Van full of cellphones leads to arrest of 3 on terror charges

Buying large quantities of cheap consumer electronics to re-sell at a profit? If so, and you're of Middle Eastern descent, you're probably a terrorist — according to police in Michigan.

Three men with Texas driver's licenses were arraigned yesterday on terror-related charges when police searched their minivan and found about a thousand cellphones inside. Prosecutors say the men, all of whom were of Arab descent, planned to use all of those phones to blow up a bridge in Michigan. Police stopped the men not long after they'd bought 80 phones at a Wal-Mart. Their families say they're innocent, and were wrongfully targeted because of their ethnicity.

Hey, at least they weren't reselling van-loads of hair gel. Snip:

But two of the men said they were only trying to buy and sell phones to make money, and one said the money was intended to help pay for his brother's college education.
A magistrate set bond at $750,000 for each of the men, who are charged with collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and surveillance of a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes. No pleas were made at the arraignment at a District Court in Caro, about 80 miles north of Detroit.

Officials have not said what they believe the men intended to do with the phones, most of which were prepaid TracFones. But Caro's police chief said cell phones can be used as detonators, and prosecutors in a similar case in Ohio have said that TracFones are often used by terrorists because they are not traceable.

"All we did is buy the phones to sell and make money," Louai Abdelhamied Othman told the magistrate. He said authorities had previously stopped the group in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. (…) "We've been checked by the FBI before," he said. "They even gave us their card and everything."

Link to AP story. Here's an account from the local newspaper where the arrests took place: Link. Mr. Othman's wife says her husband isn't a terrorist, and that the men traveled to Michigan to buy the phones because so many people are doing the same thing in Texas, the stores there are all sold out: Link. Image: Maruan Muhareb, in photo provided by the Tuscola County (Michigan) Sheriff's Department. (Thanks, Mantari Damacy)

Reader comment: We don't know whether these men did anything more sinister than selling TracFones at higher prices than Wal-Mart. Perhaps there's evidence to support charges that they were involved in more dangerous activities. But Mantari Damacy is among readers expressing concern over the logic that [van full of cellphones] + [Arab ethnicity] = guilty 'til proven otherwise, in the present terror-phobic climate.

As for why these men were buying cell phones, it is apparent that they were buying those special pre-paid cell phones that are locked into a pre-paid network. These phones are sold below cost because the companies make back their money by selling the MINUTES. (Give away the razors, sell the blades.) Recently, companies have found out how to unlock these cell phones to work with standard cellular networks. Thus, with a little work, a very cheap cell phone can be turned into a regular cell phone. There, apparently, is some good money in this. This also explains pockets in the story, like Wal-Mart trying to enforce a vendor's desire that no more then three be sold to a person.

[I am] outraged at how completely stupid the overblown terror threat is. "They needed 1000 cell phones as a detonator to blow up a single bridge, which the batteries can be used to make drugs, and they were going to resell the phones in order to raise money for terrorism because they're Arabs."

Update: Two men of Arab descent were arrested on similar charges earlier this week in Ohio: Link, and Link. Full disclosure: Heck, I have nearly 1,000 old cellphones (some with batteries separated) in my desk drawer. But my last name is not Muhareb, and I don't drive a minivan. Ergo, I am not a terrorist.

Reader comment: minivan-commando says,

How to unlock your cellphone is Hack #7 in a recent O'Reilly jihadist instruction manual book, Nokia Smartphone Hacks. Last time I checked, it wasn't a crime.