An imam slated to be sworn in Friday as the second Muslim chaplain in Fire Department history said he questioned whether 19 hijackers were responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and suggested a broader conspiracy may have brought down the Twin Towers and killed more than 2,700 people.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Imam Intikab Habib, 30, a native of Guyana who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia, said he doubted the United States government’s official story blaming 19 hijackers associated with al-Quaida and Osama bin Laden.
“I as an individual don’t know who did the attacks,” said Habib, 30, a soft-spoken man who immigrated to New York in July 2000 after spending six years in Saudi Arabia getting a degree in Islamic theology and law. “There are so many conflicting reports about it. I don’t believe it was 19 … hijackers who did those attacks.”
Asked to elaborate on his reasons for doubting that story, he talked about video and news reports widely disseminated in the Muslim community.
“I’ve heard professionals say that nowhere ever in history did a steel building come down with fire alone,” he said. “It takes two or three weeks to demolish a building like that. But it was pulled down in a couple of hours. Was it 19 hijackers who brought it down, or was it a conspiracy?”
Questioned about who he believed was responsible for the attacks, Habib said he didn’t know. He said, however, that he did not expect to raise his doubts with rank-and-file firefighters — nor did he share them two weeks ago when he participated in several Sept. 11 memorials on behalf of the Fire Department.
“My position as a chaplain is that whoever did it, it’s a tragic incident,” he said. “I feel sorrow for the families who lost loved ones and for the firefighters who died in it. Whoever did it, it was a very wrong thing. It’s always wrong to take an innocent human life.”
A spokesman for the Fire Department, Frank Gribbon, said that Habib was recommended by the department’s Islamic Society and was hired “based on his credentials as a religious person. We don’t ask new employees about their political views before we hire them.”
Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, could not be reached for comment.
Habib’s remarks about the attacks came in response to questions about whether he thought firefighters would accept a chaplain who had been educated in Saudi Arabia.
He said he did not expect that to be an issue because “I come from a country where you’re accustomed to living with people of different ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds.”
When pressed further about whether the hijackers’ backgrounds — 15 of whom were Saudi — might make his training an issue for still-grieving firefighters, he went on to express his own doubts about the hijacker story.
Habib was one of several imams recommended for the chaplain’s job by the Islamic Society for the Fire Department, as a result of his work teaching junior high students at Al-Ihsan Academy in Ozone Park, a private Islamic school, where he worked for about five years.
“He’s a good man,” said Hakim Braxton, president of the Islamic Society. “Any statements he’s made, he’s responsible for … But I would ask that the citizens of this city give him a chance and judge him on his actions.”
Braxton also stressed that neither he nor anyone in the Islamic Society would agree with anyone who tried to justify the terror attack in any way. “I lost friends, family, co-workers,” he said.
Braxton described Habib as a “humble, grounded and family man, which is a good thing in this job, because he’s trying to help everyone and he’s representing a very diverse community.”
Habib himself said he saw his role as ministering to every member of the Fire Department, not just to Muslims.
“Being a chaplain in the Fire Department, I serve the whole Fire Department,” he said.
Sep. 30, 2005
Carol Eisenberg, Newsday Staff Writer