- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

RED HOUSE, Va. Except for a metallic green "Muslims of America" sign at the entrance, little distinguishes the cluster of trailer homes near a country crossroads.
Yet federal authorities said the fenced compound was the home of a terrorist cell not connected to the September 11 attacks, but instead to al-Fuqra, an obscure Muslim sect with a history of violence in the United States.
The path of federal authorities' investigation of the group shows how the response to any hint of terrorist activity has shifted from watchful waiting to quick arrest and prosecution.
Before September 11, the compound, which housed about 20 families, had been under surveillance for three years because of suspicion that residents were stockpiling machine guns, said Thomas Gallagher, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
A week after the attacks on New York and Washington, two residents of the compound were charged with purchasing pistols illegally. Vincente Rafael Pierre, 45, and his wife, Traci Elaine Upshur, 37, both were convicted. A third resident, Bilal Adullah Ben Benu, 27, faces charges, including illegally transporting ammunition for AK-47 automatic rifles.
The story is full of unanswered questions, beyond the central one of why accused terrorists would have set up housekeeping in an isolated hamlet in the flat farm country of central Virginia.
Residents of the compound, mostly black Muslims, will say little beyond proclaiming their innocence and complaining that they are victims of religious and racial prejudice.
Pierre said in court that al-Fuqra was a "phantom, nonexistent organization."
Prosecutors decline to say what kind of terrorist activity they suspect. Instead they cite al-Fuqra's history and warn that some of the compound's residents are dangerous.
Al-Fuqra, which means "the impoverished" in Arabic, was founded in New York City 20 years ago by a Pakistani cleric, Shaykh Mubarik Ali Gilani. The group "seeks to purify Islam through violence," says a 1998 State Department report. Its members are suspected in at least 17 bombings and 12 murders, Mr. Gallagher said.
In 1992, Colorado's attorney general charged al-Fuqra members in Buena Vista with firebombing a Hare Krishna temple in 1984 and conspiracy to murder a Muslim cleric in 1990. The cleric, Sheik Rashad Khalifa of Tucson, Ariz., was killed after receiving death threats over his interpretation of the Koran.
"I considered them very dangerous," said Douglas Wamsley, who prosecuted the case for the attorney general. "They had concocted a plan to kill a man, and he was indeed killed."
Members of the group also bilked Colorado of more than $355,000 through false workers' compensation claims, and used the money to buy a 100-acre mountain compound in Buena Vista, Mr. Wamsley said.
One al-Fuqra member was convicted on charges related to the temple bombing case. Three were convicted and two pleaded guilty in the Khalifa case. Afterward, other al-Fuqra members cleared out of the compound, leaving a cache of AK-47s and other weapons.
Pierre also belonged to the al-Fuqra group in Colorado. "But frankly, he was the least involved member of the group," Mr. Wamsley said. He was charged with workers' compensation fraud, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to two years' probation.
In February 1993, Matthew C. Gardner, who still lives in the Red House compound, bought the 44.5-acre plot with five other persons for $39,000. The families hauled in trailer homes and named their main road after Mr. Gilani, the al-Fuqra founder. Residents patrolled the property carrying walkie-talkies and sometimes guns or big sticks, Mr. Gallagher said.
Six years ago, Pierre moved into a brown trailer in the compound with seven of his eight children. He said in court he made money selling Islamic clothing door to door.
From July 1998 to March 1999, federal agents watched Pierre and Upshur try to buy .45-caliber handguns at a shop called the Outpost. Pierre would order and pay for the weapons, while Upshur would sign the paperwork. Because he was a convicted felon, Pierre was not allowed to own a gun, and prosecutors suspected Upshur was buying guns for her husband.
Benu, also a felon, has yet to be arraigned and has not entered a plea.
Pierre's attorney, Thomas Wray, said his client was wrongly swept up in the rush to capture potential terrorists.
Muslim leaders echo the feeling of being targeted.
"There's a general chill in the Muslim community right now," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic advocacy group based in Washington.
Before ordering Pierre held without bond in September, U.S. Magistrate Glen E. Conrad said Pierre might have only loose ties to al-Fuqra. However, Mr. Conrad said, "you're oftentimes known by the company you keep."

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