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
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
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Send comments or confidential tips to: