RELIGIOUS LEADER TIED TO TERROR

BRENDAN LYONS Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, June 30, 2002

The spiritual leader of the Capital Region's largest Muslim mosque allegedly raised more than $6 million for a Middle Eastern terrorist organization and was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, according to court records, interviews and a classified FBI memorandum. Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hanooti, the 65-year-old imam at the Islamic Center of the Capital District for the past year and a half, denies the allegations and insisted he has not been a fund-raiser for Hamas, the outlawed Palestinian organization whose leaders have publicly claimed credit for numerous terrorist strikes and suicide bombings.


In an interview last week, he condemned terrorist attacks against the United States, said ``I love America'' and noted that he has married a U.S. citizen.


But a Times Union investigation reveals a complex history of association by Al-Hanooti with convicted terrorists and organizations that U.S. authorities believe to be fund-raising fronts for terrorist groups. And a 1995 memorandum filed in federal court by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White names Al-Hanooti -- along with scores of others, including Osama bin Laden -- as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 bombing that claimed six lives and injured thousands.


Al-Hanooti conceded to having been interviewed by FBI agents investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. At the time, Al-Hanooti was imam of a Jersey City, N.J., mosque where at least one of the bombers prayed regularly and where Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Islamic cleric now serving a life sentence for his involvement in a failed plot to bomb New York City landmarks, often delivered incendiary speeches.


Al-Hanooti said this week that when FBI agents came to his home in Jersey City twice to interview him about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he was helpful and forthright.


``The FBI asked me questions about some people in New Jersey,'' he said. ``I explained to them and I believe that anyone dangerous to the security of the country I should report.''


No criminal charges have ever been filed against Al-Hanooti, and federal court records do not outline how he allegedly participated in any conspiracy or terrorist attacks.


But a classified memorandum written by the FBI's counterterrorism director less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks describes Al-Hanooti as a ``big supporter'' of Hamas.


The memorandum from Dale L. Watson, head of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, was sent to the Department of Treasury as federal authorities prepared to clamp down on what they called terrorist fronts that had set up fund-raising operations on U.S. soil.


It was during his tenure as imam at a northern New Jersey mosque in 1993 that Al-Hanooti allegedly raised money for Hamas, according to Watson's memorandum.


The New Jersey mosque was a gathering place for some of the terrorists convicted in the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Al-Hanooti conceded that FBI agents questioned him about Mohammed A. Salameh, the young Middle Eastern man convicted of renting and driving the bomb-laden Ryder van that blew up in a World Trade Center garage on Feb. 26, 1993, in an deadly prelude to the Sept. 11 attacks.


Federal court records show that when Salameh filled out the rental slip for the van, he listed an address of 17 Park St., Jersey City. That is the address of the mosque that was headed by Al-Hanooti at the time of the bombing.


Authorities say Salameh was linked to militant groups carrying the name Islamic Jihad, which had carried out attacks against Israeli and U.S. targets in the Middle East.


In the 30-minute interview last week at the Lansing Road mosque in Colonie, Al-Hanooti condemned the 1993 bombing, calling Salameh young and ``naive.''


``He used to come to the mosque, and the FBI asked me about him,'' Al-Hanooti said. ``I said that I don't believe this guy should do such an operation because he is very naive, he is fooled.''


Al-Hanooti declined to take a position on Salameh's guilt. ``That is for the judicial system,'' he said.


A federal law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said federal authorities do not believe Al-Hanooti's condemnation of Salameh is genuine.


On May 10, 1990, Al-Hanooti wrote a general reference letter on behalf of Salameh under the letterhead of the Jersey City mosque. The Times Union obtained a copy of the letter, which states that Salameh ``has been praying regularly in this mosque on Fridays since June 1981.'' It's not clear what the letter was used for. Federal court records show that Salameh did not arrive in the United States until 1988. Salameh received a six-month visa when he arrived at Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 17, 1988, on a flight from London, according to court records filed in New York City.


It was around the time of the first World Trade Center attack that FBI agents began focusing on Al-Hanooti's Jersey City mosque and his alleged connections to Salameh and Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. In his classified memo in November, the bureau's counterterrorism director made it clear that the FBI believes Al-Hanooti is more than a vibrant speaker and Islamic scholar.


``In April 1992 ... an FBI source, who has been found to be reliable in the past stated that Al-Hanooti was a big supporter of Hamas,'' Watson's memo says. ``The source further stated that it was well-known in the Palestinian community in the northern New Jersey area that Al-Hanooti was an active Hamas supporter, purportedly holding fund-raising activities, as well as supporting visitors to the United States from Israel and Jordan, to speak on behalf of Hamas.''


The 49-page FBI memorandum, which is a broad examination of Hamas fund-raising activities and supporters in the United States, goes on to state that in 1993, ``Al-Hanooti collected over 6 million U.S. dollars for support of Hamas in Israel.''


Much of the money received by Hamas was funneled through the Holy Land Foundation, a nonprofit, Texas-based organization that was raided by the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and had its bank accounts here and abroad frozen by U.S. Treasury authorities.


Al-Hanooti vehemently disputes the FBI report -- especially a portion that states he attended a three-day 1993 meeting at a Marriott hotel in Philadelphia where federal authorities using electronic and physical surveillance determined Al-Hanooti and senior leaders of three terrorist fronts discussed fund-raising efforts in the United States.


``I didn't attend that meeting,'' Al-Hanooti said. ``They said I collected $6 million. Nothing of that is true. ... I have nothing to do with anything they wrote.''


The FBI report states the goal of the 1993 meeting was to develop a strategy to defeat the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.


``During the meeting, the participants went to great length and spent much effort hiding their association with the Islamic Resistance Movement, aka Hamas,'' the FBI report states. ``Instead, they referred to Hamas as `Samah,' which is Hamas spelled backwards. ... It was mentioned that the United States provided them with a secure, legal base from which to operate.''


Al-Hanooti contends if the federal government had proof he had done anything illegal or was a supporter of Hamas, they would have arrested him.


Rita Katz, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism expert, contends that Al-Hanooti also was once a top-ranking official for the Islamic Association for Palestine, a Texas-based, self-described educational group that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has condemned as a propaganda front for Hamas.


``IAP is known as a Hamas front,'' Katz said. ``During IAP conferences, they used to recruit young Palestinians to carry out attacks in Israel. Their days are numbered, and they just deported two of their people ... one with ties to al-Qaida.'' Seemingly contradicting the FBI reports and court records, Al-Hanooti's speeches in Albany over the past year and a half have been moderate. He publicly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks during an interfaith memorial service at Albany City Hall on Sept. 14, where Mayor Jerry Jennings spoke along with religious leaders.


In an opinion essay in the Times Union five weeks after the attacks, he wrote, ``Yesterday's freedom fighters are today's terrorists and vice versa. Terrorism is criminal, but it is a political problem that requires a political solution. The perpetrators must be brought to justice, but military reprisals do not work, traditionally.''


Al-Hanooti was born in Haifa, a port city that was then Palestine and is now a part of Israel. He is considered one of the top Islamic scholars in the United States, and the U.S. State Department has broadcast his speeches on its Voice of America network in the Middle East. He has lived in the United States since 1978, serving mosques in New Jersey and Virginia.


In 2000, Al-Hanooti signed a contract with the Colonie-based Islamic Center that extends through 2005. He came to the Capital Region, he said, because the mosque needed an imam.


Many of the Islamic Center's members are professionals, including highly regarded and productive members of the Capital Region community. Officials said there has been no indication of any alleged fund raising there for terrorism.


Dr. Mohammad Ismail, president of the Islamic Center of the Capital District, said the center's board members, including himself, did not delve into Al-Hanooti's past when they hired him in 2000.


``He was a religious person, and we respected his teachings,'' Ismail said. ``That (FBI report) is something which I'm hearing for the first time. We did not go into the detail of the past.''


At the mosque on Friday evenings, when members traditionally gather and Al-Hanooti often gives speeches, his teachings have been moderate. The mosque, the Capital Region's largest, has about 300 members. Some of those contacted declined to comment publicly but said that he had never shown any indications of being anti-American.


``We never heard from him anything inflammatory, actually what he said was very comforting to us,'' said Ismail.


But at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., one of the largest mosques in that area of the United States, some members speaking on condition of anonymity said Al-Hanooti sometimes gave disturbing lectures that condemned the United States and Israel. One of the alleged speeches took place during the Persian Gulf War.


A petition was circulated at the mosque in 1999 to oust Al-Hanooti, and he admits leaving there on bad terms.


``I disagreed with the board of trustees and I gave my resignation in 1999,'' he said. ``I am still friends with some there. I flew there Monday for consultation. ... I am a great scholar and one of the few scholars in the United States who are authoritative (on Islam).''


Indeed, Al-Hanooti has been used as an expert witness on the religion in federal trials, though portions of his testimonies have unnerved some in the Muslim community because they believe he has interpreted the religion as forbidding followers from testifying against suspected terrorists. While some of his critics in Virginia claim he made anti-American speeches at their mosque, his available public record only indicates a support for Palestinian rights.


On Aug. 28, 1998, for example, Al-Hanooti publicly attacked former President Clinton for U.S. military strikes against suspected terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, saying there was no evidence they were justified.


``Every Muslim I've met or know questions why such an episode took place so abruptly,'' Al-Hanooti told gatherers during a 45-minute sermon at the rally that day. ``We should tell the administration of the U.S. that what they did had no justification.''


Two years later, in October 2000, Al-Hanooti helped organize a protest rally in Miami where Palestinians prayed for victims of Middle East violence during a monthlong uprising in Israel and Palestinian enclaves.


During the rally, Al-Hanooti told gatherers that the United States must find a way to achieve peace, but he also defended Palestinian efforts in the ongoing conflict with Israel, which reflects a mainstream Palestinian position.


``They are fighting for their rights,'' Al-Hanooti said at the rally. ``They are not occupiers, they are not invaders. They have been the landlords of that territory for centuries.''


Still, Al-Hanooti claims to have friends who are Jewish and insists he does not support terrorism.


``I believe that the Palestinians have a right to take their territories,'' he said. ``But I don't believe that Hamas or Jihad or any of those are going the righteous direction. I disagree with killing a woman or a child or an infant. This is against my religion. And if anyone says I am supportive to Hamas, let him show me, give me substantial evidence that I am that way.''


Thomas C. McClenaghan, assistant special agent in charge of the Albany FBI field office, said this week that he had not seen a copy of Watson's memorandum on Al-Hanooti. McClenaghan declined to say whether any local Muslims are under surveillance but said it would be a concern to the Albany-based agents if Watson's report about Al-Hanooti is true.


``Certainly it's a concern, but naturally I'm not going to comment,'' McClenaghan said. ``Any group that's funneling money (to terrorists) is going to be of interest to us. ... But we're not going to look at an imam because he's Muslim. There has to be something there.'' FACTS:HAMAS PRIMER Hamas is a Palestinian organization founded in the Gaza Strip in 1988. Its leaders are dedicated to establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the area encompassed by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Declared an illegal organization by Israel in 1989. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Treasury declared Hamas a terrorist organization. Received funding from the U.S.-based Holy Land Foundation, which was shut down by federal authorities after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A militant organization that pursues violence and terror but also educational and charitable functions, including a network of medical clinics, schools and welfare agencies in the West Bank and Gaza. Principal enemies are the government of Israel and its civilian populations. Between Oct. 1, 2000, and Sept. 10, Hamas claimed responsibility for 20 bombings, two shootings, one kidnapping and one mortar attack. The incidents killed 77 people, including three American citizens, and injured more than 540. The use of suicide bombers is a Hamas trademark. After Sept. 11, a Hamas spokesman urged support for continued violence against Israel and the United States. Source: FBI Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hanooti Born March 12, 1937, in Haifa, Palestine, which is now in Israel. Studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, the world's leading Islamic teaching university 1962-65: Imam and teacher in Baghdad, Iraq 1965-78: Imam and teacher in Kuwait 1978: Moved to the United States, where he has been the head of Islamic centers in Jersey City, N.J., and Falls Church, Va. 2000 to present: Imam and teacher at Islamic Center of the Capital District, Colonie. Married in 1980 to Deborah Potter, a U.S. citizen from Michigan who converted to Islam. They have four children.