UNION COUNTY, NJ — Former Marine Sgt. Affraz Mohammed is a Union County resident with a story to tell.
Mohammed, who lives in Springfield, is sharing a story that is gaining relevance in post-election America, as certain ethnic and religious groups have been affected by the policies of the new administration in Washington. Many Muslims have told him, he said, that they feel targeted. Mohammed tells LocalSource that many of these experiences today are reminiscent of the national mood following Sept. 11, 2001.
Mohammed’s story began in Trinidad, where he and his 12 siblings were born. He came to the U.S. when he was 5 years old.
“I grew up in the ghettos of Newark, where being Muslim was not an issue unless we wore religious dress, but I was made fun of for being Indian, and it was not cool to be interested in education, so I did not do well in school,” Mohammed told LocalSource in a March 10 email.
Mohammed describes himself as “fairly intelligent but not educated.”
“I was determined to have a life beyond the ghetto, and older siblings and cousins had joined the military, so I did as well,” Mohammed said. “Growing up watching another cousin murdered in the street and where violence was part of daily life, I figured that if I was killed in the military, my mother would receive a $250,000 check as opposed to dying in the street for nothing.”
Mohammed joined the Marines Corps in 1997.
“Boot camp was the hardest experience of my life up until then, but I was determined to become a Marine,” Mohammed said. “When I graduated, the ‘meanest’ drill instructor gave me my globe and anchor pin, saying, ‘Now you are a US Marine,’ and I started crying. I fell in love with being a Marine and was a proud American.”
Mohammed was chosen amongst hundreds to provide personal security for dignitaries during the inauguration of President Bush in 2000, personally driving generals and ambassadors, as well as guarding HMX, the “Marine One” helicopters that transport the president.
But everything changed in August 2002, when Mohammed was stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
LocalSource has obtained the following official documents to substantiate Mohammed’s story: Disciplinary Restraint Notice; MCTFS Record of Service; Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Recommendation for Prosecution; investigation reports and records; charge sheets; Report of Results of Trial; Firearms Technology Report of Technical Investigation; various documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs; and photos and also conversations with others who possess knowledge of the events.
It was while Mohammed was at Quantico that a lance corporal asked him to buy one of the weapons he was selling.
It is common for Marines to own their own weapons, he said, and they are allowed to buy and sell them. The lance corporal said he was selling several guns, including a 9 mm and a semi-automatic AK-47. Mohammed was interested in the 9 mm, a small handgun that could be carried with a concealed-carry permit.
On Aug. 28, 2002, the lance corporal told Mohammed to meet him behind Quantico’s car wash to purchase a gun. When Mohammed didn’t show up, the lance corporal went looking for him and pressured him to buy an AK-47 instead of the 9 mm, according, to Mohammed. For the next 30 minutes, the two men argued about the gun. The lance corporal was wearing a wire, and their entire conversation was recorded.
After Mohammed refused to buy the gun, the asking price was lowered, and Mohammed finally agreed to buy it for $160.
Once Mohammed placed the weapon in the trunk of his car, he stated that he was stormed by six fully armed government agents. A machine gun was held inches from his head, and he was thrown to the ground. He was handcuffed, placed in a car with three agents, and taken to NCIS headquarters.
LocalSource has obtained photographic evidence of the arrest, as well as arrest records.
During the drive, Mohammed said he was interrogated about activities at his local mosque and asked to provide names of Muslim terrorists. He repeatedly told the agents that he had no knowledge of any terrorist activities.
After arriving at NCIS headquarters, Mohammed said that he did not request an attorney for fear of appearing guilty. After a two-hour interrogation, he was then handcuffed, placed in a car with three agents, and taken to Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia. Although it is standard procedure for a Marine who is arrested on base to be taken to the brig, Mohammed was never told why he was being taken to Alexandria.
“I was not brought to the brig as a Marine, but to the Alexandria County Jail which was reserved for terrorist suspects,” Mohammed said. “I was there with the shoe bomber and DC snipers.”
Richard Colvin Reid, also known as the “shoe bomber,” was arrested and imprisoned after he attempted to detonate a bomb placed inside the shoes he was wearing on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in 2001.
The DC snipers refer to two men convicted of a series of coordinated sniper attacks throughout Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., in 2002, in which 10 people were killed and three critically injured.
“ I was stripped naked, with no food, water or sleep or lawyer, constantly being told that I needed to sign a statement that I was a Muslim terrorist intent on killing US Marines. I got no bed, pillow, food, hearing the screams of other inmates. It is this trauma that has had a lasting effect on me and the origin of the PTSD that haunts me every day.”
After his release while awaiting court martial, Mohammed was restricted to the barracks instead of off base with his aunt where he had lived before.
“I was not charged for 83 days, and the court martial started almost a year after the arrest,” Mohammed said. “I was threatened repeatedly by other Marines who thought I must have been lying to them, stating that I might find myself a victim of friendly fire and that I was a Taliban Marine. I was afraid for my life every night in the barracks as knocks would come at the door with these threats and I did not know what would eventually happen to me or where I could be taken.”
Some of Mohammed’s assignments at the barracks included cutting grass with scissors, filling sandbags with a teaspoon, collecting pubic hairs from the toilet, and cleaning with a toothbrush.
“This was an attempt to break me, but it was unsuccessful,” Mohammed said. “They would bang on my door at night and yell things like ‘Wake up Taliban Marine. We’re coming to get you,’ and ‘Have you ever heard of friendly fire?’”
Mohammed’s trial began on June 30, 2003, with a jury of five Marines.
Capt. Shannon Drake, defense counsel assigned to Mohammed’s case, told LocalSource that the entire case rested on whether or not Mohammed knew that the gun he was purchasing was legal.
“The whole issue was whether Affraz knew it was a fully automatic weapon,” Drake said in a March 13 phone call.
As to the motives of the lance corporal who turned informant, Drake said that although it is hard to pin down a reason for the setup, he believes that it may have something to do with the political climate at the time.
“He played on the fact that it was only a few years after 9/11,” Drake said of the informant. “We were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think that here you had a Muslim Marine shortly after 9/11 and that definitely may have had something to do with it. It’s a sad story. Affraz was a good Marine. People thought very highly of him.”
The jury deliberated for just three hours before delivering a unanimous “not guilty” verdict.
In 2008, Mohammed was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress and classified as disabled. He was unable to work and forced to give up his dream of becoming a police officer in Newark.
According to Mohammed, he does not feel safe as a Muslim man today for many reasons.
“Over the past two years I have been repeatedly singled out as a Muslim in many places and mistreated,” Mohammed said. “When I have been following up and advocating for myself professionally, I have been accused of ‘harassing’ or ‘threatening’ when I have done neither. I received a call from an FBI agent investigating a call from a parent at school worried that I might be a terrorist and have been asked not to contact several politicians’ offices when I have reached out for help hearing my story. My kids said that they wanted to change their religion when they were younger for that reason.”
According to Wail Rasheed, director of the Islamic Center of Union County, he has seen a recent rise in discrimination against the Muslim community.
“There are plenty of Muslims who have experienced discrimination,” Rasheed told LocalSource in a March 12 email. “It seems more to come since the beginning of 2017.”
Rasheed said that he provides support to the Muslim community while working through the anger that many Muslims feel about being singled out.
“Nearly every positive social development in this country has happened because of the struggles of a minority group,” Rasheed said. “It is our duty to listen to all complaints and give them advice on how to manage their expectations, and their anger because it is my duty to protect and prevent our community from their anger which could lead to possible backlash.”
Christine Graf, of Soldier’s Heart — an organization based in Troy, NY, that works with military personnel offering support programs, healing retreats, and other services — told LocalSource that she met Mohammed soon after his ordeal ended.
“He loves his country and he loves the Marines,” Graf said in March 9 phone call. “He’s not angry at his country or at the Marines. He knows that this was just a few people who did this. This is a continuous problem when you are a Muslim. There are more components to his story because he’s a Muslim man living in a post 9/11 world.”
Rasheed said that the ICUC helps members reach out to local governments and leaders, as well organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Association of Muslim American Lawyers, among others.
“I feel I am a better Muslim and a better American being involved with our local community and leaders to protect our community members from any harm, and to protect our larger communities as well,” Rasheed said.
Mohammed said that he has tried to handle situations in which he feels discriminated against in a peaceful manner, despite the fact that he has often been poorly treated.
“I do not get the benefit of the doubt in society,” Mohammed said. “I am profiled each and every day. I have been wanting to get a story out that helps people dealing with PTSD and profiling, helping them be strong and positive. Hearing my kids wanting to change their religion made me even more determined to spread a positive message of staying strong like the Marines taught me. We only hear the stories when people resort to violence, further cementing fear in society. My goal is to prevent violence, as it should be, not only for Muslims but for followers of all religions.”
There are currently 2.2 million active duty and reserve members of the U.S. military, according to 2016 US Department of Defense statistics. A total of 5,896 of these self-identify themselves as Muslim.