A mosque where two suspects in the Bronx terror plot were known is led by a state prison chaplain with a criminal record who had converted to Islam years ago as an inmate, then went on to become a respected community leader, offering support to other ex-convicts.
Imam Salahuddin Muhammad, head of Masjid Al Ikhlas in Newburgh, has worked since 1985 as a chaplain in Fishkill Correctional Facility, the medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., and also serves as a chaplain one day a week at Bard College.
"I know the mosque and I know the imam very well," said Lawrence Mamiya, an expert on Islam who teaches at Vassar College. "He's not radical at all. He's very mainstream."
The suspects were arrested Wednesday night, shortly after planting mock bombs outside two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, authorities said.
An official told The Associated Press that three of the four men arrested in the plot are converts to Islam. Two had spent time in the mosque.
Laguerre Payen received post-prison counseling from an assistant imam, Hamin Rashada, who said Payen lacked knowledge about Islam and had "serious psychological problems."
James Cromitie, 55, had been incarcerated more than a decade ago in Fishkill, but Muhammad said he recognized him from seeing him in the mosque, not in prison.
According to state Department of Correctional Services records, Payen had been imprisoned for attempted assault in Rockland County. Cromitie has been in prison at least three times under three different names, prison records show.
Neither imam recognized the two other suspects.
Muhammad converted to Islam when he was in prison, said Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem who has known Muhammad for 20 years. Muhammad served 12 years for robbery, according to a 2003 report in the Wall Street Journal.
He followed the same path to the faith as many other African-Americans: He started out in the Nation of Islam, then left the black nationalist movement to embrace Sunni Islam under Imam W.D. Mohammed, the African-American leader who spearheaded the break with the Nation.
The Newburgh mosque was once predominantly African-American, but now is a broader mix, with immigrant Muslims from many countries serving on its board and participating in prayer.
"We are teaching tolerance," Muhammad said. "We are teaching respect."
Sharrena Ali, who has worshipped at the mosque for four years, says it is a mix of Arabs, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and people from the Caribbean who are focused on serving the community.
"I was just as shocked to see the report as anyone else this morning," Ali said. "We are just regular people like everybody else trying to live our daily lives."
Muhammad is studying for a doctorate at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, according to Ingrid Mattson, head of the seminary's Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. He has already received a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy from the school.
"He has taken the Building Abrahamic Partnership class, as well as other classes that aim to build relationships among diverse faith leaders," Mattson said. "From what I know of him, he is the last person to preach any kind of radical message. I am sure that these individuals got their ideas from some other place."
Rashada described Payen as being jobless, evasive and paranoid. Payen was introduced to Islam in prison, said Rashada, who said he had never heard the man make radical or violent comments.
"I'm puzzled," the assistant imam said. "He had given no hint to being interested in anything like that."
Rashada had also recently taken Payen to Wal-Mart to get a cell phone, which he used often. He'd often see Payen chatting on it, but "when he'd see me, he'd start speaking French."
Rashada last saw Cromitie about a month ago.
"I asked him, 'Where ya been?' and he said, 'I'm traveling, I'm visiting different mosques,'" said Rashada.