He Faced a Terrorism Probe, Went to Jail on a Gun Charge, and Now Is Charged With Drug Possession

Although the FBI never produced evidence that Ali Hemani was a threat to national security, it seems determined to imprison him by any means necessary.


In June 2022, the Supreme Court clarified the constitutional test for gun control laws, saying they must be "consistent with this Nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation." To illustrate the public safety implications of that ruling, Bloomberg Law reported last year that the decision had "forced the Justice Department to abandon a firearms charge against an Iranian American drug user with suspected ties to foreign terrorism."

As reporters Ben Penn and Seamus Hughes told it, "The firearm charge against Ali Hemani, 26, appears to have served the same purpose as when it's often brought against suspects in terrorism, organized crime, and other complex cases—to keep him in jail while building a more complex investigation." But thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the constitutionality of that charge, which under 18 USC 922(g)(3) applies to any "unlawful user" of a "controlled substance" who receives or possesses a firearm, was open to question.

As a result of that uncertainty, Penn and Hughes reported, federal prosecutors had agreed to drop the gun charge against Hemani, despite evidence that he "might be plotting a financial crime with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US labels a terrorist organization." The implication of the story, which ran under the headline "Gun Law in Peril as DOJ Allows Freeing National Security Suspect," was clear: Bruen had become an obstacle to the federal government's fight against terrorism.

That spin was highly misleading. The FBI, which twice searched the Lewiston, Texas, home that Hemani shared with his parents, had not turned up any evidence to substantiate a link between him and terrorism. Its investigation was based on a combination of unjustified assumptions, misunderstandings, and guilt by association. Far from showing that Bruen has endangered national security, the case illustrates how gun laws like Section 922(g)(3) can be deployed against people who are presumed dangerous but pose no real threat to public safety.

Although Hemani has yet to face any terrorism-related charges, he was kept in jail for seven months pending his trial on the firearm charge. That trial never happened because the charge was ultimately dropped. But when federal prosecutors realized their gun case was vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, they engineered Hemani's arrest on a state drug charge. A pretrial evidentiary hearing in that case is scheduled for October 15. Although the case involves less than a gram of cocaine, it could send Hemani to prison for two years.

A Dangerous Combination

Hemani, who currently works as a project manager at an insurance company, was born in the United States and has lived here his whole life. His mother and father were born in Pakistan. The federal investigation that ensnared Hemani began with Muzzamil Zaidi, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2020 for allegedly transferring funds to Iran in violation of U.S. economic sanctions imposed in 2019.

Those sweeping sanctions inadvertently penalized Shia Muslims who pay a religious obligation known as khums, which is similar to Christian tithing and funds charitable works worldwide. At the time, Zaidi was gathering khums donations from Shia Muslims in Texas, including money from Hemani's mother, Sameena.

Zaidi was accused of failing to apply for the government license that would have allowed him to make the money transfers. But according to Mohammed Ali Naquvi, co-founder of the American Muslim Bar Association (AMBA), such licenses are rarely granted, which imposes severe challenges on Shia Muslims who want to pay khums.

The Hemanis practice Shia Islam, the official religion of Iran, but they say their connection to the regime ends there. According to Sameena, their only ties to Iran are familial and spiritual. "Iran hosts Shia shrines, so we visit," she says. "My parents and oldest son also live there. We donate khums because it's part of our religion to help those in need."

In August 2020, FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Hemanis' home, looking for evidence to confirm their suspicion that Sameena had violated the sanctions against Iran by giving money to Zaidi. Naz Ahmad, who has advised the Hemanis as a staff attorney at Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), says the agents seized some electronics and hard drives. But the raid did not result in charges against Sameena or any other members of her family.

The FBI searched the house again in August 2022, after the Hemanis visited Iran to see relatives. According to Ahmad, that search was based on the FBI's allegation that Ali Hemani had committed perjury by providing false statements during an interview at John F. Kennedy International Airport when the family returned to the United States. This time, the FBI agents found a Glock 19 pistol that belonged to Ali, along with less than a gram of cocaine and about two ounces of marijuana.

Under Section 922(g)(3), the conjunction of drug and firearm possession is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. A federal indictment filed on February 8, 2023, charged Hemani with that crime, and he was arrested two days later. In a seven-page motion filed under seal on February 16, prosecutors sought pretrial detention.

"This is a unique criminal firearm case," Brit Featherston, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, said in the brief, which I obtained from a source who asked to remain anonymous. "Unlike most defendants indicted on firearm charges, this defendant not only abuses drugs and possesses a firearm, he also has strong links and frequent travel to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the United States"—i.e., "the Islamic Republic of Iran" and "the Republic of Iraq."

Since the United States does have diplomatic relations with Iraq, that last claim was only half right. Featherston added that Hemani "has family members living in Iran and Pakistan" and claimed that "his mother (with whom he lives) wishes her son to be a martyr." Featherston said there was ample reason to think "this defendant is a flight risk and a danger to the community," especially because "drugs, firearms, and martyrdom are a dangerous combination."

Criminalizing Religious Expression

The reference to martyrdom was based on a Facebook post that Sameena Hemani had shared on July 12, 2021, one week before Eid Al Adha, a three-day Muslim holiday commemorating the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God—an event recognized by Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. According to the version of the story in the Koran, the son whom Abraham bound on an altar was Ishmael (Ismail) rather than Isaac. If "Muslims would sacrifice their own sons like Ismail while following the Sunnah [practice] of Ibrahami," said the author of the post that Sameena shared, "then Allah would have given them the blessing of leadership of religion and the world."

Featherston averred that Ali Hemani "has connections to a cause that supports violent attacks on the United States government and, clearly, his mother wishes for him to be a martyr, a sacrifice for the cause." By taking a metaphorical expression literally, that interpretation misconstrued a religious aspiration to imitate Abraham's complete obedience.

"We've been complaining about the FBI's lack of cultural awareness for years, and this is just further evidence that they've learned nothing from their witch hunt of Muslims," says Abed Ayoub, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "They're criminalizing religious expression."

The FBI has a long history of scrutinizing social media posts by Muslim Americans, even as it insists as a matter of policy that posts by far-right extremists are protected by the First Amendment. "The U.S. justice system is operating under two different legal standards, depending on your race and religion," Naquvi says.

In a brief opposing Hemani's pretrial detention, federal public defender Brian O'Shea argued that the government's use of the Facebook post was "akin to claiming that someone speaking about the sacrifice of Christ, during Lent, is calling for literal Christian martyrdom." Despite two raids and years of surveillance, O'Shea said, the government had been forced to rely on "a common Facebook comment without context."

Investigators had failed to provide "even a scintilla of evidence that Mr. Hemani harbors any violent beliefs or intentions," O'Shea wrote, and had "shown no evidence that he has ever plotted, planned, attempted, or committed any violent act." During cross-examination at Hemani's pretrial detention hearing on March 6, 2023, Jason Hollingshead, a Denton, Texas, police detective assigned to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, appeared to confirm that point, saying he had not seen any evidence that Hemani "ever agreed to do anything in the name of extremism or terrorism against this country." Hollingshead also said he had no knowledge of Hemani's "political views" or whether he had "ill feelings towards the United States."

Hollingshead nevertheless implied that Hemani was potentially dangerous because of the views his mother had expressed during a February 2020 visit to Iran. He averred that the family made that trip to attend the funeral of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was killed by a U.S. drone strike that January. In reality, the tickets had been purchased in 2019, before Soleimani's assassination.

Hollingshead described comments that Sameena Hemani made in an interview with "Iranian news media" during that trip. "She's visiting the mausoleum of General Qasem Soleimani because she had been saddened by Soleimani's martyrdom," he said. "She wants to pray that her son also becomes a martyr like Soleimani. She says the blood of a martyr is never in vain and the fruits of it soon become evident. She compares Iran with the United States and says Iran is an excellent country and she would live there if it were up to her because Iran is governed by Islamic rule, which is divine. In contrast, America is governed by arrogance. When the interviewer asked her what she prayed for at Soleimani's shrine, she said she prayed that her two sons become like Soleimani."

Soleimani, who played an important role in Iran's fight against the Sunni terrorist group ISIS (a.k.a. Daesh) in Iraq, is widely admired among Shias. "Most Shias without a doubt consider him a hero, including myself," says one activist who prefers not to be quoted by name. "He was elevated to hero status after ISIS. It was Shias who were in the line of fire; it wasn't the Americans. When Soleimani entered the fight, the Americans even collaborated with him briefly. He's widely credited with destroying ISIS, and that means saving Shia lives."

Falling Under That Influence

Hollingshead said he was concerned that Ali Hemani, if released, would be "living under the influence of his mother day in and day out in the home with her" and "falling under that influence," given that "her greatest desire is for him, along with her other son, to become a martyr, someone engaged in the death of innocent lives." But during cross-examination, Hollingshed conceded he had no evidence that Hemani "shares her ideology."

Sadaf Doost, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says federal prosecutors relied on "Islamophobic tropes" to support an implausible narrative about Hemani. The allegations against him, she says, are "reminiscent of what this nation saw in the aftermath of 9/11: the unlawful use of national origin, ethnicity, and religion to justify the denial of equal protection of the law and the erosion of some of our most fundamental rights."

Remarkably, the prosecution argued that Hemani's clean record was itself a red flag. "The defendant's sparse criminal history makes him a perfect fit for the criminal activity that his mother advocates in her shared Facebook post," Featherston said in his brief supporting Hemani's pretrial detention. "Indeed, the ideology his mother publicly supports needs individuals who can fit into the community and go unnoticed by law enforcement."

The government deployed the same line of reasoning against a different minority during World War II. "I can't help thinking about the very similar 1942 argument," University of Pennsylvania law professor Kermit Roosevelt says. According to that rationale, "the fact that no Japanese Americans had committed acts of sabotage meant that they were waiting for the right time to all act together."

Hemani's case also fits a pattern of arresting people on national security grounds but charging them with lesser, unrelated charges. "They did this all the time post 9/11," Roosevelt says. In litigation over detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, he recalls, "the government would say, 'If you could see the secret evidence we have, you'd know how dangerous this guy is.' And then when I got to see the evidence, it was nothing."

Federal prosecutors claimed Hemani, a self-described secular Muslim, had been influenced by his mother's allegedly militant ideology, despite the absence of any actual terrorism charges against him or her. Hemani's current attorney, David Boyer, condemns the government's allegations as "outrageous fearmongering."

Despite the lack of solid evidence to support those allegations, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly C. Priest Johnson granted the government's motion for pretrial detention on March 21, 2023. While "the First Amendment protects the right to express one's frustration and anger towards the United States Government," she said, Hemani's actions "make clear" that he is "a serious flight risk" and that he is apt to "obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice."

Johnson said Hemani "has been in communication with affiliates of the IRGC since at least 2019, and these individuals appear to have directed him to take action against the United States' financial systems." According to Boyer, "The only evidence the government presented to support this claim was Detective Hollingshead's testimony at the hearing. The allegation was very vague. To my knowledge, the government did not present any evidence on who these individuals supposedly were or how Mr. Hemani was being 'directed' by them."

Johnson added that Hemani and his family "have used counter-surveillance tactics to evade law enforcement surveillance both in domestic and international travel." She said it was "especially troubling" that "on his return trip from Iran in July 2022, Defendant wiped the communication data from his cellphone and attempted to 'scramble' his travel itinerary to evade surveillance."

Although the FBI claimed Hemani "scrambled" his itinerary, his lawyers said he changed his connecting flight due to COVID-19 vaccination requirements imposed by Qatar's government. The FBI also falsely asserted that Hemani returned to the U.S. on July 24 and stayed overnight in New York. He actually returned on July 25 and headed back to Dallas the same day.

Ahmad adds that behavior the government views as suspicious can be seen as a natural response to unjustified surveillance. "These are communities that have had their privacy invaded in many different ways, including at the border," she says. "Many people do factory settings on their phone or use travel phones as a way to push back against that. It's not that you have something to hide; you just want to maintain your privacy. So unfortunately, it's become very common, and it's something that a lot of people do now because they just don't want to be put on the spot and hav[e] their privacy invaded or hav[e] their phone seized."

He Lost Seven Months of His Life

Hemani remained in custody at the Fannin County Jail for seven months, until U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant ordered his release on August 30. At that point, Johnson had recommended the dismissal of the gun charge, and the government had agreed that "the dismissal of the indictment is appropriate."

Johnson's recommendation relied on Bruen and United States v. Rahimi, a March 2023 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The latter decision, which the Supreme Court recently overturned, involved 18 USC 922(g)(8), which prohibits gun possession by anyone subject to a domestic violence restraining order, even when the order does not include a finding that the individual is dangerous. That provision, the 5th Circuit held, was unconstitutional under the test established by Bruen. Based on the appeals court's reasoning, Johnson concluded, the same was probably true of Section 922(g)(3).

The 5th Circuit added support to that conclusion a few weeks before Hemani's release. In Daniels v. United States, the appeals court overturned a marijuana user's conviction for illegal gun possession, deeming his prosecution inconsistent with the Second Amendment. In light of Daniels, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the gun charge against Hemani.

Mazzant officially dismissed the indictment on February 1, 2024. But he noted that "the government believes that Daniels was wrongly decided" and "reserved the right to file a notice of appeal in the case to preserve" that argument. The government filed that appeal at the end of February.

In the meantime, however, the FBI had referred Hemani's case to the Denton County District Attorney's Office for prosecution of his illegal drug possession. On October 13, 2023, a Denton County grand jury indicted Hemani on one count of possessing less than a gram of cocaine, a felony punishable by six months to two years in prison.

In an email, a spokesperson for the district attorney's office confirmed that the FBI directly recommended the prosecution, saying it is "not the norm" to receive cases from the agency. Underscoring that point, CLEAR's Ahmad says the FBI plans to present testimony at a June 29 hearing on Hemani's motion to suppress the evidence against him in the drug case. In response to my questions, the FBI referred me to Featherston's office, which said it was unable to comment due to "unresolved issues associated with this case."

Ahmad says the FBI's involvement smacks of a vendetta. "They're allocating all these resources to what amounts to a minor drug offense," she notes. The determination to lock Hemani up, she adds, is consistent with the way the gun case was handled. "In a normal circumstance involving a first-time offense, where the individual holds down a job, Hemani would have been a really strong candidate for release," she says. "But because of this [national security] framing, he was denied his freedom. He lost seven months of his life."

Critics argue that Hemani's treatment reflects a pattern of government harassment targeting Shia Muslims. "We see what looks like minor prosecutions, and you might think that's not a big deal," Roosevelt says. "But they're the surface ripples of this massive apparatus driven by prejudice and incompetence that's making us less safe and less free."

In the last decade, Naquvi says, his organization, AMBA, has documented denials of visas for more than 50 Shia scholars, including some who were previously allowed to visit the U.S. The rejections likely are due to the fact that it's common for Shia scholars to visit Iran, which often attracts government scrutiny. "Government surveillance and racial and religious profiling…increase mistrust between our communities and law enforcement," Naquvi says, and have "overwhelmingly been shown to be ineffective at identifying potential criminal activity."

Prejudice and Hysteria

The harms stemming from such practices extend beyond Muslim-American communities. Today's far-right attacks on liberal values were partly seeded by 9/11 policies and rhetoric that justified dragnet surveillance of Muslim communities. That period played an important role in laying the groundwork for today's assaults on ideas and institutions that do not align with white Christian values.

The Center for Constitutional Rights says Hemani's case underscores that broader danger. "The prosecution's proffered evidence opposing Mr. Hemani's motion [for release] is of the sort with which we are distressingly all too familiar, where religion and national origin are cast as proxies for danger and risk," the organization said in a March 7, 2023, letter to Johnson that was also signed by Muslim Advocates. "We urge the Court to reject the misuse of Mr. Hemani's faith and identity as it considers his motion, and to strongly caution the government against further arguments premised on profiling. Ratification of the government's arguments by this Court would not only impermissibly deny this young man his liberty, it would dangerously give such private and base stereotypes the force of law and signal to Muslim Americans—and all Americans—that Muslim identity is a legitimate basis to deny Muslims equal protection of the law."

If the government thinks you're dangerous, Roosevelt notes, it can usually find something to pin on you. "Overcriminalization and selective enforcement mean that what really determines your freedom is not so much whether you try to follow the law as whether the government feels the need to prosecute you," he says, "and that's often determined by prejudice and hysteria."