Miami imams accused of funding terrorists: Hate and redemption

Just before 6 a.m. May 14, 2011, FBI agents surrounded a single-story, flat-roofed building that could be mistaken for a private home. Despite its humble appearance, the Flagler Mosque is one of the oldest in Miami. As the men inside began their morning prayer, they heard a loud banging on the door.

An FBI agent removed his shoes and strode into the prayer hall. He grabbed the hand of a stooped, elderly man with a long white beard. "You're coming with me," the agent told the mosque's 76-year-old imam, Hafiz Khan.

Forty-five miles north in Margate, police cruisers and federal agents blocked the entrance to a mosque on Holiday Springs Boulevard before the morning prayer began.

"They pointed the guns at the entire mosque," 19-year-old Shan says with outrage in his voice. He declines to give his last name before describing the arrest of that mosque's 24-year-old imam, Izhar Khan, Hafiz's son.

A few weeks after those arrests, roughly a hundred angry protesters gathered outside the Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen mosque in Margate. They were draped in flags and holding signs saying things like "Taliban Imam."

"Financial support for murderers!" yelled one ponytailed man holding an American flag.

"Are you going to blow up our day-care centers?" a woman shouted nearby.

Then a pale man with glasses and a grave expression stepped up to the podium. "We believe that things that are unsavory and unacceptable to this community are being done, and we want the answers," he told the cheering crowd.

The imams' arrests and the fallout created an international sensation, particularly in light of the recent withdrawal from Iraq and troop drawdowns in Afghanistan. Perhaps some Muslims were fanning the flames back home, some people believed. The case added tension to a year that had already been a bad one for Muslims in Florida.

A Gainesville pastor burned a Koran, and the Florida Family Association persuaded Lowe's to pull advertising from the TLC reality show All-American Muslim. Broward County Republicans even refused to allow a local Muslim activist to join their executive board.

"Unfortunately, South Florida is developing into a pit of anti-Islam bigotry," says Nezar Hamze, executive director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

But it's not so simple. The 20-page federal indictment against the Khans includes damning allegations. Members of the conspiracy are accused of sending money to the Pakistani Taliban, financing the purchase of guns, and sending children from an Islamic school to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Their ultimate goal, according to the indictment, was to help the Taliban overthrow the Pakistani government and establish sharia — strict Islamic law — there.

Federal prosecutors say the Pakistani Taliban is allied with Al-Qaeda and has been involved in numerous attacks on America, including a December 2009 suicide attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans, an April 2010 suicide bombing at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010. Last May, the group claimed responsibility for suicide attacks that killed at least 80 people at a military training facility in northwestern Pakistan.

The indictment portrays the white-haired Hafiz Khan — who has lived in the United States since 1996 — as the ringleader of the alleged conspiracy to support the Pakistani Taliban. He founded a madrasah in Pakistan before moving to the United States and has sent children there "to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan," prosecutors allege.

In conversations recorded by the FBI, he allegedly calls for an attack on the Pakistani Assembly and for the death of that country's president. When he heard that mujahideen — radical Islamic militants fighting to overthrow the government in Afghanistan — had killed seven Americans, he allegedly wished that "God bring death to 50,000 more." He and his son are accused of sending tens of thousands of dollars to support the Pakistani Taliban.

On June 11, 2009, Hafiz Khan allegedly asked Izhar to collect money from a donor in the United States that was to be used for the mujahideen. Five days later, Izhar wired $900 to his sister Amina in Pakistan.

The Khans allegedly began sending money to the Pakistani Taliban around April 2008, two years before the U.S. State Department labeled that group a foreign terrorist organization. According to the indictment, the money transfers continued until at least November 2010.

The feds finally cuffed the imams shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed, and the world turned its attention to the people who harbored terrorists in Pakistan. They have both pleaded not guilty and are being held in solitary confinement at a federal detention center.

In the days after the imams' arrests, complaints streamed into the civil rights division at South Florida's chapter of CAIR. Local mosques received hate mail. Even a van parked outside the Flagler Mosque bore a sign that read, "This place needs to be razed down."

Khurrum Wahid is the attorney representing the older imam, Hafiz Khan. He is a former public defender with an open face and a relaxed, scruffy goatee — the look of a working dad who can't be bothered with pretense. He says the case against the imams is based on rhetoric — the rants of an older man talking to his children. "Does rhetoric make you a terrorist?"

Born in Pakistan and raised in Canada, Wahid is now thoroughly American. He roots for the Dallas Cowboys. And he was working as a public defender in Miami when the twin towers fell. Wahid began representing immigrants detained for questioning in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

When he opened a private practice in 2004, he started taking cases other lawyers might shun. He defended the man who was convicted of plotting to bomb New York City's Herald Square subway station in 2004, as well as Boca Raton doctor Rafiq Sabir, who was convicted of conspiring to treat wounded Al-Qaeda militants. He also recently represented Rais Bhuiyan, a convenience store clerk in Texas who tried to prevent the execution of the man who shot him in the face after 9/11.

In 2006, Wahid founded a nonprofit group called Emerge USA to empower Muslim, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab-American people through voter registration, political polling, and a leadership training program for young adults. By getting more of Florida's 120,000 registered Muslim voters involved in politics, Wahid hopes participants will stop being alienated and vilified. "Public perception drives public policy," he says.

He believes terrorism cases are, in many ways, the civil rights battles of his generation. While outsiders might paint his clients as criminals, he says people such as the Khans are being prosecuted for giving money to groups the U.S. government doesn't like. "I think these things are not so black-and-white... I think innocent people get caught up in the politics."

Sometimes his work on terrorism cases means Wahid gets threatening emails and letters. But he insists such backlash doesn't get under his skin. "I tend not to really focus on those."

He adds that 95 percent of his cases have nothing to do with terrorism. In 2006, he defended the Miami man known as the "Shenandoah rapist," who was accused of a string of sexual assaults and convicted of raping an 11-year-old girl. In that case, he says, no one blamed him for doing his job.

"I think people are more accepting of me representing a serial rapist than they are of me representing an imam [accused of] giving support to the Taliban," Wahid says.

It will be at least nine months before the Khans go to trial. Wahid expects to battle with prosecutors over the accuracy of their translations, because much of their evidence rests on phone calls in which Hafiz Khan was speaking his native Pashto. Meanwhile, both sides are still debating what items — particularly information gathered via wiretapping — should be allowed as evidence.

Wahid knows there is pressure to resolve this case. Hundreds of Muslims in South Florida will be invested in the outcome. Because the Khans are religious leaders, their fate is inextricably linked to that of their followers. "[This case] will have far more of an impact on the Muslim community as a whole than some other cases we've dealt with," Wahid says.

On a quiet Thursday afternoon, a small group of elderly men leaves the Margate mosque after saying their prayers. A white-bearded man stops to praise imam Izhar Khan.

He doesn't believe Izhar was supporting terrorists. "He liked to help poor people. We like him. He's very educated, nice," says the man, who declined to give his name.

The man is gentle and soft-spoken, smiling and patting the arm of the reporter questioning him. But there is sadness in his weathered face.

"We miss him very much," he says. "Only God knows best... I hope they come home one day — him and his father."

New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writer Matthew Hendley contributed to this article.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab