Islamberg: A Terror Compound in New York ... or Misunderstood Neighbors?

Hidden in a remote area off a primitive dirt road lies a mysterious 70-acre compound in which more than 100 Muslims live in seclusion, following the teachings of its founder, a radical cleric with alleged ties to terrorism.

It's neither a Taliban stronghold outside Jalalabad, nor an extremist madrassa on the outskirts of Karachi.

It's a place called Islamberg, a closed and seemingly quiet community at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, about three hours north of Manhattan.

It's also a compound shrouded in local rumors, mystery — and fear — sitting near the huge reservoir system that provides New York City with most of its drinking water.

Quietly nestled in the woods, Islamberg remained unnoticed for the two decades leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by a determined band of Islamic extremists.

That’s when people started questioning the community’s ties to a Pakistani cleric allegedly connected to worldwide terrorism. They also started talking about the unusual sounds of gunfire and explosions some said they heard emanating from the compound.

But before you leap to conclusions and head to the Catskills to personally fight the war on terror — you need to know the entire story. The truth, as is often the case, is a lot more complicated than the headlines suggest.

Islamberg got its start about 20 years ago, when — inspired by the words of the Sufi cleric Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani — a group of primarily black Muslims from Brooklyn left New York City to escape crime, poverty and racism. Aiming to lead what they believed was a peaceful and holy Muslim life, they built a community of some 40 family houses, their own grocery store and a bookstore.

And they weren't alone. Other groups, also inspired by Gilani, have set up similiar communities in 19 other states. According to the group's own Web site, the Islamberg community is still "struggling," and is asking for donations to complete its mosque.

According to locals, the land previously belonged to a Deposit, N.Y., woman who opened up her home in the in the late 1970s or early '80s to disadvantaged youths from the city so that they could avoid being led astray by a financially and morally bankrupt urban environment.

Those boys, according to locals who were friendly with some of the group, eventually went on to form Islamberg, and at some point they were joined by another group of more militant Muslims, who created something of a rival faction within the community.

The group lived quietly there for years with little interaction with the local communities except for forays into town for supplies or to sell baked goods at the weekly flea market. Some of the men had jobs at a local credit-processing center or working for the Port Authority in New York City (where they are said to maintain a residence near a bridge that runs between two boroughs).

In the few instances when they did have relationships with the locals, they were almost always friendly, many said. Sometimes local children would visit their friends in the compound.

"There was a sense of camaraderie with them," one woman said.

There was a notable exception, a situation involving the local schools in the late 1990s when some of the Islamberg boys got into a scuffle with local boys.

"They broke my nephew's nose," said a Hancock, N.Y., woman, who asked that her name not be used.

Another man said the Muslim boys "trashed" the school in Deposit.

Locals variously blamed the fighting on an angry attitude on the part of the Muslim boys, racism on the part of the local boys or the "usual" relatively trivial events that lead almost all teenage boys into a confrontation at one point or another in their lives.

According to Joy Felber, 62, a retired taxidermist who's lived in Deposit for 19 years, the cause lay with a group of local boys who picked a fight with the Muslims.

"We had some young boys in town who were causing trouble — not from the Muslim community — but they were antagonizing the boys in the Muslim community," Felber said. "It was lack of knowledge. When people don't know other people, they have a tendency to lash out. And you put two teenage boys together and sparks fly."

After a further controversy about whether the Islamberg boys should have been going to public school in Deposit or Hancock (the compound lies on the border between the two towns, and even longtime residents differ on whether it's technically in Deposit, Hancock or nearby Tompkins), the boys were pulled from the schools and the Muslim community drew away from town life.

All Islamberg children are now schooled on the compound in a school that, according to one report, has a total of 62 students.

And then Sept. 11, 2001 happened. Anti-Muslim sentiment soared throughout the United States, and in the case of the Islamberg compound, concern grew among their neighbors.

Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, the Pakistani Sufi cleric whom the Islamberg residents call their spiritual leader, has long been suspected of being one of the founders of a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra, a group that the U.S. and Pakistan say is responsible for a long list of terrorist activities around the world, including murders of rival religious figures in the U.S.

Gilani also was the man American reporter Daniel Pearl was going to see when he was abducted and murdered.

Gilani has denied any connection with either Pearl's death or with Jamaat al-Fuqra.

The possible connection between Islamberg and extremist Islamic terrorism wasn't lost on authorities.

"We've had files on them for years," said Sgt. William Vymislicky of the New York State Police.

FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said that he could neither confirm nor deny any current investigations, but that the bureau follows up on every reported case of possible terrorist activities.

And, according to some locals, the Islamberg community has given them plenty of reason to be wary. If you visit the compound's entry gate, you will be stopped at a guard shack by men armed with guns. And some say that you sometimes can hear gunfire or even explosions coming from the area.

"You'd better be careful if you go up there," several locals said. "They have guns."

After Sept. 11, local rumors about the compound ran rampant, from the plausible to the patently ludicrous: The compound trained terrorists for combat; there was a tank buried somewhere on the grounds; Usama bin Laden had gone into hiding in the compound.

A series of articles about Islamberg in newspapers and on the Internet further fueled the flames, and people started to focus more closely on the work the men did on New York City's bridges and tunnels, and how close the compound was to a major reservoir.

But other local residents say fears about Islamberg are unfounded. The region is a hunter's paradise, practice shooting is a nearly universal hobby in the area, and the sounds of explosions most likely come from a very nearby quarry.

"I live up on Columbia Lake and I hear gunshots all the time, and it's not from the Muslim community," Felber said. "I always hear people practicing and shooting their guns and stuff."

Of those locals who expressed fears about Islamberg, almost none of them said they had ever actually had any substantial interaction with anyone from the compound.

And though the community is noticeably less friendly that it once was, some say that it still welcomes those who make an effort to be sympathetic.

The doctor at the local clinic in Deposit, John Giannone, now fasts on Ramadan out of respect for the community's beliefs and has maintained a relatively close relationship with the group. When his house was devastated by flooding that nearly wiped Deposit off the map in June 2006, volunteers from Islamberg came down and helped him clear out the debris and clean up the rental home his family had moved into. Giannone says they even did the dishes.

That flood was one occasion when Islamberg shone, according to many. According to several accounts, Islamberg men, women, boys and girls pitched in and helped clear debris, clean people's basements, distribute food and maintain the emergency shelter where residents gathered. On July 4, the Muslims joined the rest of the community for a dinner to commemorate their shared adversity.

"We were all just overwhelmed, and I remember the thanksgiving prayer that was said to bless everyone, no matter who you are and to bring the community together. And in that moment, we were a community, we were together as one," Felber said. "I couldn't see a person that was going to be part of a terrorist group standing in a food line of thanksgiving there serving the community."

But plenty of questions remain:

How close is Islamberg to Gilani?

How does it accept, reject or interpret the portions of his writings that espouse violence?

Does the community send people overseas or to other camps for training? And, if it does, exacly what kind of training?

How does the group see its relationship to the local community, and does it plan to do anything to improve it?

Islamberg's elders refused a request to visit with them and tour the compound, citing a recent spate of negative publicity. For now, it remains an enigma in the mountains.