- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

An attorney for an Islamic cleric living in Laurel insisted yesterday his client had no prior knowledge of last week's terrorist attacks and said his client would not answer questions from the FBI.

Stanley L. Cohen, the New York-based attorney for Moataz al-Hallak, said the FBI is investigating his client because of a claim made after the attacks that "Moataz said there was going to be a bombing." Mr. Cohen said the claim was untrue and that the FBI has refused to divulge its source.

"It's a fishing expedition," Mr. Cohen said. "The FBI wants to sit him down for six hours and pick his brain."

Mr. al-Hallak, 41, a former imam at the Central Arlington Mosque in Texas, referred questions to his attorney yesterday by way of a letter taped to the door of his Laurel apartment.

"I am deeply saddened by the tragic events of September 11," the letter read. "I join my voice to the voice of the whole world in condemning those vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism."

The FBI's investigation into Mr. al-Hallak is not the first to suggest an association with terrorist Osama bin Laden.

In 1997 and 1998, Mr. al-Hallak was called to testify twice before a federal grand jury in New York about the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

During a 1999 hearing for embassy bombing suspect Wadih Hage, convicted in May in connection with the embassy bombings, Hage made a request through his attorney to phone Mr. al-Hallak for help raising bail.

Bail was denied, but a spotlight was cast on Mr. al-Hallak when prosecutors objected to the request, citing "specific concerns" about the cleric.

At another hearing days later, prosecutors said Mr. al-Hallak had "served as a contact" between members of the bin Laden organization.

Hage had acknowledged being bin Laden's personal secretary and was a former member of Mr. al-Hallak's congregation. But Mr. Cohen was quick to point out that Mr. al-Hallak has never been charged for involvement with terrorist groups.

"He is as ignorant, as stunned, as shocked and as out of the loop as 230 million Americans; he's clueless," Mr. Cohen said. "He categorically, absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent opposes violence by anyone against anyone under any guise."

Mr. al-Hallak moved to Maryland about a year ago after disagreements with the local community in Arlington, Texas, where members of the mosque said the strict, fundamentalist version of Islam he practiced alienated more moderate Islamic members of the congregation.

Mr. al-Hallak was dismissed from his position with the Arlington mosque, and the Islamic Society of Arlington last year filed a restraining order prohibiting him and several followers from entering the mosque.

Friends describe him as deeply religious and bewildered by the accusations against him.

Mr. Cohen said yesterday Mr. al-Hallak chose to move to Maryland after about 15 other job offers, in part because his wife has family in the area and in part because of the climate. He also contradicted reports that Mr. al-Hallak left the Washington area Monday, saying he flew to Texas Sept. 8 and drove back in a rental car Sept. 11.

Mr. al-Hallak refused to speak with FBI agents Thursday about his relationship with terrorist Mohammed Atta, 33. Federal law enforcement authorities told The Washington Times Sunday that Atta was the leader of a terrorist cell, and his job was to pay the rent on several houses in which he and others lived, including in Maryland.

Mr. Cohen said his client, a native of Damascus, Syria, but a U.S. citizen for 10 years, would testify before a grand jury if subpoenaed, and called the FBI's accusations "terribly painful" to Mr. al-Hallak.

"The thing he has always loved about the United States was that you were treated with dignity," Mr. Cohen said.

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