Rural Muslim enclave gets attention

Authorities suspect Virginia community of history of violence

January 10, 2002|By Jo Thomas and Ralph Blumenthal | Jo Thomas and Ralph Blumenthal,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RED HOUSE, Va. - To federal prosecutors, the collection of mobile homes on a field near this tiny southern Virginia town is a "compound" linked to a violent Muslim sect.

To the neighbors, it is a mysterious place where outsiders do not seem welcome. But to Abdul Jabbar, 26, a chemist who grew up on the bleak streets of South Philadelphia, it is a place he can live in peace, pray and teach school.

In the last seven years, Jabbar and dozens of other Muslims have left poor urban homes to resettle in this corner of Charlotte County, so rural that it has not a single stoplight in its 500 square miles.

Their community is one of a handful of isolated Islamic settlements established across the country by followers of the Muslims of America, a group that promotes advanced studies in Islam and encourages its members to live in small villages, "free from the decadence of a godless society."

Here they attracted little attention, even in a hamlet where all the Christian churches are Baptist. Neighbors said they had peaceful, if distant, relations with them.

`We are concerned'

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, federal officials arrested three Muslims on gun charges, and prosecutors linked them to an obscure organization they identified as Al Fuqra, which they say has committed firebombings and murders in the past two decades. The Red House community, they said, was part of that organization.

"We are concerned," said John Brownlee, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

"First of all there is a history of violence," Brownlee said, referring to suspicions of Al Fuqra's involvement in a bombing in Portland, Ore., a killing in Tucson, Ariz., and the recent shooting of a deputy sheriff in California. "That history, coupled with an Al Fuqra compound 85 miles from Roanoke and the arrest of three members on charges of possessing firearms is cause for concern."

The Muslims of Red House deny any connection with Al Fuqra. They maintain that Al Fuqra does not exist, except as a slander by the authorities. They say they are law-abiding citizens and followers of Sheik Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, a cleric in Pakistan who uses the Quran to treat illness and who founded Muslims of the Americas in 1980.

The sheik, who over the years has told his followers that "Zionist plotters" plan to rule the world, also told them to take their children and flee the nation's cities.

For the last two decades, they have done just that, creating rural enclaves across the United States and Canada, including the group's headquarters in Hancock, N.Y., in the western Catskills.

Escaping crime

Those who came to Red House said they did it to escape crime, not commit it. "I grew up in South Philadelphia," Jabbar said. "A friend of mine was shot four times over a basketball game and died. It could have been me."

Law enforcement officials say they have had peaceful relations with the Muslims, with the only offenses an occasional traffic ticket.

Yet well before Sept. 11, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating in Red House undercover, negotiating to sell machine guns to several Muslims. The investigation had already led to the arrest of a man who jumped bail in Colorado after being convicted of conspiracy to murder.

After the terror attacks, Brownlee ended the investigation, saying he was following the Justice Department's directions to "prevent first and prosecute second."

"We looked at these in the context of other Al Fuqra activities and decided we wanted them off the street," Brownlee said.

Vincente Pierre, 44, identified in court as one of those trying to buy a machine gun, and his wife, Traci Elaine Upshur, 37, were arrested instead on charges of conspiring in 1998 and 1999 to buy two semiautomatic pistols for Pierre, a felon who is not allowed to own a gun. They were convicted on Nov. 30.

Although terrorism was not mentioned at the trial, Thomas P. Gallagher, the ATF agent in charge of the case, testified at a pretrial hearing that Pierre belonged to Al Fuqra, which Gallagher said was "suspected in at least 17 bombings and assassinations and 12 murders." Prosecutors say they do not believe there was a connection to Sept. 11.

Members of the Muslim of America regard those accusations as the latest manifestations of a Zionist conspiracy to target Muslims.

`We are what you see'

"We are what you see," Suhir A. Ahmad, the national spokeswoman for the group, said in an interview at the Red House village in December. Ahmad, who lives in Northern Virginia, has a Ph.D. in Islamic political science from Quranic Open University, established by Gilani in Fresno, Calif.

Ahmad has described her doctoral thesis, later published as Target Islam, as an expose of "Zionist-Israeli conspiracies" to "maliciously link American Muslim organizations and individuals" with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

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