BUCHAREST, Romania -- There are only a few hundred Muslim immigrants in Iasi, a city of 350,000 that is Romania's second-largest metropolis, and few of them seem eager to talk about what happened in January 2005.
That's when Romanian security forces converged on an Iasi mosque and arrested five North African and Middle Eastern students enrolled at the local University of Medicine and Pharmacy on suspicion of being terrorists.
The suspects were a Saudi, Musaab Ahmed Mohamed Mujalli; Yousuf Ali Mohamed Al Balushi, of Oman; Sudanese citizen Aymen Ahmed Fouad Jadkareem; Pakistani Asad Abrar Qureshi; and Khaldoon Walid Monir Nabham, whose citizenship wasn't disclosed. The students -- along with a Saudi medical student from Bucharest and a Syrian doctor, both also accused of terrorism -- were deported in February 2005 without legal proceedings. They haven't been seen in Iasi since.
In a story in the Romanian newspaper Jurnalul National, officials from the SRI, Romania's domestic intelligence agency, depicted the group as an al-Qaida cell, preparing to brainwash recruits and mount suicide attacks not previously seen in the Eastern European country.
What the SRI did not explain was why such supposedly dangerous terrorists were simply kicked out of Romania instead of being held and tried on terrorism charges. Later, the local prosecutor said he couldn't pursue a case against the students because of insufficient evidence. And the Romanian government denied a request from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for the exact dates and flight details of their deportations, citing national security concerns.
Zeal to be a partner
The case was just one indication of Romania's zeal to be an integral partner in America's global war on terror, a commitment that would bring the country significant financial and political benefits -- and gain the United States a new ally strategically located not far from the continuing tensions of the Middle East and Central Asia.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Romania has made a concerted effort to align itself with the Bush administration's get-tough anti-terror policies by:
u Signing on as one of a few European nations to agree not to extradite American military personnel to the International Criminal Court, a body that probes allegations of war crimes and human rights violations -- and is staunchly opposed by the U.S.
u Making an air base available as a staging area for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
u Sending several hundred troops to fight in Iraq, buttressing the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing."
u Serving as a transit point, according to investigations by the European Union and the Council of Europe, for CIA-operated aircraft that transported terrorism suspects from Europe and the Middle East to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other, more secretive foreign facilities, where they have been held without trial and subjected to what human rights groups decry as torture.
u Positioning itself to become the most important U.S. ally in the Black Sea region by agreeing to host a rotating contingent of up to 2,000 U.S. troops.
While payments to Romania under the United States' Foreign Military Financing program have increased substantially since Sept. 11, the country's decision to align itself closely with the U.S. has hurt its reputation with much of Europe and dismayed some of its own citizens.
Taps on phones
As for the deported students, court documents examined by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists show that Romanian authorities had tapped both their landline and mobile phones, intercepted their text messages and tracked them to a public Internet cafe in Iasi. But despite the intense surveillance, Romanian prosecutor Gheorghe Muscalu told ICIJ in an interview that the government had to drop the case because it had been unable to find evidence linking the students to terrorism.
The students were deported anyway under new, controversial powers adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks that gave the Romanian government broad authority to deport terrorism suspects.
"It seems to me that it's all been a fraud," Dr. Mohamed Daoud, an Egyptian physician who graduated from medical school in Iasi, told ICIJ. Daoud, who knew the deported students, is one of the few Muslims immigrants willing to speak out.
"These guys were not terrorists," he said. "They might have been a little bit more faithful (to Islam) than the others." He said he suspected that the SRI staged the arrests to justify the need for strict new national security laws that President Traian Basescu wanted the Romanian Parliament to enact. "They can say now, 'Look -- we have terrorists, too,' " Daoud said.
Since 1998, Romania has received more than $100 million in U.S. military aid, the bulk of it coming from the Foreign Military Financing program, which provides grants to buy U.S. military equipment and services.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. and Romanian military and intelligence interests became more closely intertwined.
As President Basescu revealed last year in an interview with The Washington Post, within months of the attacks Romania and the U.S. opened a joint anti-terrorism center where personnel from the CIA and other U.S. agencies worked alongside their Romanian counterparts, including the SRI, which handles domestic intelligence.
In the summer of 2002, when Romania was the first country to say yes to the Bush administration's request that allies agree not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court, the European Union chided Romania for acting unilaterally without Brussels' blessing.
But the Romanian government apparently saw support for the U.S. position as a quid pro quo for military aid and for U.S. support for Romania's bid to join NATO.