi, a senior airman -- once honored as "Airman of the Year" -- is in custody at an Air Force base in California, facing allegations of espionage that could bring the death penalty for the 24-year-old son of Syrian immigrants.
The supply clerk-turned-translator is the second member of the U.S. military to be arrested for actions at Guantanamo, the U.S.-run military base in Cuba housing some 660 alleged members of Al Qaeda (search), the Taliban and other terrorism suspects. A Muslim Army chaplain was arrested this month; a third military person is under investigation, authorities said Wednesday.
"I have never made any anti-American or anti-United States statements," al-Halabi told Air Force Special Agent Lance Wega, according to federal documents of the 32 military charges against him.
He also denied having unauthorized contacts with detainees, taking any detainees' letters to his residence, or taking any prohibited pictures at the base's Camp Delta.
A portrait of al-Halabi's personal life is slowly emerging: a typical high school yearbook photo, a trip to Disney World, his engagement to marry a woman in Syria, from where his family emigrated in 1996.
The family settled in Dearborn, Mich., a suburb of Detroit where mosques, Arabic store signs and cafes with thick coffee and Middle Eastern sweets greet the area's Arab Americans. Some 300,000 live in the region. He joined Fordson High School's 10th grade, and the school's robotics club.
Other members of the club recalled al-Halabi as friendly and polite, and on the quiet side.
"I can't believe he's the guy they arrested. Wow. I didn't know him that well, but he was a very kind-hearted guy," said Nader Abadeh, 21, who was in the club and was a year behind al-Halabi in school. "I don't think he'd have the heart to do something like this."
"He was kind of new to the country," said Ali Barakat, 21. "He was quiet, never really talked ... But he was a nice guy. He was always smiling and friendly."
Drivers license records indicate the family lived in Dearborn and later moved to Detroit, to a tree-lined street in a working-class neighborhood with an elementary school at the end of the block. Neighbors said they've said hello but never really talked with family members.
"We don't really know them. Every now and then, I see [a woman] coming out dressed head to toe ... with just her eyes showing," said Christina Burton, who lives across the street.
A high school picture from the 1999 yearbook shows a smiling al-Halabi, video camera in hand, with club members at Disney World, where they took part in a national robotics competition.
His yearbook portrait shows a clean-cut young man with brushed-back black hair, hints of a mustache and a wide grin.
Al-Halabi went straight into the Air Force after graduating that year, and worked as a supply clerk before being pressed into service as a translator, Maj. James Key III, one of his attorneys, told The Associated Press.
He did well, named Airman of the Year one year and promoted fairly quickly to senior airman, his attorney said. He had served in Kuwait prior to the war in Iraq, and spent nine months at Guantanamo.
Al-Halabi had been engaged to a woman from Syria. Key did not recall her name.
When he was arrested on July 23 as he arrived in Jacksonville, Fla., on a flight from the prison camp, he was holding a plane ticket for Syria, where he planned to marry in Damascus, Key said.
There's also a Syrian connection with Army Capt. Yousef Yee, the arrested chaplain who gave religious guidance to suspected Muslim terrorists on Guantanamo. After attending West Point, Yee spent four years in Syria, studied Arabic, converted to Islam, and reportedly married a Syrian woman. Yee hasn't been charged, but is being held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., on suspicion of breaching Guantanamo Bay security.
Key said al-Halabi's pending marriage explained the contacts with the Syrian embassy cited in the charges.
Now al-Halabi is being held at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Charges include that he carried two handwritten notes from detainees that he intended to turn over to someone traveling to Syria, and that his personal laptop computer contained classified information about detainees and 180 messages from detainees he intended to send to Syria or Qatar.
One of the allegations is that he conducted "unauthorized communications with detainees" because he brought them baklava pastries.
Now, behind bars, al-Halabi is barred from speaking Arabic and must rely on a translator to speak with his father and his fiance, since both only speak Arabic.
His father, Ibrahim al-Halabi, spoke at the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing in California last week.
"He testified how much Airman al-Halabi loved the United States, how important being in America was to him," Key said. "They're shocked at the allegations he may have done something contrary to the United States' interests."