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.
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.
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.
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.”