Five Muslims who joined the Army to work as military translators say their lives and careers were ruined after they were falsely accused of trying to poison their fellow soldiers. In an interview for ABC News, two of the men say an Army investigation into the matter has cast a stigma on their lives, preventing them from gaining citizenship and employment.
"I was like, 'What's going on here?' This is not America, that's not why I joined the Army," said one of the men, 34-year-old Khalid Lyaacoubi.
The men are all citizens of Morocco who were permanent "green card" residents of the U.S. They joined the Army in 2009 as part of a special program called "09 Lima" that would train them to work as Army translators in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. In return for their service, the men would be fast tracked for U.S. citizenship.
"We want to prove to Arabic nations, 'we are Arabic and we live here. We lived with Americans and socialized with Americans.' We know they are good," said Lyaacoubi.
"The United States is known for fighting for other people's freedom, and I like it and I wanted to help doing that," said another Muslim recruit, 27-year-old Yassine Bahammou.
Trouble at Fort Jackson
The five men successfully completed basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, which they say was a positive and rewarding experience. However, it was during specialized training as translators at the Advanced Individual Training school on base that they say their lives were upended. They say it all began in November of 2009 when Major Nidal Hassan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 31. In the wake of the shooting, Lyaacoubi and Bahammou said some of their fellow soldiers began to turn on them, calling them "terrorists" and "Hajis" behind their backs.
Then in November of 2009, the five Muslim recruits were arrested by the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) over a tip that they were allegedly plotting to poison their fellow soldiers at Fort Jackson. The news of the investigation broke on the Christian Broadcasting Network and quickly became national news.
Without being formally charged with a crime, the men were questioned about the poisoning allegation and accused of larceny, mutiny and conspiracy. The recruits were detained in their barracks building for 45 days and were escorted by guards wherever they went, including the bathroom. They said they were prohibited from speaking Arabic to each other or to family members on the phone. All along, the men said they told investigators they had no idea where the poisoning allegation came from and they vigorously maintained their innocence.
During this time, the men also said they were subjected to anti-Muslim harassment and abuse by authorities. The recruits claim they were told they would be sent to Guantanamo and one of the men said a CID agent told him he would be sent back to Morocco "in a box".
"They were treating us as a terrorist," said Lyaacoubi. "I never forget what this agent, she told me. She was like, "We are at war against Islam and you are a Muslim. Well, what are you going to do about that."
"I see that my religion is the problem, or the part of the world that I am from is the problem," said Bahammou. "I asked them to take me to church so I can change my religion, if that's the problem."
Investigation Lingers On
After the 45 day detention, the men say they were suddenly released without explanation. Bahammou and Lyaacoubi returned home to Washington, D.C. and as part of their agreement with the Army, joined the National Guard unit in their area. However, the men said the stigma of the Fort Jackson investigation continued to follow them, despite receiving a document from Army showing that all the accusations were unfounded.
The Muslim soldiers found that their fast-tracked U.S. citizenship applications were put on hold, and this in turn, they said, made it difficult to find a good job. They also said that promising jobs opportunities vanished because the investigation would turn up during background checks. When Bahammou tried to get a job as a security guard, his application for a weapons permit was denied in part because a background check revealed that he had been "the subject of an investigation" for attempting "to harm other soldiers".
Bahammou, in particular, has hit hard times. At the time we interviewed him, he had no job or permanent home and spent his days living out of his car and his nights at various friend's homes.
"I don't even think straight anymore, I can't focus on anything," said Bahammou. "Since what happened to me those 45 days, I still have nightmares from that. I joined the Army to fight for other people's freedom and I ended up losing mine."
Bahammou and Lyaacoubi say they went all way through the Army chain of command, even writing a letter to President Obama, in a futile attempt to get someone to address their situation. They finally reached out to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an advocacy group that promotes religious tolerance in the military. According to the head of MRFF, Michael "Mikey" Weinstein, Muslim military members of his group routinely complain of racial discrimination and harassment.
"They are reminded every day in every way that they are not as good, they are not as courageous, they are not as trustworthy. They have no character, they don't have the integrity necessary to be a member of the military," said Weinstein, who is trying to bring the plight of the Muslim recruits to authorities and the media. "This is absolutely disgraceful. It's shocking and I wish I could say that I didn't see it all the time." The Army declined to comment on Weinstein's assertions of anti-Muslim bias.
No Easy Fix
However, ABC News has discovered that there seems to be no simple fix for the soldiers who were falsely accused. In a letter to ABC News, the Army said the investigation into the charges against the Muslim recruits was formally closed in May of 2010 and federal authorities and the DC National Guard were informed that the accusations were unfounded. The Army also said it acted appropriately to investigate what it called "serious allegations" raised against the men. It also said it "did not substantiate the allegations of racism and harassment" that the men claimed took place at Fort Jackson. The Army did acknowledge, however, that the restrictions placed on them during their 45 day detention "were found to be overly restrictive."
Despite the Army's claim that the records of the Muslim recruits was clean, the investigation was picked up by the FBI. Bahammou and Lyaacoubi said a year and a half after the Fort Jackson investigation, they have been asked by the FBI to take polygraph tests. The FBI would not comment, but any open federal investigation would affect the soldiers' citizenship status and background checks.
While the Muslim solders seem to be caught in a bureaucratic limbo as a result of volunteering for the U.S. Army, they remain optimistic that their lives in America will still work out.
"At the end of the day, I am going to get my life back and everything," said Lyaacoubi. "I will try everything and I will never give up."