On September 14, Wahed Moharam walked into the Richard Bolling Federal Building in downtown Kansas City to ask why he was on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list. He says he isn't a threat to anybody. In fact, Moharam — once known to Kansas Citians as "Helmet Man" and the owner of As Seen on TV stores — has a history of helping the government fight terrorism.
On February 26, 1993, the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center turned into a 100-foot crater. The bomb blast's concussion knocked out several floors, killed six people and wounded more than 1,000. A few hours after the explosion, at a Sheraton Hotel in Woodbridge, New Jersey, a limousine-company employee showed up at work and began to pray frantically. "An accident happened," Mahmud Abouhalima told his boss — Moharam.
"Oh, my God," Moharam said. "Anybody get hurt?"
"Yes," Abouhalima said. And he was one of the men who had helped do it.
Moharam, a former Egyptian soldier once also aligned with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, would become one of the U.S. government's star witnesses against Abouhalima. He also would also testify against Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Sunni fundamentalist leader known as the Blind Sheikh. Moharam had been a U.S. citizen since 1981 but now had to enter witness protection, giving up his name and the life he had known in order to help the government.
Nineteen years later, in Kansas City, Moharam found himself on the other end of the government's fight against extremism. In what was later called a misunderstanding, officials at the federal building responded to Moharam's query by evacuating the area and summoning the Kansas City Police Department's bomb squad to search his car. Initial news reports suggested that he had identified himself as a terrorist and had threatened to detonate an explosive device. He hadn't.
A little less than a week later, Moharam, 58, walks into a Blue Springs Panera wearing a crisp, custom-made Derrick Thomas jersey, the football player's name spelled in gold stitches across the front. The naturally entertaining and persuasive communicator teases the young women behind the register. "You're beautiful today, each of you beautiful," he says theatrically as he places his order. He gives his name as Mike.
"Mike today," he says. Despite his impossible-to-miss display at the counter, despite a grin you can see from across the dining room, he says he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. He has shaved off the goatee he had when he appeared on the news the previous week.
The disguise isn't perfect. "Wahed!" a woman calls out to him. She approaches, gives him a hug, asks: "How are you?" Her name is Martha Kelso, and she was his boss when they worked together at a health-care firm. "I heard about what happened," she whispers. "Are you OK? Is there anything I can do for you?"
On September 14, a small wave of bomb threats rippled across the nation, following the release of the anti-Islamic YouTube video that was sparking worldwide protest. What turned out to be false reports spooked college students on campuses in Texas, Ohio and North Dakota. In Kansas City, the fear had a name and a face: Moharam's. His name and a photo made it to the press not long after the Bolling evacuation.
Moharam murmurs back to Kelso that after the threat was over, a woman recognized him from the news and told him, "You're a fucking terrorist."
"It breaks my heart," he says. He begins to cry, catching a shred of napkin in his glasses when he wipes away the tears dripping down his face.