Wrongly Accused of Terrorism: The Sleeper Cell That Wasn’t

Six days after 9/11, the FBI’s raid on a sleeper cell signaled America’s resolve to fight terrorism. But, despite a celebrated conviction, there was one problem–they were wrong.

For teachers: This video is part of a collection of resources including four short films, each accompanied by a lesson plan and student activity.

Six days after September 11th, FBI agents tracking a suspected terrorist raided a Detroit house and stumbled upon three North African immigrants living in the apartment upstairs. The man the FBI was looking for had moved out. But a sweep of the apartment revealed something suspicious — two old airport badges and fake identity documents.

That was evidence enough for an arrest. But there was more: videotapes of tourist destinations and a suspicious day planner with hieroglyphic-like scrawls and cryptic references – apparently, to a Turkish airport and a Jordanian hospital. Once the prosecution produced a witness to lay out the conspiracy, a jury was convinced. Two of the men were convicted on the most serious charge, that they intended to provide material support to terrorists.

But the real transgression became apparent only later. As the men waited to be sentenced, the federal judge presiding over the trial discovered that key evidence that might have impeached the government’s star witness and cleared the defendants of wrongdoing was never turned over to the defense. What followed was an investigation of the prosecution, one that turned up startling evidence of its own.

Retro Report lays out this story using declassified documents and interviews with those at the center of the case, and asks not only how this travesty could occur after 9/11, but how unlikely it is that such a distortion of justice could happen again today.

For teachers
  • Director: Peter Klein
  • Associate Producer: Lisa Hale
  • Reporter: Peter Klein
  • Reporter: Lisa Hale
  • Reporter: Olivia Katrandjian
  • Editor: Ben Howard
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Editor: David Feinberg

For Educators


This 11-minute video and lesson plan enable students to examine the experiences of Muslims and Arab Americans following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Students will investigate one example of a flawed prosecution of Arab immigrants living in Detroit as a case study in the climate of fear following the attacks. Students will then choose from among other primary source materials to describe particular experiences and generalize about the broader experiences of Muslims and Arab Americans.

Lesson Plan 1: The Sleeper Cell That Wasn’t

Students will learn how the climate of fear and panic following the 9/11 attacks resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of innocent Arab immigrants.


Students will:

  • Examine multiple perspectives related to the treatment of Muslims and Arab Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Analyze multiple primary source materials (including speeches, graphs and narratives) to evaluate the perspectives of Muslims and Arab Americans who were targeted for mistreatment.
  • Formulate a recommendation for how to avoid mistreatment of ethnic, racial and religious minority groups following tragedies.
Essential questions
  • What were some of the experiences of Muslims and Arab Americans following the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
  • What mistakes did individuals or the government make that led to mistreatment of Muslims and Arab Americans?
  • What lessons should we learn from this time period about how to prevent mistreatment of ethnic, racial and religious minority groups and individuals?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6:Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9:Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.2.9-12. Explain points of agreement and disagreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question.
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.8.9-12.Analyze how current interpretations of the past are limited by the extent to which available historical sources represent perspec-tives of people at the time.
    • D2.His.12.9-12.Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.6: Challenges of Society In Transition

      Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development is. Situated within a broader historical context.

      Theme 6: America in The World (WOR)