21 Shots … and the Pursuit of Justice: An Imam Dies in Michigan

March 18, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Hamdan Azhar

luqman coroner

DETROIT — It is a cold Sunday afternoon in February and asr prayer is being held at Masjid Al-Haqq. Children run outside, playing in the snow, rambunctious and full of life while their mothers serve the last of the stragglers who have come for a hot meal at the weekly soup kitchen. The neighborhood is typical Detroit, replete with boarded-up houses, the streets quiet and vacant – save for an unassuming two-story red brick house at the corner of Clairmount and Holmur.

Inside the makeshift mosque, a dozen middle-aged African-American men have gathered. As the prayer concludes, a voice calls out, “Read a hadith, that’s what the Imam used to do.” The prayer leader dutifully opens a book of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and starts reading.” (s) There will come forth a people on the Day of Judgment, their faces shining like the sun.” He pauses for effect. “The poor, the immigrants, the disheveled ones.”

The man’s words resonate with the audience. They begin to look at one another, as if by taking in their appearance they are acknowledging the precarious state of their community. And slowly they begin to nod. “That could be any one of us,” says one man. He thinks for a moment, before adding, “That could be all of us.”
Four months have passed since the death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah. But among his community, his legacy lives on. The soup kitchen he initiated continues to serve the homeless and hungry by the dozens on a weekly basis. Among his followers, there is an odd sense of acceptance.

“Even after this tragedy,” says Abdul-Aleem, 55, “our doors are open to all.” “We know that Allah is in control and justice will prevail.” There is an uncertain gleam in his eye, and he quickly turns away as I meet his gaze – for justice has too often been an elusive concept in this part of the hood.

The Homicide

The passage of time has seen an evolution in the narrative of what happened in that Dearborn warehouse in which Luqman Abdullah met his end. Initially, the US Attorney’s office claimed that there had been an “exchange of gun fire” after Mr. Abdullah fired an initial shot – the term “exchange” presupposing that both sides were engaged in shooting.

Yet the Associated Press quoted an FBI spokesperson as saying that the Imam “fired a weapon and was killed by gunfire from agents” – which indicates that Mr. Abdullah fired only one shot. Seizing on the confusion, the media offered widely divergent portrayals of the incident, the majority describing it as a “gun battle” or a “shootout”, with a minority left wondering if he might have been gunned down in cold blood.

In addition to the shooting angle, there was another twist – the dog. The FBI was quick to announce a memorial service for Freddy, the Belgian Malinois who “lost his life in the line of duty,” the day after the incident. While according to the FBI, Freddy “gave his life for his team,” the US Attorney’s press release is more cautious in noting that “an FBI canine was also killed during the exchange.”

The common perception – although never officially confirmed – was that Mr. Abdullah fired at the dog thereby prompting agents to return fire at him. Sympathetic observers asked if the life of a dog was equal to the life of a human being. Further complicating public perception was the fact that the dog was airlifted to a hospital for emergency medical care while Mr. Abdullah’s handcuffed corpse was transported by ambulance to the coroner’s office.

Today there remain more questions than answers in the death of Luqman Abdullah. The autopsy report, kept under seal for three months at the request of the Dearborn Police Department, was finally released on Feb. 1. The report documents that Mr. Abdullah was shot 21 times, including multiple times in the genitals and at least once in the back. Numerous abrasions and lacerations were also found on his face, hands, and arms; his jaw was found to be fractured.

The discovery of Mr. Abdullah’s additional injuries has sparked a new wave of criticism. In a recent interview, Omar Regan, a son of Mr. Abdullah, became emotional as he decried how his father has been inhumanely “mauled” by the dog. The Michigan Citizen quotes Wayne County Chief Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt as conceding that the injuries could have come from dog bites but he refuses to offer a conclusive determination.

Independent forensic pathologists whom we contacted were unable to comment on the matter without seeing pictures. Incidentally, Mr. Abdullah’s family as well as watchdog organizations have encountered numerous obstacles in obtaining the release of the autopsy photographs – a bureaucratic struggle which is ongoing at the moment.

Prior to the release of the autopsy, it had been assumed that Mr. Abdullah shot the dog as it was on its way to attack him. If, however, one accepts the premise that the dog actually attacked Mr. Abdullah, would that not imply that he had been successfully subdued? Did he then shoot the dog at point-blank range while being attacked? Did the FBI agents shoot him 21 times – not while he was pointing a gun at them – but while he was wrestling with the dog?

Some have even questioned if Mr. Abdullah was the one who shot the dog. Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality told the local NBC affiliate that the FBI’s irresponsible conduct was to blame for the death of the dog. Huel Perkins, news anchor at Fox 2 Detroit, went one step further. “With so many bullets flying,” he wondered, “they could have been ricocheting and FBI bullets might have killed that dog.”

The Investigation

(Masjid Al-Haqq, 4019 Clairmount Street, Detroit, MI)

Masjid Haqq-Detroit Immediately after the killing, the FBI dispatched a Shooting Incident Review Team to conduct an internal investigation into the incident (as is standard whenever agents are involved in a shooting.) Meanwhile, the Dearborn Police Department launched a criminal investigation into the homicide. Chief Ronald Haddad recently told the Dearborn Press and Guide that his office would submit a final report to the Michigan Attorney General within weeks.

Demands for an independent investigation had been growing since November, having been echoed by Detroit Mayor David Bing, the Detroit Free Press, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In January, Congressman John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, lent his support to the effort calling on the Justice Department to conduct a “rigorous” and “transparent” investigation.

In addition, he asked the Civil Rights Division to review the use of confidential informants in houses of worship – a practice that played a critical role in the FBI’s investigation of Mr. Abdullah. A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee said that, as of two weeks ago, no response had been received to the request. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights division has announced plans to conduct their own investigation into the shooting.

When the story first broke in late October, it was presented in the context of religiously motivated terrorism. As we have previously discussed, the bulk of the 45-page affidavit issued on Oct. 28 consists of a “background” section that implicates Mr. Abdullah and ten other defendants in a sensational plot to violently overthrow the government.

However, the actual crimes alleged are more commonplace: possession of firearms and body armor by a convicted felon, providing firearms to a convicted felon, tampering with motor vehicle identification numbers, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and conspiracy to sell or receive stolen goods. When we met last November, Omar Regan expressed frustration with the media’s coverage. “They just want to say Muslims are terrorists,” he said.

Indeed, many have used the tenuous “Islamic terrorism” connection to attack the character of the late Mr. Abdullah, with some going so far as to implicate aspects of the Islamic faith by extension. The FBI affidavit set the stage for such behavior by referring to a “nationwide radical fundamentalist Sunni group” and by going to great lengths to emphasize Mr. Abdullah’s religious beliefs. On Nov. 18, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies -a controversial neoconservative think-tank – published an article comparing Mr. Abdullah’s followers to global “jihadi movements.” Other right-wing ideologues with dubious credentials have also used the case as evidence of the threat of “homegrown terrorism.”

The grand jury indictment (included below) issued on Nov. 10 presents a striking contrast with the earlier criminal complaint. The complaint is what the FBI presented to a federal magistrate judge; after a finding of probable cause, arrest warrants were then issued. The indictment is what the grand jury, upon weighing the evidence, actually accuses the defendants of, and what they will be tried for in court. The 11-page document makes no mention of Islam, or religion in general, nor does it discuss terrorism or hint at anything remotely violent, save for possession of firearms. Needless to say, Luqman Abdullah has been dropped from the list of defendants.

The indictment provides further evidence of the banal and artificial nature of the investigation. The “stolen goods” the defendants are alleged to have conspired to sell or receive consist of fur coats, laptops, iPhones, Burberry purses, and 40” LCD televisions. The payments involved range in value from $300 to $1000. A plain reading of the document suggests that an FBI operative (an agent or a confidential informant) gave the defendants money that they then used to purchase goods (that they believed to be stolen) from another FBI operative which they then stored in an FBI-operated warehouse. On Oct. 28, as per the indictment, the defendants arrived at the FBI warehouse to take possession of FBI owned goods that the FBI had paid them to purchase, at which point the warehouse was raided by the FBI and they were arrested. One of them, Imam Luqman Abdullah, was killed.

Two days after the killing, Andrew Arena, special agent in charge of the Detroit division of the FBI, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the agents “did what they had to do to protect themselves.” In those early days, the headlines in the news were “Radical Islam leader killed” and “Feds stand behind deadly Michigan raid.”

By February of this year, however, the headlines had changed to “Autopsy Shows Michigan Imam Shot 21 Times” and “Conyers Demands Rigorous Investigation of Imam Shooting.” The favorable turn in media coverage provides little consolation for Mr. Abdullah’s family, however. “The media is interested in hype,” complains Mr. Regan. “They’re using this to sell papers and for TV ratings.”

The growing mainstream consensus demanding an independent investigation has clearly been an unexpected and significant development in the case. Whereas once there were only a handful of voices willing to question the FBI’s account, a veritable group has assembled to demand transparency and accountability – including the House Judiciary Committee, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, the Detroit Free Press, the Mayor of Detroit, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

When we met in November, Mr. Regan exclaimed at one point during our interview, “A man’s been killed, and he hasn’t been charged with a crime.” That statement stuck with me for many months. It conveys a certain raw emotion, eliciting an impassioned but entirely rational response of outrage at a fundamental injustice that seems to have been done. Luqman Abdullah is no longer here to defend himself against the charges that have been thrown at him by the government and the media – he never got his day in court. Is that not a miscarriage of justice?

Having some doubts about the legal and factual accuracy of the latter part of Mr. Regan’s statement, I contacted experts for clarification. Many were doubtful of the extent to which the question even mattered – whether or not Mr. Abdullah had in fact been charged with a crime when he was killed.

Constitutional scholar and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh argued that the relevant question instead was whether the killing was justified given the exigencies of that situation. The killing of an innocent man by the police might be justified in self-defense. On the other hand, even if someone had been indicted, the use of deadly force absent proper justification would be inappropriate.

The question thus returns to the actual homicide (the term the medical examiner has used to describe the manner of death in the autopsy.) Were the FBI agents acting in fear for their lives? Or was the use of deadly force excessive given the threat they faced? A conclusive determination is impossible without all of the facts – facts that one hopes the investigation will uncover. Given the information that has been released thus far and the manner in which it has been received however, it would seem that the weight of public perception is against the FBI’s account.

In all likelihood, the warehouse in which the shooting occurred was controlled by the FBI, as the text of the indictment strongly implies (paragraph 22, “Overt Acts”). If Mr. Abdullah was in fact attacked by the dog, as the abnormal injuries to his body seem to indicate, how could he have posed an imminent threat to the FBI agents – sufficient to justify 21 gunshots? Why were more than half of the shots below the waist–including two in the groin and one in the back? Why was no effort made to provide emergency medical attention to Mr. Abdullah?

The attempts to convict Mr. Abdullah in the court of public opinion have largely been based – not on his conduct in his final moments – but on the government’s allegations of prior criminal behavior. The unspoken justification is not that he presented an imminent threat to the agents but that he was a dangerous person who needed to be “brought to justice.”

FBI Agent Andrew Arena, speaking with NBC affiliate WDIV-TV, concedes that “what transpired that day…was a tragic event.” He proceeds to affirm that they “wanted to make sure that no innocent people were harmed, that no agents were harmed, and no subjects were harmed.”

His choice of words, however, unwittingly speaks to his presuppositions. Rather than use the term “bystanders”, he instead declares that Mr. Abdullah was not an innocent person whose harm should be avoided, but rather a threat to be neutralized.

“A man is dead and he hasn’t been charged with a crime,” said Mr. Regan. A subtle but profound distinction must be made between “charged” and “convicted.” Even if Mr. Abdullah had been convicted of – intent to receive stolen goods among other crimes – a justification for his killing can only be derived from exigencies of that situation in the warehouse. After all, a class C felony carries a maximum sentence of twenty-five years in prison – not death.

But the fact remains that he wasn’t convicted – of that crime or any other crimes. Save for a felony assault conviction in 1981 – when he would have been 24 years old – by all available accounts, Luqman Abdullah had lived as a “good neighbor”, in the words of the lieutenant at the local police precinct. He was known for his devotion to social justice and serving the needs of the poor and needy community in which he lived. He earned his living as a cabdriver and led prayers at his local religious center. Far from the FBI’s portrayal of a violent thug, those who knew him point to his positive influence at eliminating crime and combating poverty in a neighborhood that government had all but forgotten.

The greatest injustice of Luqman Abdullah’s killing stems from the perception that in those final moments, it was a handful of FBI agents who acted as judge, jury, and executioner. Their actions determined that Mr. Abdullah would die as guilty, if for no other reason than his inability to furthermore proclaim his innocence. The vital public debate about government-sponsored espionage in religious institutions and the prevalence of entrapment as a law enforcement tool in poor and underprivileged communities will continue. But we have lost an invaluable informant whose perspective can only be guessed at and never apprehended in full.

The FBI complaint is the only documentation in the public record of the criminal activities that allegedly occurred at the direction of Luqman Abdullah over the past two years. It presents only one side of the story – a side that can no longer be challenged. Some media organizations have disturbingly accepted that one side as the definitive account, thereby corrupting the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” If the presumption of innocence applies up until the point of conviction, how much more applicable should it be if the accused had yet to be charged with a crime?

Among the legal scholars we contacted, a few were of the opinion that the criminal complaint presented to the magistrate judge was the functional equivalent of a charging document. They asserted that the question was really more of semantics than of law – what do we really mean when we say “charged with a crime”?
Others offered a more definite assessment. “He was not charged with a crime,” said Yale Professor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Stith. “So as not to mislead,” she continued, “I would say ‘He had not been formally charged with a crime, though a warrant had been issued for his arrest.’”

Professor Eve Brensike Primus of the University of Michigan offered a constitutional rationale for a strict interpretation of “formal charges.” “The Fifth Amendment,” she argued, “ensures that a federal charge for a felony offense will not be brought without granting the accused the protection of the review and acceptance of the charge by the grand jury.”

Harvard Professor Carol Steiker agreed. “An indictment is the required formal charging document in federal court for all non-petty crimes (felonies),” she said. “In such cases, it would be most accurate to say that an individual killed prior to indictment was killed before he was formally charged with a crime.”

The Community

Muslim kids Masjid Haqq (Fatima, 3, Sumayya, 10, and Juma, 8 on a Sunday afternoon in February at the weekly Masjid Al-Haqq soup kitchen)

Twenty-one shots. Left to die while an FBI dog was transported by helicopter for medical treatment. Portrayed as a radical Muslim, a violent black man, a threat to the community. Killed before he could be charged with a crime.

Is this the face of justice in America, I ask myself. Not my America, I retort, not the America of Ann Arbor, Michigan with its ivory towers, nor the America of Brooklyn, New York where I grew up, the child of Pakistani immigrants, benefiting from the best public schools, taught to keep an open mind, to ask questions, to always think critically.

I look around at the deserted streets and the abandoned houses, my senses overwhelmed by the crushing poverty of inner-city Detroit – and I realize that I am no longer in my America. I keep walking, comfortable by now in this neighborhood, no longer anxious about my car being broken into. The death of Luqman Abdullah has given me a reason to leave my comforts and visit another world, to talk to its residents and to listen to their stories.

I see a young man, slightly younger than me, waiting for the bus on Dexter Ave. I ask him what has by now become my routine query. Yes, he answers, he knew Imam Luqman. “He used to give out food if someone was hungry,” he tells me. But Khari, 20, shocks me when he says, “I hope they lock them up in jail.” “They shot him 21 times.” I walk away in awe wondering if this, perhaps, is what they call the optimism of youth.

I walk back to Masjid Al-Haqq, enter from the backdoor, and climb the narrow, aging stairway that leads to the men’s prayer room. The sweet smell of incense reaches me as I behold the sight of half a dozen children running around, their fathers relaxing and catching up on gossip. I spot Omar Regan and his brother Mujahid Carswell in the corner and I head in their direction. I am intercepted by a bold and charming 8-year old, Khalid, who wants a rematch in rock-paper- scissors (in which I had soundly defeated him earlier that afternoon). I pause for a quick game, letting him win, and walk away leaving him content with his victory.

I have not seen the brothers since November, and they are as impassioned as ever regarding their father’s death. “It was worse than we thought,” says Mr. Regan, referring to the autopsy. “Nobody deserves this.” They are frustrated by the government’s secrecy and failure to release relevant documentation. Where is the ballistics report, he asks. “Where is the proof that my father even fired a gun?” He wants to see the autopsy report of the dog and wonders why EMTs were not on scene during the take-down. “What if an officer had gotten hurt? Isn’t that standard procedure?” Many of these same questions are increasingly being asked by other parties as well, most notably by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers.

“People are rightly concerned when a religious leader becomes involved with an FBI informant and ends up dead in the street,” said Rep. Conyers in a press release. He went on to note that if the Department of Justice failed to investigate the incident in a “credible and transparent” manner, “it will be left to Congress to ensure that justice is done.” Such high-level involvement in a routine law enforcement operation indicates the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah is anything but routine – it might even be exceptional.

Mr. Carswell is satisfied with the amount of national attention the case has received, but he is not surprised. “They thought no one would care. But they underestimated how much people loved this black man. He was a servant of the people.” ‘They’ for Mr. Carswell is the FBI, and he is unrelenting in his criticism. “Nobody’s policing the FBI,” he complains. “Why did they call him armed and dangerous? Why did they call him a radical Sunni Muslim? If the charge is intent to receive stolen goods, why are you saying this?”

“It’s a control thing,” he asserts. “They’re bullies, they rule by fear.” He cites the FBI’s attempts to influence media coverage of the case. Indeed, the Feb. 9 article “Metro security breach leaves many on edge” bizarrely notes that “The FBI’s Detroit office refused to discuss the case with the Free Press on Monday, citing its unhappiness over a recent newspaper editorial.” (Numerous attempts to contact the FBI for comment were unsuccessful.) “People are afraid to ask questions, even the media is intimidated,” he says.

Despite the obstacles, Mr. Carswell depicts a reality in which even the FBI has been left isolated. “They’re the only ones telling that story,” he says. “His family, people in the streets, strangers, even the police – they have nothing but good to say of him. The only ones with a different story are the FBI. It don’t take no genius to figure out that somebody’s lying.” Mr. Carswell looks me in the eye – “How is everybody telling the same lie?”

For the family, much of the government’s case turns on the credibility of one informant, a topic on which the Detroit Free Press has reported extensively. Mr. Regan is skeptical. “Why is it his word against everyone else? Who is he? What are his credentials? What makes him reliable?” Mr. Regan even suggests that the informant might have “played” the FBI, selling them an exaggerated narrative of a dangerous conspiracy for his own personal gain. Such stories have become common in recent years; informants in similar cases have often been career criminals, at times drug addicts, seeking reduced prison sentences or financial compensation.

“It’s inhumane,” says Mr. Regan, returning to the manner of the killing. “You don’t have a reason to shoot someone 21 times. These are trained marksmen. Shooting below the waist. Twice in the private parts. By federal agents. Do they have families, children, and wives?”

I ask the brothers why they think the FBI agents shot and killed their father. Could it have been fear? Mr. Regan briefly entertains the notion. “Perhaps,” he says, “the informant hyped up the FBI. All lies. They went in thinking they were fighting for their country. And then they found out he wasn’t it.” His eyes flare up. “Oops. 13 children. A wife. An entire community in mourning. Why can’t they just say they were wrong?”

Mr. Carswell is less receptive to the suggestion that the agents were afraid for their lives and that’s why they shot him 21 times. “This is what they do for a living. How are they so afraid? Are you new? Are you a rookie? Just wait in the car.” More than “afraid federal agents,” he responds, “what we hear about most often are rogue cops abusing their power.”

At the end of the day, Mr. Abdullah’s family is anxious for answers. “They say: your father was a bad guy, that’s why we killed him, that’s why we shot him 21 times.” Mr. Regan’s eyes glisten and his voice falters. “It’s not fair; it feels like they targeted him because he’s Muslim. Because he was Muslim, they can say he was a terrorist…But the most they could charge him with was receiving stolen goods.” “Tell the truth,” he says. “You’re acting like cold-blooded killers. How can I believe that you’re here to serve the community?”

While the family waits for the investigation to conclude, they pray for justice. As I leave, Mr. Regan’s voice assumes a tone of certainty. “Eventually,” he tells me, “the truth will come out.” On my drive back to my America, I think of the man killed without having ever been charged with a crime and left for dead in a warehouse; of the house of worship infiltrated by federal agents funded by our tax dollars; of how little our government seems to be doing for the people of inner-city Detroit. I wonder what has become of my America – and I can only hope that Mr. Regan’s confidence will not prove to have been in vain.

Hamdan Azhar is a graduate student in biostatistics at the University of Michigan. An accomplished writer on international affairs, his works have been published in the Huffington Post, Counterpunch, and the Asia Times.

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