ALEXANDRIA, Va.- To those who know him, Ali Asad Chandia is many things: son, husband, father, brother, friend, teacher, scholar, Muslim and more.
To those who only know of him, the 29-year-old College Park man is a name in the newspaper of someone who the government has accused of aiding terrorists.
A soft-spoken man with clean-cut, short hair and a long, neatly-trimmed beard, Chandia was arrested Sept. 15 at his home and charged with two counts of providing material support to terrorists and two counts of providing material support to a designated terrorist organization.
The charges were brought as a continuation of the “Virginia Jihad” investigations, which, in 2004, resulted in 10 convictions.
These investigations largely circled around charges that members of the group used paintball guns as part of warfare simulations designed to train for jihad against the United States, but Chandia was not charged with participating in this training.
Instead, he is charged with helping to ship materials to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, and with seeking terrorist training from the group in Pakistan.
To friends like Zahirah Abdul-Wakil of Silver Spring the charges stand in stark contrast to the Chandia they know.
“Ali is a very popular member of the community because he has been a teacher at Al-Huda school for three years,” said Abdul-Wakil, whose son was Chandia’s student at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Islamic school in College Park.
“The children have looked up to Ali and seen him — and so have their parents — as an outstanding member of the community,” she said, he is always calm and gentle.
“His arrest was actually very traumatizing for many of the kids in his class,” Abdul-Wakil said. It confused their view of the police as protectors because they took away someone the children know is a good guy, she said.
Wakil-Abdul is also one of more than a dozen local citizens on the Ali Asad Support Committee, which, she said, formed soon after his arrest to raise money to provide Chandia with a strong legal defense.
The group also created a Web site, www.aliasad.org, to show people the Chandia they know.
Eager to do the same, Chandia, who is out on bail, and his attorney, Marvin Miller, agreed to an interview at Miller’s Alexandria, Va., office.
Chandia was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and then his parents brought him and his siblings to Maryland where they would have better opportunities.
“Of course our main focus was education,” Chandia said.
Chandia enrolled in the 12th grade at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg and earned high marks even while working at both Roy Rogers and JCPenny.
Chandia went on to study criminal justice at Montgomery College then transferred to the University of Maryland where he earned a degree in information systems.
After moving to the United States, Chandia said, his interest in Islam increased, and he took it upon himself to learn more about his faith.
Part of that meant learning Arabic because it provides access to the most resources on Islam, said Chandia, who was already fluent in English and Urdu, Pakistan’s official language.
He studied at the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in Fairfax and went on to become a teacher guiding both Muslim and non-Muslim students in their study of Arabic.
In the process of his academic and religious studies, Chandia said, he amassed a personal library with about 1,000 books and other materials.
These books were examined by the government after Chandia’s home and car were searched by the FBI. The indictment against him says Chandia “possessed publications concerning violent jihad.”
Chandia did not dispute that he had materials of this sort, but said an educated person must read all sorts of information.
“I like to read both good and bad,” he said, “because you won’t realize what’s good unless you read what’s bad.”
While at Montgomery College, Chandia became friends with the brother of Masoud Khan, who was sentenced to life in prison for taking part in war games using paintball guns, among other charges.
Khan’s mother introduced Chandia to his wife, Fatima, a Cuban-born convert, whose chosen Islamic name is Fatima. The couple married in a simple mosque wedding in March 2003, just two weeks after their first meeting.
About two months later, the FBI raided their home, and then on June 5, 2003, Chandia was arrested and held as a material witness in the case against Khan and the others who were charged as part of the Virginia Jihad investigation.
“They wanted me to say certain things against other individuals,” Chandia said. They wanted him to tell “their version of the truth,” he said.
He could have, and in doing so might have saved himself and his family a lot of grief. But Chandia said that wouldn’t have been worth the personal cost that would result from violating his principles.
“I’m not going to lie against anybody,” he said.
The government released Chandia without filing charges, but he and his family said officials made it clear to them that they would continue to watch him and eventually indict him.
When they did, the government denied that any comments of that sort had been made to Chandia or any of his family members.
Still, Miller successfully argued for conditional release based on the fact that Chandia had not violated any of the conditions of his earlier release and, in spite of knowing the government might seek to charge him, did not attempt to flee the country.
“I think that they’re trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” Miller told CNS in September.
While Miller said he is not aware of all of the government evidence against Chandia, he pointed to several items in the indictment that he said he believes are virtually meaningless.
One example is the books the government scrutinized out of Chandia’s extensive library. Another, said Miller is Chandia’s three-month trip to Pakistan, which began Nov. 5, 2001.
The government asserts that the purpose of the trip was to participate in a terrorist training camp run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is fighting India in the disputed Kashmir region.
The real reason for the trip, Chandia said, was to attend his brother’s wedding. “In our culture, marriages are not just done in one day.”
Chandia also spent time with his father who works as a lawyer in Lahore and visited numerous members of his extended family who he hadn’t seen since 1994.
While he awaits his trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 23, 2006, Chandia wears an electronic tracking bracelet on his ankle and is only permitted to go to work, Miller’s office, court appearances and his mosque.
Things have been stressful and difficult for him and his family, still he retains a calm, collected resolved to prove his innocence.
“I hope to clear my name from these allegations,” Chandia said.
Chandia faces as many as 60 years in prison and his wife, a stay-at-home mother, faces supporting and raising two young children alone.
Still, Chandia has found a bright side to the many challenges he has faced.
“You realize how many friends you have once you have a problem,” he said.
Although, he said it seems like the government has “put Islam on trial,” Chandia also retains a positive view of Americans.
“I still think that Americans are great people.”