Sheik's indictment leaves followers in state of shock Claim government is anti-Muslim

August 26, 1993|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- At the Brooklyn mosque where Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman often preached, Muslims who gathered to pray yesterday greeted the news of his indictment with disbelief and outrage, saying it was evidence of anti-Muslim bias.

"They've wronged him," said Yusaf Ibrahim, 28, as he was entering the Abu Bakr Siddique mosque. "It's just prejudice on the part of the government against the Muslim religion."

"It's all lies," said a 27-year-old man who identified himself only as Osama. "Islam teaches that you have to be good to everybody."

The sheik might have said that someone like Adolf Hitler deserved to die, Osama said, but he has never advocated violence. "I've been to so many of his classes . . . and he's never said to kill anybody," he said.

He dismissed evidence pointing to the sheik's guilt as untrue, saying the media was to blame for spreading lies about the religious leader.

"For the past year we never hear anything good in the media about Islam," he said. His explanation: "Americans are becoming Muslims and the government wants to put a stop to it."

In the Arab-American enclave in Brooklyn, Muslims were incredulous at the sheik's indictment.

"I don't know how they could say he did that," said Nasser Mati, 22. "We don't believe in violence in the Muslim religion."

Dr. M.T. Mehdi, secretary-general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, said the sheik's indictment is "a triumph of paranoia and intolerance in America."

"It reflects the fact that the Justice Department has failed to find a country to which to deport the sheik and the fact that the FBI has no concrete evidence against the so-called bomber," Dr. Mehdi said in a statement. "But the indictment will not lead to a conviction."

Real terror

But for two people who were trapped in the World Trade Center after it was bombed, their terror was very real.

One woman said the United States should still send the sheik back to Egypt.

"I think that he should be hung," said Donna Heussler, 28, who since the February explosion has been out on disability from her job as a senior office assistant for the Port Authority computer division at the World Trade Center. "They should send him back to Egypt where they will torture him the way he deserves."

"They should have deported him a long time ago," said Kurt Johnson, 24, a systems analyst who was working in the World Trade Center when the bomb exploded.

The indictment charges the sheik not with a direct role in any specific terrorist act, but with complicity in a conspiracy beginning with the New York City shooting death of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1989 and continuing through the World Trade Center bombing in February and the subsequent bombing and assassination plot uncovered in June.

Reversal

Two months after she turned down recommendations to charge Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman as a terrorist, Attorney General Janet Reno reversed herself and approved an indictment based on a broad approach to the case.

Ms. Reno was described yesterday by some officials as always willing to sign off on charges against the sheik, but reluctant to accuse him of a crime without powerful proof of guilt.

That task was made simpler by the broad nature of the indictment, and bolstered by both an accumulating body of evidence and a harsher interpretation of information long available to the authorities.

The evidence came in the form of an informer's tape recording of the sheik's conversations with his followers, elliptical discussions which he emerged as a charismatic luminary around whom the accused plotters orbited in a secret brotherhood of terror bound by religion, friendship and family connections.

Strategy

By charging Mr. Abdel-Rahman with conspiracy, prosecutors reached for strategic advantage, using the broad latitude such a case affords them to introduce evidence that might be impermissible in other cases. They can use the conspiracy charge to attempt to tie Mr. Abdel-Rahman to the other defendants who appear far more directly involved by showing that he talked with them about illegal acts.

But charging Mr. Abdel-Rahman with conspiracy is also a gamble since defense lawyers can argue that prosecutors failed to obtain specific evidence demonstrating that he was anything more than a zealous religious leader whose followers included the other defendants.

The decision to indict him was made Monday in a closed-door meeting of the Justice Department's top brass. But for months, some investigators on the joint terrorism task force were convinced that the sheik was an integral link in the network of Muslim radicals who the authorities say bombed the World Trade Center and plotted an scheme of bombings, assassinations and other terrorist acts across New York City.

They interpreted his vaguely worded religious messages to his followers as conspirators' talk, or as the indictment put it yesterday, "instruction regarding whether certain acts of terrorism were permissible or forbidden."

In June, when the joint team of local, state and federal prosecutors included Mr. Abdel-Rahman on a list of people to be charged with planning a series of assassinations and bombings at public buildings, bridges and tunnels, officials at FBI headquarters and the Justice Department balked at accusing him of the crime.

They convinced Ms. Reno to hold off arresting the sheik, worrying that the cleric's words might be ambiguous enough to create doubt in the minds of a jury about whether he actively directed the plotters or could be perceived as a passive religious figure dispensing spiritual advice to his followers.

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