This American Refused to Become an FBI Informant. Then the Government Made His Familyâ€™s Life Hell.
By Nick Baumann
Naji Mansour; Photograph by David Degner
It was after 10 p.m. on July 8, 2009, when Sandra Mansour answered her cellphone to the panicked voice of her daughter-in-law, Nasreen. A week earlier, Nasreen and her husband, Naji Mansour, had been detained in the southern Sudanese city of Juba by agents of the countryâ€™s internal security bureau. In the days since, Sandra had been desperately trying to find out where the couple was being held. Now Nasreen was calling to say that sheâ€™d been releasedâ€”driven straight to the airport and booked on a flight to her native Kenyaâ€”but Naji remained in custody. He was being held in a dark, squalid basement cell, with a bucket for a bathroom and a dense swarm of mosquitoes that attacked his body as he slept. â€œYou have to get him out of there,â€ Nasreen said. But she was unfamiliar with Juba and could only offer the barest details about where theyâ€™d been held. â€œHeâ€™s in a blue building. Youâ€™ve seen it. Itâ€™s not far from your hotel.â€
Sandra remembered passing a blue warehouse ringed by tall, razor-wire-topped fences. She hung up and turned to her daughter, Tahani, whoâ€™d flown to Juba to assist in tracking down her brother: â€œWeâ€™ve gotta go look for Naji.â€ They packed food, water, and bug spray in case they found him. Then Sandra and Tahani laced up their sneakers, retrieved a flashlight, and slipped out onto a pitch-dark, deserted road.
Sudanâ€™s long-running civil war had ended a few years earlier, and Juba, once a malarial backwater on the White Nile, was poised to become the capital of the worldâ€™s newest nation, South Sudan. The city had grown into a boomtown, its expansion fueled by newly discovered oil and an influx of foreign aid. Shacks and half-built concrete structures lined its maze of narrow, trash-strewn streets, and entrepreneurs rented out converted storage sheds for as much as $100 per night. Sandra, a US government contractor, lived in one of them.
The upstart city had a Wild West atmosphere. Rifle- and grenade-wielding bandits occasionally stormed poorly guarded compounds, and violent muggings and carjackings were commonplace. It was not safe to drive after dark, let alone walk, but Sandra and Tahani were desperate. â€œIt was a very crazy thing to do,â€ Sandra later recalled. â€œBut it was the first lead we had, and there was nothing that was gonna stop us.â€
â€œHe said, â€˜We want you to work with us. You have what it takes. Youâ€™re the perfect candidate.â€™ This is the shit you see in movies.â€
Sandra had grown up in Providence, Rhode Island; after leaving there on a backpacking trip in 1973, at age 21, she never stopped traveling. She later married a Sudanese economist, Ali Mansour, and together they lived and worked around the world, raising Naji and his three siblings to view their blue US passports as a ticket to a global life.
But that was before Naji landed in the crosshairs of the FBI and the familyâ€™s comfortable expat existence started coming undone. For several months, Naji had been repeatedly interviewed by American authorities, detained and interrogated by Kenyan counterterrorism police, and ultimately forced into exile in Juba. Now he had vanished into a basement dungeon.
When Sandra and Tahani reached the blue warehouse, it appeared deserted. They circled it, then attempted to scale a back gate. When that failed, they shouted Najiâ€™s name into the lightless building. Naji couldnâ€™t hear them. He was locked up about five miles away in another blue building, a Sudanese intelligence facility near a rocky outcropping called Witch Mountain. There, he was questioned repeatedly about whether he had ties to terrorism or Al Qaeda. The Sudanese interrogators threatened to kill him if he didnâ€™t tell them what he knew, and he could hear the screams of other prisoners being beaten.
Two weeks into his detention, Najiâ€™s jailers escorted him from his cell into a clean, bright room, where at last he saw a familiar face, a fellow American. It was an FBI agent heâ€™d met with in the past. The agent told Naji that he could end his nightmare. â€œHelp me help you,â€ he said.
Naji first contacted me in April 2012, after I wrote a story about Yonas Fikre , an Oregon man who alleges that he was tortured in the United Arab Emirates after he refused to become an FBI informant. â€œI went through a similar ordeal,â€ his email said.
Fikreâ€™s story fit a familiar pattern in which US citizens suspected of (often tangential) ties to terrorism were detained and questioned abroad by foreign security servicesâ€”with evidence suggesting that American authorities orchestrated the detentions. This wasnâ€™t rendition, the controversial practice in which the CIA has shipped foreign nationals to allied countries where they were abused and tortured. Instead, American citizens were locked up abroad and interrogated by US agents in a manner that seemed designed to bypass their constitutional rights. Human rights advocates and civil libertarians have dubbed this practice â€œproxy detention.â€
The FBI acknowledges  that foreign governments sometimes arrest Americans based on information the bureau provides. Hereâ€™s how one FBI source explained it to me: If a guy the Saudi government suspected of terrorism traveled to the United States, weâ€™d want to know. So itâ€™s only fair that we tip off the Saudisâ€”or the Yemenis, Sudanese, or Egyptiansâ€”when an American suspected of terrorist ties enters their country.
What the bureau doesnâ€™t say is that since counterterrorism forces in many countries are funded and trained by the United States, the FBIâ€™s suggestions can sound a lot like ordersâ€”even when the suspects involved have never been charged with any crime.
â€œOften it has been US officials who do the real questioning, and sometimes the prisoners have been tortured and abusedâ€ by their foreign captors, says Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who works on the issue. â€œUnlawful detention and cruel treatment is wrong when the US government does it, and itâ€™s just as wrong if the United States asks another government to do it.â€ But as Naji discovered, the US government can do more than land you in prison overseas. It can reach deep into a familyâ€™s life, upending relationships, destroying livelihoods, and leaving citizens stranded far from home without recourse or explanation.
NAJI WAS BORN IN San Diego in 1976, the first of four children, and his upbringing was a whirlwind tour of far-flung locales. As his father worked his way around the globe as an economic consultant to governments and businesses, Naji attended grade school on an American compound in Saudi Arabia and part of high school in a Crusades-era castle (complete with a moat) in Malta. When he was 20, the family visited Nairobi on a vacation, and they moved there for good later that year. All four Mansour children attended American colleges (Naji went to the University of Rhode Island for a year), and two of them now live in the United States. One of Najiâ€™s brothers joined the Marines and served two tours in Afghanistan.
Though heâ€™s spent most of his life abroad, Naji is an American by birth, by law, and by culture. Heâ€™s a fan of the comedian Dave Chappelle, a rap aficionadoâ€”we had a lengthy conversation about the merits of Biggie Smalls versus Tupac Shakurâ€”and a computer whiz.
Naji was raised Muslim, but he wasnâ€™t particularly religious as a child and didnâ€™t pray regularly until he was 18. He was more interested in pan-Africanismâ€”in Najiâ€™s words, the idea â€œthat a united Africa could be independent from foreign intervention, and peopleâ€™s lives would improveâ€â€”a popular school of thought among his professors at the United States International University in Nairobi. But in 1998, Naji dropped out of school and married a young Ugandan named Shamila. They moved to England and had a daughter, but without legal residency he couldnâ€™t find work beyond odd jobs, and Shamila eventually returned to Uganda and gave birth to their son. Naji moved back to Nairobi in April 2000 in hopes that Sandra, then working as a housing and travel coordinator for USAID (she supervised luggage handling during then-first lady Laura Bushâ€™s May 2007 visit), could set him up with a job at the US Embassy. In 2002, Naji and Shamila divorced. Soon after, he married Nasreen and they started a family together in Nairobi.
Sandra Mansour shops for sneakers with her graddaughters in Nairobi. Until December, sheâ€™d been blocked from entering Kenya for two years.
Naji spent 2008 working for a tech company in Dubai. During his stay, he occasionally invited friends from work and the mosque he attended to bunk at his momâ€™s houseâ€”which the family dubbed â€œHotel Sandraâ€â€”if they ever visited Nairobi. A week after returning home from Dubai, he got a call from a guy named Muhammad whom he barely remembered. â€œI got a couple of friends. Could you put them up?â€ Muhammad asked. â€œTheyâ€™re coming this week.â€ Naji agreed, expecting more details, but Muhammad abruptly hung up.
A few days later, Najiâ€™s phone rang again. The men had arrived. â€œI was like, â€˜Uh…okay.â€™â€ He hopped into the familyâ€™s old Mercedesâ€”a memento of his father, who died in 2006â€”and drove to pick them up.
The two visitors , Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Gamal Sakr, both 24, said they were grad students who had traveled to Kenya to study the farmers who grow miraa (also known as khat), a mild amphetamine thatâ€™s legal there. But they seemed to do little other than hang around. They watched the Mansoursâ€™ seven tortoises trudge around the backyard. They prayed. After a week, Naji gently inquired when Berjawi and Sakr would be moving on. They told him they were waiting for their families to wire some money to continue their travels and research.
Around 2 p.m. on February 23, 2009, a bit more than two weeks into the pairâ€™s visit, dozens of armed men surrounded the house. Naji and Nasreen were out. The familyâ€™s maid, Violet Mugasiali, was home with their young daughters. â€œAll of a sudden the bell started ringing nonstop,â€ Mugasiali remembered. The men said they were with Kenyaâ€™s counterterrorism police, a special American-funded unit. She called Naji and Nasreen as the police burst into the compound, arresting Berjawi and Sakr and confiscating computers belonging to Naji.
Nasreen rushed home while Naji contacted Al-Amin Kimathi, a prominent lawyer and the head of Kenyaâ€™s Muslim Human Rights Forum. Naji had volunteered for Kimathiâ€™s organization, where he helped to investigate the detention and rendition of Muslims who had been arrested in Kenya as they fled Ethiopiaâ€™s US-backed invasion of neighboring Somalia. Some of the detainees were militants affiliated with the Islamic Courts Union, which spawned al-Shabaab, the terrorist group that pledged fealty to Al Qaeda in 2012. But many were simply refugees attempting to escape the violence.
Now Naji called on Kimathi for a favor. Since he didnâ€™t have a Kenyan passport, he was worried he might be deported; Kimathi helped him obtain an official document saying he could stay. Then Naji turned himself in for interrogation. (Nasreen was also arrested; she was held for 30 hours before being released without charges.)
The Kenyan police told Naji that Berjawi and Sakr had been plotting a terrorist attackâ€”perhaps targeting the Westgate, Nairobiâ€™s fanciest mall. (The two men were deported to the United Kingdom, where they had grown up, but soon returned to Africa. In 2010, the UK revoked their citizenship for alleged ties to terrorism, and both were later killed by US drone strikes  in Somaliaâ€”where, the British government said, they had joined al-Shabaab.)
Naji was questioned about his ties to the would-be terrorists, whom he told his interrogators he barely knew. They also confronted him with terrorism-related files that were discovered on his computers. Some were mundane, such as research papers and think tank studies about Islamic extremism, but others were more suspicious, like martyrdom videos and al-Shabaab propaganda. Naji said that he was no terrorist, but was fascinated by the causes of terrorism and curious about how the religious doctrine of jihad was used to justify it; in his spare time, he spent hours doing online research.
â€œIâ€™m telling you, you might get hit by a car. That is not a threat. That is a solid piece of advice. But you donâ€™t want to take it.â€
Following two days of questioning, the Kenyan authorities let Naji go. Sandra suggested that he reach out to the US Embassy, where she had many contacts, to report what had happened and clear up any suspicions about his ties to Berjawi and Sakr. She connected him with a diplomatic security officer named Michael Fogarty. When they later met at the embassy, Fogarty asked Naji if he would â€œconsider speaking to some law enforcement.â€ Then he brought in a heavyset, blondish man he introduced as Jeffrey Roberts, the embassyâ€™s deputy regional security officer. Roberts, in turn, ducked out and came back with two FBI agents. The shorter, dark-haired one introduced himself as Mike Jones. (This is a pseudonym. The FBI told Mother Jones that, because of the agentâ€™s role in the â€œrecruitment of sourcesâ€ overseas for counterterrorism work, revealing his identity would put him at risk.)
Naji recounted the story of how Berjawi and Sakr had come to stay with him, but the agents asked few questions about them. Instead, Jones grilled Naji about Kimathi, his acquaintance from the Muslim Human Rights Forum, and inquired about one of Nasreenâ€™s distant cousins, a man named Omar Awadh Omar. (Omar is currently beingprosecuted  in Uganda for helping orchestrate the 2010 bombings in Kampala that targeted soccer fans watching the World Cup finals.) Jones asked Naji whether he had ever brought â€œguns, money, or people for violenceâ€ to Somalia or other countries. Naji said no. After about an hour, the conversation wrapped up; Naji agreed to sit down with Roberts again later that week.
Roberts showed up to their next meeting â€œin his shades, looking like Top Gun,â€ Naji recalled. And he had a proposition. â€œHe said, â€˜We want you to work with us. You have what it takes. Youâ€™re the perfect candidate.â€™ I asked him, â€˜What exactly are you talking about?â€™ It was very surreal. This is the shit you see in movies. I was laughing.â€
But Roberts wasnâ€™t joking. â€œHe said, â€˜We can give you rewards for information, or we can put you on full time. But that would require a continuous flow of information.â€™â€ Naji understood that his houseguests had placed him under a â€œcloud of suspicion,â€ he later told me. But Roberts didnâ€™t seem interested in that anymore. â€œMostly, it was â€˜We need your help,â€™â€ Naji said.
Itâ€™s not hard to see why the US government would view Naji as an ideal informant. He is religious, conservative, and speaks English and Arabic. Heâ€™s calm under pressure. He had crisscrossed the globe as a volunteer escort for refugees being resettled through the International Organization for Migration. When he traveled, he went to mosques and counted on the hospitality of strangers to find a bed for the night, and through this he had made connections with dozens of other religious Muslim men around the world.
This is precisely the kind of community that the FBI is trying to track and infiltrate. The bureauâ€™s network of paid informants has expanded rapidly  since 9/11, and now includes more than 15,000 , rivaling the scale of the J. Edgar Hoover era. A guy like Najiâ€”an expatriate working in countries where terrorists operateâ€”would be a real catch.
But to someone not facing criminal charges, the FBI doesnâ€™t have much to offer by way of enticement. â€œThe problem for many American Muslims who have been approached by the FBI to become informants is that they arenâ€™t involved in criminal conspiracies and donâ€™t have relationships with criminals,â€ says Mike German, an ex-FBI agent who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. â€œInstead, they are being asked to spy broadly against their religious community. That creates a conundrum because the person may be perfectly willing to help the FBI fight terrorism but simply has no information to provide.â€
Naji told Roberts he was planning to move to Juba, where his mother had taken a job with a company called Management Systems International that did work for USAID. He hoped to launch a business there selling rugged laptops. â€œWe could use you there, too,â€ Roberts said.
â€œNo, man,â€ Naji replied. Spying was â€œnot something I want to play around with,â€ especially in a country like Sudan. â€œThis is Africa. Thereâ€™s no law for me here.â€
Six weeks after the raid, the Mansour family headed to the Nairobi airport to fly to Uganda for a visit with Najiâ€™s ex-wife and their children. When Naji handed his passport to a security officer, she glanced at her computer screen, stared at him, and asked, â€œWhat did you do?â€ Kenyan security officers detained the family for several hours, releasing them just before their flight took off.
When the family returned five days later, Kenyan airport police questioned Naji again. â€œThe deputy immigration officer said, â€˜We have nothing wrong with you, but we have a directive not to let you in,â€™â€ Naji recalled. Soon, Fogarty and Jones showed up at the airport. The FBI agent reiterated the US governmentâ€™s desire that Naji become an informant. Naji once again declined.
He spent three nights at the airport, and when it became clear that he would not be allowed to enter Kenya, Nasreen brought him some clothes and his laptop samples and said goodbye. Then Naji boarded a plane to go stay with his mother in Juba. There, he buried himself in building his laptop business. â€œWe kept thinking things were going to blow over,â€ Sandra said.
In late June 2009, Sandra took a business trip to Kenya, and stopped by the US Embassy to get more pages added to her passport, for all the visas needed for her international travels. She was told there was a â€œhitâ€ on her passport that needed to be cleared in Washington. A few days later, she was informed her passport would be released if sheâ€™d meet with the FBI first. So on Monday, June 29, Sandra sat down with FBI agent Mike Jones. â€œHe asked, â€˜Whereâ€™s Naji now?â€™â€ she recalled. â€œI said, â€˜Heâ€™s with me in Juba.â€™â€
The next morning, June 30, Naji and Nasreenâ€”who had come to visit her husband in Juba while Sandra was in Nairobi looking after their childrenâ€”were about to go out for breakfast when they noticed a man peering through the window. Naji opened the door to find two men in suits, sweating in the heat, with guns on their hips. â€œOne of them looked like African James Bond,â€ Naji told me. â€œAnd I say, â€˜Yes, hello?â€™ And theyâ€™re like, â€˜Naji Mansour?â€™ and Iâ€™m like, â€˜Yes.â€™ And they just came in.â€ The agents of the South Sudan Security Bureau asked Naji to bring Nasreen out, and then they took the coupleâ€™s phones and laptops and hustled them into separate unmarked cars.
When I asked the FBI about why Naji and Nasreen were arrested a day after Sandra told Jones of Najiâ€™s whereabouts, a spokeswoman told me in an email that the timing â€œis, in fact coincidence.â€ But there are indications that it may not have been. â€œSandra, Iâ€™m not supposed to be telling you this, but this is coming from your people,â€ Sandra says a top Sudanese official told her. A former US diplomat who was stationed in Juba at the time told me that US officials there spoke openly of Najiâ€™s detainment and said he would be freed if he cooperated with the FBI.
The agents took Naji and Nasreen to the National Intelligence building, where Naji was placed in a basement cell; later, he heard Nasreen sobbing. One of the guards was trying to remove her headscarfâ€”most South Sudanese are not Muslimâ€”but she prevailed. Then the lights went out. Nasreen was still whimpering in a cell down the hall.
In the days that followed, the couple was questioned about their intentions in the country, whether they had ties to terrorism, and the contents of Najiâ€™s laptops. One of them contained materials similar to those that had raised eyebrows in Kenya. Nasreen was finally freed after eight days and put on a flight back to Nairobi. No charges were ever filed, nor was she given any reason for her detention.
The weekend after Nasreenâ€™s release, guards escorted Naji into an interrogation room. Soon, a blond State Department official entered.
â€œDo you remember Mike Jonesâ€”you met him in Nairobi?â€ she asked.
â€œYeah,â€ Naji replied.
â€œWould you be willing to see him?â€ the diplomat inquired. That was fine by him, Naji said, and to his surprise Jones and another FBI agent, Peter Smith (whose real name also has been withheld at the FBIâ€™s request), strolled in moments later. Smith said he believed that Naji had done nothing wrong and wasnâ€™t involved with terrorism, but told him that the FBI needed Naji to tell them something useful so they could advocate on his behalf with the Sudanese. â€œQuid pro quo, Naji. Quid pro quo,â€ Jones chimed in.
â€œEvery time I try to cooperate with the FBI, I get deeper into shit. Iâ€™m a citizen. Theyâ€™re supposed to have my back, and itâ€™s the exact opposite.â€
Naji racked his brain. Then he remembered that Muhammad, the guy who had arranged for Berjawi and Sakr to stay with him, had once called his office phone in Dubaiâ€”a number that very few people called. Perhaps the FBI could pull the phone records and locate Muhammad. But Jones was not interested in Muhammad. He wanted to know about Omar, Nasreenâ€™s distant cousinâ€”the one whoâ€™d later be charged in the Uganda World Cup bombings. Naji said he didnâ€™t think Omar was the â€œtypeâ€ to join Al Qaeda, but Jones didnâ€™t seem to buy it. â€œAll right, Naji, good luck,â€ the FBI agent said. â€œI hope everything works out for you, buddy.â€
Then, 37 days after heâ€™d been arrested and three weeks after his conversation with the FBI, Naji was brought upstairs again. A Sudanese officer told him he was free to go, so long as he stayed in the country for the next 30 days and didnâ€™t talk to the media.
After his release, the director of South Sudanâ€™s Security Bureau penned a memo  to the local minister of internal affairs briefing him on Najiâ€™s case. â€œThe accused has been very much willing to know in-depth about Terrorism and Islamic Jihad,â€ he wrote in the document, which was obtained by Mother Jones. â€œThus, Mr. Naji is believed to have much interest in Terrorism activities, in fundamentalism and Islamic teachings. Whether that could lead to joining such activities or help in one way or another he will just remain a suspect that would require trailing.â€
A month later, Naji moved to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where his late fatherâ€™s family had lived. Nasreen and their children later joined him there. He began to think his problems were over. Then, in October 2009, Jones got in touch. â€œI am heading back to Africa in the near future,â€ he wrote in an email. â€œIâ€™d be willing to stop by area, or Khartoum, and meet if you have the time.â€ Naji replied that he wanted to talk on the phone before committing. He planned to tape their conversation.
When Jones called a month later, Naji turned on his phoneâ€™s recording app and told the agent that he believed US officials had ordered his detention.
â€œWe had 100 percent nothing to do with that,â€ Jones responded , according to a copy of the recording that Naji gave me. â€œIt runs counter to everything that we do and that we stand for.â€
â€œI just want normalcy for my family,â€ Naji said. â€œâ€™Cause I think they deserve it. â€˜Cause itâ€™s been a screwed-up year, let me tell you.â€ Jones pressed for a meeting, and they agreed to talk again the next morning.
Naji recorded their subsequent conversation, too. This time Peter Smith was on the line with Jones, and the collegial tone of their previous interactions was gone. The agents again asked for a meeting, but Naji declined. Ever since he had first told his story to US officials, he said, his life had been thrown into chaos. â€œThereâ€™s scrutiny on your mom,â€ Jones finally said . â€œ…Thatâ€™s not going to go away unless we sit down and get down to business.â€
Smith jumped in, telling Naji that if he refused, â€œa series of events is going to be put into motion. And once you put it into motion, honestly I, Iâ€™m out of it. I honestly do not care. Iâ€™m going home, you know, I got a vacation to plan. My life goes on. Yours might change. And itâ€™s not going to, it might not be necessarily to your liking.â€ He added : â€œIâ€™m telling you, you might get hit by a carâ€”that is not a threat. That is a solid piece of advice. But you donâ€™t want to take it.â€
(The FBI refused to comment on the bureauâ€™s attempt to recruit Naji as an informant, nor would it comment on his taped conversations with Jones and Smith or whether any misconduct on their part had occurred.)
Four days later, on November 17, a State Department security officer visited the offices of Management Systems International in Juba. Sandra was fired the same dayâ€”less than a week after the company had renewed her contract for another year. She was told her position had been eliminated, but MSI posted the same job a month later. Stefanie Frease, one of Sandraâ€™s supervisors, told me the dismissal came at the behest of the US government.
â€œWe all thought she was blackballed,â€ said Inez Andrews, a former foreign-service officer working in the US compound in Juba at the time. â€œItâ€™s awful she hasnâ€™t been able to clear this up, that sheâ€™s being held hostage to a system that was trying to extract information.â€
In a statement, USAID maintained that â€œdecisions regarding the termination of employees…are ultimately made and executed by contractors themselves.â€ And an FBI spokeswoman said the bureau â€œmade no recommendations in regards to Sandra Mansourâ€™s employment status.â€
But Sandraâ€™s ordeal wasnâ€™t over. When she tried to return to her home in Nairobi in 2011, she was blocked from entering the country, just as Naji had been. An immigration official told her, she recalled, â€œIf the Americans donâ€™t want you here, you ainâ€™t coming in.â€ She was finally allowed entry to Kenya last December, when American nationals were evacuated there after South Sudan descended into violence.
Other members of Najiâ€™s family have been targeted, too. In 2011, Najiâ€™s sister, Tahani, was detained at the Nairobi airport for three days. â€œIâ€™ve heard, â€˜Itâ€™s your peopleâ€™â€â€”that the US is behind her familyâ€™s troubles with customs officialsâ€”â€more times than I can count,â€ she told me. â€œI go to airports now and thereâ€™s this constant sense of trepidation. Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna get locked up again?â€
â€œAs a family we have always been mobile and traveling our whole lives, and as a result completely took it for granted,â€ she told me. â€œThe removal of the liberty to travel was crippling.â€
One of Najiâ€™s brothers says he is frequently questioned about Naji when he crosses an international border. The other, a Marine veteran based in Virginia, was visited by members of the Navyâ€™s criminal investigative service, who grilled him about Naji. The FBI even interviewed Najiâ€™s uncle and aging grandmother in Rhode Island in 2009.
â€œThey didnâ€™t get to me, so they had to target my family,â€ says Naji.
On September 21, 2013, members of al-Shabaab, armed with assault rifles and grenades, stormed the Westgate , the upscale mall that Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Gamal Sakr had allegedly plotted to bomb four years earlier. Over the next three days, at least 72 people (including the attackers) were killed and the mall was almost entirely destroyed.
I had just left Nairobiâ€”where I had visited Tahani at the Mansour familyâ€™s home, just a few miles from the mallâ€”the day before. As the news broke, I was sipping white tea with Naji in the lobby of the Acropole Hotel, a Khartoum landmark with a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe and a cartoonishly large safe in its office. The hotelâ€™s prime clientele are foreign archaeologists (Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt); itâ€™s also a popular haunt for journalists, as the bumper stickersâ€”CNN, BBC, CBCâ€”on the lobby window attest.
Naji was skinny and 5-foot-7. He had close-cropped black hair with a sprinkling of gray, stylish glasses, and a mustacheless beard that he absentmindedly stroked when he grew sad or worried. He spoke quietly and slowly, telling me about his passion for organic food and his interest in â€œopen-source ecology,â€ in which people build their own tractors and plows from plans available on the internet.
Sudan, Naji told me, had become his prison. He felt trapped and helpless. He was no longer welcome in Kenya, and he feared what might happen if he set foot outside Sudan, believing he might be detainedâ€”and possibly torturedâ€”at the behest of the US government. The experience â€œmade me scared of traveling,â€ Naji said. â€œWhat happens if I go to a US-friendly country or pass through a US-friendly country?â€
The older two of his and Nasreenâ€™s four children now live with his mother-in-law in Nairobi (it has better schools than Khartoum), where he cannot visit them. He hasnâ€™t seen his son and daughter from his first marriage in three years. And Najiâ€™s lifelong ambitionâ€”to travel the world with his kids, â€œdoing all the stuff with my children that my father did with meâ€â€”is blocked by fear.
Over and over during my time in Khartoum, Naji assured me that he had no ties to terrorism. I asked him about the terrorism-related files that had been found on his computer and what had kept him from following his interest in jihad down a path toward violence, as has been the case with some other conservative Muslims who have immersed themselves in extremist dogma online. â€œKnowledgeâ€ of Islam, he replied, explaining that he has had a long-standing â€œintellectualâ€ interest in jihad and political Islam. I pressed Naji on whether he thought killing civilians was justified in certain situations. â€œWhat happened at Westgate is forbidden,â€ he told me. â€œAm I a sleeper cell? I like to sleep a lot!â€
In fact, it was a notorious act of terrorism that first prompted Najiâ€™s curiosity about jihadâ€”Al Qaedaâ€™s 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi. Among the 213 people killed in the blast was his sisterâ€™s best friend, Jay Bartley, who liked to shoot hoops with Naji and his brothers. Bartleyâ€™s father, Julian, the consul general, was also killed in the attack.
â€œThe following days were a haze,â€ Tahani told me. â€œI donâ€™t think I ate anything other than coffee for three days. I burned a huge chunk of my hair off with the hair dryer just in a daze.â€ Naji, then 22, saw his sisterâ€™s despair. Yet when he went to the mosque, some of the men there spoke of the attack as a legitimate act of jihad, Naji remembered. â€œI honestly had no idea what to think,â€ he said. â€œI became very curious about how something like that could be justified under Islam.â€
When Naji moved to London in 1999, he fell in with a group of conservative Pakistani men. Once drawn to secular pan-Africanism, he became more devout and enthusiastic about Islam as a political solution to the worldâ€™s problems. â€œI started learning that Islamic systems were behind some of the greatest empires,â€ he said. He educated himself about the structure of an Islamic stateâ€”how banking and finance would be conducted, how the poor would be cared for. â€œâ€™Oh wow,â€™ I thought, â€˜something other than democratic socialism and capitalismâ€™â€”it was very appealing to me, liberating.â€ Tahani didnâ€™t view her brotherâ€™s increasing interest in political Islam and jihad as unusual, even in light of what had happened to the Bartleys. â€œHe was totally open about it,â€ she told me. Jihad â€œwas just the next topicâ€ for Naji. â€œHe really takes it upon himself to properly look into things through multiple sources.â€ She told me her brother had once been fascinated by Sufism, Islamâ€™s more mystical branch. â€œNajiâ€™s approach to the whole jihad thing was similar to that. There was an enigma about it and he wanted to be informed. Thatâ€™s what he doesâ€”he teaches himself.â€
As we watched Kenyan police and military units respond to the mall attack, Naji called his mother-in-law, who works in a hair salon near the Westgate. She told him that her building had been evacuated and she had fallen running away, but she and the kids were fine. Then he rolled his prayer mat out on the hotel balcony and prayed. Later we took an ancient minibus to Omdurman, Khartoumâ€™s sister city across the Nile, and sat on the sagging couches in Najiâ€™s apartment and talked until the muezzin sang the sunrise call to prayer from the minaret across the street.
â€œEven if I was guilty, thereâ€™s a process,â€ he told me.
Though he spent much of his life abroad, Naji had never doubted his rights as an American citizen. But the experience with the FBI had made him deeply distrustful of his government. â€œEvery time I try to cooperate with the FBI, I get deeper into shit. Iâ€™m a citizen. Theyâ€™re supposed to have my back, and itâ€™s the exact opposite. You shouldnâ€™t expect this from the beacon of democracy.â€
On my last day in Khartoum, Naji and Sandra picked me up at the Acropole. We drove for 30 minutes to the outskirts of the city, where the US Embassy complex sits on a desolate road near a turn in the Blue Nile. Naji needed to renew his passport. He was nervousâ€”he had told Nasreen that if he didnâ€™t return within two hours, she should notify the press and local authorities. A security officer took our phones, and then we followed a covered walkway that cut across the bright green lawn.
We stepped into a scene that would not have been out of place in a municipal building in Dayton, Ohio. It was just before 8:15 a.m. and a television mounted on the wall was tuned to the Armed Forces Network, which was showing The Doctors. Five numbered windows lined the wall. A table was covered with old magazines, and official portraits of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and John Kerry peered down from the wall. Soon, a disembodied voice asked Naji to report to window one. He handed in his form and his passport. As we waited, 10 or 12 other people renewing passports came and went. Finally, after about an hour, a voice announced over a loudspeaker, â€œExcuse me, Mr. Mansour? Can you go to window number six?â€ There was no window, only a soundproof door, marked â€œINTERVIEW ROOM.â€
Inside, a window looked through to another room, but its shades were drawn. After a few minutes, the shades rose and two State Department officials were on the other side: Chris McVay, an assistant regional security officer at the embassy, and a woman who introduced herself as Amelia Sanders, the second secretary for regional, political, and economic affairs. They didnâ€™t mention any of Najiâ€™s previous troubles, although they brought up his time in Juba and travels throughout Africa. The diplomats said they were interested in hearing Najiâ€™s thoughts about the countries he had visited. Before they let him go to collect his passport, Sanders asked if perhaps they could meet again sometime soon.
This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.