IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Supporters question arrest of mosque leaders

Backers of two mosque leaders arrested on terror-related charges insist the men are peace lovers came to the United States for freedom and opportunity, and were merely entangled in the government’s overreaching attempt to ferret out terrorists.
Federal agents and Albany, N.Y., police raided this mosque Wednesday night.Jim Mcknight / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Supporters of two mosque leaders arrested on terror-related charges insist the men are peace lovers came to the United States for freedom and opportunity, and were merely entangled in the government’s overreaching attempt to ferret out terrorists.

Yassin Aref, 34, the imam of Masjid As-Salaam mosque, and 49-year-old Mohammed Hossain, a mosque co-founder, were arrested early Thursday when police raided the storefront mosque and the men’s homes in a modest part of New York’s capital.

According to an FBI affidavit, the men laundered money for what they thought was to be the purchase of the shoulder-fired missile launcher, supposedly to be used to assassinate a Pakistani ambassador at his country’s consulate across from the United Nations in New York.

In fact, the purchase of the RPG-7 grenade launcher and the assassination scheme were part of a sting operation, a ruse the men were made to believe by a convicted felon cooperating with federal prosecutors, authorities said. In return, the informant was to get a reduced prison sentence on document fraud charges.

At a news conference, Deputy Attorney General James Comey acknowledged there never was a real threat of any attack. “This is not the case of the century,” he said.

Still, the accused men’s families refused to believe they would participate in such a thing.

“It’s totally wrong and totally false and totally a lie,” said Hossain’s wife, Mossamat.

Wife says suspect a businessman, not a terrorist
Choking back tears, she said her husband is a businessman, not a terrorist. She recounted having to wake the couple’s five children in the middle of the night and whisk them out of the house as at least half a dozen agents swept in.

Rashid Abdulhaqq Hamzah, a trustee of the mosque, believes the raids were politically motivated.

“I think George Bush is having problems in the election,” he said.

Comey said that besides removing two potentially dangerous people from the streets, the case was meant to send a message to terrorists and those who support them.

“Anyone engaging in terrorist planning would be very wise to consider whether their accomplice is not really one of our guys,” he said.

Hossain came from Bangladesh in 1985. After years of washing dishes and other kitchen work, he bought the Little Italy pizzeria in 1994, according to a profile published this summer in the Times Union of Albany.

“I’m proud to be an American,” he told the newspaper. “When I was in high school in Bangladesh, I looked at a map of America and I dreamed of coming to this great land.”

'A family man'
Aalim Ammar said he has known Hossain for several years.

“He’s a good man. He’s a family man,” Ammar said. “I’ve never seen him get angry.”

Aref is a native of Kurdistan and came to the United States three years ago from Syria, where he was a student, according to his wife, Zuhor Jalal. Aref, who has three children, also has a job driving an ambulette.

“We come for freedom and job,” Jalal said.

Hamzah and other mosque members described their imam as a gentle man.

“He’s a peaceful man that teaches us about Islam,” Hamzah said. “The only reason we were created was to worship God, not to blow things up, not to buy things for terrorists.”

The three-year-old storefront mosque has several hundred members, many who come for daily prayers. on Thursday morning, members found federal agents blocking access and later found several interior doors smashed open.

The arrests were unrelated to the Bush administration’s terror alerts over the weekend indicating al-Qaida may be plotting attacks against U.S. financial buildings, Comey said.

U.S. Magistrate David Homer ordered the two men held without bail pending a hearing Tuesday. The men are charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to conceal material support for terrorism. Both could face up to 70 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

Meeting videotaped
According to the FBI affidavit, Hossain approached the FBI informant in the summer of 2003 about getting a fraudulent New York driver’s license. In subsequent meetings, the informant told Hossain that he imported weapons from China, the affidavit said.

At a videotaped meeting on Nov. 20, the informant showed Hossain a picture of an RPG-7, a fairly rudimentary anti-tank weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The two discussed using such a weapon, according to the affidavit.

The FBI said its informant told the men he was affiliated with Jaish e-Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan that the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization.

Authorities said the men were paid $65,000 in checks and cash to buy a missile and disguise the source of the money involved.

Two U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke only on condition of anonymity said Hossain and Aref have ties to a group called Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al-Qaida. However, there were no references to Ansar al-Islam in the court papers.

Comey declined to discuss the possibility of any such ties.