Al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden. Terror camps. FBI investigation. Lodi. For 10 months, those words have frequently been used when the city of Lodi is mentioned in local, national and even national news. Sometimes residents’ far-off acquaintances joke about it, and sometimes online bloggers cast the city as a hotbed of terror.
To fuel the matter, a witness recently testified in court that al-Qaida’s second-in-command had spent time in Lodi. The government has since said it has no proof of that allegation, but the earlier news had already been broadcast around the world.
Two Lodi men are currently on trial for terror-related charges, and when the trial ends and the case fades from the daily news spotlight, what will happen to the city? Will it forever be branded in connection with a terror investigation? For instance, the police chief in Lackawanna, N.Y., said he still gets calls from reporters, nearly four years after six men there were arrested and charged with attending terror camps.
The long-term effect on Lodi remains to be seen and some worry that Lodi’s Muslims will never be the same, but at least some local public figures think the city will emerge untarnished. After all, tourism is steadily climbing and has shown no dip since the FBI swarmed all over the city last June, said Nancy Beckman, executive director of the city’s Conference and Visitors Bureau.
“I have absolutely no concerns about it all. I think most people realize that a couple of people do not make a community,” she said, adding that the only comments she’s heard are teasing jokes from her contemporaries in the tourism industry.
But it may take a while for Lodi’s Muslim community to move beyond a stereotype that has lumped them all together under a cloud of terrorism allegations, said a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“People are talking about leaving; they want to leave the state,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director for the organization’s Sacramento branch. “They thought they could live out their American dream in Lodi but now they can’t.”
Rumors of terror
Rumors have run rampant over the months, with allegations that the Lodi mosque itself was involved in terror training, even though U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said more than once that there was no evidence of such training happened in Lodi.
Similarly, though all accounts indicate that Umer and Hamid Hayat were rarely noticed in Lodi — Umer Hayat is a 48-year-old ice cream truck driver and Hamid Hayat is his 23-year-old son who spent half his life with his grandparents in Pakistan — online bloggers have gotten mixed up. Instead, multiple blogs refer to the father and son as high-ranking pillars of the community.
The bloggers may have them confused with two local Muslim religious leaders who were detained during the investigation. Shabbir Ahmed and Mohammed Adil Khan, along with Khan’s son Mohammed Hassan Adil, were never charged criminally and ultimately agreed to deportation due to administrative immigration violations.
Umer and Hamid Hayat are the only ones to have been charged in the case. Both are charged with lying to the FBI about their knowledge of alleged terror training camps in Pakistan, and Hamid Hayat also faces a count of providing material support to terrorists.
They have pleaded not guilty and are currently on trial in a federal Sacramento courtroom.
Their case is different from the one that drew national attention to Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2002. Six men there were charged with attending terror training camps, but they pleaded guilty before trial. In return for sentences of seven to 10 years, the men continue to help investigators around the country, Police Chief Dennis O’Hara said.
He doesn’t think the city, located outside Buffalo, has been harmed by the probe.
“Our image would have suffered a lot more if this cell was not uncovered and they would have gone out and committed some act of terrorism,” O’Hara said.
He does still get calls from reporters dealing with other terror investigations, such as the Lodi case, and that may ultimately be where Lodi finds itself in history.
When the trial is over, Lodi could simply become a more well-known name.
“There is the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but ... “ Councilman Larry Hansen said, his voice trailing off as he pondered the question of whether Lodi has been painted in a negative light.
“I’ve had people ask me about it when I’ve gone to conferences, but it’s kind of tongue in cheek. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, what kind of hotbed do you live in?’” he continued.
Before retiring as police chief in 2000, he saw Lodi make the national spotlight during a high-profile kidnapping case. A decade later, that incident is never mentioned when outsiders talk about Lodi.
Al-Qaida allegations don’t help
Only time will tell if people think of names like Ayman al-Zawahiri when they hear of Lodi.
Earlier this month, an FBI informant raised the al-Qaida man’s name during the Hayats’ trial. The informant said al-Zawahiri, known as bin Laden’s right-hand man and listed as the FBI’s second most-wanted terrorist, had spent time in Lodi, along with two other Taliban members.
The news made headlines. Globally recognized publications sent reporters to cover the story, and the allegations were featured in newspapers and on TV around the world.
Then, on Thursday, government prosecutors officially said they have no proof, other than the word of the one informant, that al-Zawahiri was ever in Lodi when the informant placed him there.
But by then, the news was old. For example, The Washington Post didn’t write a story on the government’s concession as they had when the first al-Zawahiri allegations surfaced, and TV news shows only mentioned the event, rather than featuring it at the top of the newscasts.
“The damage is done,” Elkarra said. “For the people who pay attention, they know there’s no case. But for the people who hear the report that (al-Zawahiri) was in Lodi, it’s enough.”
Though the allegations were featured prominently in the news, they also died down. As Hansen pointed out, news events generally fade quickly. He referenced several recent shootings at Denny’s restaurants in Southern California, which caused people to pay attention to the events — but only briefly.
Beckman said the city continues to get positive recognition for its wine and tourism. Megan Taylor, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities, also said Lodi is known for its wine, as well as its revitalized downtown area.
Wine doesn’t get a mention from people who focus on terrorism, though.
“Having never been to Lodi, California, I have no idea if the bars there have karaoke machines with the Creedence Clearwater Revival song ‘Lodi’ loaded in it. If they did, a bearded pediatrician sipping kiddie-cocktails named Ayman al-Zawahiri just may have been crooning that tune,” Illinois blogger John Ruberry wrote on his blog, “Marathonpundit,” which he updates multiple times each day.
Ruberry may have hit on the one thing that always seems to feature in mentions of Lodi: The song. Even a Nightline special last summer that focused on the city’s terror probe included the lyrics of, “Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”