Skip to comments.Brooklyn Mosque Becomes Terror Icon
Posted on 03/09/2003 12:31:20 AM PST by sarcasm
l Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, a six-story converted factory trimmed in orange and gold, has been many things to many people during its life: a mystery, a noisy neighbor, a source of suspicion, and, for thousands of Muslims who live or work along Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Arab Brooklyn, a place of worship.
Last week, the mosque became, not for the first time, a symbol of terror. A federal affidavit unsealed on Tuesday describes links between the mosque, several Brooklyn businessmen and a cleric in Yemen who, prosecutors say, claims to have funneled more than $20 million to Al Qaeda. "They did their fund-raising right here in our own backyard," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said.
But while Al Farooq has been the spiritual home of some infamous men including, briefly, the blind Egyptian sheik eventually convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the man who killed Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 the role of the mosque and its members in supporting more recent terrorist activity remains unclear.
The affidavit filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn last week against the cleric, Sheik Muhammad Ali Hasan Al-Moayad, details the government's contention that he provided support to terrorists, but contains little evidence that the mosque itself played a significant role.
The 41-page document does not mention any particular amount of money flowing through the mosque, saying only that an associate of the sheik's spoke there in 1999 hoping to raise $27,000 in the name of needy families.
Sheik Moayad, according to the affidavit, told a government informant that he had received money for the jihad that was collected at the mosque. A law enforcement official involved in the case said that actions detailed in the affidavit support the sheik's claim. But the official said it was not clear whether people who donated money knew it would go to terrorists. Several mosque members said last week that they had heard of Sheik Moayad, but only as someone who worked with the poor.
According to the affidavit, in the months before 9/11, two unnamed Brooklyn supporters of Sheik Moayad moved about $500,000 into or out of their bank accounts in small sums, a technique that the government said terror supporters use to skirt the federal requirement that transactions of more than $10,000 be reported.
But the affidavit does not say that any of that money reached the sheik. And many local Middle Eastern immigrants said that until 9/11 and the scrutiny that followed, it was common to use unlicensed money-senders, who employ similar tricks and are faster and cheaper than Western Union, for routine overseas transfers to family and friends.
Al Farooq's imam, Abderahman Mohamed, said in an interview on Friday that one of the mosque's roles in the community is to serve as a go-between for donors and charities. Giving to charity is one of the pillars of Islam. Since he became its imam 15 months ago, Mr. Mohamed said, the mosque has never knowingly steered donations to terrorists, though he added, "It would be hard for a mosque like us to control a large organization once the money leaves us."
As he sat in his drab fifth-floor office, Mr. Mohamed said that the amount of money flowing through the mosque is far from the stuff of riches. "Twenty million dollars," he said smiling as he repeated the figure now publicly associated with the mosque. "That is an imaginary number," he said, adding: "I'm sorry for the way these messages are being disseminated by newspapers and read by naïve people who don't know what's going on and just believe what they hear."
The situation the mosque finds itself thrust into, then, is one that has cropped up frequently since 9/11: law enforcement agencies eager to aggressively fight terrorism, focusing on suspects who for a variety of reasons are not easily identifiable as terrorism supporters, harassed innocents or something in between.
The mosque, just west of Flatbush Avenue, certainly does not appear to be a wealthy place, though it appeared no wealthier in the early 90's, when it was an American outpost of the mujahadeen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Its lobby walls, decorated with travel posters of Mecca and advertisements for the Muslim Youth Center indoor basketball league, are splotchy and cracked. In the corner is a metal container the size of a kitchen trash can, used for donations.
The first three floors have narrow rectangular prayer rooms covered in purple and green carpeting. Shelves outside each room fill up with worshipers' shoes during services. The upper floors house the Al-Aqusa Islamic School as well as offices furnished with beat-up, taped-up desks and chairs.
At Friday's 1 p.m. service, an imam from Michigan, Abdul Wali, preached a sermon on tolerance in the packed third-floor prayer room. Most men sat side by side on the rug, others leaning against the wall, while a few lost in rapture muttered and rocked as if pulled by an invisible string.
Leyaqah Althaibani, a Yemeni immigrant in her 50's who lives a block from the mosque, said she has attended Friday services there for years and heard countless appeals for donations, but never anything that sounded remotely questionable. "They ask for help to fix the mosque, fix the school and help feed the poor, and that's it," she said.
In the government affidavit, the closest thing to a money trail from the mosque to Al Qaeda is an account of a 1999 visit by a Yemeni cleric identified as Sheik A.S. He is described as an outspoken supporter of Osama bin Laden and is said to have traveled to the United States several times to raise money.
According to the affidavit, Sheik A.S. flew to New York on Dec. 28, 1999, and was met by a Brooklyn associate of Sheik Moayad, who instructed him to ask at Al Farooq Mosque for money for "20 families who needed to be sponsored and that this would generate about $27,000."
On Dec. 31, the affidavit says, Sheik A.S. told the associate that he had collected "around 10," but it was unclear whether that money had come from the mosque or elsewhere.
In November 2001, according to the affidavit, a government informant approached Sheik Moayad and said he had a wealthy friend who wanted to give money to the jihad.
The sheik, in turn, is said to have told the informant that he worked for a man in Yemen who bought weapons for Al Qaeda and that he could arrange the transaction. He also gave the informant phone numbers of several men in Brooklyn who he said had sent him money.
The affidavit said that last July, one of those associates told the informant that he had transferred money for Sheik Moayad before 9/11 but that since then he had taken to sending smaller sums like $1,000 because Yemenis were being monitored by United States authorities.
Bank records show that between June 2001 and September 2001, the man transferred $169,000 from one of his business bank accounts to another in 14 separate transactions, the affidavit states.
It remains to be seen whether anyone connected with the mosque will be charged with aiding Sheik Moayad. But the case of another Yemeni immigrant in Brooklyn once suspected of ties to terrorism, Muhammad Ali Alriany, show how the process sometimes works.
Mr. Alriany's lawyer, Peter Mollo, said that Mr. Alriany came to Brooklyn from Yemen in the late 1970's, worked in a grocery store, started a candy distributing business, bought and sold a building and in 2001, started an unlicensed money transfer business in a storefront he rented from the mosque, on its ground floor.
At the time, such small money-transfer offices were common in the neighborhood, residents said. Mrs. Althaibani's husband, Muhammad, an elevator operator, said that he had sent money home to his family through Mr. Alriany and others. Mr. Althaibani said he would take money to the transfer office, and the proprietor would call a relative in Yemen and instruct that person to give the same amount of money to Mr. Althaibani's relative.
"It's fast and cheap," Mr. Althaibani said. "These guys charge 1 or 2 percent, and Western Union charges 5 or 10 percent."
Last June, federal agents applied for a search warrant of Mr. Alriany's business, stating that among other things, he was "providing material support to international terrorist organizations," Mr. Mollo said.
The indictment that followed, though, does not mention terrorism. Mr. Alriany pleaded guilty to the money-transfer charges and faces four to five years in prison at his sentencing in May.
"These poor slobs, because they do what every other ethnic group is doing, they're getting it in the neck," Mr. Mollo said.
On Atlantic Avenue, several non-Arab neighbors of the mosque said they did not feel threatened by it.
Renata Schwartz, whose husband, Dr. C. P. Schwartz, has his medical office two doors from the mosque, said that people at the mosque had never been less than cordial.
"We're friendly with our neighbors," she said. "We see each other when we shovel snow and say hi. I bring them their mail when it gets delivered to us."
On Tuesday, as reporters swarmed around the mosque, a woman who works around the corner came to drop off some mail. The woman, Erika Katske, an organizer for Citizen Action, a nonprofit group, said the mosque did not concern her.
"I think there are a lot of sources of money" to support terrorism, she said. "There's all kinds of sleazy things that happen around money. I don't worry about the people in my community funding terrorism."
< SNIP >
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the jailed Muslim cleric, served as the mosques imam, or spiritual leader, before he was convicted of inciting followers to carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a separate, foiled plot to bomb New York landmarks.
Three of his mosque followers went on to carry out that first trade center attack. A Sudanese man they met there would later help found al-Qaida with bin Laden. And an Egyptian army officer who frequented the Alkifah refugee center affiliated with the mosque and at one time located in its basement before moving down the block would become bin Ladens head of security.
The Al-Farooq mosque has been a place that has a rich sort of history to it. It would not at all be impolitic or inaccurate to describe it as a place that has been known to attract people who, at a minimum, not only opposed the United States but picked up arms and tried to do something against this country, noted Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent who investigated the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, tracking down al-Qaidas backing of those attacks and helping to build the first case in America to charge bin Laden with plotting to kill U.S. citizens.
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