charges from money laundering to aiding terrorists, local
Muslims say they are victims of a government witch hunt
By Chet Hardin
Photos by Chris Shields
After evening prayer, an Afghani-born American citizen, a
cab driver, comes outside into the light fall drizzle to smoke
a cigarette. Crouching on the sidewalk in front of Masjid
As-Salam mosque, he points out the parking lot across Albany’s
Central Avenue. He says that he has seen federal agents standing
in that lot peering at the mosque through binoculars.
Typical behavior these days, he says. Muslims are scrutinized.
It is nothing for a member of his mosque to be contacted by
the FBI. He himself has been interrogated multiple times,
and the last time, he says, one of the agents asked him if
he knew Osama bin Laden.
you believe that?” he asks, obviously pissed. “I have lived
my entire life in this country, and he asks me that?” So he
told the agent that, yeah, he knows bin Laden, and the last
time he saw him he was doing something unholy with the agent’s
Of course, he didn’t use those words. And the agents, he says,
didn’t practice much restraint.
Three members of Albany’s Masjid As-Salam have been arrested
in connection to terrorism investigations over the past four
years. The first man arrested was one of the mosque’s founders,
Ali Yaghi, a Jordanian immigrant who had lived in the Albany
area for about 15 years. He was one of the roughly 1,200 Muslims,
mostly men, who were rounded up in the now-notorious nationwide
sweeps of 2002.
Yaghi was arrested on an alleged tip claiming that he had
been overheard making anti-American comments following the
9/11 attacks. He was held in solitary confinement for roughly
10 months without charge, before deportation. Even his wife,
Shokriea Yaghi, had no idea what had happened to him.
On Aug. 5, 2004, Mohammed Hossain, another of the mosque’s
founders, and Yassin Aref, the mosque’s imam, were arrested
after a yearlong FBI sting. Hossain is being tried for 27
counts including money laundering and knowingly providing
aid to terrorist groups. Aref faces the same 27 charges, as
well as three other counts. These allege that Aref lied about
his affiliation with the political group Islamic Movement
of Kurdistan and that he also lied about his knowing Mullah
Krekar, the founder of Ansar Al-Islam, a U.S.-designated terrorist
group. Both men face 400 years in prison.
The government claims that Hossain knowingly assisted a self-professed
Islamic fundamentalist named “Malik” (actually, an FBI informant
with a felony conviction) in a money-laundering scheme to
hide the profits from Malik’s (fictitious) gun- smuggling
racket. Malik set up a deal with Hossain in which he would
give Hossain $50,000; Hossain would then pay the money back
to Malik in small increments, around $2,000, thus “cleaning”
the money, keeping $5,000 for himself. Further, Malik allegedly
showed Hossain one of the weapons that earned him his ill-gotten
boodle—a Chinese-built, shoulder-fired missile. Malik, the
government claims, made it clear to Hossain that one such
weapon was to be used in New York City in a (again, fictitious)
plot to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador.
was brought in by Hossain to observe the money-lending transaction,
in accordance with Islamic tradition.
Hossain contends, through his defense attorney, that he thought
the money was a loan, and that Malik had led him to believe
that what they were doing was legal. Also, he claims that
he has never supported terrorism nor spoken in favor of terrorist
activities. His lawyers argue that he was not predisposed
to criminal activity, potentially establishing the argument
Aref’s defense claims that he had no idea what the business
deal involved, and that he was just performing his duties
as an imam.
Critics see the government’s case as flimsy at best, the product
of the overzealous pursuit of terrorists. But for some members
of Albany’s tight-knit Muslim community, this case represents,
with chilling effect, the dangerous bias directed toward people
of their faith. Hossain and Aref, they argue, were targeted
solely because they are proud Muslims, unafraid to voice their
opinions about faith and foreign policy.
The case, which came to trial on Sept. 12, is currently in
To build its case against Aref and Hossain, the FBI surreptitiously
recorded and videotaped many of Malik’s meetings with the
two men. In an Aug. 7, 2003, meeting, Malik drew Hossain into
a discussion about the attacks of 9/11.
According to court documents, this is what was said:
the Saudis did with the World Trade Center,” Malik asked,
“in your opinion, was it good or bad?”
. . . this was bad,” Hossain replied, unaware that he was
being recorded. “This was bad. Do you understand that?” He
went on to explain that a true Muslim wants to spread Islam.
And the best way for that to occur is to abandon violence
and lead exemplary lives.
should have a good relationship with the unbelievers,” he
told Malik. “Then, because of our goodness, Islam will spread
and continue to spread.”
Later in the conversation, Hossain continued illustrating
am a true citizen of this country. I am one of the best citizen
of this country. I am teaching my children behave. I am a
businessman. I am a house owner, I have nothing to do with
anything else. And this is my country. Other, why I’m doing
all of these things? . . . I am paying tax. I am praying.
I never harm anybody. People like me society get benefit.”
would I do anything to hurt this country?” Mohammad Hossain
asks three years later. He is sitting in his pizzeria, Little
Italy, at the corner of Lark Street and Central Avenue in
Albany. There are few customers tonight, and his wife, Mossamat,
is busy behind the counter.
have spent years investing in this country,” he says. “I have
five house. I have six children. I have a wife and a business.
Why would I hurt? Hurting this country would be like hurting
came to this country with dream that one day I be rich,” he
continues. “I will not struggle for a piece of bread. In childhood,
I was programmed by the tales of America.”
He remembers when he was a child, he had heard that Americans
had went to the moon. What an amazing country, he thought
to himself. In his tiny village in Bangladesh, the children
would show off their knowledge of America. “Do you know the
light bulb was made in America?” he would ask his friends.
“Do you know who made the engine?”
He wore his hair styled like Elvis Presley.
His father was a police officer enlisted by the British, but
even that didn’t protect his family from the crushing poverty
of his village. Every few years, he says, devastating storms
would hit. The wind would tear through the holes in the walls
of his family’s bamboo house, threatening to rip the whole
was so scary,” he recalls. “My mother would gather us in her
arms.” He stops and covers his face. It is an overwhelming
memory for the 51-year-old man. His youngest son sets napkins
down in front of him. Hossain rips one in half and dries his
eyes. All six of his children gather near him. His daughters
sit staid and alert, his sons with their chins resting on
the backs of the booths, all solemn, watching their father.
When he became a teenager, Hossain continues, he realized
that he would have to leave his village in order to survive.
He set to convincing his mother to let him go. She cried,
and he pleaded with her. “Please, so I can help you.” Eventually,
she sold jewelry that his father had given her, a cow, and
With that money, the young Hossain was able to purchase a
passport with 200 rupees ($25) left over. In Bombay, he found
part-time work on a Greek cargo ship, scooping tons of rust
and silt from the hulls of the ship’s ballast tanks. It was
a miserable job, he says, but a necessary one to keep the
ship’s counterbalancing system operating. After a few days,
his hard work attracted the attention of the ship’s captain,
he says, who decided to take him on as permanent crew.
was awesome,” Hossain says. “It was one of the golden moments
of my life.”
That boat took him all over the world, he says, eventually
docking in Houston. In 1990, he became an American citizen.
citizenship is too deep for me,” Hossain says. “This is the
land I fell in love with. I found America with so much sacrifice.
I have such a deep love for this nation. My English is broken,
but my love is not broken.”
He doesn’t look much like the man who was arrested two years
ago. Back then, Hossain wore a long, thick beard, his closely-cropped
hair covered with a Kufi. Now, his beard is short. His hair
is longer and parted, styled with a blown-dried affect. It
is difficult for Hossain to understand, he says, why he was
they arrested me, I couldn’t understand what happened to me.
Why? Was it my ethnic background? My beard?” he asks. “My
religion? Did God say you can’t love America? Where? Is America
not a part of God’s love?”
is sometimes children sleep,” Hossain says, “but husband and
wife can’t sleep. We talk. I say, ‘What will happen, we have
no knowledge.’ She [Mossamat, his wife] will have to give
up the shop. She is a woman, six children . . . “ he trails
off. There is nothing he can say, and his voice is starting
to break. He is contemplating those 400 years.
in the morning,” he continues, his youngest son crowding close
to him, “we have to get up, get ready, drop students at school.
And we open shop at 9:30.”
is very pure and simple,” says May Saffar on why she has become
so involved in Yassin Aref’s case. “He is a Kurd. He is an
Iraqi. I am also an Iraqi.”
mosque: A press conference is held outside Masjid As-Salam
following the arrests.
Saffar saw on CNN that Aref had been arrested, she said to
herself, “ ‘Wow, wait a minute. This is somebody I know. I
know his wife.’ ”
And she was furious, she says, with Aref.
was thinking, ‘This is ridiculous. This man is crazy.’ I was
really against him,” she recalls, and she felt that it was
her responsibility as an Iraqi-American to speak out against
him. She began to call anyone who would listen. “I wanted
to say something against not just him, but against all Muslims
who are not saying anything about terrorism and all those
ideas. I was so heated up by what I had heard in the media.”
She decided to attend the trial, to find out for herself what
exactly was going on. And when she did, by attending the first
and second hearing, she realized that the case wasn’t what
the media had made it seem.
was very different,” she says. “It was very different from
what I was hearing in the media.”
She noticed serious mistakes in the case almost immediately.
First, there was the accusation that Aref was involved with
terrorist groups in Iraq. It didn’t make sense to her, she
remembers, that they had found Aref’s name in a book that
belonged to a leader of a terrorist group in Iraq.
she demands. “I have family in Baghdad. And they assured me
over and over again that there were no terrorist groups at
that time in Iraq. Saddam had no connections with any terrorism
groups in Iraq.”
At the second hearing, Saffar noticed the government’s mistranslation
of a crucial term.
word ‘kakeh.’ It does not mean ‘commander’ by any means,”
Saffar says. “Kakeh is a Kurd word, it is not Arabic. Any
male Kurd can be a kakeh. It means ‘older brother.’ ”
The word is so common, how could they mess that up? she asked
difference between kakeh and commander is the difference between
night and day,” she continues. “Why would the government mistranslate
like that? It matters a lot in this case. To mistranslate
such a common word, part of me wonders if this is an oversight
Saffar is a teacher of English as a second language, as well
as a professor of Arabic, and as a professional, she says,
she has certain standards. The government’s case simply hasn’t
you don’t meet criteria there’s an A, there’s a B, there’s
a C, there’s a D and an F,” she says. “And you can allow a
mistake or two. But when you continue those mistakes and you
show consistency, that fails you. I don’t care what the justification
is. As a professional, I can only give you an F.”
is holding the government accountable in this case? For making
such big mistakes?” Saffar asks. “These fatal mistakes mean
the end of Yassin’s life.”
Just last week, she continues, the government brought in an
Urdu expert. Urdu was the language used in much of the discussion
between the FBI’s informant and Hossain. Urdu is spoken in
Pakistan. Hossain has a working knowledge of Urdu. Aref, a
Kurd, speaks Kurdish, and his conversations with Malik were
mostly in English.
was a witness for the government, and the government asks
her what the word ‘jihad’ meant. And she said, ‘holy war.’
Wait a minute,” Saffar says, raising her voice. “Jihad is
an Arabic word. It does not mean ‘holy war.’ Jihad means to
strive or struggle. She is an Urdu translator. And she had
no right, whatsoever, to translate such a word in this case.”
These are dangerous times, Saffar says. Being an Iraqi, having
lived under a dictatorship, she has seen firsthand what happens
when people surrender to their government, when they blindly
go along with whatever a government says.
as Iraqis, allowed Saddam to become the monster he became,”
Saffar says. “We never questioned him. We let go. Look at
what he did to us. After he gained our trust, he crushed us,
one after the other. He basically destroyed us. He fed on
our blood, and that is what kept him in power. I am not saying
this is what I foresee here, but this is the lesson that I
learned. I question the government. I don’t trust the government
to do the right thing.”
Since becoming involved in the case, Saffar has visited Aref
two times. Unlike Hossain, who was released
on a $250,000 bond, Aref, a 36-year-old father of three, was
denied bail. He is being held in near-solitary confinement
in Rensselaer County Jail.
I saw him in jail,” Saffar says, “my first impression was,
‘Wow, this man really fits the stereotypes of a Muslim, a
Middle Eastern.’ Perhaps you can dovetail a terrorist with
that. The dark hair, the dark complexion, the dark eyes, the
thick beard, OK?”
Aref was eager to talk to her, she says, and he was desperate
told me, ‘May, of course I had no idea that this man was an
FBI informant, but I remember vividly when he brought up terrorism,
questions about bombing places and suicide bombers, and I
told him that this is against Islam. This is barbaric.’ You
know, he was basically being an imam. A leader of a Muslim
I visited him,” she continues, “he said to me, ‘I can’t understand
how I became such an important person all of a sudden. The
first time I walked into court, I looked around and I saw
all these people from the media, and I asked myself, How
did I become such an important person?’ ”
is a true Muslim,” Saffar says. “Do you know what the word
Muslim means? It means to submit to God. You submit to God,
you surrender to God. That is the state Yassin is at.”
In the small backroom of Masjid As-Salam where children’s
lessons are taught, the marker board still poses its questions,
printed in clean, steady letters, from the previous Sunday
many times a day do we pray? We pray 5 times a day.”
do we worship? We worship Allah.”
am I? I am a Muslim.”
Dr. Shamshad Ahmad, president of the mosque, sits uncomfortably
in a child’s desk. He says it has been very difficult for
everyone at the mosque since they lost their imam. Especially
now, during the holy month of Ramadan.
He points to the door of the cramped room. It still bears
damage from the FBI raid that captured Aref as he prepared
for morning prayer two years ago.
the doors were kicked in, even though they heard the keys
in their hands, they kicked in all the doors in the mosque,”
Ahmad says. “The mosque was assaulted.”
is a place where people come and worship,” he continues, “where
they connect with God, and they fear God, and they obey the
laws. They have nothing to do with violence.”
Why did the FBI have to invade the mosque? Ahmad asks. They
obviously knew where Aref lived. Was it, perhaps, he wonders,
to send a message?
days later, we had the Friday meeting,” Ahmad says. “Only
two-thirds of our regular congregation showed up. Two hundred
out of the 300. One hundred people were not even willing to
come to pray, they were so frightened.”
Will all the stories about wiretapping, about innocent men
being accused of terrible crimes, “like our case here, no
Muslims feel comfortable,” he says. “They want to avoid. My
understanding is that everyone who is visible in the Muslim
community of this area has been contacted by the FBI, whether
interviewed or not. But many people were called by the FBI
and went to their offices.”
He says that people used to come to him and mention that they
had seen people writing the license-plate numbers down of
the cars parked in the back of the mosque.
bulk of Muslim people don’t want to express themselves,” Ahmad
says. “They don’t want to expose themselves. But I want this
expression. From the very earliest stages, I have been appreciative
of the Western society, of the laws, of the legalities, of
the court system. But, it is eroding. We see it.”
But so what? We are in a war on terrorism, right? Many of
these terrorists have been Muslims. Shouldn’t the Muslim community
just learn to deal with this inconvenience? These are all
arguments that Ahmad has heard.
is the attitude of the Bush-supporting people,” he says. “
‘If my telephone is tapped, so what? I am not a terrorist.
If my privacy is invaded, so what? It doesn’t matter much.
If I am stopped on Central Avenue and two policeman come and
search my car, what’s the big deal?’ It is a big deal. You
are a private citizen. Perhaps this is how you are treated
in a Third World country or by dictators. This is what we
call privacy. This is what we call freedom. Freedom means
I can criticize President Bush. I can oppose President Bush.
Without any punishment or fear.”
Aref, Ahmad believes, was targeted because he was an outspoken
critic of the Bush administration.
was nothing to do with terrorism” Ahmad says. “It was a phony
case. It was a fabricated case. It was a manipulated case.
If there are really terrorists, you go and catch them. Everyone
will appreciate. So here, people feel that it was specifically
targeted. Everyone in the Muslim community is scared that
I am the next target.”
tried to take advantage of the freedom of this country,” Ahmad
continues. “And everyone says . . . that he never talked about
violence, never supported violence, always he talked about
religious values. But he criticized the government and the
Bush administration. . . . If he could have kept his mouth
shut and not talked about the many evils of society perhaps
he would not have been targeted.”
image here that we are living in a free society,” Ahmad says,
“and that we can practice religion freely, is very much on