Two years ago, Khalid Lyaacoubi and Yassine Bahammou, immigrants from Morocco, enlisted in the Army National Guard, recruited for a program that promised higher rank, bonuses and quick citizenship to Arabic speakers who could help fill the military’s need for interpreters.
Shortly before Christmas 2009, they graduated from boot camp, proud just to have made it. But as they prepared to leave Fort Jackson, S.C., they were instead questioned by military investigators who suspected them and three other Moroccan immigrants of plotting to poison fellow soldiers.
For the next 45 days, they were placed under a form of barracks arrest, prevented from calling their families without sergeants present, forbidden to speak Arabic to each other and required to have escorts to the mess hall and the bathroom. No charges were filed, but their laptops, cellphones and passports were confiscated.
Only after the intervention of a Muslim chaplain were they finally allowed to go back to their homes. Last May, the Army concluded that the allegations against them — initially raised by the relative of a soldier — were unfounded. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation has kept its inquiry open, officials say. As a result, the men have been unable to receive security clearances, become citizens, deploy to Iraq, obtain concealed weapons permits or get government jobs, the soldiers say.
"Am I one of them, a soldier?" Lyaacoubi, 34, asked in an interview. "Or am I like one of those prisoners in Iraq?"
The handling of the two soldiers’ cases underscores the conflicted nature of the military’s relationship with its Muslim troops since the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009. A Muslim soldier, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, is accused of killing 13 people there.
Lyaacoubi and Bahammou were recruited into a program intended to put Arabic-, Dari- and Pashto-speaking immigrants in uniform to help frontline commanders operate in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a promotional video from 2008, an Army officer said the program — known as 09 Lima, after the Army designation for interpreter jobs — "saves both American and local lives."
Having Muslims in uniform also helped the military combat the view propagated by al-Qaida — but also held by many Muslims — that the U.S. was at war with Islam. Perhaps for that reason, the Army chief of staff at the time, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., strongly defended the need for Muslim troops and warned about harassment of them after Hasan was arrested.
Despite the general’s pleas, however, Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say they were swept into a tide of suspicion after the Fort Hood shootings, which occurred midway through their Fort Jackson training.
Treated with dignity during the first half of their training, they say other soldiers ransacked their bunk room and called them "garbage" soon after the shootings. When he was initially detained at Fort Jackson in 2009, Lyaacoubi said an interrogator told him: "We are at war with Islam. And you are Muslim."
Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group representing the two soldiers, said his group had seen a steady increase in Muslim clients who claimed they had been discriminated against since Fort Hood. He called the Army’s Fort Jackson investigation "draconian and clearly unconstitutional."
In recent days, the Army has begun acknowledging problems with the way it handled the soldiers at Fort Jackson. An internal review that has not been made public found that they were treated in an "overly restrictive" way because they were not allowed to contact anyone for weeks. But the review did not find evidence of racism or harassment, Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, the Army’s chief spokesman, said in a letter.
Lanza defended the Army investigation, even though it came up empty. "To not do so — had these alleged threats turned out to be credible, and in light of the Fort Hood shooting incident that took place mere weeks before these allegations — would have been an unconscionable dereliction of duty and leadership on our part," he wrote.
But the Army has been unable to explain why the FBI continues to investigate the men. The FBI declined to comment because the case is ongoing.
Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say the FBI got in touch with them after they started going public with their stories recently. Both say that an agent said their cases could be closed if they passed polygraph tests.
"I will take 10, 20 or 30, if it will help," said Lyaacoubi, who has taken the test.
Both men remain part of a National Guard unit in Washington, D.C. But they have not been allowed to train with their company since the investigation began.
In what they consider another sign of government harassment, both men say they have been searched repeatedly after routine traffic stops. Bahammou, 27, said he was handcuffed by the Washington police for more than 30 minutes while they searched his car recently. "I never had a ticket before," he said.
Three other Moroccan immigrants investigated at Fort Jackson were also cleared by the Army, records show. One has returned to Morocco, Lyaacoubi said, while the other two have declined to speak publicly about the case.
Though graduates of the 09 Lima program are eligible for expedited citizenship, Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say that is not the reason they enlisted. Both won green cards in lotteries in Morocco, allowing them to work legally in the U.S. for at least 10 years.
Lyaacoubi immigrated in 2004; Bahammou arrived in 2007.
The men say they enlisted mainly for economic reasons. Lyaacoubi, from Rabat, the Moroccan capital, had been laid off from a hotel job when a recruiter told him about the 09 Lima program. He in turn persuaded Bahammou, who comes from Casablanca and who hoped military experience would help him get work in law enforcement.
Since returning to their homes in the Washington area last year, the men say they have had trouble finding permanent jobs. Bahammou said he had applied for work as a security guard but could not get a concealed-weapon permit because of the FBI investigation. Lyaacoubi said a good job offer was recently rescinded when the employer, a government contractor, learned he was not a citizen. His naturalization, which he said had been approved, is halted for now because of the investigation.
Both men said they would deploy to Iraq if given the opportunity.
"I lived in my country for 27 years and I did great," Lyaacoubi said. "But why should I leave America? I want to live here, I want to get married here. I want to die here."