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Government Interviewing Young Men with Mideast Ties; Many Decline - 2002-01-03

Officials investigating terrorist links in the United States say they expect to finish interviewing several hundred young men in the state of Michigan in a few weeks. Nationwide, officials are interviewing 5,000 young men, most of them from the Middle East.

Of the 5,000 people sought by the U.S. government for brief interviews, about 500 live in the Detroit, Michigan area. Lawyer Mohammad Abdrabboh of suburban Dearborn represents about 30 of the men contacted by the federal government. He says a good number of them are technically illegal immigrants because they have overstayed their visas, so they have declined to be interviewed.

About half of them are out-of-status, they have declined, and after sending a formal letter the Justice Department indicating that they have declined, no one has come door-to-door to their house, either.

The U.S. Justice Department is interviewing men who have been in the United States for less than two years on student, work or business visas, and who come from countries where the al-Qaeda terrorist network is known to operate. The questioning in Michigan began in mid-December, and federal officials hope to finish by January 21. The interviewees are asked questions including whether they know anyone involved in terrorist groups, and whether they have ever been contacted or recruited by a terrorist group.

Mr. Abdrabboh says the interviews are supposed to be voluntary, but his clients who have declined to speak to investigators are still a bit worried. He said, "Even as recently as today, someone came in and asked me, 'Is it over? What is going to happen next?' Those are the big unanswered questions."

Federal officials have said the interviews are designed to gather information about terrorism, but officials will not necessarily look the other way if an interviewee is found to have overstayed his visa.

Mr. Abdrabboh says he hopes his clients who have declined an interview to avoid discussing their visa status will be left alone while they try to legalize that status. "If it is truly voluntary, they chose not to have the interview, therefore I am hoping they are not penalized for not going through the interview," he said. "I am hopeful of that, but I do not know what is going to happen."

The Detroit area is home to about 350,000 Arabs and Arab-Americans.