I know someone in the United States who thinks he does: Jeffrey Breinholt, the Justice Department official who’s on sabbatical as a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, another Washington, D.C., counterterrorism think tank. Later, when I mention to Breinholt that I’ve met with al Buthe, and note that the guy seems honest and not necessarily dangerous, Breinholt tells me that I’ve failed to grasp a fundamental tenet of counterterrorism. “Not every person who is designated as a terrorist is a bomb-thrower,” he says. “Some occupy a position within the al Qaeda world that aren’t your traditional jihadists with masks and guns. That’s not what they do. They’re financial types. White-collar guys.”
Still, during my time in Riyadh, I grow genuinely fond of al Buthe. I understand how Seda could have fallen in with him, especially when, just before I leave al Buthe’s tent for the airport, I ask if he feels personally responsible for what has happened to his friend.
“I feel sorry for him,” al Buthe answers quietly. “He is a good man and he is going back to prove that he is a man of peace. Sometimes, when you face such calamities, God is testing you, like he tested the prophets, to see if you have the patience. It increases the faith and brings you closer to God.”
On a December afternoon, more than 15 weeks after Pete Seda’s arrest at the Portland International Airport, my photographer and I board a plane at PDX that’s headed to Medford. The night before, Judge Hogan had finally relented and released Seda from the Lane County jail in Eugene on $58,981 bail. He was under house arrest at the home of Paul Copeland, who lives in a tightly packed subdivision tucked into the hills above Lithia Park. I knock on the Copelands’ door and there he is, the man I’ve been waiting to meet for some four months.
“Hello, I’m Pete.”
He stands in the hallway smiling warmly, arm and hand extended, eyes crinkling. His voice is soft; his chinos conceal his leg monitor. Our photographer wants to shoot Seda’s portrait in the yard, to catch the twilight, but Seda refuses to step outside.
“So many reporters were sitting here last night when I arrived,” he says. “All the [camera] flashes were going off.”
Instead, he sits for his portrait at the dining room table while I talk to his wife, who gushes, “Just look at that guy!” Rife had been living in Portland, but now is a guest at the Copelands’ and hopes to stay in Ashland. But that all hinges on the outcome of the jury trial in October.
I ask Rife how Seda’s return and subsequent hearings have affected her.
“It makes me care more about justice and rights,” she says. “I think most people, myself included—and I’m ashamed to say it, because I never knew it until recently—but most people don’t care unless it happens to them. I’d like to say I’m the kind of person who would care no matter what, but it took…”
Her voice breaks and she looks away.
Defense attorney Larry Matasar has forbidden me to interview Seda. I can’t ask him about his views of jihad. Or if he ever questioned al Haramain’s motives. Or if he knows precisely where the $150,000 donation ended up. We’re only reluctantly allowed a photograph, and then I’m told it’s time to leave.
While the photographer packs his things, I ask Seda how it feels to be free. He thinks for a moment.
“It feels good,” he says. “To have some semblance of humanity again. In there, it’s kind of a cuckoo’s nest.”
Rife’s cell phone rings—the tone is an Arabic dirge that she says reminds her of a cab ride she took while visiting her husband when he was still a fugitive living in Damascus, Syria. It’s Tom Nelson calling, wondering how the photo shoot’s going.
Probing the limits of my visit, I ask Seda to tell me what it was like to walk out of jail. His response takes the form of a well-folded scrap of paper, a worried copy of the prepared statement he’d distributed to the reporters and photographers who had mobbed him earlier. It says, “I apologize but I cannot make comments about my case during the period preceding the trial. I voluntarily returned to the U.S. to face my accusers. I hope that I will have a fair chance to prove my innocence.”
Seda smiles wanly.
“I wish I could be of more help; please forgive me,” he says. “The thing is, I want to tell you; I love to talk. My attorney tells me I’m a loose cannon and right now there is more at stake than opening everything up to the world. I wish I could be a better host. I wish we could have a good time. When all this is over, we are going to do some fun stuff together, inshallah.”