This time last month, Mohamed Salmi says he was just another anonymous foreigner living and working in Japan. Today he fears his life here may be over, and receives phone calls from reporters asking him if he is an al-Qaida “terrorist.”
“I’ve no idea why they have picked on me,” says the Algerian, who has lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years and is married to a Japanese national. “My wife and I are still struggling to believe it.”
Salmi’s name was one of several released in extraordinary leaked documents from a counterterrorism unit of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Public Security Bureau. Listed as “terrorist suspects,” the men are Muslims who live and work here, in many cases for decades.
The documents, which have been obtained by The Japan Times, contain vast amounts of personal information, including birthplaces, home and work addresses, names and birthdays of spouses, children and associates, personal histories and immigration records. Even the names of local mosques visited by the “suspects” are included.
In most cases, the causes of the initial police suspicion appear to have simple explanations. Salmi’s former work as a travel agent placed him in contact with Arab students, businessmen and diplomats.
“I had a lot of ambassadors as clients,” says the 47-year-old, who now works for a Japanese construction company. “I can’t believe this is enough to put me on a list of suspects.”
Apparently released via file-sharing software, the files and the background on how they were compiled reveal that Japanese police, under pressure from U.S. authorities, trawled Tokyo in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, in search of intelligence data among the city’s tiny Muslim community. According to victims of the leak, in some cases the Security Bureau tried to recruit them as spies.
Bakkali Said, for example, who works as a chauffeur for the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo, says the special police approached him after he forgot to renew his residence visa in 2007 — a common error among foreigners here, usually solved with a handwritten apology.
“When I went to the immigration center the police took me to the police station because they said they wanted to interview me,” explains Said, a Moroccan who has lived here since the late 1980s and is married to a Japanese citizen. He says he spent 10 days in a police holding cell, answering “a million” questions.
“I loved Japan. I thought life here and their system was great. Everything is so safe. So I cooperated and I tried to answer honestly, but they wanted to prove they were fighting terrorism, you know? They asked me about what I was really doing here and I just said I’m a simple, respectable man and I couldn’t help them.”
Freed from police custody, Bakkali was held in an immigration detention center for another 20 days and then told he couldn’t work for four months. After his release he was, in his words, “stalked” by the special police.
“They called me and pretended they were my friend, inviting me for coffee and dinner. But they began asking me for information about what is happening inside the embassy, and I realized they were trying to turn me into a spy. I’m still shocked — I’ve never had a problem in my life. I’ve never harmed a mosquito. And now this.”
Said’s police file contains a long list of seemingly random information. It says he is “well trusted” at the Iraq Embassy and has two cell phone handsets, with numbers for the Iraqi, Moroccan, Croatian, Dutch, Kuwaiti and Spanish embassies stored inside.
Police investigators diligently record that he owns a USB storage device with 520 photos, is a well-known attendee at the Arab Islamic Institute mosque in Moto-Azabu, Tokyo, and has a Skype account on which he has spoken French.
“I have French friends,” he says. “This is illegal now?”
As for why he was picked up on the police radar, his file records an “association” with a man called “Jamal,” from whom he once bought two prepaid phone cards.
“That’s where all this problem comes from,” says Said. “I’m so angry about this. The police are acting like we’re in Cuba or something.”
Said was subsequently rehired by the Iraqi Embassy, where he now works.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police have refused to comment on either the apparently deliberate data leak or the claims in this article. A spokesman gave a curt “no comment” when contacted by The Japan Times to respond to rumors that the incident was prompted by an internal dispute at the Public Security Bureau.
The press in Japan has greeted the leak with incredulity. The Asahi Shimbun said it has shaken “police counterterrorism measures from their foundation,” and lamented that police strategy on fighting terrorism has been “exposed.” The Mainichi said the blunder, days before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama, “could badly damage the international community’s trust in Japan.”
The perspective of the victims is perhaps understandably different.
“The police have broken in a few seconds what it took me 20 years to build,” says Salmi. “My wife and I are good people; we work and pay our taxes and raise our child. Who knows where this file will go?
“I’m thinking about what to do. If it was a company or a bank that did this, you can go to the law. But it’s the government, you know? I’m thinking of going to the Algerian Embassy, or getting a lawyer.”
Salmi has been in Japan since 1988 and has a 16-year-old daughter with his Japanese wife. Their birthdays are listed in his file, along with a record of his travel movements going back to 1988. He says he worked for 16 years as a travel agent and has spent the last three years outside Japan employed as an administrator with a Japanese construction company in Sri Lanka. “If you ask them they will tell you that I worked from morning to night with a group of colleagues. My record is clear.”
His police file notes that in February 2000, he made arrangements while working for the travel agency to buy an air ticket for Algerian-born Zoheir Choulah, who fought with the Bosnian mujahedeen against the Serbs in the 1990s and was subsequently convicted in a French court of distributing false papers for a global support network for Islamic militants.
“I had thousands of clients,” says Salmi, who has never been picked up, let alone charged with any crimes in Japan. “I have no memory of anyone like that. How can I choose my clients? If he went to McDonald’s for a burger, would they be guilty of serving him too?”
The association seems to have been enough to prick the interest of the police, and now the press. Reporters from tabloid magazine Flash and state broadcaster NHK have approached him about the claims in the file.
“I told them the same thing: I don’t know why this has happened to me.
“I never suspected that this could happen. I’m afraid, you know? We’re foreigners living in Japan. My wife is very upset. She asked me, ‘Why does this happen to us?’ ”
The Public Security Bureau was set up during the Junichiro Koizumi government after 9/11 to coordinate and gather antiterrorism intelligence. It is thought to have been behind the arrest of several longtime peace activists, including priest Yosei Arakawa, who was convicted of trespassing for distributing antiwar leaflets in a Tokyo housing complex.
The police have yet to contact any of the people on the leaked files to discuss what happened.
“We don’t expect an apology, but we would like an explanation,” said Rie Lazghab, wife of Mohamed Ben Boubaker Lazghab, who is also on the police list. “How could they have let something like this happen?”
Salmi is less forgiving. “It’s the job of the police to protect people — I understand and support that. But to put all this information on the Internet is unbelievable. This will follow me all my life. I do want the police to apologize.”
Send comments on this issue and story ideas to email@example.com
Note: Out of concern for the privacy of the Algerian resident in the story, his name has been replaced with a pseudonym.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.