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FBI Focuses on Black Muslims in Seattle

Terrorism: Agents are checking possible links between local mosques and Al Qaeda network.

July 20, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — The brawny man in the Muslim skullcap gestured toward a brick apartment building across the street from where he was standing guard at a shelter for homeless families.

"See that window over there?" said the man, Abdul-Hakim, pointing to an upper floor. "The FBI watches me from that window."

The FBI will not comment. But a federal investigation of a possible terrorist cell in the Pacific Northwest is focusing on a group of African American converts to Islam, possibly opening a new chapter in the domestic war on terrorism.

Across the nation, court papers suggest that FBI anxiety about radical African American Muslims has reemerged in the last decade as the bureau has concentrated on Islamic terrorism.

Federal investigations into the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and a related plot to blow up New York landmarks discovered the names of black Americans associated with the "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, now serving a life term for his part in the bombing conspiracy. Among those convicted in the same plot was U.S.-born Rodney Hampton-el, a former New York clinic worker and ex-moujahedeen volunteer in Afghanistan.

"FBI scrutiny of African American Muslims has clearly increased since the [1993] World Trade Center bombing," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor at Shaw University in North Carolina who has studied the nation's Muslims. "A lot of this is a combination of a focus on terrorism and an agenda about black 'radicals' and Muslims--all lumped together."

The Seattle investigation turns on the notion that foreign terrorists may have recruited on U.S. soil among African American Muslims, and may even have sponsored a "jihad training camp" in the Oregon backcountry with U.S. collaborators. Law enforcement documents obtained by The Times say that an American man who worshiped at one of the mosques here may have served as a liaison for recruits seeking entry into Afghan terrorist training camps. In addition, documents show, he and his brother were suspected of scouting targets "for a terrorist operation" during a road trip back to Seattle last month.

The inquiry has sent a shudder through a small, insular community whose members view themselves as having worked hard to banish crack dealers from their block.

Abdul-Hakim says he worshiped with the two brothers. He said neither the brothers nor anyone else associated with the case ever advocated violence or terrorism. Most, if not all, strongly opposed U.S. policy in the Middle East, Abdul-Hakim said, but none ever preached violence.

"We're still trying to figure out what Al Qaeda is," said Abdul-Hakim. "Muslims are under attack worldwide. Why are Muslims the only people not allowed to train in self-defense?"

The specter of terrorism also surfaced in the case of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown, the onetime black power firebrand), a charismatic Muslim convert who received a life sentence in Atlanta this spring for killing a sheriff's deputy in a shootout. The FBI investigated Al-Amin as a suspected terrorist in the years after the World Trade Center bombing, but Al-Amin was never charged.

The movement founded by Al-Amin may be indirectly linked to the case in Seattle. The mosques in question here were said to have at least an informal affiliation with his group.

Like the great majority of African American Muslims, neither the Atlanta nor Seattle groups were affiliated with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who promotes a black nationalist agenda. Instead, the Muslims now drawing federal attention attend mosques espousing a pro-Islam philosophy widely shared in the Muslim world.

"It's not the policy of the FBI to investigate mosques or any other religious institution," said Charles Mandigo, the FBI chief in Seattle. "Any investigations that the FBI may be conducting would be based on the actions of individuals and not their religion, national origin, race, or any other such characteristics."

Nevertheless, the disquieting scenario of home-grown terrorist recruits has set off alarms. A confidential FBI alert on the Seattle case last month was sent to field offices--as well as to the White House, CIA, State Department and other assorted government agencies. A copy was obtained by The Times.

The two brothers apparently targeted in the Seattle case--who had not previously been publicly identified--issued a news release on Monday denying any links to terrorism.

The release identified the pair as James and Mustafa Ujaama. According to the FBI document, they were born in Denver, reared in Seattle and their given names and ages are Earl James Thompson, 36, and Jon Alexander Thompson, 34.

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