A Safe Haven?

When Zacarias Moussaoui arrived in Norman, Okla., to take flight lessons, one of his first stops was the white gated mosque just down the street from the university campus. Mosque members Hussein Al-Attas and Mukkaram Ali took Moussaoui in. All three joined a local gym. And when Moussaoui needed to get to Minnesota (where he was later arrested and accused of being the "20th hijacker"), Ali offered to drive but then broke his hand, so Al-Attas agreed to go. (Ali gave them his laptop computer for the road.) While Moussaoui was a bit gruff, no one questioned him closely about who he was or what he was doing there. "It's human nature that we help each other, especially in Islam," a Norman mosque board member told NEWSWEEK. Al-Attas and Ali, who were detained as material witnesses in the Moussaoui case, were "in the wrong place at the wrong time. We hope the FBI finds the truth that they are innocent," said mosque member Hassan Farah Ahmed.

In San Diego, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who helped to fly American Flight 77 into the Pentagon, also found aid and comfort in a Muslim community. They used members of their local mosque to find housing, first renting an apartment blocks from the Islamic Center of San Diego and later moving in with a prominent cofounder of the mosque. They bought a car from another member--the same blue 1988 Toyota later found at Dulles International Airport after the hijackings. According to federal documents, friendly mosquegoers helped Almihdhar and Alhazmi open bank accounts, visit travel agencies, obtain driver's licenses, credit cards and Social Security cards--and even picked up one terrorist at the airport. (Mosque members believed the men were the well-meaning immigrants they claimed to be, and no charges were filed.) And when the peripatetic pair finally settled down in the Washington, D.C., area, they stayed in a motel near a fundamentalist storefront mosque in heavily Pakistani Laurel, Md. The morning of 9-11, NEWSWEEK has learned, they dropped a duffel bag at the mosque's door. Taped to the baggage was a note: FOR THE BROTHERS.

Who are these mysterious brothers the hijackers left behind when they immolated themselves on September 11? Was that just the usual endearing term that fellow Muslims use for each other? Or is there a deeper connection? This is a law-enforcement conundrum that U.S. authorities are just beginning to grapple with: how to investigate a sympathetic network that often includes thousands of American Muslims who have fallen under the influence of fundamentalist Islam, and who may not be directly involved in terrorism but are--often inadvertently--part of its infrastructure of support.

The vast majority of Muslims in America are neither terrorists nor sympathizers. Few Muslims who avow fundamentalism sign on to terrorism, just as few Christians who become born again seek to bomb abortion clinics. And last week the Feds touted the role of helpful Muslims in Lackawanna, N.Y., in alerting them to suspicious activity. But, privately, authorities fear that would-be terrorists can still find a lot of quiet help--as well as a hiding place--in many of the same communities. Indeed, some of the most prominent Muslims in America--including several who have spoken out against extremism on U.S. television--are linked to possible terrorist financing in tax havens in Liechtenstein, the Isle of Man and the Bahamas.

The terrorists' American support network also raises new questions about the complicity of Saudi Arabia that go well beyond the well-known fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. Both the Norman and San Diego mosques are supported by an entity called the North American Islamic Trust, or NAIT. Both mosques say they are not extremist; Dr. Omaran Abdeen, a spokesman for the San Diego mosque, insisted, "We have no outside influences from anybody." But authorities say NAIT has long been a funnel for Saudi and other gulf money seeking to spread an often anti-American brand of Islamic fundamentalism in American mosques from southern California to South Carolina--a little-noted movement financed by Saudi billions over the past 40 years. Some experts call it "petro-Islam."

Over the past four decades, unnoticed by most Americans, NAIT money has helped the Saudi Arabian sect of Wahhabism--or Salafism, as the broader, Pan-Islamic movement is called--to seize control of hundreds of mosques in U.S. Muslim communities, a NEWSWEEK investigation shows. Salafists believe in a strict interpretation of the Qur'an and a pure, self-contained Islamic state. But many also embrace the idea that integration into the West--or American society--is profane, and that Christians and Jews are enemies. Among those raised to believe in this creed was Osama bin Laden. According to NAIT documents, the trust holds title to at least 20 percent of the mosques in America, or at least 250 out of some 1,200 nationwide. But even that figure understates Salafi influence, especially since NAIT grew somewhat estranged from Saudi Arabia after NAIT refused to endorse U.S. troops on Saudi soil in the 1990s. An April 2001 survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that 69 percent of Muslims in America say it is "absolutely fundamental" or "very important" to have Salafi teachings at their mosques (67 percent of respondents also expressed agreement with the statement that "America is an immoral, corrupt society"). NAIT chairman Bassam Osman declined a request for an interview on the trust's role in spreading Salafism.

The problem investigators face is that, with so many U.S.-based Muslims apparently in sympathy with fundamentalist views, it's often difficult to determine who is a knowing accomplice and who is an unwitting one. "It's hard to know when fiery rhetoric or the agreement with it moves to the next step and becomes part of a criminal conspiracy," says James Kallstrom, an ex-FBI official who ran terror probes in the 1990s. "Where does religious zealotry leave off and terrorism begin?"

The Salafi takeover of American mosques has not come without protest from many Muslim moderates. "The Brotherhood has infiltrated our community... tearing down what we have been attempting to build for half a century," alleged disaffected members of the Bridgeview Mosque in Illinois in a lawsuit for control (which they lost). "The events of September 11 will have a profound impact on the American Muslim in the long run," predicts Vali Nasr, a University of San Diego expert. "Most Muslims thought of fundamentalism as an issue in the Muslim world, not an issue in the U.S. It was like the Irish in Boston supporting the [Irish Republican Army]. Now many of them know they could have been [victims] in the World Trade Center."

Freed up by a post-9-11 law that permits the bureau to infiltrate religious organizations, the FBI has swept up suspects or accessories who have been detained for long months without being charged--provoking occasional outcries of Arab McCarthyism. But by looking everywhere at once, investigators are often finding suspicious activity in unexpected places. In Oregon, a Portland mosque not known for extremism is now beset by several investigations from a federal antiterror task force. The Islamic Center of Portland's Masjid As-Saber--until recently a NAIT affiliate--has in recent weeks seen the arrest of its imam at the airport, where his luggage allegedly tested positive for traces of TNT, --and the sentencing of a onetime Hamas supporter on federal firearms and fraud charges. No terror-related charges have been filed, and a lawyer for the imam, Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, a Somali-born U.S. citizen, says he'll be exonerated.

Salafi influences are not limited to Arab and South Asian immigrants--the majority of mosquegoers in America. Federal investigators have been looking into a small group of African-American as well as immigrant Muslims who they say are connected to Al Qaeda. They say these men were radicalized by contacts in extremist-controlled mosques in New York and New Jersey.

Even some African-American Muslims who condemn terrorism have come under Saudi Arabian influence, and sometimes espouse anti-American views that can be misconstrued. Among them: Siraj Wahhaj, a Brooklyn-born African-American who became the first Muslim to give the opening prayer in Congress. He's known locally as a smiling man in white robes who's a doer of good deeds. In the 1980s he and members of his mosque, Masjid At-Taqwa, shut down drug houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area.

Yet Wahhaj, who is a member of an elite, consultative body that reports back to Saudi Arabia on the status of Islam in America, has also been known to say some disturbing things. At a 1991 Texas rally, he gave a speech titled "The Muslim Agenda in the New World Order," in which he said that America would fall unless it accepts the Islamic agenda. In 1993 two members of his mosque pleaded guilty in connection with charges of plotting to kill the secretary-general of the United Nations, a U.S. senator and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and blow up major buildings and tunnels.

Asked about his anti-Western sermons, Wahhaj says he is critical of the United States government, just as he is critical of the Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and Israeli governments. "I'm not anti-West," he says. "That's silly. I am the West." Wahhaj also sidesteps questions about Wahhabism, saying he does not "want to get caught in a trap of [defining] Muslims."

Federal officials are also exploring connections between terrorists and an African-American Muslim in Seattle. James Ujaama, a onetime community activist there, was a leader in a now closed Dar es Salaam mosque, a storefront operation in a run-down neighborhood whose 100 or so members were a mix of immigrant African Muslims and American converts, mostly African-American. Last month Ujaama was indicted in federal court on two terror counts alleging he provided material support to Al Qaeda in the form of "training, facilities, computer services, safe-houses and personnel." (Ujaama has maintained his innocence.)

Some critics warn that authorities, in their zeal to shut down Al Qaeda, may be alienating their best allies in the war on terror by occasionally lumping the innocent with the guilty. In Virginia, Eyad Alrababah recently went to the FBI with what he knew about Nawaf Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour, the Flight 77 hijackers whom he first met in March 2001 at the Dar Al Hijra mosque in Falls Church (another NAIT property). Today Alrababah faces deportation. Nancy Luque, an attorney for several prominent Muslim businessmen whose businesses in Herndon, Va., were raided by the Feds last March (and have not been charged), says, "If you start treating the moderates this way, then you make everybody an enemy of this country."