Omar Ameen is an Iraqi-American refugee currently housed in a maximum security cell an hour up the road from me in Sacramento. The United States government contends that Ameen is an ISIS commander who infiltrated the refugee stream coming out of the Middle East. He awaits a hearing next week that could result in his extradition back to a certain death in Iraq.
And yet all of the evidence indicates Ameen is not, in fact, an ISIS commander, but instead an innocent man who fled the sectarian violence and bloodshed that we contributed to in his home country in order to live out what was once considered the American dream with his family here.
It’s the type of story that every part of you doesn’t want to be true—because if it is true it is so fucking maddening that you can’t even see straight. It’s enough to make part of you hope that you’re missing something; to hope that Ameen might be secret ISIS after-all. Because if he isn’t an ISIS commander who infiltrated the U.S. refugee program, then it means something much worse—that the U.S. government is terrorizing an innocent man on our behalf.
Even the person who spent months getting to the bottom of this atrocity wished he had it wrong. Last week, New Yorker writer Ben Taub tweeted that he is “closing a story today — one which, at every stage of reporting, I wanted to drop, I wanted to find wasn’t true. But it is, and it’s important, and I hate it.”
Taub’s story, “The Fight To Save An Innocent Refugee From Almost Certain Death,” lays out in horrific detail how the FBI, DHS, State Department, and DOJ “have been co-opted into a campaign to extradite an innocent man to almost certain death, to make a racist talking point appear to be slightly less of a fiction.” It reads more like a dystopian movie—Enemy of the Racist State—than a real-life story.
Except that is real. And you must read every word it.
Taub reports that Omar Ameen left Iraq for Turkey in 2012 on a tourist visa and once there sought refugee status on the basis of his family members’ death and kidnapping at the hand of terrorist groups. His wife and three children followed suit.
In 2014 they were resettled in Salt Lake City. Ameen found work at a Mormon charity and the family began taking English classes. A few months later the family moved to Sacramento for more familiar weather and to be closer to other Iraqi families. Once there, Ameen worked as an Uber and delivery driver—sometimes as much as 20 hours per day to support his family.
Three years later, as the Ameen family was starting to really acclimate to American life, out of nowhere their apartment was raided by dozens of armed men.
The Trump administration claimed that he was an ISIS commander who had infiltrated the American homeland. The New York Times headlined their story “Isis Member Arrested in Sacramento” and included a claim from the extradition report that Ameen was one of the founders of an al-Qaeda affiliate.
The basis of the arrest was an Iraqi extradition case. Ameen had been accused of killing a police officer in his home town of Rawah as part of an ISIS kill squad in 2014. When informed of the charge Ameen felt a brief moment of relief—because he wasn’t in Iraq in 2014. He was in Turkey, awaiting resettlement. He knew the charge was ridiculous and assumed the authorities would realize their mistake, too.
But such exculpatory evidence didn’t prove to make much of a difference. Iraq and the U.S. were eager to implement their extradition treaty. Plus an ISIS chief living a quiet life as an Uber driver in Sacramento was the perfect story for the Trump administration, which was looking for any possible excuse to justify its Middle East refugee ban.
And so a year and a half later, Ameen remains incarcerated, awaiting his deportation.
Why is Taub so sure that the government doesn’t have it right?
For starters, the idea that one of the founders of a terrorist affiliate successfully navigated the muliti-agency refugee vetting system would be a remarkable achievement. When looking at the Ameen case, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was confused on this point as well, and requested information on how this could possibly happen. But a year and a half later, the details have not been publicized. Needless to say, an ISIS terrorist trying to come to America has a much much better chance at avoiding the feds by just coming here on a travel visa and staying. Going through a rigorous, years-long U.N. vetting process is a good way to get caught. Why would an ISIS commander have taken that risk?
But let’s just pretend for a moment that Ameen is a terrorist founder and financier who—rather than using a tourist visa, or flying to Canada and sneaking across the border—decided to play it straight with the U.N. resettlement process. That he somehow gamed the vetting system. And that he then caught a lucky break in getting sent to the States rather than, say, Germany.
The U.S. government’s theory of the case is that right before he completed this masterstroke of long-game deception, Ameen decided to risk it all by traveling from southern Turkey, through war-torn Syria, past the Free-Syrian Army, past various ISIS affiliates, and into al-Anbar province—the most dangerous part of Iraq—all so that he could commit a random murder of a policeman from his hometown.
Again: This all seems highly improbable. At the very least, you would want to have a great deal of evidence to convince you that it might be true.
But in the case of Ameen, the logistics, the evidence surrounding his involvement, and the first hand witnesses to the murder all point to his innocence.
First the timeline. Every Thursday, Ameen was required to sign in at the immigration office in Mersin, Turkey, where he had been resettled awaiting extradition. He signed in the Thursday before the murder. The murder was commited on a Sunday. Ameen then signed back in, at the Mersin office, on the next Thursday. Which means he would have had to make the 600 mile death march from Mersin to Rawah—through multiple terrorist controlled lands—in three days. Two weeks after the murder Ameen had to report to Istanbul for a medical screening, where he exhibited no signs of injury, which, again, seems improbable for someone who made two hasty, dangerous journeys and a committed a murder.
There is other evidence. On the day of the murder, Ameen (or someone using his account) “liked” a Facebook post. Which is important because in the weeks surrounding the murder the internet had been entirely shut down in the Anbar province.
Then there are the witnesses: Multiple witnesses say Ameen never left Turkey during June of 2014. Which makes sense, since part of his refugee agreement was that he was not allowed to leave Turkey—so just the act of leaving the country, even without the commission of a murder, would have put all of that work in jeopardy. Again: Why would an ISIS commander trying to fool the U.N. system take that risk?
But maybe that’s not enough for you.
So try this: The victim’s parents and widow insist that Ameen is innocent.
And the victim’s final text message contains a LITERAL LIST OF SUSPECTS “including those who had threatened [him] and who later showed up in ISIS propganda announcing [his] murder.”
Omar Ameen was not on the list.
The United States Government has this exculpatory information. They know that, at minimum, the case against Ameen is deeply flawed.
And yet Ameen still sits alone in a cell. Refusing to eat. Wishing for death. While his family are in a prison of their own, living in a new land without their breadwinner, who stands wrongly accused by powerful foreigners of being a terrorist.
When you look at the Ameen story you see tales we’ve seen before: The wrong guy being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The broken criminal justice system in desperate need of reform. The cruel government agents who don’t care about the truth.
And yes, it’s a story about all of those things.
But the Ameen story is also about what kind of country we are.
The Ameen family story—the first part, before the men with guns swooped in to ruin his life—is one we used to pride ourselves on.
Refugees fleeing violence and oppression, seeing a beacon of hope shining across the ocean, and sacrificing everything to make it to America. A family does everything by the book, follows all of the rules to get here, then learns our language, helps at religious charities, joins a community, works hundred-hour weeks to support themselves, and comes to love our country for its beauty and opportunity.
That’s the American story. Or at least it used to be.
Today the American story is about sticking up for your own kind and taking what you think you deserve. It’s about blocking others from the bounty. It’s about being suspicious of anyone who doesn’t look like you and being willing to put a family through the deepest circle of hell to prove that your prejudices are right. It’s about accepting literally any story from your government, so long as the people suffering are from the other tribe. It’s about being righteously aggrieved at the most minor slight while not blinking an eye at the maximum cruelty being imposed on the other.
It’s a story I keep wanting to believe isn’t true. But keep being reminded that it is.
And I hate it.