WASHINGTON – Abdullah al-Kidd approached the Dulles International Airport ticket counter in March 2003 expecting to catch a flight to Saudi Arabia to study Arabic and Islamic law.
Instead, federal agents slapped handcuffs on the Kansas-born former University of Idaho running back.
He spent the next 16 days in three jails without criminal charges on a warrant as a potential witness in a terrorism-related case. He was shackled, strip-searched and confined in a cell.
The government’s case eventually fell apart, but not before the husband and father had lost his family and livelihood.
More than a decade later, the U.S. government has presented Kidd with something rarely seen in the U.S. war against terrorism: an apology.
“The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your life that may have resulted from your arrest and detention,” Wendy Olson, the U.S. attorney in Idaho, wrote Kidd on Jan. 15.
Kidd was given $415,000 to settle 10 years of litigation and compensate him for what he described as his “16 terrifying days” caught up in the backlash against Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The apology was seen as a somewhat begrudging one.
“As part of the United States’ settlement with you,” the government’s letter states, “please accept this letter as official confirmation that you were arrested in 2003 solely because you were considered a material witness in an upcoming criminal trial of another individual, and not because you were suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.”
In an interview, Olson referred to the letter as more of an “acknowledgment” than an apology. “We acknowledged there was a hardship,” Olson said. “We maintain also that there was no wrongdoing on the government’s part.”
Kidd, who was born Lavoni T. Kidd to a Christian family in Wichita, moved to Saudi Arabia seven years ago to get away from what he called the post-9/11 “culture” in the U.S.
Kidd’s father, a retired California corrections officer, said the ordeal changed his son, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah while in college in the mid-1990s.
“He was really kind of wound pretty tight,” Cecil Kidd, of San Bernardino, Calif., said about his son’s behavior after the arrest. “He was paranoid. Always thought someone was following him, and probably they were. He was jumpy at noises, always looking out windows. He was just out there all alone, and he was really afraid.”
In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 200 Muslim Americans and immigrants were arrested for alleged ties to terrorism or visa fraud. Separately, 70 others, such as Kidd, were detained on material witness warrants.
The week after Kidd’s arrest, then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, while publicly boasting about the bureau’s “successes” in dismantling terrorist networks, singled out the arrests of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Kidd, who Mueller said had been nabbed “en route to Saudi Arabia.”
Kidd was arrested to testify against Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a Saudi immigrant in Idaho. Hussayen allegedly was associated with financial transactions and websites linked to “radical Islamic ideologues who advocated terrorism,” according to government documents.
Kidd was never called to testify in Hussayen’s June 2004 trial on charges of visa fraud and other offenses. Hussayen was acquitted and later deported.
But for more than a year as he waited to testify, Kidd had to surrender his passport, limit his travel to four states, allow regular home searches and report monthly to probation officers in Nevada and Idaho.
A life disrupted
Those terms, he said, cost him his marriage. His father said Kidd sometimes yelled at his wife, and other times would break down crying.
Kidd said of his marriage: “It put a lot of stress between us, a lot of constraints on us. It led eventually to our demise. … Once a month they came in and searched the home. It was just a really toxic environment.”
He also said the ordeal cost him a civilian job he briefly held at the Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada. He lost the position after news of his arrest surfaced. A college graduate, he found himself driving a cab at one point.
After the Hussayen trial, Kidd sued the government, including such top officials as Mueller and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Kidd’s lawyers challenged the government’s post-Sept. 11 policy of using the federal material witness statute to detain suspects.
“There was overreach by the government, and more judicial oversight would have been beneficial,” said Kidd’s lawyer, Lee Gelernt, of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Most of these arrests occurred largely in secret and without real public or media oversight.”
Kidd said he was driven by a desire to clear his name. “People were saying I must be a terrorist. That really hurt. I knew I was far from that.”
Today, Kidd said he is trying to move on. He has kept his American citizenship, but has found peace in a new home, with a new wife and family, where he can openly embrace Islam.
“Piece by piece,” he said, “I’m putting my life back together.”