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Arrests Again Turn Spotlight on Mosque

Masjid as-Salam in Albany, N.Y., is under FBI scrutiny again after terror sting operation.

August 07, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — Mohammed M. Hossain liked to picture himself as a classic example of thrift and the American dream.

He once told an interviewer that as a high school student in Bangladesh he looked at a map and imagined coming to America. "Since I have been here, opportunity kissed my feet," he said. "Hard work has done the rest."

After arriving in the United States in 1985, with his wife, Mossamat, and their one-year-old son, he worked at a series of jobs, including washing dishes at diners, before opening the Little Italy Pizzeria nine years later.

On Friday, the front door to the pizza shop on Central Avenue near the state capitol was locked, and Hossain, 49, was being held in federal prison.

On Thursday, he and another member of his mosque, Yassin M. Aref, were arrested in an FBI sting operation after they allegedly agreed to launder money as part of a purported plan to buy a shoulder-fired missile to assassinate a Pakastani diplomat in Manhattan. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

As worshipers gathered for midday prayers at the Masjid as-Salam mosque, a few blocks from the pizza parlor, police stood guard.

Outside, Faisal Ahmad, 25, who has been acting as the mosque's spokesman, acknowledged that the religious facility had been the subject of prior FBI scrutiny. He said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, agents had questioned Ali Mounnes Yaghi, another pizza shop owner, who had prayed at the mosque.

Ahmad said the FBI was trying to determine whether Yaghi, a Jordanian immigrant, had any connection to the attacks. Yaghi was eventually deported.

Ahmad said that the Masjid as-Salam mosque was founded by his father, Shamshad, a physicist, and that before dawn on Thursday, FBI agents visited his father's house to tell him the mosque was being searched. Federal agents requested his father be present to act as a monitor, and he agreed.

"He was very cooperative," Ahmad said. "We are very willing to work with the FBI .... The mosque didn't have anything to do with the allegations." He said the FBI agents took mosque records and, he thought, some computer disks.

Ahmad described Aref, 34, a spiritual leader of the mosque, as someone who enjoyed children and was keenly interested in teaching the mosque's youngsters. He said the imam took them on an outing to an amusement park.

Ahmad said that Aref, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq, was paid a salary by the mosque and had given up his job driving disabled people. "He doesn't have much time for anything else," Ahmad said. "He is here five times a day .... I know he is not involved in any kind of organization."

Outside the small frame house where Aref lived with his wife, Zuhor Jalal, and three young children, a neighbor described her as "tired and confused."

On Friday, worshippers gathered inside the mosque and prepared to kneel on its large green rug for prayers. As Ahmad gave a tour of the mosque, which contains several classrooms, he said the $40,000 cost of the storefront building was raised by donations from its members.

In the months before Hossain was arrested, the Albany Times Union profiled him as part of a series about Central Avenue.

Hossain told the newspaper that his business suffered after the Sept. 11 attacks, but then rebounded. He said he would like to eventually sell the pizza shop and other real estate he owned so that his wife, who had a degree in sociology, could obtain her doctorate.

On Friday, his friend Ahmad said the charges did not fit with the Hossain he knows.

"[Hossain] never stopped smiling. He doesn't talk about politics. He made the American dream. He loves America. He is a businessman at heart. He might have been at the wrong place at the wrong time."

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