Jersey City mosque `hotbed' of suspicion

Al Salam members dismiss idea that they have harbored terrorists

November 04, 2001|By William Yardley | William Yardley,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JERSEY CITY, N.J. - It is nearly a straight shot from the Jersey City waterfront overlooking the rubble of the twin towers up to Al Salam, the third-floor mosque here that for more than a decade has been tainted with suspicions of terrorism.

First there was the 1990 murder of a militant rabbi, linked to an Al Salam regular. Then there was the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, spurred, prosecutors said, by the incendiary sermons of blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and carried out by his followers.

Then there was Sept. 11. And then anthrax, mailed from Trenton, 55 miles away.

Federal officials have not identified suspects directly associated with Al Salam in the most recent acts, but they have detained several men from the same neighborhood.

There could be more detentions: Local police say as many as 35 FBI agents continue to prowl the area, known as Journal Square, long a hub for Arab and Muslim immigrants in the New York region.

`A lot of activity'

"There's a lot of activity, obviously," said Newark FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll, who would not confirm how many agents were working in the area. "We have maintained a presence."

Many Al Salam members dismiss the notion that they might again have harbored terrorists. Salah Mansour, who prays daily at Al Salam and who for seven years has run a pharmacy a few doors down Kennedy Boulevard, said members might never have known it if they had prayed with terrorists.

"We don't ask for ID at the mosque," he said.

As law enforcement scrutiny has sharpened in Journal Square, some established Muslim and Arab residents - many have lived here for decades, own businesses and married across racial, ethnic and religious lines - have grown tired of life under the microscope.

"Don't look for people who have invested their lives here," said Mansour, whose store is an informal gathering place for Arab doctors and businessmen in town. "Look for people who live in the shadows."

Four days after the towers fell, agents searched an apartment a block from Al Salam that had been vacated by two suspects arrested in Texas on Sept. 12. The men, Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, were carrying box-cutter knives, hair dye and thousands of dollars in cash, raising suspicions that they may have been part of a thwarted plot to hijack a fifth jet on Sept. 11.

Some news reports have quoted neighbors who said the men worshiped at Al Salam, but some other neighbors and members of the mosque said they did not.

A third man who shared the apartment, Mohammad Aslam Pervez, has been charged with lying to federal agents about $110,000 in checks and money orders that moved in and out of his bank account. Pervez worked at a newsstand in the Trenton train station from 1996 to 1998.

Suspicion lingers

Regardless of whether the FBI finds anthrax spores or thin air at the apartment, regardless of whether Khan and Azmath are guilty or innocent, suspicion likely will deepen among those who still consider mysterious the men who daily make the climb up the steps to Al Salam.

Jersey City police Detective Ed Dolan, on foot patrol outside Al Salam on a recent weekday, called Journal Square a "hotbed" of suspected terrorist activity.

"This place is a landmark," Dolan, patrolling to protect Al Salam against possible anti-Muslim backlash, said of the mosque. "Everybody knows there are ties and links."

Sloping down a slight ridge to the banks of the Hudson River, Jersey City is sometimes called New York's "sixth borough," for both its proximity to Manhattan and its integral role as suburb and staging area for immigrants launching new lives.

A critical mass of Muslims and Arabs from all over the world has established itself in northern New Jersey over three decades - investigators traced at least two of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers to addresses in nearby Paterson - and nowhere is the culture more evident than in bustling Journal Square, where Halal food and Arabic newspapers are sold on most street corners.

Like Florida, an unwitting staging ground for the men who fatally hijacked four flights on Sept. 11, much of New Jersey has long been a transient place, strikingly diverse, where Middle Eastern men can live and find work without needing to learn English or step beyond their cultural comfort zone.

Steven Emerson, a specialist in tracking Islamic extremist terrorist groups, said searching the shadows, as Mansour the pharmacist suggested, is what is most challenging. "There are a lot of people who are suspects, but without a criminal predicate law enforcement can't do anything about them," he said. "Even finding them is difficult."

Saif Titi, a Palestinian-American and another pharmacist in Journal Square, said FBI agents "gave me names to look up in my computer" but that none has matched his customers.

Resentments

Many who pray at Al Salam say no true Muslim could ever be a terrorist. They often question the government's evidence against terrorist suspects in general, including Osama bin Laden.

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