ALBANY, N.Y. – Two mosque leaders arrested on terror-related charges were described by relatives and friends as peaceful family men who came to this country for freedom and opportunity.
Yassin Aref (search), 34, the imam of Masjid As-Salaam mosque, and 49-year-old Mohammed Hossain (search), a mosque co-founder, were arrested and their homes and mosque were raided early Thursday morning. Law enforcement officials say the two were snared in a sting operation involving an alleged plot to purchase a shoulder-fired missile that would be used to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador in New York.
"It's totally wrong and totally false and totally a lie," said Hossain's wife, Mossamat. Between tears, she said her husband is a businessman, not a terrorist.
Hossain, a father of five children, came from Bangladesh (search) in 1985. After years of washing dishes and other kitchen work, he bought the Little Italy pizzeria in 1994, according to a profile published in the Times Union of Albany this summer. The pizzeria and the mosque are in a modest section of the city filled with row houses and storefronts.
"I'm proud to be an American," he told the newspaper. "When I was in high school in Bangladesh, I looked at a map of America and I dreamed of coming to this great land."
Aref is a native of Kurdistan and came to the United States three years ago from Syria, where he was a student, according to his wife, Zuhor Jalal. Aref, who has three children, also has a job driving an ambulette.
"We come for freedom and job," Jalal said.
U.S. Magistrate David Homer ordered Hossain and Aref held without bail pending a hearing on Tuesday to determine if the pair will remain in custody during further court proceedings.
Federal prosecutors requested they be held because there was a risk of flight and because the case involved violence.
If convicted, the defendants face a 20-year maximum sentence for money laundering in addition to 15 years maximum for concealing resources to be used in a crime. They also face $250,000 in fines for each charge.
The arrests put upstate New York in the terrorism spotlight again, following the September 2002 arrests of six men from Lackawanna. The so-called Lackawanna Six were accused of attending a terror training camp run by Al Qaeda. They pleaded guilty to supporting a terrorist organization.
At a news conference Thursday morning a few miles from the mosque, Gov. George Pataki said: "The fact is, there are terrorists among us who want to engage in acts to attack us again."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington, D.C., called the allegations against the two men "troubling to the American Muslim community."
"We strongly support any legal efforts to ensure the safety and security of our nation," the council noted in a prepared statement. But, the group also added that "all too often, these types of cases are used by those with political or religious agendas to smear Muslims and to demonize Islam."
Agents raided each home separately after midnight. Mossamat Hossain said more than six agents stormed her home just as her husband got back from New York City to buy a plane ticket to Bangladesh for her mother.
Both wives said they had to wake their children and take them out while their homes were searched. And both women said they were confused why their husbands were taken away.
The three-year-old storefront mosque serves several hundred members, many who come for daily prayers. Members on Thursday morning found federal agents blocking access and later found several interior doors smashed open.
"I have all the keys," said trustee Rashid Abdulhaqq Hamzah. "If they had asked, I would have opened up all the doors."
Hamzah and other mosque members described their imam as a gentle man.
"He's a peaceful man that teaches us about Islam," Hamzah said. "The only reason we were created was to worship God, not to blow things up, not to buy things for terrorists."
Two of Hossain's neighbors said that he spoke about his religion, but not about politics. Cleo Junco said Hossain gave her son a Koran after Sept. 11 attacks to try to show the boy that Islam was not a belligerent religion. Jacob McClenahan said he talked enthusiastically about his faith, but "I didn't think I had any reason to suspect him of being anything but annoying."
Hamzah said mosque members knew for almost a month that someone was "stalking" them and had contacted Albany police, not knowing at first they were federal agents. He blamed the overnight raids on politics.
"I think George Bush is having problems in the election," he said.
"It is politically motivated."
Pataki said the arrests came after more than a year of investigation. He said he knew of no connection between the arrests and the heightened terror alert in New York City.
"I think they got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Ahmed Sajid, a worshipper at the Albany mosque. "I think the two men were being nice to other people and got entrapped."