Newburgh mosque leaders: We don’t preach hate

The four men arrested in a Bronx terror plot were recruited at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, N.Y. (Alex Weisler)

The four men arrested in a Bronx terror plot were recruited at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, N.Y. (Alex Weisler)

Imam Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad working on his sermon in his mosque office on May 22, 2009. (Alex Weisler)

Imam Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad working on his sermon in his mosque office on May 22, 2009. (Alex Weisler)

NEWBURGH, N.Y. (JTA) — Packed tightly on the west bank of the Hudson River 60 miles north of Manhattan, the hometown of the four men believed to be behind the plot to bomb two Bronx synagogues is a study in contradictions.

The city’s glitzy riverfront complex fades into endless streets of boarded-up windows, garbage piled in front of stoops. A gentrified block of chic cafes and trendy galleries quickly gives way to the shuttered bars and seedy restaurants that dominate this community of about 30,000.

At 25 Washington Terrace, bounded by a dusty gymnastics facility on one side and a condemned, burnt-out shack on the other, the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque is a well-groomed respite from the urban blight.

But it was here that the man who worshipers knew only as “Maqsood” — now believed to be an FBI informant — tried to recruit young men, mostly the mosque’s black congregants, for terrorist activities.

After an elaborate two-year sting operation, the FBI arrested James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen on May 20 in connection with a plot to detonate car bombs outside two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and shoot down military planes at the nearby Stewart Air Force base.

However tenuous the connection between the men and the mosque, congregants still find it difficult to grapple with the notion of wannabe terrorists among them. The mosque community prides itself on strong relationships with other faiths and the greater Newburgh community.

Rabbi Larry Freedman of the city’s Temple Beth Jacob said he made three phone calls when the news of the bomb plot broke: two to the rabbis of the two affected Riverdale synagogues and one to the Masjid Al-Ikhlad’s imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad.

“I said, ‘So how’s your day going?’ ” Freedman said. “And he didn’t really laugh, but you could hear a smile through the phone. It’s a tough day.”

The two religious leaders met when both were members of a Mount Saint Mary College religious panel. Since then, Freedman’s confirmation class has visited Muhammad’s mosque, and classes from the mosque’s religious school have trekked to the synagogue.

Freedman has strong words for those who might connect the mosque to the bomb plot.

“You don’t know this imam. You don’t know Salahuddin,” he said. “That’s not him. That’s not what he teaches.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Masjid Al-Ikhlas religious leaders.

“We don’t teach that here. We don’t allow that talked about on the property,” Hamin Rashada, the mosque’s assistant imam, said of terrorism. “There’s nothing pure about espousing hate. Corruption starts with a little bit of bad.”

Addressing a crowd of about 60 men last Friday, Muhammad preached a message of interfaith dialogue.

Out of Adam and Eve came nations and tribes, the imam said, and an order from God to come to know one’s fellow man. For the Masjid Al-Ikhlas, he
added, that means a mandate to appreciate and respect other religions, not merely tolerate them.

“I don’t like the word [tolerance],” Muhammad said, “because I know you can tolerate someone you hate.”

Tolerance was about all this 75-family community could muster for the overeager stranger named Maqsood. From the start it became an unspoken creed to avoid the serious Pakistani man with the flashy cars and all the money.

But Maqsood — reported to be Albany-area motel owner Shahed Hussain, 52 — visited the mosque more and more frequently the last six or seven months, congregants say, cornering men in the parking lot after Friday prayer services, asking about jihad and offering them jobs and free lunches.

Rashada said most believed the man was some sort of informant.

“It was almost like he had a neon sign on him,” said Rashada, 58. “I’m not a choir boy. You know people.”

Hussain was caught by the FBI in 2003 and convicted of fraud related to helping illegal immigrants secure driver’s licenses, according to the New York Daily News. Soon after he became an informant, helping the FBI convict  two Albany-area men on terrorism-connected money-laundering charges in 2006.

“Weak people” found it more difficult to stave off Maqsood’s advances, said Shakir Rashada, 34, the son of the assistant imam.

Cromitie and his comrades apparently fit that profile. All parolees who had found Islam while incarcerated for a litany of crimes including drug charges, gun possession and the non-fatal BB-gun shooting of two Jewish teens from Monsey, the quartet latched onto Maqsood, who offered financial security and a sense of belonging.

The men considered themselves Muslim but rarely attended services, congregants said. And Hamin Rashada, who met with Payen each week as part of a prison re-entry program, said he often corrected the Haitian immigrant’s false assertions about Islamic law.

“That whole pitch? I’m good. I see things for what they are,” said congregant Jamil Muhammed, 38, a field service manager for Dish Network. “But they had just got out of jail. They needed something to grab onto. It’s easy to influence somebody with a dollar.”

With Maqsood financing every aspect of the plot, Muhammad says the FBI sting amounts to nothing more than entrapment.

“What I know about informants is they have to produce something, and also what I know about agent provocateurs is that they sometimes initiate things,” the imam said. “They manufacture things, so they are the driving force behind things — and that’s what I believe he was and that’s what he did.”

Though the mosque is trying to transcend the events of the past two years, for some, looking forward with hope is married to looking back with regret.

Payen, a 27-year-old man who was struggling to gain custody of his toddler son, could never have pulled off a plot like this on his own, Hamin Rashada said. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the assistant imam added, and he couldn’t read or write. And if Rashada had ever seen Maqsood near the man whose reintegration into society he was tasked to guide, he would have stopped it immediately.

“I would have told him, in no uncertain terms, ‘Stay the hell away from him,’ ” Rashada said. “My heart hurts. For the most part [Payen] was a baby. Chronologically he may have been 27. Psychologically, emotionally, he was a kid.”

Speaking specifically on the part of the plot involving synagogues, Muhammad told JTA that the Koran explicitly teaches against the destruction of any religious institutions, as the name of God is announced in them. But, he says, it can be difficult for media outlets to avoid the temptation to sensationalize.

“There seems to be some kind of conspiracy to paint us all with the same brush, and that isn’t true,” he said. “They had a distorted view of Islam. If you have those feelings, then you should fast, you should pray, you should read the Koran because the true feeling that you should have, as it relates to other people, is to respect them.”

Just days after the arrests, the mosque community is left grappling with the big questions: Why didn’t we report Maqsood? How could we have been so sure he was up to no good but stayed silent?

“Maybe the mistake we made was that we didn’t report him,” Muhammad told his congregation in his sermon Friday. “But how are we going to report the government agent to the government?”

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