Mazen Abdel Abdulkarim Al-Najjar was born in 1957 in Gaza, where he and his family lived for a year before relocating to Saudi Arabia. At age 14, Al-Najjar moved to Egypt where he completed high school and then (in 1979) earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cairo University. From 1979-81, he lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on a temporary work visa.
Using a Palestinian refugee travel document issued by the Egyptian government, Al-Najjar first entered the United States in 1981 to pursue a master’s degree in industrial engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had pre-authorized him to remain in the U.S. for the duration of his non-immigrant graduate student status.
In 1984 Al-Najjar entered into what was apparently a sham marriage, in an effort to gain permanent U.S. residency. In a federal investigation that was conducted years later, the woman whom he had wed in ’84 told officials that the marriage was transacted as a favor to help Al-Najjar get a green card. “Mazen and I never lived together,” she wrote, “never consummated [sic] the marriage!”
After completing the final draft of his thesis in 1984, Al-Najjar graduated with a master’s degree in industrial engineering the following year.
On April 19, 1985, the INS initiated deportation proceedings against Al-Najjar by issuing an Order to Show Cause (OSC), on grounds that he had willfully provided false information to the INS and thereby had failed to maintain the conditions of his non-immigrant status.
In 1985 as well, Al-Najjar entered a Ph.D. program in industrial engineering at North Carolina State University, where he remained for two semesters before transferring in 1986 to a doctoral program at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa.
The deportation case against Al-Najjar was administratively closed on June 4, 1986, because he failed to appear at the hearing. Two weeks later, on June 18, Al-Najjar formally requested that the proceedings be reopened, telling authorities that he had not received notice of the hearing until two days after it was held. But Al-Najjar’s motion to reopen would go unanswered for almost ten years, until his 1985 deportation proceedings were re-calendared for February 8, 1996.
On January 30, 1988, while working toward his Ph.D. at USF, Al-Najjar married his 23-year-old cousin, Fedaa Abdulkarim Muhammed Shaladen Al-Najjar, in Tampa. Born to Palestinian parents in Saudi Arabia, Fedaa first entered the United States just eight days before the wedding. She was lawfully admitted to the country (with a Palestinian refugee travel document issued by the Egyptian government) by the INS as a non-immigrant visitor with authorization to remain for only one year. Fedaa and her husband went on to have three daughters together.
In 1990 Al-Najjar was a founding member—along with Sami Al-Arian, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, and Khalil Shikaki—of the World & Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), which would be shut down five years later for its suspected ties to terrorism. In addition, during the early to mid-1990s Al-Najjar worked as an Arabic language professor at USF.
In 1992 Al-Najjar was a founding board member of the Al-Qassam Mosque in Tampa, where he also served in a position akin to an imam until 2001. Incorporated under the name “The Islamic Community of Tampa,” this Sunni house of worship was named after Izzedin al-Qassam, a Syrian who had been killed while fighting against the British Palestine Mandate in 1935. According to the Palestinian scholar Ziad Abu Amr, al-Qassam represented “the main source of inspiration for the Islamic Jihad movement.” Indeed, the terrorist group Hamas named its military wing after this warrior.
In the fall of 1993 Al-Najjar finished his doctoral dissertation, and in 1994 he received his Ph.D. in industrial engineering from USF.
One of Al-Najjar’s sisters was the wife of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian. Another sister of Al-Najjar was married to the Beirut-based treasurer of PIJ, Mohammed Tyseer Al-Khatib, who, according to bank records, had sent Al-Najjar nearly $100,000 in 1992. (Al-Najjar, in turn, then divided this money into different accounts and held it until February 1994, when, during the heart of a financial crisis that threatened PIJ’s very existence, he sent it back to Khatib.)
In late 1994, after the airing of the PBS special Jihad in America, Al-Najjar was identified as the subject of a secret federal investigation of PIJ in Tampa. In May 1995, the Tampa Tribune reported that Al-Najjar and Sami Al-Arian were at the center of a Mideast-linked terrorist cell operating out of that Florida city. Investigators suspected that WISE was a cover for terrorist planning and fundraising. Their suspicions were heightened when WISE co-founder Ramadan Abdullah Shallah became the new leader of PIJ in October 1995, a few months after having left Tampa.
At Al-Najjar’s re-calendared deportation hearing on February 8, 1996, the INS issued a Form I-261 to supplement the factual allegations contained in the April 1985 OSC. While Mazen and Fedaa Al-Najjar both conceded deportability under the Immigration & Naturalization Act (INA), they requested relief from deportation in the form of asylum, withholding of removal, and suspension of deportation. Over the objection of the INS, the Immigration Judge granted the couple’s motions to consolidate their deportation hearings. Those hearings took place before an Immigration Judge in Orlando, Florida, in July and October of 1996. There, Al-Najjar and his wife argued that they were stateless Palestinians whom no Middle Eastern nation would accept as permanent residents due to their lack of citizenship anywhere in the world; thus they declined to designate a country of deportation. The Immigration Court ruled that Mazen Al-Najjar was an alien who had violated American immigration law and placed him under deportation proceedings, though it did not detain him.
On May 13, 1997, three federal agents—one each from the INS, the FBI, and the U.S. Customs Service—went to Al-Najjar’s Tampa apartment and proceeded to serve him and his wife a duly issued INS Form I-200 Warrant of Arrest in Deportation Proceedings. Both husband and wife were officially ordered deported to their last countries of residence—he to the United Arab Emirates, and she to Saudi Arabia. The warrant was backed up by a great deal of evidence which the government had secretly compiled against Al-Najjar, linking him to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a number of its operatives. This evidence included, among other things: (a) air bills showing that Al-Najjar had shipped materials to PIJ founder Fathi Shikaki in Damascus; (b) documents indicating that Al-Najjar had received a salary from PIJ; and (c) the transcript of a secretly recorded April 1994 telephone call wherein Al-Najjar and Sami Al-Arian had expressed their mutual frustration with “those from Damascus” and with the infighting tat was taking place among the members of PIJ’s Shura Council (Governing Board).
When Al-Najjar subsequently announced his intent to appeal the aforementioned deportation ruling, he was arrested (on May 19) and placed into detention, without bail, for what would eventually become a period of three-and-a-half years at an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida. It should be noted that if Al-Najjar had simply dropped his appeal and accepted deportation, he would have been a free man immediately, albeit in a country other than the United States.
Soon after Al-Najjar’s detention began, individuals and organizations sympathetic to him impugned the U.S. government for its supposedly draconian use of “secret evidence” to justify holding the defendant “without charges.” Some of that evidence was classified, and some was information the government did not yet want to reveal because further investigations of other suspects were ongoing.
On June 6, 1997, Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh denied Al-Najjar’s bail request after reviewing classified evidence furnished by the government. In a one-sentence summary, McHugh stated that Al-Najjar was “associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a threat to national security.”
On December 7, 1997, Al-Najjar asked U.S. authorities for permission to relocate, while he awaited his appeal hearing, to the South American country of Guyana. But this request quickly became a moot point when the Guyanese government stated that it would not permit him to settle there under any circumstances.
On July 7, 1998, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder declared that Al-Najjar’s detention on the basis of secret evidence complied with legal procedural requirements.
On September 15, 1998, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld Judge McHugh’s denial of Al-Najjar’s bail.
On December 22, 1999, Al-Najjar’s attorneys filed a habeas petition in a Miami federal court, demanding their client’s release on constitutional grounds. On May 31, 2000, U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami ruled that the government had indeed violated Al-Najjar’s constitutional rights. Though she did not order the defendant released, Lenard instructed the government to provide Al-Najjar with enough information about the nature of the evidence against him, so that he and his attorneys could prepare a legal defense.
On August 29, 2000, Al-Najjar’s public bail hearing got underway, with Judge McHugh presiding. Georgetown University law professor David Cole played the role of lead counsel for Al-Najjar. During the proceedings, the government introduced evidence consisting of videotapes of political conferences which Al-Najjar had attended in the early 1990s. When he testified under oath, Al-Najjar: (a) denied any involvement with the PIJ Shura Council, even though he was one of its members; (b) falsely denied knowing that Ramadan Shallah, who had been PIJ’s secretary general since 1995, had any connection with that organization; and (c) disingenuously denounced terrorism and PIJ itself, saying: “I disagree with violence. It is not a good part of the experience of mankind. It may be the worst part. I don’t think violence is the way to solve conflict.” Moreover, Al-Najjar denied that a charity which he helped run, the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), had any ties to PIJ. When federal officials subsequently released a video showing a Cleveland imam referring to ICP as “the active arm” of PIJ, Al-Najjar pleaded ignorance and said the imam was mistaken.
On August 31, 2000, Al-Najjar’s attorneys called a halt to their client’s bail hearing when the government was about to present secret evidence against him in a closed-door session with Judge McHugh. David Cole demanded that McHugh: (a) first rule on the public portion of the hearing, and (b) not take any secret evidence until after ensuring that an adequate summary of that evidence had been given to the defendant.
On September 12, 2000, Federal Judge Joan Lenard sided with Al-Najjar’s legal team, declaring that McHugh should first rule on the defendant’s bail based on the public case, before proceeding to consider the classified information. At that point, Al-Najjar’s immigration case (before Judge McHugh) resumed. During the hearing, defense attorneys held daily press conferences outside the court while U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s Justice Department essentially muzzled the prosecution. There were strong indications that a senior adviser on Reno’s staff was in direct contact with one of Al-Najjar’s lawyers during that period.
On October 27, 2000, Judge McHugh—after reviewing the same classified evidence he had reviewed in 1997, plus much new evidence—issued a lengthy, convoluted decision stating that he would release Al-Najjar unless the government agreed to submit its secret evidence in a timely fashion. Complying with McHugh’s order, the government presented the judge with its secret evidence as well as a written summary of that evidence—a summary which the government intended to share with Al-Najjar and his legal team. But McHugh deemed the summary inadequate, and on December 6 he ordered the defendant released on $8,000 bail. The INS requested a stay of that release and expressed its wish to appeal the ruling, and the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington granted the stay.
But on December 11, 2000, the Board of Immigration Appeals vacated the stay and indicated that it would permit Al-Najjar to bail out of custody. The following day, Attorney General Reno stayed Al-Najjar’s release until December 15. But ultimately the defendant won a temporary release from detention after Reno—who, for three-and-a-half years, had accepted the claim that Al-Najjar was a PIJ-linked supporter of terrorism—allowed Judge McHugh’s decision to stand. Thus the defendant was released on the $8,000 bond (on December 15).
Further Reading: “Fedaa al Najjar Mazen al Najjar v. John Ashcroft Attorney General US” (OpenJurist.org, 7-18-2001); “Al-Najjar Finally out after 3 Years” (Tampa Bay Times, 9-28-2005).