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2 Mosque Leaders Arrested in Federal Terrorism Sting

The men are accused of agreeing to launder money for an informant who said he would supply a missile to kill a Pakistani ambassador.

August 06, 2004|Mary Curtius and John Goldman | Times Staff Writers

ALBANY, N.Y. — Two leaders of a storefront mosque were arrested in a government sting operation after they allegedly agreed to launder money they were told would pay for a shoulder-fired missile to be used to assassinate Pakistan's ambassador in New York.

The Justice Department said Thursday that Mohammed Hossain, 49, a pizzeria owner and one of the founders of the Masjid as-Salam mosque in Albany, and Yassin Aref, 34, the mosque's imam, were arrested Wednesday in Albany on suspicion of conspiracy to launder money and conceal material support for terrorism.

A senior Bush administration official said Aref had ties to Ansar al Islam, a militant group linked to many recent attacks in Iraq that is believed to also have links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

"He's connected to Ansar al Islam, but that's all we can say at this point," said the official, who spoke on the condition his name not be used.

On Thursday evening outside the mosque, on Central Avenue not far from the state capital, a spokesman stood on a chair to address reporters. Faisal Ahmad asked that judgment be withheld until the facts were known. He said the Muslim community in Albany was against all forms of terrorism.

"Our imam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism," he said, and he described the other arrested member as a "very kind person."

Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey would not confirm that either man had ties to Ansar al Islam or say why they became the object of an elaborate government operation launched a year ago.

"This case is a sting," Comey said at a hastily called news conference, "a sting in which the government offered two men the opportunity to assist someone who they believed was a terrorist facilitator, supplying weapons to be used to commit terrorist acts.... This case is important because we hope it will send a disrupting message to those out there who might be plotting to harm people in this country, around the world."

Comey said the case was not connected to the recent heightening of the terrorist alert status in Newark and Washington to "orange," or high, or to government information that Al Qaeda might be planning attacks on financial centers in those cities. And he said that neither Hossain nor Aref was accused of plotting "terrorist violence."

In this case, Comey said, "the terrorist plot ... is one that the government's agent, the cooperating witness, represented to be underway. It was not real. It was represented."

Although the informant showed a missile to Hossain and Aref in the course of their many meetings in the last year, officials said, the missile never changed hands.

"We are working very, very hard to infiltrate the enemy," Comey said. "Our agents and our informants are putting a full court press on in this country and around the world. Anyone engaging in terrorist planning would be very wise to consider whether their accomplice is not really one of our guys."

In a similar sting operation last August, a British citizen was charged in federal court in Newark, N.J., with supporting terrorism and weapons smuggling. In that case, FBI agents posed as terrorists looking to buy a Russian-made missile to shoot down a U.S. airliner. Hemant Lakhani allegedly demanded $5 million to sell 50 missiles to the agents. Lakhani has pleaded not guilty and is to stand trial Nov. 3.

Ibrahim Hopper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, said the arrests of Hossain and Aref were likely to heighten the sense among American Muslims that their community was under intense scrutiny by law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It is something that we just have to live with," Hooper said Thursday. "When it crosses the line into ethnic profiling, then we have to challenge it."

Arrests such as those of Hossain and Aref "don't do anything good for the image of the Muslim American community and that's why these cases are so troubling," Hooper said. In a statement, his group urged that the arrests "not be used to associate all American Muslims with violence."

The mosque in Albany stands on the first floor of a two-story wooden building. On one side is a Middle Eastern supermarket and on the other is a store that sells wigs, souvenirs and other items. Owners of both stores said Thursday that members of the mosque were a quiet group.

At the modest, two-story home where the imam lives with his family, a sign written in crayon was attached to a window of the front door: "No comment. Thank you," it said. A board covered the door's other window.

Hossain and Aref were arrested as the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies searched the mosque and two homes in the Albany area Wednesday and Thursday.

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