The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi)
September 29, 2009 Tuesday
U.S. attorney targeted N. Miss. store owners
BYLINE: Jerry Mitchell
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 759 words
The U.S. attorney’s office in Oxford targeted convenience store operators in north Mississippi, many of Middle Eastern descent, despite a lack of any connection to terrorism, according to documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.
The Convenience Store Initiative arose from meetings with local law enforcement officers in the years following 9-11 – when Middle Eastern terrorists flew hijacked planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center Twin Towers.
U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee of Oxford said the government was “looking to see any links to terrorism, but what we found was criminal conduct.”
Instead of arrests for alleged terrorist plots, state and federal officials since 2006 have charged more than 60 people in Mississippi with such illegal acts as the sale of excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine – used to make meth.
Those who ran the Convenience Store Initiative say the FBI found nothing wrong with the initiative, which arose from tips from local law enforcement. In fact, they say the Justice Department in the Bush administration praised the concept.
Those involved in the initiative say the money from the illegal activity was being sent back overseas, where it couldn’t be traced and possibly could have gone to funding terrorism. But they acknowledged the money could have gone to relatives instead.
Greenlee denied the suggestion those of Middle Eastern descent were targeted. “Did we look at it from an improper purpose? No,” he said.
But Matt Steffey, professor at Mississippi College School of Law, said there are “serious constitutional and statutory issues raised by targeting people on the basis of national origin or race. … If race simply coincided with the investigation, that’s something else. But if they were targeted because of national origin, that’s unlawful and a very serious racial profiling case that would be disturbing to a lot of people.”
Of the more than 100 people listed as being investigated by federal authorities, nearly every name appears to be Islamic. FBI officials would not comment.
More than 65 have been arrested by federal authorities, the state Bureau of Narcotics and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
Marshall Fisher, director of the bureau, acknowledged most were from the Middle East, Yemen, India or the like, but said authorities are not targeting any ethnic group.
“We target drug dealers,” he said. “We don’t care if they’re green Martians.”
He said the MBN’s portion of the investigation arose in 2006 after developing information that some convenience stores were illegally selling pseudoephedrine in bulk. That crackdown is continuing, he said.
Authorities identified one of those arrested, Hamzah Ali Ahmed, as the “godfather.”
A relative of Ahmed, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said the nickname was not a reference to criminal activity but was given by the beer distributor, who noted Ahmed’s large progeny.
She said Ahmed did not realize there was a limit on the sale of pseudoephedrine.
Fisher disputed that, saying the crackdown sought to weed out any stores that accidentally allowed extra sales of the over-the-counter cold medicine, unaware of the law.
Asked how they determined operators knew they were breaking the law, Fisher replied they relied on undercover officers or informants to talk about purchasing more than a minimum amount – 9 grams over a 30-day period.
“We would target them and go and see if undercover informants could buy,” he said.
Overall, they tried to make buys in 279 stores, but operators at only eight stores went along with the illegal bulk sales, he said.
The rise in these kinds of sales are connected to “a definite spike in meth labs,” some of which now fit into the back of pickups, he said.
Bill Chandler, president of Mississippi Immigrants Rights Association, said he’s seen discrimination in the wake of 9-11 and the Iranian hostage crisis. “I think it’s outrageous that Muslims were apparently targeted without any kind of reason except that they were Muslims,” he said.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, said when terrorists struck New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, “It was like somebody jerked the earth out from under everybody’s feet. All the rules on how to act went out the window. A lot of things were done in the name of 9-11, and now we think, ‘What were you thinking?’ “
When the rules of the norm are tossed, he said, “All of a sudden you don’t know what the rules are, and some people do crazy things.”