Two Mosques Are Shaken by Ties to a Terror Plot

By Alan Feuer, NY Times, May 14, 2007, Metro p. B1

PHILADELPHIA, May 11 — On the southern wall of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society here is a mural painted by local schoolchildren. In 18 different languages — from Arabic to Swahili — it depicts the world’s various ways of saying “love,” “hope” and “peace.”

The mosque has a good relationship with the police and F.B.I. in the city.
The mosque is an immaculate structure, four stories high and with a colorful frieze adorned with arabesques. It is the best-kept building in its North Philadelphia neighborhood, a blighted landscape dominated by the crumbling brick pile of the abandoned Gretz brewery.

On weekday mornings, students from the mosque’s school shoot hoops on two tidy basketball courts or slip down cheerful plastic slides. Come Friday, there are so many taxi drivers arriving for midday worship that people joke it is difficult, in the rest of the city, to find a cab.

It was here that Mohamad I. Shnewer, a Philadelphia cabdriver among the six men charged with planning to attack Fort Dix, would come to pray with his father, and where three other suspects, the brothers Eljvir, Shain and Dritan Duka, had recently begun repairing the roof.

The Philadelphia mosque — along with the South Jersey Islamic Center in nearby Palmyra, N.J., where the Duka brothers and another suspect, Serdar Tatar, prayed on Fridays — has become associated with words like “terrorist” and “jihad” in news reports and on the streets in the last few days. For a house of worship long proud of its mainstream reputation and strong ties to the city, whispers of a sleeper cell within its walls have been troubling.

“There’s been a lot of frustration,” said Marwan Kreidie, who is prominent among the city’s Muslims and was recently asked to serve as a spokesman for the mosque. “This is a place with great relationships to the community, including a strong working relationship with law enforcement in all its forms.”

It is unclear what role, if any, religion played in the attack Mr. Shnewer and the five other men are charged with planning. (The sixth suspect, Agron Abdullahu, had no apparent connection with Al-Aqsa or the South Jersey Islamic Center.) The authorities have described the suspects as Islamic extremists, but the lengthy criminal complaint summarizing the F.B.I.’s 15-month undercover investigation of the group does not mention where — or how often — they prayed. Certainly there is no evidence that they picked up radical ideas at either mosque.

Al-Aqsa was founded in 1991, when its trustees bought an old warehouse in a run-down section of industrial Philadelphia. It is a traditional Sunni mosque, with prayers and sermons in Arabic. About 1,000 families regularly attend its Friday services, which cater to an immigrant congregation — mostly Palestinian, with some from Egypt and Syria.

Aside from the taxi drivers (whose cars line up outside, starting at 4:30 a.m., for the first of the five daily prayers), the congregants are a mix of working-class and professional people, Mr. Kreidie said. As Al-Aqsa grew, so did its involvement in the neighborhood. The mosque has been the host of forums for candidates for the Philadelphia City Council, serves as an Election Day polling site and has worked with other religious groups to deliver meals at home to people who have AIDS.

{The next two paragraphs appeared in the print version of this story but not on line:

[For the last four years, Mr. Kreidie said, the mosque has played a central role in what is called the Interfaith Peace Walk, a citywide march that includes stops at churches, mosques, and synagogues.

["The Al-Aqsa folks have been the Muslim anchor of the walk," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, a Jewish organization. "My experience with them has always been welcoming and connecting and sharing in the best way of the Abrahamic tradition."]

About 10 miles north up Interstate 95 and on the other side of the Delaware River, the South Jersey Islamic Center sits in a quiet residential neighborhood of large single-family homes in Palmyra, population 7,000. It was founded in 1992 in a converted two-story gray stone church.

There are about 200 regular members, most of Indian or Pakistani descent, said Naseem Badat, the wife of a mosque trustee, Ismail Badat. The largest gatherings are on Friday afternoons and Sundays, when the children are taught the Koran and Islamic law and history. There used to be a part-time imam, but now members take turns leading prayers.

Unlike Al-Aqsa, where visitors were not allowed inside for any reason on several days this week, the South Jersey Islamic Center welcomed all to its Friday services, where Mr. Badat delivered a sermon condemning the terror plot.

“We are all Americans, we are American Muslims,” he said. “We are all part of the same society and we condemn terrorism.”

Like many mosques, Al-Aqsa and the South Jersey Center suffered after Sept. 11 when fears emerged of a backlash against Muslims. The leadership of Al-Aqsa took the attack on the World Trade Center as an opportunity to strengthen its already strong ties with the Philadelphia Police Department and the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Kreidie said.

With the outbreak of war in Iraq, he said, the mosque reached an agreement with the F.B.I. to send out letters on its own letterhead urging members of its congregation to cooperate with federal agents who might come calling. “The idea was to build trust,” Mr. Kreidie said.

And trust was built, said James P. Doolin, an assistant special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Philadelphia office. In the last six years, he said, agents have met frequently with members of the mosque.

Capt. Bill Fisher, who leads the Philadelphia Police Department’s civil affairs unit and serves as a liaison to the city’s Arabs, said Al-Aqsa is squarely in the mainstream and “very much a part of the community.” Union leaders and government officials have participated in services at the mosque, he said.

“I’ve always had nice relations with them,” he said. “They have nothing to hide.

“If anything, I feel sorry for them.”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting from Palmyra, N.J.

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