Mosque welcomed in informant
Albany-- FBI saw Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant who faced charges, as a person who could infiltrate group and root out terror
By BRENDAN LYONS, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, August 8, 2004
Correction: Shahed Hussain, involved in an FBI sting that led to arrests in Albany last week, was incorrectly identified as Middle Eastern in an earlier edition of this story. Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant, is from Southeast Asia.
Three days into 2002, Shahed Hussain was a mini-mart entrepreneur on the crest of realizing the American dream.
The 48-year-old Pakistani immigrant was about two weeks away from being sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen. He ran gas stations, a beverage center and a retail distribution business in Latham, and shared a modest home in Loudonville with his wife and children.
But Hussain made a major mistake: He participated in a scam to get illegal driver's licenses for other immigrants who couldn't get them on their own. He was arrested, and on Jan. 23, 2002, a grand jury in Albany indicted him on one felony count of engaging in the production and transfer of false government identification documents.
His subsequent guilty plea seemed to dash his hopes of remaining in the United States. But like others who face prison or deportation, Hussain was offered a way out. He went to work as a government informant.
This week, following the arrest of the spiritual leader and a member of a Central Avenue mosque on charges related to aiding terrorism, Hussain's undercover work ended with a flourish of national attention.
Court papers identify Hussain only as a confidential informant, and the FBI initially asked the Times Union not to publish his name, saying he would be endangered. He is now in protective custody, and his identity has become widely known in Albany.
For the FBI, Hussain was a perfect undercover agent. A Muslim from Southeast Asia, he had a kind of street savvy that would prove invaluable. The bureau saw him as someone who could do what FBI agents could not -- infiltrate the inner circle of Masjid As-Salam, a storefront mosque that had drawn their attention in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"He could get inside places they never could," said his attorney, James Long. "But when most of this was happening, he was in conflict with himself about what he was doing for them."
Hussain first helped the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Albany make a series of arrests in at least two criminal cases involving fraudulent driver's license applications made by immigrants, including some from China.
Those cases alone were supposed to square him with the FBI, to reduce his chances of going to prison and to prevent deportation. But even afterward, he continued to work for the government, Long said.
Last summer, Hussain told his FBI handler, counterterrorism Special Agent Tim Coll, about a conversation with the owner of a downtown Albany pizza shop. In an affidavit filed in federal court, Coll recounted that Hussain told him that Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, a 49-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, wanted help getting a driver's license for his brother.
The FBI wired the informant with recording devices as he met with Hossain. Eventually, the informant went with the brother to take the license examination, helping him deal with difficult questions by "translating" the correct answers as an oblivious Department of Motor Vehicles worker looked on.
For the FBI, that small fraud was the first step in a much bigger case.
Federal agents had been watching the Central Avenue mosque and its 200 members for almost two years. One of its founders, Ali Yaghi, 33, had been deported following the terrorist attacks -- after he was interrogated extensively about possible connections to the hijackings, his lawyer said at the time. Other mosque members also had been questioned. Among them was Yassin Muhiddin Aref, 34, a Kurd who emigrated from Iraq and serves as the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader.
Under the FBI's direction, Hussain, the informant, fostered a friendship with Hossain, the pizza store owner. He also began visiting the mosque and occasionally praying there. Last October, he was again wearing a wire when he struck up a conversation with Hossain about jihad, and whether it was possible to make money from the holy war.
That same month, on Oct. 15, a fire at Hussain's house in Loudonville triggered an intense investigation by the FBI, ATF and Colonie police. The FBI apparently was concerned that someone was trying to kill their informant, but those fears were eased when investigators determined the fire was an accident involving a space heater.
The investigation resumed with the informant directed to press Hossain about making money from activities that might be related to terrorism.
Hossain's friends say he's no terrorist, but they acknowledge that he has money problems stemming from his struggling pizza business and the cost of renovating a rental property. The FBI in court papers says Hossain asked the informant, a man he knew as a successful businessman, for a loan.
The FBI sting went into high gear.
A month later, Hossain was summoned to the informant's business, where agents had installed surveillance devices and video recorders. The men talked about jihad, and the informant displayed a shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missile. He told Hossain that he imported the weapon and others like it from China, and that his "Mujahid brothers use the equipment to shoot down airplanes."
Similar fictitious-missile stings have been staged by the FBI in New Jersey and Texas in recent years.
Hossain, according to federal authorities, smiled when he saw the missile and stated "he had never seen such a weapon before." They continued talking about the illegality of the missiles, the money they could make from them, and religion, according to federal court records.
Authorities contend Hossain and the informant spent several weeks outlining a plan by which the informant would launder money through Hossain's shop and real estate holdings. In return, Hossain would make $5,000 from the $50,000 sale of the missile, according to the FBI.
In early December, Hossain told the informant he wanted to bring in a third party to witness the deal, which is custom for Muslims. Hossain invited in Aref, the Kurdish refugee imam.
The three men met often over the following six months as the informant divulged more details of his fake terror plot, telling Aref and Hossain that missiles would be used to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. Federal authorities contend neither man balked at taking part in the scheme, even when they were told that an attack was imminent.
In predawn raids Thursday, Hossain and Aref were arrested, their mosque and homes raided by federal agents. They are each charged with felony counts of money laundering and conspiracy to conceal material support for terrorism, charges that carry maximum prison terms of 20 and 15 years, respectively, and fines of up to $250,000. Both are due in court Tuesday for a bail hearing where prosecutors are expected to unseal an indictment and ask a federal judge to keep them in jail while the case is pending.
In announcing the case at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Comey seemed to downplay the significance of the arrests, describing the investigation as "not the case of the century." He took pains to say that neither man was actively involved in any plot to do violence -- their alleged crime involved only money laundering.
But Comey and other law enforcement officials said more details about the case will be revealed Tuesday, including a reported link between Aref and a suspected terrorist group in Iraq.
The Associated Press has reported that American soldiers in northern Iraq last summer found an address book at a camp used by Ansar al-Islam, identified by U.S. authorities as a terrorist group linked to the al-Qaida network. The book reportedly included Aref's name, address and telephone number in Albany and referred to him as "The Commander."
Albany attorney Terence L. Kindlon met with Aref for several hours late Friday at the Rensselaer County Jail and afterward described his client as "ethereal" and deeply religious.
"He's a spiritual guy, and he has this aura of calm about him," said Kindlon, who was hired by friends of the jailed man.
Kindlon expressed skepticism about the significance of an address book found in a region where Aref has many relatives and friends.
"I want to see it and get it translated myself and see what the hell it means and see if this group was really a terrorist group," Kindlon said. "I understand it might be a cultural study group.
"My experience with the government, when they've got all the cards and they're telling you what the cards say, is that it's a good idea not to believe them," he said.
Like many Kurds, Aref fled oppression by Saddam Hussein's regime, eventually reaching Syria and being sent on to the United States, Kindlon said.
"This country was chosen for him, he didn't choose this country," Kindlon said. "He was sent here through a combination of (the United Nations) and church ... machinery that was in place to move refugees around."
In Albany, Aref settled into a simple life, scraping by driving an ambulette and serving as the imam at the Masjid As-Salam mosque.
"He told me he was so grateful to get here (United States)," Kindlon said. "He's got a regular job. He studied comparative religions in college. ... He told me if he were under Saddam, they would just job his head off. He knows that here he would be treated fairly."
Kindlon said he expects the "wheels are going to come off" the government's case as the national spotlight on the arrests fades.
"We've seen so many of these supposed terrorist cases begin with a bang and end with a whimper," he said, adding that it's likely that his client and Hossain will argue that they were entrapped.
Shahed Hussain, meanwhile, is hiding. Long said he can contact his client only through the FBI.
Like the two men he helped investigate, Hussain's future is in doubt. He has not yet been sentenced; his criminal case remains pending in federal court.
Long said it's time to close the books.
"They liked his cooperation," Long said. "They knew he was the kind of guy they could get to infiltrate. ... Now, they ought to withdraw his charges."