- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

John Allen Muhammad, the sniper suspect arrested early yesterday, was a convert to Islam who federal sources say sympathized with the September 11 hijackers.

Mr. Muhammad, formerly known as John Allen Williams, was arrested at a rest stop on Interstate 70 at Myersville, Md., along with Lee Malvo, 17.

Reports said that Mr. Muhammad, 42, converted 17 years ago to the brand of Islam associated with Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. He changed his name a year ago.

Founded in 1931 by Elijah Muhammad as a black separatist group, the Nation of Islam changed course in 1975 to align itself with mainstream Islam, renaming itself the American Muslim Mission. By choosing the same last name as its founder, the sniper suspect may have preferred this less strident version of Islam, said Georgetown University Islamic studies professor John Esposito.

"There's no formal connection we know of to groups like al Qaeda, but his last name is Muhammad," he noted. "I am leery as to what one can say about this. It's the last thing Muslims need right now. This is their worst nightmare."

The present-day Nation of Islam, headed by Mr. Farrakhan, broke with American Muslim Mission and is now based in Chicago. A spokeswoman for the Nation of Islam said it had no connection with Mr. Muhammad.

"We don't know him and we don't know what he's part of," she said.

Police sources said Mr. Muhammad was connected with the Islamic Community Center in Laurel, where he may have served as a guard. He is also said to have put in guard duty during the Million Man March in October 1995.

The Seattle Times described him as "a Muslim convert and former Fort Lewis soldier sympathetic to Islamic terrorists."

The newspaper quoted several federal sources as saying Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo might have been motivated by anti-American sentiments. Both were known to have spoken sympathetically about the September 11 hijackers, the sources said, adding that neither man was believed to be associated with the al Qaeda terrorist network.

No one answered phone calls at the Laurel center yesterday.

American Muslim groups and leaders yesterday quickly distanced themselves from any connection with Mr. Muhammad, or tried to find equivalents within Christianity.

"Just like there's Christian extremists who taint the Christian faith there are Muslims who degrade their faith by cloaking terrorist activity in Islam," Quannel X, a minister for the New Black Panthers, told Fox News. "We would never condone attacking innocent men, women and children."

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the public should not stereotype Islam because of the last name of this suspect.

"We are concerned that because a suspect in this case has the last name of Muhammad, American Muslims will now face scapegoating and bias," he said. "Police reports indicate the suspects acted alone, based on their own motivations. There is no indication that this case is related to Islam or Muslims.

"We therefore ask journalists and media commentators to avoid speculation based on stereotyping or prejudice. The American Muslim community should not be held accountable for the alleged criminal actions of what appear to be troubled and deranged individuals," he said.

Imam Hassan Qazwini, a Shi'ite religious leader at the Islamic Center in Detroit, said the possibility of the sniper being a Muslim never crossed his mind, especially because of the presence of a tarot card at the site of the Oct. 7 shooting of a 13-year-old boy in Bowie. Muslims do not believe in tarot mythology.

"I am amazed that this has happened and I am shocked to find out he is a Muslim," he said. "That's very difficult, very disturbing to find this out."

Along with CAIR, the American Muslim Council praised law enforcement authorities yesterday for ending the terror. "We pray that God will rid our land of such malcontent sickness," said Eric Erfan Vickers, executive director of the council.

Since the September 11 attacks, many Muslim groups have become defenders of civil liberties as American law enforcement has rounded up Muslims and Arab-looking suspects or immigrants.

Islamic leaders also say Muslims were first blamed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings until police located the real terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, a white man who was not a Muslim.

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