ALBANY, N.Y. – An FBI sting operation that used a purported assassination plot against a Pakistani diplomat to snare two leaders of an Albany mosque has drawn complaints from Pakistan (search), which issued a protest Tuesday.
An FBI (search) informant who said he was an arms dealer asked the two suspects to launder money from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile that would be used to kill Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, according to the federal complaint.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan on Tuesday condemned the FBI sting operation, saying it was bizarre and dangerous.
"This has increased our ambassador's and our mission's vulnerability ... and could have endangered the life of our ambassador," Khan said in a statement. He said Pakistan had filed a protest with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad (search).
A 19-count indictment, unsealed Monday, charges Yassin Muhiddin Aref, 34, and Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, 49, with conspiring to launder money and promote terrorism. It did not provide details about allegations they are tied to an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda.
Aref's lawyer, Terry Kindlon, said the entire case is based on government fabrication. "The facts of this case exist in the imagination of the government," he said.
U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby said the ambassador was never in any danger.
"It was not something that we thought anybody would be upset about," Suddaby said at a hearing Tuesday during which the two men were denied bail.
The indictment chronicles exchanges of money that authorities allege were for the fictitious missile sale. It claims that in a Feb. 12 meeting, the men believed the attack would take place the following week.
Authorities said an FBI informant told the men he was an arms dealer who received $50,000 for importing a shoulder-fired missile. The informant said he needed to conceal the source of the income and asked Hossain to issue a series of $2,000 checks from his businesses, according to court documents. Hossain planned to keep $5,000 for laundering the money, authorities said.
Both men have been jailed since Thursday when federal agents conducted pre-dawn raids at their homes and the Masjid As-Salam storefront mosque in Albany. Prosecutors opposed bail, saying both men posed a flight risk and the plot involved violence.
Kindlon unsuccessfully argued that his client should be freed on bail because he has no prior criminal history and did not pose a flight risk because his wife and three children live in Albany.
Aref is the imam of the mosque and Hossain is one of its founders. Both Albany men are charged with money laundering and attempting to conceal material support for a terror organization.
Aref, a refugee from Kurdistan, and Hossain, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh, face up to 70 years in prison if convicted.
In an affidavit, the FBI said U.S. soldiers discovered a notebook at an Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq last summer that referred to Aref as "the commander" and included his former address and telephone number in Albany.
The judge ordered prosecutors to provide Aref's attorney with a copy of the notebook entry. He said while the proposal to buy a missile was entirely the government's idea, neither defendant backed out when it became clear the financial deal involved "a weapon of mass destruction."
U.S. officials have said that members of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group, are thought to be linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose network is blamed for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies in Iraq.
Ansar al-Islam members have trained in Afghanistan and provided safe haven to Al Qaeda members fleeing after the U.S. invasion. Last March, the State Department declared the group a foreign terrorist organization.
The indictment does not mention Ansar al-Islam.
Hossain had been under FBI scrutiny since last summer when he approached an FBI informant about fraudulently obtaining a New York driver's permit for a relative, according to an FBI affidavit.
A dozen mosque members attended the bail hearing. They issued a statement condemning terrorism, and saying they find it "unbelievable" Aref could knowingly have been involved in any violent activity.