WSWS : FBI’s Albany terror “sting” begins to unravel

Thursday, August 19, 2004

FBI’s Albany terror “sting” begins to unravel

By Bill Van Auken | August 19, 2004

The prosecution on terrorism charges of two Muslim immigrants in Albany, New York, has begun to unravel with the revelation that the principal piece of evidence used to justify their entrapment in an FBI sting operation was falsified.

The two men—Yassin M. Aref, 34, a Kurdish immigrant, and Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, 49, a Bangladeshi immigrant—were arrested in pre-dawn raids on August 5. They have been charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, importing firearms without a license, money laundering and conspiracy.

The conspiracy, however, was entirely an invention of the FBI. Using a confidential informer—another immigrant promised leniency on a criminal charge in return for cooperation—the FBI reportedly drew the two defendants into a fictitious scheme that involved the selling of a shoulder-fired missile to someone plotting to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations.

Hossain had approached the FBI informant earlier, asking for a loan to bail out his business, a pizza shop. It was then that the FBI set the sting into motion, inventing the story about the sale of the weapon and having the informant ask Hossain to hold the proceeds in return for a portion of the money. The only alleged role played by Aref, the spiritual leader at an Albany mosque, was to serve as a witness to the financial transaction.

The key evidence used in FBI affidavits seeking the search warrants that allowed the sting to go forward was a notebook said to have been recovered by the US military at a “terrorist training camp” in Iraq. It was claimed that the notebook included Aref’s name, together with an out-of-date telephone number. The FBI said the notation, written in Kurdish, referred to Aref as “commander.” This suggested, according to the FBI, that Aref was associated with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist movement alleged to have connections with Al Qaeda.

Earlier this week, however, federal prosecutors were compelled to admit that this evidence, like the plot itself, was fabricated. In a letter sent to Judge David Homer on Monday, the US Attorney’s office acknowledged its “error.”

“After obtaining a copy of the original entry late yesterday,” the prosecution wrote, “FBI translators who reviewed it concluded that the Kurdish-language word that precedes Aref’s name in the second-to-last line of the entry is ‘brother,’ not ‘commander,’ as indicated in the [Army] teletype.”

Other Kurdish speakers have said that the word used in the notation—”kak”— could also be translated as “mister.”

In a bail hearing last week, Judge Homer refused to release the two men, citing, in particular, the use of the word “commander” in the notebook. “If true,” the judge said, “that evidence carries significant weight to Mr. Aref’s ties to terrorist activities.”

Lawyers for the two men said that a new bail hearing has been set for next week, based on the debunking of the prosecution’s claim.

Equally spurious is the prosecution’s claim that the US Army found the notebook following an attack on a “terrorist camp” in Rawah, Iraq, near the Syrian border, in June 2003. Using helicopter gunships and tanks, the US attackers slaughtered approximately 80 people. Some of those killed were said to have come to Iraq from Syria and other neighboring countries on the eve of the war to resist the US invasion. No proof was ever offered by the military that those killed were linked to Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda or any other terrorist network.

Following the attack on Rawah, the US military conducted extensive raids in the town itself, rounding up hundreds of people and ransacking homes. Yet no evidence has been presented on precisely where the notebook was found, whether it was on the person of one of those killed, or in one of the many houses that were searched.

Aref, who came to the US as a political refugee several years ago, has many relatives still in Iraq, including three brothers.

After the exposure of the government’s phony claim concerning the notebook, the Justice Department filed a motion Tuesday invoking the Classified Information Procedures Act, a little-used government secrecy law, claiming that disclosure of further evidence against the defendants could jeopardize “national security.” The law allows prosecutors to withhold evidence from defense attorneys and the court, submitting merely a summary of what the evidence allegedly shows.

Attorneys for the two Muslim immigrants responded angrily to the government’s motion. “It’s kind of shocking,” said Terence Kindlon, who is representing Aref. He told the Albany Times Union: “They had three press conferences announcing the arrests, one in Washington, D.C., and two in Albany. They put out all this prejudicial damaging information, much of which turns out to be based upon demonstrably false information, and now they want to shut everything down so we can’t respond.”

As for the government’s claim that it made a “mistake” in claiming that the notebook referred to his client as “commander,” Kindlon remarked, “This is the point where the whole thing starts to sound like a two-bit frame-up.”

The government has presented no other evidence tying the two defendants to terrorism. Reportedly, federal prosecutors included the claim in their affidavits for search warrants that Hossain had voiced support for an Islamic extremist group. However, the group—Jamaat el-Islami—is a political party with cabinet members in the Bangladeshi coalition government.

In addition to invoking the state secrecy law, the government has filed a motion to push back deadlines for trial proceedings, indicating that it has yet to translate evidence from a year’s worth of surveillance tapes. This includes discussions between the defendants and the informant in both Arabic and Urdu. Apparently, Aref does not even understand the latter language.

There is every indication that the case in Albany is a politically inspired frame-up, timed to coincide with the Bush administration’s ratcheting up of terrorist alerts. That no terrorist conspiracy existed besides the one invented by the FBI itself was largely obscured in the government’s trumpeting of another success in the “war on terror.”

Now that the scheme is falling apart, the invocation of “national security” is meant to hide this state conspiracy from the general public.


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CBS : Error In Albany 'Terror' Case

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Error In Albany 'Terror' Case

Terror Camp Document Said Defendant Was 'Brother,' Not 'Commander'

by Jarrett Murphy | August 18, 2004

ALBANY, N.Y. (CBS/AP) A key piece of evidence against a jailed mosque leader accused of supporting terrorism has come into question, with federal prosecutors acknowledging that a note found in a terrorist camp may have been mistranslated.

Yassin Muhiddin Aref is charged with aiding a government informant in a sting operation involving a fake plot to buy a shoulder-fired missile to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat.

The translation discrepancy stems from a notebook that the FBI said was found in a terrorist camp in northern Iraq last summer. The indictment said an entry in Arabic script referred to Aref as a "commander" and listed his former address and phone number in Albany.

However, FBI translators now have a copy of the original entry and disagree with the earlier conclusion, saying the word was in the Kurdish language, not Arabic, and actually means "brother," prosecutors told the judge in a letter.

Aref is the imam of the Masjid As-Salam mosque in Albany. Also charged earlier this month in the sting operation was Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, 49, one of the mosque's founders.

The notebook was cited last week by Magistrate David Homer as part of his rationale for refusing to set bail for Aref.

Defense attorneys say the translation error undermines the entire government case, and that both men should get out on bail. "It's a travesty," lawyer Terence Kindlon said.

U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby said authorities are not yet sure which translation is correct, but said it doesn't change the case.

"It doesn't change their behavior. It doesn't change the significance of where this notebook was found," he said Tuesday.

Aref, a native of Kurdistan, and Hossain, who is from Bangladesh, face up to 70 years in prison if convicted.

Also Tuesday, prosecutors said they would try to restrict the release of some information relating to the case.

"The United States believes that disclosure of this material would raise issues of national security that the court should address before any of this material is provided to the defense," Suddaby said in a court filing.

Under the Classified Information Procedures Act, the government can ask to submit only summaries of classified evidence. If the court refuses but the attorney general insists, the government can keep the material secret.

According to an FBI affidavit, the men laundered money for the purchase of the launcher they were told would be used to assassinate the ambassador at the Pakistani consulate across from the United Nations in New York. The murder supposedly was meant to punish the Pakistani government for cooperating with non-Muslims.

In fact, there was no such plot. The purchase of the RPG-7 grenade launcher and the assassination scheme were fabrications put forth by a convicted felon who was secretly cooperating with federal prosecutors to reduce his prison sentence on document fraud charges.

The arrests in Albany were unrelated to the Bush administration's recent terror alerts indicating al Qaeda may be plotting attacks against U.S. financial buildings, federal officials have said.

According to the FBI affidavit, Hossain approached the FBI informant in the summer of 2003 about getting a fraudulent New York driver's license. In subsequent meetings, the informant told Hossain that he imported weapons from China, the affidavit said.

At a videotaped meeting on Nov. 20, the informant showed Hossain a picture of an RPG-7, a fairly rudimentary anti-tank weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The two discussed using such a weapon, according to the affidavit.

The FBI said its informant, who wasn't identified except as a non-U.S. citizen, told the men he was affiliated with Jaish e-Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan that the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization.

Authorities said the men were paid $65,000 in checks and cash to purchase a missile and disguise the source of the money involved.

Two U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke only on condition of anonymity said Hossain and Aref have ties to a group called Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al Qaeda. Prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, Ansar was based in an area of northern Iraq that may have been outside of Saddam Hussein's control.

©MMIV, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Albany Times-Union : Mosque welcomed in informant

Sunday, August 08, 2004

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 | 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."