WASHINGTON ó Two leaders of a mosque in Albany, N.Y., were arrested on charges stemming from an alleged plot to purchase a shoulder-fired missile, federal authorities said Thursday.
The men have ties to a group called Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al-Qaida, according to two federal law enforcement authorities speaking on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials have said that Ansar’s members are thought to be affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose network is blamed for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies in Iraq.
The arrests came as FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agents executed search warrants at the Masjid As-Salam mosque and two Albany-area residences late Wednesday and early Thursday. The men were identified as Yassin Aref, 34, the imam of the mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, 49, one of the mosque’s founders.
A Justice Department news conference was scheduled in Washington to discuss the case.
The wives of the two suspects denied their husbands were involved in any terror plot.
“It’s totally wrong and totally false and totally a lie,” Hossain’s wife, Mossamat, said in a phone interview.
She said more than a half-dozen agents stormed the family’s apartment at about 1:30 a.m., just as her husband returned from New York City where he had gone to buy a plane ticket to Bangladesh for her mother.
Aref’s wife, Zuhor Jalal, said the FBI came to her home about 2 a.m. and told her they had her husband in custody. They took her and her three young children to a hotel and then searched their home.
Jalal said she and her husband are natives of Kurdistan and lived in Syria for five years before coming to America.
“We come for freedom and job,” she said.
According to law enforcement officials, the two are being charged with providing material support to terrorism by participating in a conspiracy to help someone they believed was a terrorist purchase a shoulder-fired missile. The person was in fact working undercover for the government and no missile ever changed hands.
Aref and Hossain were allegedly involved in money-laundering aspects of the plot, the officials said.
In a similar sting operation last year, a British arms dealer was arrested in New Jersey and charged with trying to sell a shoulder-fired missile to an undercover agent posing as a Muslim terrorist bent on shooting down a U.S. airliner.
The yearlong Albany investigation is not related to the Bush administration’s decision earlier this week to raise the terror alert level for certain financial sector buildings in New York and Washington, the officials said.
Law enforcement officials have for years been concerned about terrorists obtaining shoulder-fired missiles and using them to take down commercial airliners. Fears were heightened in November 2002 when two SA-7 missiles narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. It’s believed al-Qaida probably was behind the attack, which coincided with a bomb blast at a nearby hotel.
Last November, a shoulder-fired missile struck a DHL cargo plane at Baghdad International Airport, forcing it to make an emergency landing at the airport with its wing aflame.
The Homeland Security Department has contracted with three companies to develop plans for anti-missile systems that could be used to defend U.S. commercial planes against shoulder-fired rockets.
It’s estimated that it would cost about $1 million per plane to install anti-missile systems. There are about 6,800 planes in the U.S. commercial fleet.
The Bush administration has been reluctant to pursue the technology, citing the cost and noting that other security measures adopted since the Sept. 11 attacks have diminished the threat against aircraft.