To his co-workers at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Majid al-Massari was a happy guy who bounced down the halls and seemed like a "big teddy bear. " What his friends...

Share story

To his co-workers at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Majid al-Massari was a happy guy who bounced down the halls and seemed like a “big teddy bear.”

What his friends didn’t know about the burly, bearded 34-year-old computer-security specialist was that he had helped set up a Web site for a group linked to al-Qaida, quoted Osama bin Laden in his own Internet postings, lashed out against American policies on his father’s London-based radio show and had landed in the sights of U.S. terrorism investigators.

Now the Saudi national is being targeted for deportation, but immigration officials say it’s not because he’s a terrorist. Instead, they cite a nearly 2-year-old misdemeanor drug conviction that, under immigration law, is considered an “aggravated felony” and the basis for deportation.

In response, al-Massari is seeking asylum in the United States, claiming he would be tortured in his home country because his father, a prominent bin Laden supporter, has openly called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and has praised terrorist attacks against Saudi and Western targets. The son’s hearing, which is closed to the public, began earlier this month in Seattle and will continue, after a break, in February.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

While his friends and former co-workers rally for his release, al-Massari awaits his fate in federal detention near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In his deportation case in Immigration Court, federal lawyers have filed thousands of pages of pleadings, including posters of bin Laden, that focus not on al-Massari’s crack-cocaine conviction but on his father and his al-Qaida connections.

Majid al-Massari has not been charged as a terrorist. His Seattle attorney, Cheryl Nance, said his case is “purely guilt by association.”

There is nothing in the government’s filings that leads her to believe her client is anything more than a Muslim with unpopular opinions about America’s role in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, she said.

Nance thinks the U.S. and Saudi governments are targeting the senior al-Massari and “using my client as bait.” Al-Massari, through Nance, declined to be interviewed.

Misdemeanor turns serious

Al-Massari, who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1970, earned degrees there in physics and astronomy. He came to the U.S. in 1994 for an advanced physics degree and seven years later began working at the UW School of Nursing, where his passion was detecting computer viruses. A talk he gave about viruses was so popular, he gave three more, each time to a packed house.

“He made it really exciting,” said Lisa Hales, a co-worker at the School of Nursing and a supporter.

“He just has this sort of infectious energy,” Hales said. “When you’re around him, you just feel good.”

Hales said Majid al-Massari never talked religion or politics. She said she was unaware of his postings to Islamic Web sites or his affinity for quoting bin Laden. “That is so far away from the Majid that I know that I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” she said.

Another thing he never mentioned to co-workers was his drug use. In February 2003, police searched al-Massari’s apartment and turned up paraphernalia and less than a gram of crack cocaine.

As part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor attempted drug possession, served four days in jail and was ordered to complete 208 hours of community service and treatment.

While the misdemeanor conviction is minor, the 2003 incident turned out to be very serious because al-Massari was in the country on a temporary work visa.

Father’s ties

Before dawn last July 17, federal immigration officials detained al-Massari, saying the conviction violated his immigration status. Using a warrant, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force seized al-Massari’s home and office computers, informing him he was under investigation for providing material support to terrorists.

Al-Massari was jailed, kept in solitary confinement under measures aimed at terrorism suspects, and barred from contacting anyone for a week, Nance said.

When al-Massari didn’t show up for work, his colleagues became concerned. Some had been visited by federal authorities and had an inkling of what was going on, but the agents told them they couldn’t talk about it, according to several colleagues who didn’t want their names used.

No one at the university knew for sure whether al-Massari had done anything wrong. But a group of them decided to help their friend. They pooled money to pay his rent and moved his car off the street so it wouldn’t be towed. By the end of the summer, when it became clear he would remain in custody, they packed up his apartment and put his belongings in storage.

Al-Massari’s quest for asylum is tangled with the government’s concerns about his notorious father.

Dr. Muhammad al-Massari, a theoretical physicist who lives in London, is suspected in a recently revealed plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, according to three U.S. law-enforcement sources who spoke only if not named. The physicist’s role came to light in a terrorism-financing case prosecuted last summer in Virginia.

In a phone interview from London earlier this month, Muhammad al-Massari described his London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights as the “ideological voice” of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorism network.

Muhammad al-Massari admitted to The Times that he had met with a key player in the assassination plot, but denied anything more.

“We would not be involved in that for one reason: We have no connection to an underground movement that could carry that out,” he said. “We may share ideology, but nothing else.”

“The sins of the father”

Nance said Majid al-Massari is terrified of being returned to a country where his father is considered an enemy.

“If he is sent back there, Majid will be tortured and Majid will be beheaded,” she said. “There is no question.”

Government officials in both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia dispute that. In submissions to Immigration Judge Victoria Young earlier this month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers used news articles and studies to argue that the Saudis have modified their dealings with dissidents and extremists in recent years.

And Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., said that “to the best of my knowledge” Majid al-Massari is not wanted for crimes in Saudi Arabia. The father is considered a seditionist and criminal, he said.

“The sins of the father don’t visit upon the son,” he said. “We do not arrest family members for the actions of another. Like any Saudi citizen, he is welcome home.”

Some Saudi watchers, academics and human-rights organizations think Majid al-Massari’s fears may be justified.

Dr. Peter Mandaville, the director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University in Virginia, said it has become increasingly difficult for the Saudis to ignore dissidents such as the senior al-Massari.

Attacks like one Dec. 6 on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah by al-Qaida terrorists — which Muhammad al-Massari applauded — have only added to the pressure, Mandaville said.

“They need to be able to show that they are on the ball and cooperating” with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, he said — especially considering that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis.

Mandaville interviewed Muhammad al-Massari several times for research into Islamic extremism in England. Mandaville predicts the Saudi government will attempt to use Majid al-Massari as a “bargaining chip” to blunt his father’s attacks on the monarchy.

Mandaville is not convinced that the younger al-Massari will be tortured or killed. “But will he be used as bait, held incommunicado? Almost certainly.

“He will be detained without information or a charge. There may be some physical abuse,” he said. “And all this will be used to send a message to groups both inside and outside Saudi Arabia: Don’t mess with us. We can get to those you hold close.”

Amnesty International, in a report this year on human rights in Saudi Arabia, said “hundreds of suspected religious activists and critics of the state were arrested or detained following their forcible return from other countries, and the legal status of those held from previous years remained shrouded in secrecy.”

Supporting bin Laden

Immigration lawyers say asylum cases are hard to win under any circumstances.

Al-Massari applied for asylum under the Convention Against Torture, a treaty that prohibits deportation of individuals if there is a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland. An immigration judge has already determined that al-Massari “is removable” because of the drug conviction; it’s now up to him to prove he should not be sent to Saudi Arabia.

His case poses additional difficulties because of his political views and his father’s ties to terrorism.

Nance met al-Massari seven years ago, when she represented him on another immigration matter. Since then, his drug arrest and the war in Iraq have pushed him further toward the extremes of Islam, she said.

“When I first met Majid he was much more Americanized,” Nance said. “I think the [drug] arrest scared him.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Massari sent money to the Red Cross and wrote in sympathy to President Bush, Nance said. But by fall 2003, he was posting anti-American messages on the Web site he helped create for his father’s group and appearing regularly as a guest on his dad’s radio program.

His Internet postings were mostly comments about and photos of alleged war atrocities by American soldiers. He also called on Muslims to boycott Coca-Cola and other U.S. companies he said were supporting the Iraq war.

He ended virtually every posting with a quote from bin Laden: “I tell them that those who fear climbing up mountains will live forever in holes.”

None of those postings advocated violence, and Nance said her client opposes violence.

The First Amendment protects al-Massari’s right to oppose the war and to speak in support of bin Laden. But Nance knows such statements won’t be taken lightly.

The senior al-Massari said he won’t be deterred, even though he thinks the Saudi government will treat his son badly.

And what if the Saudis threaten to kill his son?

“It would be God’s will,” he said. “I would tell the people that, and let the people judge.”

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com