Hitting the Wall

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Bipartisan Snapshot: Bush signs the antiterrorism bill Friday

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Refai and his defenders have offered some plausible explanations for the evidence. Despite documents that allegedly link him and one hijacker to the same building--documents the government has never produced--Refai says he never knew Alghamdi. The videos of Niagara Falls and other cities? Tourist shots, Refai claims--and not a power plant among them. Refai, who spoke to TIME from an INS detention center in Batavia, N.Y., admits he sold the lighters with knives at his gas station, but so do many others. He did suggest Osama as a name for the child, but not because he was sympathetic to bin Laden. "[The historical figure] Osama was close to the Prophet," Refai explains. "I worked 15, 16 hours a day... I didn't have time to plot."

Susan Refai, 42, said she believes her ex-husband is innocent but now realizes that their marriage was a sham. It came about after a hasty courtship that started in January 1998 because "I felt sorry for him. He didn't speak English very well, and he was all alone." Well, not all alone. Mohammed apparently has another wife in Syria plus a new girlfriend here. "Oh, he was a bad boy," says his friend Ramzi Shalash. "But he didn't have anything to do with terrorists. We'd never even heard of al-Qaeda," Refai's brother Ayman says Mohammed's legal bills are mounting; many friends are afraid to help. Ayman says that even though his brother's rent has been paid, his landlord has evicted him from the apartment.

Law-enforcement officials say that in a climate in which immigration violations are fully prosecuted, a sham marriage to gain permanent-resident status cannot be dismissed. In a way, officials might explain, the system worked as it should for Refai. He was investigated carefully, and so far authorities have found evidence linking him only to serious marital issues, not terrorism.

As for why people like Refai are detained for so long, authorities point out that detective work takes time. Many of the detainees are purposely deceptive; their lives before Sept. 11 are mysterious. Consider Faisal M. Al Salmi, a Saudi Arabian charged with lying to FBI agents when he denied speaking with Hani Hanjour, the hijacker suspected of flying into the Pentagon. Prosecutors say Al Salmi and Hanjour spoke several times, at least once about aviation. They say Al Salmi has a private pilot's license and receives financial support from unknown sources in Saudi Arabia.

Al Salmi claims a five-year-old Arizona boy as a dependent child for tax purposes, according to federal documents reviewed by TIME. But the boy's uncle, Jamie Valderas of Wheeling, Ill., says his nephew Mervyn isn't related to Al Salmi. (Valderas says the boy's mother's purse was stolen in 1999; it contained Mervyn's Social Security card.) Last week Al Salmi pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on charges of lying to federal agents. Gerald Williams, his public defender, says his client took a polygraph test that shows he was not involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Perhaps not, but cases like his will keep investigators busy for years to come. Their time is also taken up by detainees like Mustafa Abu-Jdai, 28, a rare bird who actually claims he was connected to the hijackers. Abu-Jdai, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, says that three men, including hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi, offered him money last winter to take flying lessons. He says he declined, and his wife and attorney now hope his information might help the FBI crack the hijacking case. But the FBI says Abu-Jdai failed a polygraph, and agents believe that he made up his story about Al-Shehhi to gain leniency; his visa ran out more than a year ago. "He's an idiot," says Lori Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Dallas office of the FBI. She says the bureau has had to waste valuable time investigating his lies. Abu-Jdai stands by his story.

By now, the FBI has satisfied itself that nearly all the detainees had nothing to do with Sept. 11. Most of those who appeared to be accomplices in the frantic days after the attacks are just mundanely waiting for the INS or the courts to hear their cases. For example, Ali Al-Maqtari has been held at the West Tennessee Detention Center for more than 40 days without bond while he awaits a hearing on the charge that he overstayed his visa. He and his wife Tiffinay were detained Sept. 15 when they drove up to the gates of Fort Campbell, Ky., a U.S. Army base where Tiffinay was to report for active duty as a private. A search of their car turned up two box cutters, correspondence in Arabic and a set of postcards picturing the New York City skyline. But the box cutters were used for moving, attorney Michael Boyle contends, and Al-Maqtari, an Arabic speaker from Yemen, had visited his uncle in New York. Authorities don't consider the Al-Maqtaris to be important to the Sept. 11 investigation.

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