The FBI and the Pentagon are keeping a close eye on an Islamic missionary group with thousands of U.S. members. In a secret intelligence document obtained by NBC News, terrorism analysts say members of the evangelical movement are ideal recruits for terrorist organizations inside the United States.
On Dec. 13, in Queens, New York, members of a conservative Islamic missionary group known as Tablighi Jamaat brought sleeping bags to their mosque to spend the night discussing religion.
Now, NBC News has obtained a secret government memo which says U.S. anti-terror officials believe radical extremists have been infiltrating this otherwise peaceful Islamic movement and are using Tablighi's U.S. organization "as cover... to network with other extremists in the U.S."
"If al-Qaida needed a fresh set of bodies in order to pull an operation, one of the places that they would go to for that fresh set of bodies would be Tablighi Jamaat, whether it's in the United States or not," says former FBI agent Steve Denny, who has investigated members of Tablighi.
Tablighi preaches a return to fundamental Islamic values and has major mosques in at least 10 states, with as many as 50,000 U.S. members.
Recent pilgrimages in Bangladesh and Pakistan attracted millions. Experts say they were fertile ground for al-Qaida recruiters.
The memo, written in April by the Defense Intelligence Agency, claims some Tablighi members in the U.S. "have the capability to conduct a terrorist attack in the U.S.," though there's no evidence of planning.
The document also says seven Tablighi leaders in the U.S. are under investigation and claims a Tablighi official at a major Midwestern mosque "has associations with several al-Qaida supporters" and may be recruiting "converts for nefarious purposes."
The imam in Queens says the FBI questioned him. He insists that radicals who espouse violence aren't even allowed at his mosque.
"We stop them," says Imam Zia Hafez Paracha. "We don't even let them come."
"We don’t have any numbers as to how successful al-Qaida or other militant groups have been, but they are present and they do see this as opportunity to recruit youth to their cause," says Vali Nasr, an Islamic expert and professor of Middle East politics at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Tablighi does not endorse terrorism, but investigators allege some known militants have Tablighi ties:
- So-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh was radicalized at a Tablighi-affiliated mosque in California.
- Iyman Faris, who plotted to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, posed as a Tablighi missionary to get into the U.S.
The Pentagon denies spying on the group and says it merely analyzed intelligence collected by the FBI about possible threats posed by terrorists who "exploited this legitimate religious organization."