Risk

Dina Temple-Raston is the FBI correspondent for National Public Radio. Her latest book, The Jihad Next Door, is published in the UK in January by Public Affairs.

The orange frogmen of Santa Fe

One long, slow afternoon in his rented artist's studio, Shaheen Rassoul found a leggy stencil lying on a table. It looked part frog, part human. The arms and legs were hinged, like an Indonesian shadow puppet. The figure was oddly headless. He idly began moving its lanky limbs into various poses – sometimes arms and legs above the torso, other times making the little figure look like it was running, or arms and legs akimbo. Then inspiration struck. Why not paint outlines of this stencil around Santa Fe?

He started work the next day. The frogmen began appearing in small, bright orange groups around the town with no fanfare or explanation. Shaheen stood back and admired his handiwork. He thought the figures looked comical. To others they might have looked more sinister: vaguely like the chalk lines police draw to outline corpses at a crime scene (except shaped like a frog).

About the same time Shaheen met ceramics major Molly Howitt, who was teaching at a school for the deaf. They hit it off. Both appreciated art, were fiercely intelligent, and wanted to do something for people less fortunate. A few weeks into their relationship Shaheen decided to tell Molly about the frogmen – in a special way.

A dinner party at Molly's house was in full swing when, around 11pm, Shaheen excused himself. Molly wondered whether she had done something wrong. She had expected him to stay. She kissed him goodbye and watched him walk down the street toward his car. Twenty minutes later, armed with a can of orange spray paint and rubber gloves, Shaheen was tiptoeing back down Buena Vista Avenue. He decided he would paint four or five of the figures on the sidewalk outside her apartment and leave a little Indonesian jewellery box with flowers on her car. She would discover the frogs in the morning, put two and two together, and the new couple would have one more bond, one more secret to share.

He had painted four of the five frogmen on the sidewalk and was focusing on the whisper hiss of the spray can when the street exploded in sound and light. A police SUV and a squad car roared up from behind, lights blazing. Shaheen stood up to watch them pass. When they stopped just ahead of him, he tossed the spray can and stood at attention. He looked down at his gloved hands. He clasped them behind his back like a small child. Then, thinking that looked suspicious, he shoved them in the pockets of his shorts. The latex clung to the material and almost squeaked to a stop as he thrust his hands out of sight.

As the officers approached, he tried to seem nonchalant.

"I was just in the neighbourhood having dinner at my girlfriend's house," he began. He felt his mouth go dry.

The officers asked for her address. Shaheen froze. He didn't know it. He looked up the street hoping the number would appear through the haze of his panic. Instead he started to stammer. The police moved in closer. Questions whizzed towards him like gunshots. Where was his car? Where was his identification? What was he doing there so late at night? Shaheen struggled to breathe. His wallet, he said, was in the car, but he'd be happy to get it. They nodded and slowly climbed back into their vehicles, the spotlights trained on him.

He reached into his silver Saab and extracted his wallet, throwing the rubber gloves on the floor of the front seat as he did so. He could see his whole story was falling apart.

"We had a call about a prowler," one policeman said, approaching him. "Do you know anything about that?"

Shaheen shook his head and held his driver's licence in an outstretched hand.

"Why were you wearing gloves," another cop said, eyeing him warily.

"My friends and I were doing some painting," Shaheen stammered.

The officers looked dubious. They asked if they could search his car. Days earlier, Shaheen was sitting in a lecture about civil rights at a nearby community college. He got the idea to put theory into practice.

"No," he said flatly.

He was in handcuffs moments later.

As the metal closed around his wrists, Shaheen decided to come clean about his art project.

"Look, I'm not a prowler. In fact, I was painting on the sidewalk. Those frogmen all over town, well, those are mine."

The policemen blinked at him in disbelief. They cocked their heads as if they weren't quite sure what he was talking about. Then they put him in the back of a squad car. One young officer looked at him curiously.

"That wasn't a very smart thing for you to say," he said.

They had positioned the spotlight from the squad car so Shaheen could only make out shadows swarming around his Saab. They were taking it apart. Door panels lay on the sidewalk. Occasionally he could see them removing something and putting it on a nearby lawn. He made a quick mental inventory of what they might find. His heart sank. Months earlier, he had been moving offices in Afghanistan, where he was director with an American aid organization setting up emergency shelter relief. Tajik colleagues who had never been to Kabul saw this as a rare opportunity to play tourist. The group had ended up on Chicken Street, an old marketplace in Kabul where vendors sold knick-knacks, arts and crafts, woodwork, and old Soviet guns. The visiting group dressed up like mujahideen and posed for photographs. They strung bandoliers of bullets over their shoulders. They held old Kalashnikovs in menacing positions. They put on headscarves and mugged for the camera in that way that only tourists do. If they had been in Cody, Wyoming, they would have been dressed as Buffalo Bill.

Then there was his passport: full of visas from every jihadist haven known to man. Turkey. Kazakhstan. Korea. Afghanistan. Pakistan...

"We're going to have to take you to the precinct," one of the officers said, getting into the car.

Molly Howitt was awakened by pounding on the front door. It was 5am.

"Open up, FBI."

Her heart was in her mouth. She staggered to the door and opened it. The men filled her entryway and immediately started asking questions. He says he's your boyfriend, they said. Howitt nodded.

"What's his last name?" one officer said.

She blinked at him, wide-eyed. She couldn't remember. How could she not know her boyfriend's last name?

The agents asked her if Shaheen had ever touched her computer. She thought for a moment. She had a new computer. He had helped her load the software. Is that what they meant? Howitt felt herself getting defensive and protective. They asked if
Shaheen had ever been alone with her computer. She thought hard. It never occurred to her to think about it in those terms.

The agents' questions began rearranging everything she knew about Shaheen. She asked where he was. All the agents would say was that he was being detained. When the agents finally left, an hour later, she watched them drive away from behind the curtain. On the pavement outside her house she saw five painted frogmen.

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