Covering a Boston mosque’s radical ties

Covering a Boston mosque’s radical ties April 24, 2013

The latest headlines give some indication of where the Boston bombing story is going. From the New York Times, for instance:

Bombing Suspect Cites Islamic Extremist Beliefs as Motive

A more informative article from the Associated Press is headlined:

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Influenced By Mysterious Muslim Radical, Turned Towards Fundamentalism

Headlined in the Huffington Post, I hasten to add, since the “F” word violates the AP Stylebook. It begins:

In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said.

Under the tutelage of a friend known to the Tsarnaev family only as Misha, Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.

“Somehow, he just took his brain,” said Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan’s worried father about Misha’s influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful.

We focus on religion angles and how they are treated in the media, and will continue to do so in this and subsequent posts. That should not be interpreted as reason to focus exclusively on those angles. Journalists should heed the counsel of terrorism experts when they caution that “Complex rather than single causality is the norm, not the exception, for terrorism.” It’s definitely an egregious error to downplay the role religion plays in stories but that doesn’t excuse an exclusive focus on it.

The AP article suggests that Misha and Tamerlan met at a local mosque, though that mosque isn’t identified. I’ve been particularly intrigued with stories about the mosque(s) that the Tsarnaev brothers attended. Initial reports stated that no local mosques had heard of the brothers. By now we’re progressing to stories such as the Associated Press one above. I don’t even know if I can find it but I read a Boston Globe story that had a video featuring Suhaib Webb, an imam at a sister mosque. The story and the accompanying video emphasized how very moderate those mosques were — and how Tamerlan found their moderation difficult.

So I was surprised when some folks sent me a video suggesting that the mosques themselves had ties to radicals. I won’t link to it because the very first item the video mentioned had an error. It said that the founder of the mosque the brothers attended was sentenced to prison for his role in an Al Qaeda plot. I looked it up and found that description lacking. He is serving a 23-year sentence for his role in a terror plot, but it wasn’t identified as an Al Qaeda plot. I should add that when I looked up the name of the imam in the Globe video mentioned above, I saw this FBI document about how he had appeared at a legal defense fundraiser for Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim man on trial for (and later convicted of) killing two police officers … with U.S. citizen and drone victim Anwar al Awlaki back in 2001.

It got me thinking. Are these things newsworthy? Politically, there’s an argument for balance that might be described as finding a middle ground between ignoring the role of Islam, and putting the “Muslim community” under surveillance? There’s a journalism corollary to this, I’m sure. So how does one present this information?

USA Today took the approach of investigating various ties the mosques have to terrorists and just laying it all out there. Headlined, “Mosque that Boston suspects attended has radical ties,” it begins by saying several people who attend “have been investigated for Islamic terrorism, including a conviction of the mosque’s first president, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, in connection with an assassination plot against a Saudi prince.” It adds that the sister mosque has invited guests who defend terror suspects and that a former trustee advocates “treating gays as criminals, says husbands should sometimes beat their wives and calls on Allah (God) to kill Zionists and Jews.”

It might be helpful to know a little bit more about mainstream Muslim thought on some of these topics. And I’d like to hear the comments in context, to know if they’re accurately conveyed. It quotes someone saying that the curriculum of the mosque radicalizes people and that other people have been radicalized there. It includes this quote in response:

Yusufi Vali, executive director at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, insists his mosque does not spread radical ideology and cannot be blamed for the acts of a few worshipers.

“If there were really any worry about us being extreme,” Vali said, U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and Departments of Justice and Homeland Security would not partner with the Muslim American Society and the Boston mosque in conducting monthly meetings that have been ongoing for four years, he said, in an apparent reference to U.S. government outreach programs in the Muslim community.

Now, considering that some groups have been questioning the U.S. government’s involvement with some mosques — and the FBI’s lack of interest in the brothers despite repeated warnings — perhaps a response to this quote would have been in order. But it’s already pretty long and there’s not space for every back and forth. The article again mentions that the two mosques share an owner and later on they mention that they’re both affiliated with the Muslim American Society.

The article states that the FBI has not indicated that either mosque was involved in the terrorism commited by the Tsarnaev brothers. But it does list some of the attendees and officials who have been “implicated” in terrorist activity. And it’s an impressive list:

• Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who signed the articles of incorporation as the Cambridge mosque’s president, was sentenced to 23 years in federal court in Alexandria, Va., in 2004 for his role as a facilitator in what federal prosecutors called a Libyan assassination plot against then-Saudi crown prince Abdullah. Abdullah is now the Saudi king.

• Aafia Siddiqui, who occasionally prayed at the Cambridge mosque, was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 while in possession of cyanide canisters and plans for a chemical attack in New York City. She tried to grab a rifle while in detention and shot at military officers and FBI agents, for which she was convicted in New York in 2010 and is serving an 86-year sentence.

• Tarek Mehanna, who worshiped at the Cambridge mosque, was sentenced in 2012 to 17 years in prison for conspiring to aid al-Qaeda. Mehanna had traveled to Yemen to seek terrorist training and plotted to use automatic weapons to shoot up a mall in the Boston suburbs, federal investigators in Boston alleged.

• Ahmad Abousamra, the son of a former vice president of the Muslim American Society Boston Abdul-Badi Abousamra, was identified by the FBI as Mehanna’s co-conspirator. He fled to Syria and is wanted by the FBI on charges of providing support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill Americans in a foreign country.

• Jamal Badawi of Canada, a former trustee of the Islamic Society of Boston Trust, which owns both mosques, was named as a non-indicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terrorism trial in Texas over the funneling of money to Hamas, which is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The article also mentions a little bit about the Muslim American Society:

What both mosques have in common is an affiliation with the Muslim American Society, an organization founded in 1993 that describes itself as an American Islamic revival movement. It has also been described by federal prosecutors in court as the “overt arm” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which calls for Islamic law and is the parent organization of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group.

What makes this article interesting is that we get a pretty healthy back and forth from the critics and defenders of the Cambridge mosque. This is a rather large chunk but I think it shows how complex the charges, countercharges and responses are:

Talal Eid, a Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, says focusing on individual radicals that prayed in a building is unfair.

“In 2011, the two brothers were right under the nose of the FBI and they didn’t find anything,” Eid said, who never met the Tsarnaevs. “How do you want me as an imam to know enough to tell them they are not welcome here? How can I figure out those people have that kind of criminal intent?”

The Muslim American Society says on its website that it is independent of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, early Brotherhood literature is considered “the foundational texts for the intellectual component for Islamic work in America,” the website states.

Jacobs says claims of moderate Islam do not square with the mosque’s classic jihadi texts in its library and its hosting of radical speakers.

Jacobs said Ahmed Mansour, his co-director at Americans for Peace and Tolerance, found writings by Syed Qutb, the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and other jihadi texts at the Cambridge mosque’s library when Mansour went there in 2003. Qutb pioneered the radical violent ideology espoused by al-Qaeda.

Yusuf al Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader who espouses radical views in videos collected by Jacobs’ group, was listed as a trustee on the Cambridge mosque’s IRS filings until 2000, and on the mosque’s website until 2003, when he addressed congregants via recorded video message to raise money for the Boston mosque, according to a screenshot of the announcement that Feoktistov provided.

But Vali said Qaradawi was listed as an honorary trustee years ago only because his scholarship and high esteem in Muslim circles would help with fundraising.

Yasir Qadhi, who lectured at the Boston mosque in April 2009, has advocated replacing U.S. democracy with Islamic rule and called Christians “filthy” polytheists whose “life and prosperity … holds no value in the state of Jihad,” according to a video obtained by Jacobs’ group.

Vali said Qadhi was a guest of a non-profit that was renting space at the Boston mosque and changed his views since that video was made.

But Jacobs and others say it is not only renters who express sympathetic views for terrorists. Leaders of the Boston and Cambridge mosques, and invited guests, have advocated on behalf of convicted terrorists, urging followers to seek their release or lenient sentences.

Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, sometimes a spokesman for the Boston mosque, used Siddiqui’s case to speak against the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law passed under the Bush administration. “After they’re done with (Siddiqui) they are going to come to your door if they feel like it,” he said according to a video obtained by Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

Anwar Kazmi, a member of the Cambridge mosque’s board of trustees, called for leniency for Mehanna and Siddiqui at a Boston rally in February 2012, in a video posted to YouTube. He characterized Siddiqui’s 86-year sentence as excessive.

It does read somewhat hostile to the mosque. Some folks on Twitter called it “Islamophobic.” That’s an unhelpful word and I don’t read “irrational fear” of Islam into this piece — but it is definitely less deferential to the Cambridge mosque than what we saw in the early days.

Should this topic of mosque ties to radicals be covered? Assuming so, how does one write a piece about this topic? What could be done better? My own thoughts are that much more information is required, but how does one tackle all the balancing information in a story that is already quite long? I think we’d see better coverage if we see more coverage that gives time to flesh out what all this information means. What do you think?

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3 responses to “Covering a Boston mosque’s radical ties”

  1. “Talal Eid, a Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, says focusing on individual radicals that prayed in a building is unfair.”

    Separate and apart from your post, mollie, which asked relevant questions, I found this to be ironic. Brandeis is a Jewish university. With a Muslim chaplain. Can you imagine the reverse as a possibility?

  2. One of the founders of Americans for Peace and Tolerance was Ahmed Subhy Mansour, a Quaranist Muslim refugee from Egypt. The case of H. Rap Brown, aka Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, eing defended by other Muslims should lead any non-violent Muslims to have pause. It is pretty clear that al-Amin killed police officers for no good reason. Some Muslims seems to want to fan greviances that lead to more violence, often in inner city mosques with large number of African-American members, and we wonder why American cities are so violent. There are lots of reasons for violence, but fanning grievances and proclaiming those who do suicide bombings as “martyrs” does not help it.

    On the other hand, the only way for things to change, is if people acknowledge that moderate Muslims like Ahmed Subhy Mansour really exist. Too often the media seems to imply that all Muslims are going around fanning greviances. That is why I was glad USA today talked about Jasser, who clearly is not in that mind set.

  3. I lived two houses away from the mosque in Cambridge for eight years, before and after 9/11, and visited it twice during public events after 9/11. How should reporters try to make sense out of the range of views of the people who attend there? Interview a lot of them.

    It’s a fascinating place that’s not easy to understand: The community includes large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, especially from North Africa (as I recall), but there are also U.S.-born members and U.S. converts to Islam. One classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School was a convert active in the mosque. There’s a synagogue on the next block, and a Lutheran church around the corner, and members and leaders of both of those congregations were active in interfaith work with mosque leaders after 9/11.

    Could Tsarnaev have encountered people there who hold conspiratorial views there? I don’t doubt it. But you can encounter people with conspiratorial and potentially criminal inclinations at the fringes of any religious community. Here in Boston, money used to flow to the Irish Republican Army, but how much does that implicate the Catholic parishes the donors and supporters attended?

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