day in court

Federal agent impersonator went to Iran for religious visits, defense claims

Haider Ali claims to have converted to Shia Islam and traveled to shrines in Iran, Iraq and Egypt

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

The affidavit to support the arrest of Arian Taherzadeh and Haider Ali.

One of the men arrested in Washington, D.C., last week for allegedly impersonating a federal agent claims he traveled to Iran to visit religious sites.

Haider Ali was arrested alongside Arian Taherzadeh last week for what authorities allege was a sophisticated scheme in which they impersonated Homeland Security agents and gave lavish gifts to U.S. Secret Service and other federal agents. Ali visited Iran twice in recent years, and also made visits to Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan.

Ali’s lawyer, Greg Smith, claimed in a new filing on Monday that “Mr. Ali’s faith’s major religious shrines are located there, and these visits also all took place more than two years ago.”

Smith’s account was buttressed by letters submitted by Ali’s family members to D.C. District Court Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey.

“Ali underwent a spiritual evolution where he first adopted Sufism and later started following the Shia sect in Islam,” Ali’s brother, Shergeel Khan, wrote. “Ali has traveled to different countries as part of that transformation. It is my understanding that these travels several years ago to Iran, Iraq and Egypt involved visits to various religious shrines as confirmed by the various gifts to the family after coming back to U.S. Despite his change in ideology, however, he has shown no signs of being radicalized and has continued to remain close to the family, all of whom are Sunni.”

Ali’s father, Shoukat Raza, offered a similar description. Raza and Khan also dismissed claims that Ali was connected to Pakistani intelligence. One witness told investigators that Ali had told them he was tied to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The Pakistani embassy also dismissed those claims.

Taherzadeh’s attorney, Michelle Peterson, claimed in a new filing that he never solicited any favors from the agents to whom he allegedly offered gifts, and said he had done so out of “genuine friendship.” 

Peterson characterized the scheme in a hearing Monday as a “big lie that just kept getting bigger and bigger” and said Taherzadeh was “embarrassed” by it. Peterson also said in her filing that rent — over $4,000 per month — was never paid on the two apartments the pair had gifted to Secret Service agents.

The pair were also in possession of an array of tactical and surveillance equipment, technology and multiple vehicles used as part of the alleged scheme. It’s unclear whether those assets were paid for.

Both Peterson and Smith claimed in Monday’s hearing that the government had overstated its case and the nature of the offense and was, in Smith’s words, creating an “elaborate conspiracy theory” by portraying the case as a national security threat. Smith also dismissed the alleged Pakistani intelligence connection as “utterly false and preposterous.”

Smith also claimed in his new filing that he “may well have naively but genuinely believed” that Taherzadeh was an actual federal agent. Taherzadeh had claimed last week that Ali was funding the alleged scheme as of the time the two were arrested.

The detention hearing will conclude on Tuesday.