San Diego Union-Tribune

October 1, 2001

Muslim leader criticizes arrests
    Cleric knew 2 men from S.D. mosque

By JOE CANTLUPE and DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Outside the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, heavily armed guards patrolled. Inside, Anwar Al-Awlaki -- spiritual leader of one of the largest Muslim communities in the country -- tried to come to grips with faith and betrayal at the mosque he once led in San Diego.

Tall and lean, with a full, dark beard and a floor-length robe, the young cleric, or imam, finds himself on the fringe of a coast-to-coast criminal investigation that is the largest in U.S. history.

He said he is shocked by revelations that a terrorist attended his former mosque on Saranac Street in San Diego. But he also strongly opposes authorities' detention of two Middle Eastern students who also worshipped there.

Al-Awlaki, 30, is not accused of wrongdoing. And though the FBI says the two detained men -- Mohdar Abdallah of Somalia and Yazeed Al-Salmi of Saudi Arabia -- had "strong connections" to those who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Al-Awlaki said they were merely acquaintances of the terrorists and not collaborators.

"There was no need to round them up in a crude fashion," said Al-Awlaki, who has been interviewed by the FBI. He added that he and other clerics have urged congregations to cooperate with authorities.

"Our people won't listen to us when they see this is how the FBI is treating them. It strengthens our belief that we are a community under siege, whose civil rights are being violated."

FBI Director Robert Mueller defended investigators' tactics in questioning anyone, including clerics, who may have known the hijackers or their associates.

"We are delving into any relationships that individuals may have had with hijackers or associates of hijackers," Mueller said last week.

"Inevitably, that may cross over to relationships that may have sprung out of attendance, for instance, at religious meetings, but there is no effort to delve into political and religious beliefs of individuals."

Like other community leaders, Al-Awlaki suggested that the San Diego worshippers involved in the hijackings may have used mosque teachings and culture to justify the extremist views that led to the attacks on the United States. Or, he said, they simply hid behind the veil of religion.

"In the past, we were oblivious (to worshippers who had extremist views)," Al-Awlaki said. "But now, I think we will have a more attentive ear."

Fourteen months ago, Al-Awlaki resigned from the leadership of the San Diego mosque after an uneventful four years. After a brief sabbatical and a trip overseas to "various countries," Al-Awlaki -- hoping to lead a larger congregation and to finish work on a doctorate degree in human resource development -- became the spiritual leader of the Falls Church mosque in January while attending a nearby university.

A few thousand Muslims worship at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, which lies in a sprawling suburban community outside Washington that is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the nation.

Outside the mosque's wrought-iron gate, the heavily armed guards who scrutinized each approaching car and pedestrian showed that things changed dramatically Sept. 11.

That morning, hijacked jetliners smashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 7,000 people. Al-Awlaki heard the news as he rode in a taxi that morning from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where he said he had just arrived from San Diego after attending a function in Irvine.

On Sept. 23, FBI agents detained Al-Salmi at the San Diego mosque on Saranac Street. Abdallah was arrested at gunpoint Sept. 21 in the parking lot of Fry's Electronics near Aero Drive and Interstate 15. Authorities said the men are witnesses who are linked to the terrorists. But friends told Al-Awlaki that the pair volunteered to cooperate with authorities.

"It is not right," said Al-Awlaki, who is also known by the surname Al-Aulaqi. "It gives the impression they have involvement in this. It just destroys their reputation. I am convinced they are innocent."

Al-Awlaki described the men as friendly, if harried, students who frequented the mosque and participated in daily prayer sessions.

"They seemed to be exhausted from going to school and working," he said.

The FBI met with Al-Awlaki several times in the past few weeks. Authorities asked him about hijackers and accomplices who may have used false names and addresses in northern Virginia. They showed him photographs, including one of suspected hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, who reportedly attended the mosque on Saranac Street.

Al-Awlaki said he did not recognize Alhazmi, Khalid al-Midhar or Hani Hanjoor, suspected hijackers who also lived in San Diego County for a time.

The cleric also said he was not familiar with two other men detained as material witnesses -- Osama Awadallah of Jordan and Omer Bakarbashat.

Al-Awlaki was somber as he sat in his mosque office, wearing an olive-gray robe, black sandals and oval-shaped glasses. He would not elaborate on the investigation.

The imam -- who travels the country preaching the words of prophets -- said he, like most mosque leaders, focuses on spiritual teachings. A frequent theme is the pitfalls of materialism.

Asked if people such as Alhazmi might have taken such teachings to the extreme -- believing that they should destroy what the Koran teaches is evil -- Al-Awlaki said it would be "difficult for somebody to commit this crime and at the same time be strongly affiliated with the mainstream Islamic group."

Devout Muslims living in Falls Church and San Diego regularly encounter American habits and practices they find appalling: Though alcohol is a fixture in both cities, the Koran forbids its use. Though Muslim women must cover their hair and bodies, women on both coasts bare everything from legs to cleavage. While financial institutions abound in Virginia and California, the Koran forbids charging interest on a loan.

Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the terrorist attacks, has criticized the influence of Western culture on Muslim children.

"It usually happens that terrorist group leaders try to use religion as a tool to brainwash their followers," said Abdel Mostafa, a physician and research associate at the Institute of Islamic Medicine for Education and Research.

"But these (terrorists) are not religious even if they are going to the mosques. They are hiding behind religion."

Like many houses of worship, the mosque is also a place for the Muslim community to mingle. Al-Awlaki and other spiritual leaders discuss politics with their congregations, such as their disagreement with U.S. foreign policy in Israel and Iraq.

While in San Diego, Al-Awlaki said, he wasn't aware of any political zealotry among worshippers. He found the Muslim community in San Diego to be "very religious and simple."

Because terrorists may have attended his mosque in San Diego, as well as others across the nation, Al-Awlaki said, he and other spiritual leaders plan to watch -- and listen -- more carefully. He said leaders must convince the faithful that extremist ideas are wrong.

Still, he worries about the way the Bush administration is going about its war on terrorism.

"I believe force can suppress terrorism," he said. "But only justice can erase it."

Staff writer Susan Gembrowski and library researcher Erin Hobbs contributed to this report.