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Albany Terror Tales
August 17, 2004: In the early morning hours of August 6th the FBI, along with local law enforcement officials, raided the Masjid As-Salaam mosque in Albany, New York. The mosque's founder, Mohammed Mosharref Hossain and its iman, Yassin M. Aref, were arrested at their nearby homes. Both Hossain and Aref had allegedly conspired to launder money they believed would help pay for a proposed terror plot-- one which involved purchasing shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles and an attack on a Pakistani official within the United States. The motive for the latter being retaliation for Pakistani President Musharraf's post 9/11 assistance to the United States. In actuality, there was no plot. Hossain and Aref were caught in an FBI sting, laid out for them by an FBI informant.

Albany is New York State's capital city; government its main business. The Masjid As-Salaam mosque is on Central Avenue, a major artery running from downtown Albany to the city's suburban edges. The mosque is on the downtown section in a commercial area that's seen better days. Running off from the avenue are the narrow streets of two neighborhoods: low income West Hill-- rapidly transitioning into ghetto-- and the lower section of Pine Hills. The latter, thanks mainly to the State University of New York at Albany (UAlbany) has a large student population. Students live in dorms or off-campus housing. The bar scene is intense. Lower Pine Hills is sometimes called "The Student Ghetto". It looks as the name implies. The area also contains a goodly number of private, non profit agencies that rely on state and federal funding and provide assorted social services to clients who include the disabled, the mentally ill and people with alcohol or drug addictions.

Among the problems that beset lower Central Avenue and the surrounding area is drug trade. Periodic sweeps typically round up individuals doing street deals or groups of dealers working out of several apartments. Over the years, certain locations appear in newspaper reports repeatedly. Proving that some landlords are born unlucky. But maybe not so unlucky. Some of the same properties also keep appearing on lists of federally subsidized housing. No doubt because the apartments are as nice as the prices suggest.

A few years ago a convenience store a few blocks from the Masjid Al-Salaam Mosque, was found to be warehousing large amounts of heroin and cocaine. The proprietor skipped town (some said to Costa Rica) the day before his guilty verdict was delivered. Leaving behind an angry bail bondsman and some unpaid tax payer backed development loans. Since the proprietor was a mid level player it's not impossible he laundered a few drug dollars at his convenience store. Such things have been known to happen. Not to give convenience stores a bad rap. Any business where cash is king, or where money can be layered through chains of transactions or mingled funds, are prime for money laundering. Laundromats, restaurants and real estate are only a few examples of places where dollars can be washed domestically. (Off shore laundering is another ball game.) According to the IRS, real estate is experiencing a major uptick. Cash can be cleaned at several points: including sales, particularly when property flipping is involved, and via fudged rental income.

If Mr. Long Gone had been laundering money at his store, some might have seen it as less serious than his other activities. The importance of money laundering to the criminal economy tends to go under-appreciated: it's viewed as a post crime mop up. But unlike money made from drug deals, cash that finances terrorist acts must be laundered before hand. Since it isn't profits that are being disguised-- but the funding for future crimes.

As said, Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref allegedly went along with a scheme to launder money they believed would finance a terror plot. The plot was a phoney. The FBI informant who invited them in, was a Capital Region mini-mart man himself. A Pakistani "non-citizen" who'd been dabbling in mail fraud and apparently, bogus ID's. Both things are frequent companions to money laundering. After being caught, mini-mart man turned fed helpful. According to the U.S. Government's criminal complaint against Hossain and Aref, the informant's credits include providing "information that led to the arrest of 12 individuals on federal mail fraud and heroin related charges. All but one of those 12 individuals have pled guilty and the 12th is a fugitive from justice."

Mohammed Hossain, the founder of the Masjid As-Salaam Mosque is originally from Bangladesh. He owns a pizza restaurant several blocks below the mosque and rental properties in the general area; ones he purchased in foreclosure sales. Allegedly Mohammed Hossain approached the informant, seeking a false driver's license for a relative. Eventually he also asked for a loan. The informant agreed and suggested the loan be folded into money meant for purchasing and importing illegal arms and to fund a New York City attack against a representative of the Pakistani government. The total amount to be laundered by Mohammed Hossain. After some hemming and hawing, Hossain allegedly accepted the deal and said he could make it appear the funds had been generated through his rental properties.

The mosque's iman, Yassin Aref took part in the deal as a kind of financial overseer, a common Islamic business arrangement. Aref is a Kurd from Iraq. He is frequently described as a poor man with a humble part time job as an "ambulette" driver. And he was indeed on welfare. Fraudulently, say the FBI: in 2001 Aref was able to ship back $15,000 to a brother in Iraq while collecting public assistance. Yassin Aref took part in most of the negotiations between Hossain and the informant and allegedly had full knowledge of the laundering and terrorism plans.

After several hundred audio and video tapes, the FBI pulled the plot plug.

Post mosque raid, television newsmedia moved in. Local and national. Those with a hawkish bent dwelt on the threat posed by shoulder fired, surface-to-air missiles. Particularly to airliners. Scenarios of mass death were described in detail. Diagrams of such missiles were analyzed. Obscure retired intelligence experts pulled from who-knows-where were interviewed by newspeople whose intelligence had seemingly retired. Those inclined to dovedumb, painted the accused as victims of a broad anti-Muslim witch hunt. Homeland Security had come to Albany, New York in order to persecute a hard working pizza man and his buddy, a peace loving iman. Anchors became instant legal experts on entrapment and the sobbing wives of the accused were interviewed by newspeople barely able to hold back their own sobs.

Any real picture of Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref got lost in partisanship. Unchallenged statements fell into contextless voids. Falsehoods bounced off cultural and political ignorance. At one point supporters of Kurdish Yassin Aref claimed Aref couldn't be an anti-American Islamist because he was a refugee who fled Saddam Hussain. Variations on this theme were repeated by numerous doves. Despite the fact that this argument plays to the fantasy of Saddam and Iraq being responsible for 9/11. Earth to us: Saddam was a secularist. Head of a secularist state. Saddam was brutally repressive to many people-- including Islamist fundamentalists. They hate him. Some also hate us.

As the facts emerged and the FBI clarified that there was no actual terrorist plot and the case was a sting aimed at discouraging terror financiers, both sides of the partisan spectrum merged. Declaring-- one side with disappointment, the other with glee-- "it's only money laundering". Neither had much interest in the subject. The section of Albany that accused money launderers Hossain and Aref moved in, with its entrenched drug trade, rated nary a peek to see if any black market cross influences might exist. No attempt to explain the differences between money laundering in relation to terrorism, as opposed to plain old crime, was made. Hence no meaningful analysis of why and when proactive stings are justifiable was possible. If pervasive, money laundering can destabilize entire economies: in an increasingly globalized world "black money" has become of major concern. Yet news media descriptions of what money laundering is, and how it works, were scarcer than surface-to-air, shoulder fired missiles in the Masjid As-Salaam mosque.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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