Friend Remembers Accused Terrorist: He Just Seemed Bored
By Joshua Hall, as told to Mike Mosedale
I met Abel [Ilah Elmardoudi] in the spring of 2001. I was staying at 180 Degrees, a halfway house in Minneapolis, when I was on work release for a drug possession charge. He was already there. I met him when we were sitting around eating dinner, watching TV. I didn't know his last name. He was just Abel. Everyone pronounced it Ab-DEL.
He slept in this room downstairs where they kept the four or five guys who were there on federal holds. It was just a dungeon, cramped and overcrowded. No one else was allowed down there.
You know, 180 Degrees is a desperate place. When you're there, you're free, but not really free. Most of the guys were from Minnesota and Chicago. There was always a who-is-going-to-get-busted-for-what vibe.
Abel was my favorite. He had the air of a rogue down on his luck. He was fluent in the jargon and jive of the small-time, petty south Minneapolis criminal. He knew all the little sayings, and he'd talk like a gangster just to fit in. But he wasn't like those guys.
He had kind of a European sensibility. He spoke a few different languages. I believe he was born in Morocco, but he said that he had lived all over Europe. Which sounds kind of funny now. Maybe he was in a fucking cell in Germany, I don't know. But he didn't seem like a terrorist.
I talked to him about the phone card scam that he'd been arrested for. When I first heard about it, I said, "Holy shit! That was you?" I thought it was some kind of intricate, complicated thing. But it was just a matter of him going to the airport and watching people punch in their numbers and then selling them all over the world. I asked him, "So what, did you have a setup with binoculars or something?" And he said, "No, we just looked over their shoulders. Simplest thing in the world."
Some of the inmates were allowed limited movement, but Abel was only permitted to go to the smoking patio in the back. He had to punch a time card every two hours. I think that drove him nuts. He was always pacing about the house in his slippers. Very erect posture. Hands behind his back, like he was waiting to find out what the hell was going to happen to him.
He was always answering the phone for other people. There was this little wigger kid named Shorty G. Shorty G was in for some sex beef and he got a lot of calls. I remember Abel answering the phone and shouting out, "Shorty G, Shorty G!" It always sounded funny to me: the way he said this kid's name in a really thick Moroccan accent.
He taught me a little bit of Arabic. We used to make fun of other inmates, call them "fag" and "dumb shit" in Arabic. He talked about how ignorant they were, and how he thought they were a bunch of dumb fucks. But he wasn't mean to them. He'd talk to anybody and he could be really gracious. He'd give you his last cigarette. He just seemed bored, bored off his ass.
Sometimes he'd have these overweight white women come visit him. Two or three of them, I can't remember. I kept trying to figure out what the deal was. I think maybe one was his girlfriend and the other ones were like the fat girl's fat friends. That's a phenomenon, you know.
When he walked off in April, the staff didn't tell anybody. But we all knew. I just figured he was halfway to Morocco by now.
When I saw him on TV last week and they said he was part of a terrorist cell, I spit out my drink. I was like, "No way!" I'd talked to him about the Middle East a little bit. He didn't seem like a radical or a fundamentalist. Just another opportunist, another hustler.
I've been trying to think of who to call, but I'm not in touch with any of the people that I lived with at 180 Degrees. I told my mom about him. She couldn't believe it, either.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.