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FBI Targets Black Muslims

The FBI will not comment. But a federal investigation in the Pacific Northwest is focusing on a group of African American converts to Islam, possibly opening a new chapter in the domestic war on terrorism.
Times Staff Writer

July 20 2002

SEATTLE -- The brawny man in the Muslim skullcap gestured toward a brick apartment building across the street from where he was standing guard at a shelter for homeless families.

"See that window over there?" said the man, Abdul-Hakim, pointing to an upper floor. "The FBI watches me from that window."

The FBI will not comment. But a federal investigation of a possible terrorist cell in the Pacific Northwest is focusing on a group of African American converts to Islam, possibly opening a new chapter in the domestic war on terrorism.

Across the nation, court papers suggest that FBI anxiety about radical African American Muslims has reemerged in the last decade as the bureau has concentrated on Islamic terrorism.

Federal investigations into the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and a related plot to blow up New York landmarks discovered the names of black Americans associated with the "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, now serving a life term for his part in the bombing conspiracy. Among those convicted in the same plot was U.S.-born Rodney Hampton-el, a former New York clinic worker and ex-moujahedeen volunteer in Afghanistan.

"FBI scrutiny of African American Muslims has clearly increased since the [1993] World Trade Center bombing," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor at Shaw University in North Carolina who has studied the nation's Muslims. "A lot of this is a combination of a focus on terrorism and an agenda about black 'radicals' and Muslims--all lumped together."

The Seattle investigation turns on the notion that foreign terrorists may have recruited on U.S. soil among African American Muslims, and may even have sponsored a "jihad training camp" in the Oregon backcountry with U.S. collaborators. Law enforcement documents obtained by The Times say that an American man who worshiped at one of the mosques here may have served as a liaison for recruits seeking entry into Afghan terrorist training camps. In addition, documents show, he and his brother were suspected of scouting targets "for a terrorist operation" during a road trip back to Seattle last month.

The inquiry has sent a shudder through a small, insular community whose members view themselves as having worked hard to banish crack dealers from their block.

Abdul-Hakim says he worshiped with the two brothers. He said neither the brothers nor anyone else associated with the case ever advocated violence or terrorism. Most, if not all, strongly opposed U.S. policy in the Middle East, Abdul-Hakim said, but none ever preached violence.

"We're still trying to figure out what Al Qaeda is," said Abdul-Hakim. "Muslims are under attack worldwide. Why are Muslims the only people not allowed to train in self-defense?"

The specter of terrorism also surfaced in the case of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown, the onetime black power firebrand), a charismatic Muslim convert who received a life sentence in Atlanta this spring for killing a sheriff's deputy in a shootout. The FBI investigated Al-Amin as a suspected terrorist in the years after the World Trade Center bombing, but Al-Amin was never charged.

The movement founded by Al-Amin may be indirectly linked to the case in Seattle. The mosques in question here were said to have at least an informal affiliation with his group.

Like the great majority of African American Muslims, neither the Atlanta nor Seattle groups were affiliated with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who promotes a black nationalist agenda. Instead, the Muslims now drawing federal attention attend mosques espousing a pro-Islam philosophy widely shared in the Muslim world.

"It's not the policy of the FBI to investigate mosques or any other religious institution," said Charles Mandigo, the FBI chief in Seattle. "Any investigations that the FBI may be conducting would be based on the actions of individuals and not their religion, national origin, race, or any other such characteristics."

Nevertheless, the disquieting scenario of home-grown terrorist recruits has set off alarms. A confidential FBI alert on the Seattle case last month was sent to field offices--as well as to the White House, CIA, State Department and other assorted government agencies. A copy was obtained by The Times.

The two brothers apparently targeted in the Seattle case--who had not previously been publicly identified--issued a news release on Monday denying any links to terrorism.

The release identified the pair as James and Mustafa Ujaama. According to the FBI document, they were born in Denver, reared in Seattle and their given names and ages are Earl James Thompson, 36, and Jon Alexander Thompson, 34.

"These two gentlemen are community activists, not terrorists," declared Ron Sims, the King County executive, who is the highest-ranking African American elected official in the state of Washington. "It's the McCarthy era all over again," said Charlie James, who heads a group called the Organization of African American Unity and who issued the news release on behalf of the brothers.

Neither brother has been charged with a crime, and neither has been questioned by the FBI, but both have been subject to considerable surveillance, the law enforcement documents indicate.

The two brothers, along with others under scrutiny, worshiped at several now-defunct storefront mosques just east of downtown Seattle that have been tied to Semi Osman, an immigrant of apparent Lebanese origin, who served as an imam, or prayer leader. Osman, 32, is a car mechanic and U.S. Navy reservist and is the only person known to have been arrested in the inquiry. He was charged with immigration and gun violations, but his attorney, Robert M. Leen, said the government is pressuring Osman to tell all about former acquaintances as part of the terrorism investigation.

A search warrant executed at Osman's home turned up several weapons, anti-U.S. Islamic literature, military maps and "instructions on poisoning water sources," according to the federal law enforcement document. Leen said he had seen no evidence that water-poisoning directions were seized.

Acquaintances describe the two brothers targeted by the FBI as hard-working fathers with small children. The younger sibling lives in Seattle and makes his living as a mechanic and used-car salesman.

The older brother is an "entrepreneur" based in London, according to Charlie James. The older brother has written and privately published several inspirational books aimed at young African Americans. One book is called "The Young People's Guide To Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs."

The older sibling also is reported to be the founder of stopamerica.org, a Web site harshly critical of U.S. actions abroad. The site lists offices in London; Karachi, Pakistan; and at an unspecified address on south Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"America's foreign policy makers have brought hate to the people of the United States," E.J. Ujaama states in a "founder's message" on the site. "We the people of the United States charge this government and their coalition with conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes of terrorism against Muslim people in our names."

In particular, the FBI inquiry has zeroed in on the elder brother's supposed relationship with Abu Hamza al-Masri, a militant London-based sheik whom U.S. authorities regard as a recruiter for Al Qaeda. The FBI document states that the American "worked for and provided services to" the cleric, including taking computers to the Taliban before the U.S. invasion.

According to the FBI document, the asserted "jihad training camp" was carried out in November 1999 "in concert with" Hamza al-Masri at a ranch in the secluded community of Bly, in south-central Oregon. The London sheik, whose Finsbury Park mosque is a center of radical Islam in Europe, has denied any connection.

The two brothers did travel to Bly, James conceded, but he said the trip was for recreational "practice shooting," not for terrorism training. The FBI is attempting to determine who visited the site.

The wide-ranging investigation based here may have arisen from intelligence gleaned from interrogations of prisoners at the U.S. military lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Specifically, the documents cite the case of a British citizen, Feroz Abbasi, who was captured in December by U.S. forces while allegedly defending the former Taliban stronghold of Kunduz. U.S. authorities state that the elder of the Seattle brothers introduced Abbasi "to individuals at Al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan," thus enabling his "matriculation" into a "terror training camp."

Now, in Seattle, "the FBI is watching all the time," said Abdul-Hakim, the mosque member.

By Abdul-Hakim's account, the Muslims at the mosques in question here adhered to ostensibly mainstream teachings of Islam, worshiping alongside immigrants from Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Along with providing spiritual guidance, the mosques take an active role in helping to purge the area of crack purveyors and other criminals, which occasionally results in conflicts with drug dealers.

One of the mosques ran afoul of the clientele of a bar-poolroom a few doors down. At some point, according to police, officers responding to a report of an assault were told weapons had been stored in the mosque. Worshipers maintained that the arms were for self-defense against drug dealers and others; the weapons may have been placed there by unauthorized mosque visitors, according to Abdul-Hakim. No charges were filed.

At one of the Seattle mosques, Osman became involved in discussions about how to obtain a steady source of meat prepared according to Muslim dietary laws, or halal meat.That's when congregants first heard that he was moving to Bly, apparently with a plan to raise sheep and goats to produce halal meat, Abdul-Hakim said..

Some fellow worshipers visited Osman in Bly, almost 400 miles southeast of Seattle. Among them were the two brothers from the mosque--for "target practice," according to James. According to the FBI document, Osman "helped coordinate" the "jihad training."

Osman is believed to have lived at a 160-acre ranch near Bly with his wife, Angelica, a U.S.-born convert to Muslim, and her daughter, now 11, for several months beginning in late 1999. Neighbors said they saw and heard little evidence--such as automatic gunfire or large groups of strangers coming and going--that would have signaled a training camp. Nor were many African Americans or foreigners seen in a place where they would stand out.

A knowledgeable source reported that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI reviewed a December 1999 traffic stop of Osman. Two of his passengers may have been top aides to Hamza al-Masri, the controversial London sheik, the source said.

After his livestock operation foundered, Osman and his family moved out. They eventually settled in Tacoma, Wash., and Osman enrolled in a computer course at a nearby university, continued his Navy Reserve drills and again worked as a car mechanic. But he hurt his back in an accident and was unable to put in many hours, said the station owner, Mohammad Siddiqui, an Indian Muslim who, like other co-workers, found Osman more enthusiastic about religion and politics than fixing cars.

"He [Osman] talked a little bit too much," Siddiqui said as he rang up gasoline sales on a recent afternoon. "These days, talk can get you into trouble."

Times staff writer William C. Rempel and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.

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