The case of Ashraf Al-Jailani of Kent, Ohio, and his deportation from the U.S. in December 2005 at first appears to be a Gordian knot impossible to untangle. Listening solely to the long line of organizations that latched onto his cause to hype their own respective political agendas, reading the plethora of articles and editorials by the establishment media, including the New York Times, which pleaded for Al-Jailani’s release, and dismissing his reported ties to al-Qaeda operatives, it would not be unreasonable to empathize with Ashraf Al-Jailani, his wife Michele Swensen, and their three children for their long ordeal.
The crushing reality, however, is that all of the legal maneuvers, media advocacy, and political grandstanding surrounding Al-Jailani’s case were predicated on a lie. And the Gordian knot of the matter is rent asunder by the inescapable truth that the three most innocent and helpless victims in this story, Amina (12), Layla (10), and Sami (8) Al-Jailani, are now imprisoned under their father’s control in Yemen — the very man that had served as the anti-Patriot Act poster boy. Adding to this tragedy is the fact that the same parties who championed Ashraf Al-Jailani’s cause are nowhere to be found concerning the ongoing plight of the abducted Al-Jailani children.
Before his deportation, Ashraf Al-Jailani and his family were a national cause célèbre, with numerous fundraisers, benefit concerts, and “days of remembrance” sponsored by his local mosque all held on his behalf. A local Akron band, Katie Daley and the Detainees, even composed and performed a song, “The Ballad of Ashraf Al-Jailani”, which failed to crack the Billboard Top 100 (no doubt, also the victim of a Bush administration conspiracy).
His saga was the subject of a New York Times editorial by Anthony Lewis, a report by the BBC, and a successful petition effort lobbying for a pardon of Al-Jailani from Ohio Governor Bob Taft. Many prominent Ohio newspapers, particularly the Akron Beacon Journal, published scathing editorials decrying his treatment at the hands of the U.S. government.
Many of the usual suspects also flocked to Al-Jailani’s cause, including the ACLU, CAIR, the Muslim Students Association, Human Rights Watch, Marxist academics, hard-line “anti-war” groups, pro-immigration networks, and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Not only did he cut the perfect profile for their respective causes and serve as a rallying cry for political mobilization, they were able to raise a lot of money off of the Al-Jailani family’s plight. A whole lot of money.
Those organizations have all now fallen silent, rapidly turning agnostic on the matter of Ashraf Al-Jailani. There are no rallies, fundraisers, benefit concerts, prayer services, petition drives, or angry New York Times and Akron Beacon Journal editorials for the abducted Al-Jailani children — all U.S. citizens — just entries for Amina, Layla, and Sami on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website.
There were warning signs over the past decade that provide evidence that this situation was a wholly preventable tragedy. It was a 1999 conviction of Ashraf Al-Jailani on domestic abuse charges that originally initiated the deportation proceedings before 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, establishing his history of violence. And it was a law signed by President Bill Clinton, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform Act, not a Bush administration edict, which was the ground for his deportation. When he pled guilty, the judge informed him that his conviction would make him subject to deportation, which he acknowledged. An immigration judge ordered him deported in September 1999 — two years before 9/11. Additional evidence of violence in the home would emerge during his later immigration hearings.
After 9/11, authorities began taking a much closer look at Al-Jailani and took him into custody in October 2002 after he had made calls to a known al-Qaeda operative and his business card and other information were found in the possession of another terrorism suspect arrested in Chicago. According to testimony in his deportation trial, Ashraf Al-Jailani was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation opened by the Cleveland U.S. attorney’s office looking into his terror connections. An FBI agent testifying in court described Al-Jailani as an al-Qaeda “first-stringer” and “a monumental threat to the community, particularly to the Jewish community”.
Amazingly, it was those allegations of his connections to al-Qaeda that his supporters used to oppose his deportation, claiming that he would be tortured for his terrorist connections if he were returned to his native Yemen. Today Ashraf Al-Jailani is now a high-ranking Yemeni government official in the Ministry of Oil and Minerals — a previously unknown form of torture. Adding to the irony is that while Al-Jailani’s wife, Michelle Swensen, and his supporters were simultaneously raising the specter of torture in Yemen, they were simultaneously appealing to the government of Yemen to press harder for his release.
Another opportunity to protect the Al-Jailani children passed when a Portage County family court judge returned the children to their mother’s custody. They had come into the state’s care after Michelle Swensen was hospitalized for two months for severe depression. With their father in the custody of federal immigration officials and their mother in the hospital, child welfare authorities were forced to intervene and place their children in foster care, where reports indicate they thrived.
The return of the children also became part of the overarching political drama attached to the Al-Jailani case. After the children’s case worker became alarmed at the prospect that Swensen was preparing to take the children to Yemen and that she had failed to regularly take her medication, the county decided to withdraw its motion to return the children to Swensen’s care.
Immediately after the September 2004 court hearing where the court agreed with county authorities not to return the children, Swensen held a press conference on the courthouse steps attacking the child welfare case worker as anti-Muslim, as reported at the time by the Beacon Journal:
“She doesn’t like Yemen. She doesn’t like Ashraf. She doesn’t like Islam,” Swensen said. …
Swensen said everything was fine until her social worker saw that Swensen was renewing one of her daughter’s passports Sept. 8 — the same day she said she learned her husband may be deported.
The next day, Swensen said, the social worker called and told her that it wasn’t in the best interests of the children to go to Yemen and she was going to ask the county to rescind its motion to return her children home.
Swensen, 34, said she has neither the intention nor the money to take her children to Yemen. Her children have had passports since birth, she explained, and she was merely renewing one that had expired.
The case worker had legitimate concerns, as the State Department warns that Yemen is not a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Custody disputes in Yemen are resolved by Islamic Sharia courts and children are prohibited from leaving the country without their father’s permission.
Additionally, Al-Jailani’s history of violence was a concern for immigration authorities beyond the 1999 domestic violence conviction. Evidence was presented in court from Swensen’s own online journal that he had threatened her life; at one point he had dragged her down the stairs; on another occasion he forcibly restrained her on a bed after not agreeing to what she was wearing; and he had also violated a court protection order.
Those concerns were set aside and Swensen’s attorney filed to have the case worker removed, even though as the Beacon Journal admits the case worker was among the best and most respected in the entire department. Under pressure from CAIR and local Muslim leaders and afraid of being labeled as Islamophobic, child welfare administrators quickly switched case workers — an unprecedented move — and the children were returned to Swensen. They later looked the other way and took no action when she was arrested for drunk driving.
In an email she sent to the media afterwards, Swensen crowed about getting the concerned case worker removed. “I was told that I could never get a new social worker,” she wrote, “that it’s never done, and that it would never be done. Well, it got done.” That decision to remove the case worker and return the children to Swensen would eventually prove catastrophic for Amina, Layla, and Sami.
In 2006, after Ashraf Al-Jailani’s deportation, Swensen — who promised the court that she had no ability or intention to take the children to Yemen — did exactly that for what was supposed to be a summer trip to see their father. Al-Jailani, however, refused to let them return as was his right under Yemeni law, notwithstanding Swensen’s full custody granted by U.S. courts.
According to reports from her family, Swensen — who now calls herself Mia Olsen — has unsuccessfully tried to retrieve her children from their father in Yemen. They also report that the children are regularly beaten by Al-Jailani and that he has threatened Swensen’s life if she ever returns to Yemen. It is quite possible that Swensen will never see her children again.
No doubt the saddest element in this story is that the Al-Jailani children were ultimately betrayed by their own mother, who was complicit in their abduction through her own naïveté, her willfully ignoring the danger signs of her husband’s long history of violence, and her voluntary decision to take them to Yemen against all advice. Her accomplices were all of those organizations and media outlets that used Al-Jailani’s case to their own benefit, even exploiting the children by constantly citing the children’s inability to see their father. Now that their anti-Patriot Act poster boy has abducted the very children they used for their own agendas, their deliberate silence, inaction, and apparent utter lack of concern for the children’s welfare only compound their treachery.