In short phone calls, his mother would also pass him messages from Mano, but after a while, they stopped arriving. He had told her to move on. The outside world, his old life, began to dissolve. His new life consisted of his neighbors, the dozen or so men in the unit, occupying adjacent cells. There was Masoud Ahmad Khan, in his mid-30s, who had traveled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 to attend a militant training camp; he was accused of belonging to a jihadist network in Virginia and was sentenced to life in prison. There were a few of the “Lackawanna Six,” young Yemeni-Americans who in the spring of 2001 visited a training camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was present; the men pleaded guilty to material-support charges, but the government couldn’t explain what the six were planning to do in the United States, if anything.
As the months wore on, others arrived. Hatem Fariz, from Florida, had pleaded guilty to raising money for a Palestinian terrorist group. Two leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the biggest Islamic charity in America, had been convicted of sending funds to Hamas. Yassin Aref, a Kurdish imam in Albany, was found guilty of providing material support after he watched an informant pretend to lend a friend some money; the informant claimed that the funds were obtained by selling a missile launcher to be used to assassinate a Pakistani ambassador. Aref couldn’t follow English fluently and said he didn’t realize what he had witnessed. He thought the absurdity of his case would finally be exposed when the government admitted that a translation error had led officials to mistakenly conclude that he was a military commander. And yet here he was.
Siraj was closest to another person around his age, a 25-year-old from Lodi, Calif., named Hamid Hayat, who nearly died from a childhood battle with meningitis. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, a civilian informant hired by the F.B.I. befriended Hayat, and the two discussed Islamist extremist groups and jihadist training camps. While Hayat was on a family trip to Pakistan, the informant called and pressured him to visit a camp. Hayat made excuses, but the informant would not relent; finally, annoyed, he said he might go. Hayat returned to the United States and was arrested by the F.B.I. within days. After hours of interrogation and sleep deprivation, he confessed to attending the training camp, though there is no evidence that he did. (He later disavowed the confession.) Prosecutors, charging Hayat with providing material support, claimed that they had broken up a Qaeda sleeper cell in California.
In Terre Haute, Siraj fell into a daily rhythm. He served food in the kitchen, joked around with Hayat, read the Quran. Most hours, he claimed a plastic chair in front of the row of televisions mounted on the wall and watched “Pokémon.” “He was a kid,” Aref told me. “Maybe he was a big guy, but in his mind, he was not more than 10 years old.”
One day, as Aref was watching the news, he saw that the authorities had arrested four Black Muslims from Newburgh, N.Y., on suspicion of planning to attack an American military base and a synagogue. An informant had helped build the case against them. Aref recognized him: It was the same man from his case. (The informant, who owned a limousine company, had a history of fraud and is now wanted for his involvement in a 2018 car crash in upstate New York that killed 20 people, the deadliest transportation accident in the country in nearly a decade.)
The individuals in the Newburgh case were impoverished; the informant had promised them $250,000 and a luxury car if they agreed to carry out the attacks. One of the men, David Williams, needed money to pay for his younger brother’s cancer treatment, and another, Laguerre Payen, had a history of mental-health issues. In fact, it seemed law enforcement had a knack for finding men who were vulnerable. James Elshafay, who was abused as a child, took medication for schizophrenia and depression. Ahmed Ferhani, a 26-year-old who pleaded guilty for plotting to blow up a synagogue, was encouraged by an undercover officer to buy a gun from another undercover officer. Ferhani had been institutionalized repeatedly since he was a teenager; recently, he had tried to hang himself in prison. Jose Pimentel, a Muslim convert who smoked marijuana with an informant and made incriminating statements, appeared to be unstable; he had once even tried circumcising himself. None of the men had committed an act of violence against others, but all of them ended up behind bars. The “terrorists” were sent around the country: some to general-population prisons, some to maximum-security facilities in Colorado and New York and still others to the new restrictive prisons in the Midwest.
In early 2010, for the first time in three years at Terre Haute, Siraj had visitors. He sat in his prison-issued sweats, behind plexiglass, staring at the two women across from him. The wrinkles on his mother’s face had deepened. His sister was taller, no longer the child he left behind. Siraj realized that he must look strange to them, too. When he arrived at the prison, he was prescribed Prozac for depression and insomnia. The medication made him gain weight, which, after months in the gym, had become muscle. He wanted to wrap his mother in his arms, but contact was not allowed at the C.M.U., as it was in the general-population prison.