Terrorist label frustrates Muslim community in the woods
ISLAMBERG, N.Y. – If Islamberg truly is a hotbed of jihad, a heavily armed terrorist training ground hidden in the woods of upstate New York, it's hard to see along the rutted dirt road winding through the Muslim community.
On a recent day, women in hijabs carried babies on their shoulders and two visiting state troopers passing through the front gate were greeted warmly. Teenage boys in brimless caps walked by modest homes, and stray chickens pecked at the grass. The scene is more country road than backwoods bunker.
But this enclave just west of the Catskill Mountains is dogged by terror accusations, many spread on right-wing websites. Bikers "against jihad" have rumbled by in protest, and one Tennessee man was imprisoned after plotting to burn down the mosque. Police and analysts dismiss the terror camp claims, but their persistence frustrates people in this insular community of several hundred residents 120 miles (193 kilometers) northwest of New York City.
"It's a bunch of nonsense," said Hussein Adams, chief executive of The Muslims of America, which operates this community and 21 others in North America. "For the last 30-plus years, we've been training for this jihad? So why hasn't this jihad taken place?"
Followers of Pakistani cleric Sheikh Mubarik Gilani settled Islamberg in the 1980s, fleeing crime and crowding in New York City. The mostly African-American settlers wanted a better place to raise their children.
"You can have them come outside and play without fear or worry that someone will bother them or attack them," said Khadijah Smith, 47, who came here 26 years ago to raise her three children.
They work locally as contractors, paralegals, welders, doctors, engineers and plumbers. Many live in manufactured homes on more than 60 acres (24 hectares) of property owned by the group. Children are home-schooled, but some play organized sports with other area children.
People in this overwhelmingly white area are used to seeing women with head coverings pushing carts at the market. If there's a prevailing attitude here, it seems to be live and let live.
"They don't bother anybody. And that's the No. 1 rule in the country," said Sally Zegers, editor and publisher of the local Hancock Herald.
The Muslims are mindful about security, especially since Robert Doggart, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was convicted this year on federal charges for what authorities called plans to burn down the mosque here in 2015. "We will be cruel to them," Doggart said, according to the criminal complaint.
"Up until Robert Doggart I would leave my door open," Smith said. "I don't do that anymore. I lock my door."
Two Associated Press reporters who were given limited access to Islamberg for several hours recently were allowed to observe prayers at the cinder block mosque, talk to selected residents and watch the scant midday activity along the main dirt road.
Islamberg leaders unambiguously reject violent ideology, but that has done little to stem claims on the internet that it is a terror compound. The arrest this summer of a man named Ramadan Abdullah 40 miles (64 kilometers) away with a major weapons cache inspired a bogus headline that a federal raid here uncovered "America's WORST Nightmare."
Police say they have no indication that Abdullah ever lived here.
Many of the claims center on the group's spiritual leader, Gilani, and what was described as his pivotal role with Jamaat al-Fuqra, a group linked by the U.S. government in 1999 to violent criminal activity in the '80s. Analysts describe The Muslims of America, which is headquartered in Islamberg, as an outgrowth or a successor to al-Fuqra, though members say they have never had an affiliation with al-Fuqra.
Still, there is a lack of evidence linking The Muslims of America to violence, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. Segal said some of Gilani's past rhetoric has been a concern, such as repeating the conspiracy theory that 4,000 Jews employed at the World Trade Center were "conveniently absent" on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks. But he notes that none of the more than 500 people arrested on terror charges since the attacks have a known affiliation with The Muslims of America.
"I think the predominant narrative of terrorist training camps is one that is, first of all, unproven," Segal said. "But ... I think is used to create broader fear against Muslim communities."
New York State Police Maj. James Barnes said his troopers have a good relationship with the community. Officers have even been invited here to give talks to youths about law enforcement careers and other issues. His concern is outside groups coming here to protest, requiring a sizable police presence to keep the peace.
"These folks that live here are American citizens. They've lived here for over 30 years. They built this community. They have ties within, outside of this community," Barnes said. "And there's not a problem here."