- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Two officials at an Albany, N.Y., mosque have been arrested in a sting operation for trying to help purchase a shoulder-fired missile to assassinate a top Pakistani diplomat in New York, authorities said yesterday.

Yassin Aref, 34, imam at the Masjid As-Salam mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, 49, a mosque founder, were taken into custody Wednesday night by FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Arrested after a yearlong undercover investigation, the men are suspected as having ties to a radical Islamic group known as Ansar al-Islam, or “Soldiers of Islam,” named in connection with the 2001 assassination of Franso Hariri, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the attempted killing of Burhan Salih, head of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government.

U.S. intelligence officials have said members of Ansar al-Islam are believed to be affiliated with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Islamic militant at the center of attacks on U.S. military forces in Iraq.

The Ansar al-Islam connection is not mentioned in a criminal complaint filed in the case and Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who announced the arrests, declined to comment on it.

“Today’s charges represent our commitment to infiltrate and expose those who seek to do us harm or to facilitate those who seek to harm our homeland,” said Mr. Comey. “It is our hope that today’s arrests will give pause to anyone considering terrorist activity and cause them to question whether their accomplice is not really one of our agents in the field.”

FBI and ICE agents took the men into custody while executing search warrants at the Masjid As-Salam mosque and two Albany-area residences.

They are accused of providing material support to terrorism in a scheme to help someone they believed was a terrorist buy the shoulder-fired missile. The buyer was a convicted felon working as an undercover informant for the government. No missiles were purchased or delivered.

“The terrorist plot in this case is one that the government’s agent, the cooperating witness, represented to be under way. It was not real,” Mr. Comey said. “This case is a sting, a sting in which the government offered two men the opportunity to assist someone who they believed was a terrorist facilitator, supplying weapons to be used to commit terrorist acts.”

Authorities said the arrests were not related to warnings issued over the weekend about possible new terrorist attacks in the United States.

Records show the informant approached Mr. Hossain in November, telling him he was affiliated with a Pakistani Islamic group known as Jaish-e-Mohammed and sought to purchase a shoulder-fired missile to kill the Pakistani consul general in New York. Several meetings were secretly audio and videotaped by authorities.

An affidavit by FBI Agent Timothy Coll said the informant told Mr. Hossain he imported weapons and ammunition from China and he received $50,000 from the sale of each missile. During a meeting at an Albany pizzeria owned by Mr. Hossain, the affidavit said, the informant offered Mr. Hossain $50,000 to launder on the informant’s behalf with the understanding that Mr. Hossain could keep $5,000.

The affidavit said Mr. Hossain agreed to make it appear he had earned the money from rental properties. Mr. Hossain then recruited Mr. Aref, the affidavit said, to witness the laundering transactions.

Mr. Comey said Mr. Hossain and Mr. Aref received $40,000 and returned to the informant $25,000 in checks for the bogus missile transactions. Both men remained in custody yesterday. A detention hearing is scheduled for next week.

The Washington D.C.-based Council on American Islamic Relations yesterday described the suspected scheme as “deeply troubling,” adding that it should not be used to associate all American Muslims with violence.

“We strongly support any legal efforts to ensure the safety and security of our nation,” the organization said in a statement. “The alleged actions of individuals should not be used to tar an entire community with the brush of terrorism.”

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