ALBANY, N.Y. – Two leaders of an Albany mosque who were snared in an FBI sting involving a fictional terror strike were sentenced Thursday to 15 years in federal prison.
The former imam, Yassin Aref, professed innocence before his sentencing and criticized the government’s treatment of Muslims.
“I never had any intention to harm anyone in this country,” said Aref, a 36-year-old Kurdish refugee. “And I don’t know why I’m guilty.”
Pizzeria owner Mohammed Hossain, a founder of the Masjid As-Salam mosque, said in a voice choked with emotion that he knew nothing about bombs and terrorism.
“I do not know why it was me who was chosen. I was not a criminal,” he said. “I was not even thinking of committing a crime.”
The two were convicted in October for their roles in a money laundering scheme involving an FBI informant who posed as an illegal arms dealer.
The informant asked Hossain to launder $50,000 from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile from China that would be used to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York City, authorities said.
The informant said he needed to conceal the source of the income and asked Hossain to take the money and return it through a series of $2,000 checks, according to court documents. Authorities said Hossain agreed to issue checks from his businesses and planned to keep $5,000 for laundering the money.
Aref, spiritual leader of Hossain’s mosque, acted as a witness to the transactions.
Though the assassination plot was fictional, prosecutors in 2004 accused the pair of supporting terrorism.
Aref was found guilty of 10 of 30 charges. In addition to counts related to the money laundering scheme, he was found guilty of lying to FBI agents about having known a terrorist leader, Mullah Krekar, when he worked for a Kurdish political organization in Syria.
Hossain, 52, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh, was convicted on all 27 charges, including three counts of conspiracy.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak argued during federal trial that Hossain wanted money, while Aref was drawn into the plot by ideology.
Defense attorneys claimed the transactions were innocent, noting that Muslims often lend money to each other with clerics serving as witnesses. Aref and Hossain said they didn’t believe any talk about a missile in New York.
U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy cited the men’s lack of criminal records, their character and a high level of community support in giving them lesser sentences than the maximum 30 years to life in prison.