South Florida Muslims Feel the Heat

The Muslim community of South Florida has been on the defensive since Sept. 11, saying it has been unfairly aligned with the terrorists who attacked the United States.

But the fact is at least 13 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers lived – for some period of time – in Broward County. 

The most notorious of them was Mohammed Atta, the apparent ringleader of the U.S.-based Sept. 11 hijackers. Atta lived in South Florida and took classes as Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., along with Marwan Al-Shehhi, another of the terrorists. Atta apparently used South Florida as a base of operations for the hijacking plot, communicating with Al Qaeda operatives overseas and around the country. 

And Muslim leaders here say they have no idea why.

"I think it's a question that needs to be asked over and over, until an answer is given," said Altak Ali, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "I think at this point the whole country does not have the answer to that question."

That same question has been hounding authorities since Sept. 11. As a result of the investigation, more men with Islamic ties who lived in Broward County have been arrested.

Among them is Hispanic ex-convict Jose Padilla, a convert to Islam who lived in South Florida. The one-time Taco Bell employee is now accused of working with Al Qaeda to make a dirty bomb.

Before Sept. 11, police in South Florida had focused their efforts on the war on drugs, a problem that has plagued this region for decades. But now terrorism tops the to-do list.

And in a place that is as culturally mixed as South Florida, many say it is no surprise the terrorists sought out this area. 

"South Florida is paradise … it’s paradise for the good guys and it’s paradise for the bad guys," said Broward County Sheriff Kenn Jenne.

Broward’s connection with the ongoing investigations is still quite fresh. Three more Middle Eastern men were recently arrested here. Police say one Broward resident, Safraz Jahaludi, 21, threatened to blow up the White House. Also in Broward, two Pakistani men stand accused of plotting to blow up power plants and the Israeli Consulate in Miami.

Officials believe there may be many more potential terrorists working and living among the Muslim community here.

"We probably have a thousand sleepers, as they call them, in this community or around the country," said Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber. "I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of them are here."