Suburban muslim cleric draws investigators’ attention

  • Brooke A. Masters And Leef Smith / (c) 2001, The Washington Post
  • Thursday, September 20, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local NewsNation / world

By Brooke A. Masters And Leef Smith

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Moataz Al-Hallak has lived quietly for the past year at a Laurel, Md., apartment complex, regularly attending prayer services at an Islamic school in nearby College Park and working as a fundraiser and grant writer.

But now, two years after federal prosecutors publicly linked him to terrorist Osama bin Laden, law enforcement officials are looking at him again, first putting him on a “watch list” of people to talk to about last week’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and then questioning him for three hours.

Federal investigators already had looked into allegations that surfaced from his previous job as an imam in Texas, where he was ousted after complaints that his mosque’s money was going to outside people and organizations that the board did not recognize.

Al-Hallak is one of about 175 people put on the watch list after four hijacked planes crashed into the trade center’s twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The FBI list is an attempt to root out any possible accomplices of the hijackers and uncover terrorist operatives in the United States.

Several people on the list, including a San Antonio radiologist and a cabdriver with bin Laden ties, are being held as material witnesses. Others, including Al-Hallak, who was questioned Wednesday, were not detained.

Al-Hallak has been in the position before. He testified before the grand jury investigating the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa – also allegedly masterminded by bin Laden – and was named by prosecutors as a contact among members of the terrorist organization.

“I answered all the questions, and I’ll help them in any way I can,” Al-Hallak said Thursday about the most recent interviews. “I love this country … I care for its people.”

The terrorists “must be tracked down and brought to justice,” he said.

Al-Hallak’s attorney, Stanley Cohen, said prosecutors showed his client about 20 photographs and read him a list of names – some of which he recognized. Cohen said Al-Hallak also was asked about his trips to Saudi Arabia and organizations he may have contacted there.

Al-Hallak was released immediately after the questioning; he was not charged. He also was not charged in the embassy bombings.

But the interview comes at a time when a massive FBI manhunt has turned up evidence that at least six of the 19 hijackers spent several days, and perhaps weeks, before the attacks at motels, stores and a gym just a few miles from Al-Hallak’s home. Agents have also shown pictures of several of the hijackers to Al-Hallak’s neighbors.

Cohen said his client has no connection with the attacks or any terrorists. Al-Hallak was on a three-day fundraising trip to Texas when the Sept. 11 hijackings occurred and led prayers at his old mosque there on Sunday night, Cohen and mosque members said. Cohen said that his client had a return flight scheduled for about noon the day of the attacks but that Al-Hallak drove his rental car home after planes were grounded.

But Al-Hallak was publicly linked to bin Laden in 1999, through members of his former congregation at the Islamic Society of Arlington, Tex. One of them, Wadih El-Hage, was convicted this year of helping to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

When El-Hage was arrested in 1999, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was so concerned that he took the unusual step of asking a judge to prevent El-Hage from contacting Al-Hallak, saying in court that the imam was “a contact point for” bin Laden’s organization.

At El-Hage’s trial this year, Texas pilot Essam Al Ridi testified that his “best friend,” Al-Hallak, had advised him on a plan to buy an old plane, refurbish it and fly it to the Sudan for bin Laden.

Al-Hallak testified three times before the federal grand jury that investigated the bombings and was granted immunity from prosecution, Cohen said. He said Fitzgerald, who was the lead prosecutor in that case and is now the U.S. attorney in Chicago, led the questioning of Al-Hallak this week.

Born in Syria, Al-Hallak went first to Pakistan and then the University of Texas at Arlington to study aircraft maintenance. While in Texas, he married an American and became a U.S. citizen. In 1991, he was tapped to head Arlington’s main mosque because of his learning, particularly his memorization of the Koran.

As imam, Al-Hallak was wonderful with children and easy to talk to, said Faraz Ahmed, 23, a current board member and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington. “He was a loving man, not a rough-edged person … Very approachable.”

But the cleric’s conservative interpretation of the Koran alienated some moderate Muslims. Some board and mosque members began saying it was time for a change.

In 1997, the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group, stepped in and appointed a mediator, who helped the congregation adopt a constitution that made it clear Al-Hallak was an employee of the elected board of directors. The controversy became a full-fledged feud when the newly elected board decided not to renew Al-Hallak’s contract at the end of 1999.

A lawsuit filed by the mosque board said that Al-Hallak refused to leave and that several of his followers threatened to “break legs” and tried to run over a board member with a car. “Al-Hallak has insisted on remaining as imam … as though he were “dictator for life,’ ” the complaint said.

After months of wrangling, Al-Hallak left and moved to Laurel. “Moataz eventually said, ‘This is crazy; this is not good for my family,’ ” said Cohen, adding that he believes a Muslim FBI agent helped foment the split in the congregation.

Several sources in law enforcement and the congregation said the board brought the mosque’s books to the FBI late last year. Board members were concerned, they said, about Al-Hallak’s administration of the mosque’s finances – money seemed to be flowing in from fundraisers and then out to other mosques, people and foundations that congregants knew little about. No criminal charges have been brought.

Cohen agreed that an FBI agent had reviewed the records but said his client had done nothing wrong.

While living in Laurel, Cohen said, Al-Hallak has worked for a local Islamic school, raising funds and writing grant applications. He would not say which school.

Cohen said the FBI alleged that Al-Hallak said something while he was in Texas in the days before the attacks that pointed to advance knowledge of the hijackings.

But congregants of the Arlington mosque said they remember nothing untoward about Al-Hallak’s visit. “He led the prayer. A night prayer. That’s it. Nothing unusual,” Ahmed said.

Since the FBI said last week that it was looking for Al-Hallak, a steady stream of reporters has visited his third-floor apartment. Thursday, he asked to be left alone. “All I want is that me and my family be treated with dignity,” he said.

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