Muslim Community Reacts to Local Terrorism Trials

Jul 24, 2012

Raleigh's Muslim community is caught between two uncomfortably close to home criminal trials. The dust has finally settled around the case of the so-called Raleigh 7. The final member of that gang was convicted last month for conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and kill people overseas.  Now, lawyers are preparing for a related case that begins this November. It involves a highly respected Muslim woman from Raleigh. She was arrested earlier this year for allegedly trying to hire a hitman to murder an FBI informant.  These terrorism trials make juicy headlines and those headlines shine a painfully bright light on Raleigh's Muslims.

Asma Khalid: The Hassan family lives in a quaint subdivision in Southwest Raleigh. There used to be three kids at home, but these days one is missing, 25-year-old Omar. He's in prison in Florida, sentenced to 15 years, guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. He's linked to a failed plot to commit terrorist attacks during a 2007 trip to Israel.

The government's case rests largely on Facebook activity and confidential informants. Omar is one of the young guys known as the Raleigh 7. Aly Hassan is Omar's Dad. He has a tendency of smiling right before he tells you something depressing.

Aly Hassan: It's very sad. We feel like we're in jail ourselves, we're focusing on Omar's case because we know he's innocent. We know he didn't do anything wrong. Yeah, he might use actually bad words, profanity against others, but that doesn't make him a terrorist.

The government accuses Omar of posting lyrics to an anti-semitic rap song on his Facebook page. Hassan says somehow that entangled his son in this terrorism plot. But, what upsets Hassan just as much as his son's situation is the reaction from fellow Muslims.

Aly Hassan: In the beginning, there was a lot of people that I know, they used to be very close friends, we used to meet and talk about everything. As soon as Omar got arrested, they just kept themselves away from me, and I didn't know why. See when you have a party, you invite people, or even without inviting people, people will come to you because you're gonna have fun. But in a crisis that's the time when you find out who's the real friend.

Hassan says his Omar's best friends disappeared and old family friends refused to write character letters to the judge.

Omar's younger sister Sarra chirps in. She says people are afraid - terrified that just by showing up and watching these trials, the government may target them. She says that anxiety heightened after Nevine Elsheikh was arrested.

Sarra Hassan: If this happened to Nevine, who's like the nicest person, who's not involved in anything, who's just there to help people, then it could happen to anyone.

Raleigh Muslims describe Elshiekh as a pillar in the community a selfless woman who taught special education kids at a montessori and introduced recycling bins to the mosque. She was arrested in January for allegedly trying to hire a hitman to kill an FBI informant. The arrest rattled the Muslim community more than the initial Raleigh 7 case. Elshiekh is a face everyone knows.

She was Juwareyah Hassell's second grade teacher.

Juwareyah Hassell: Sister Nevine is a mother to our high school girls and the girls that need a role model basically. She worked very hard, and did what she thought was best all the time.

Fridays at the mosque are social nights. Tonight - guys are playing basketball, girls are doing yoga. Elshiekh used to lead the girls youth group at the mosque. Nowadays, she's on house arrest til her trial begins. A few college girls are picking up the slack.

Rewan Goda is volunteering today. She's helping middle school girls make jewelry.

Goda is passionate about these terrorism trials.

Through the case of the Raleigh 7, local Muslims discovered informants were operating in the community. They still might be, and that irks Goda.

Rewan Goda: To me, I always grew up believing, I was taught that these are my brothers and sisters.

Goda says she could leave her purse unattended in the mosque and know that no one would steal any money. Now, Goda says she worries someone could wiretap her purse.

Rewan Goda: Since the trials, we noticed there was a lot of uncover FBI informants that took stories and just flipped it, to make it seem like the prosecuted brother said things that they really didn't mean, and now it's just like - oh, I need to watch every word I'm saying even if it's with a brother I've known for years or a sister I've known for years.

Local Muslims don't agree on much about these cases - whether the people charged are guilty or not, whether the government is entrapping innocent Muslims or not, and whether there's really a terrorism problem or not. But the one common thread is how these cases have broken the trust of an tight-knit community.

Samy Abdel-Baky was the mosque chairman for nine years.

Samy Abdel-Baky: People they know a person and they trust a person, and then all of a sudden, they found this person on trial, and they don't know if this is correct or not.

Farris Barakat meets me outside the mosque after helping lead Friday prayers. Barakat isn't sure what to make of the upcoming case. But, he's critical of law enforcement.

Farris Barakat: I can tell you the FBI has not done a good job of working with the Muslims. It's generally agreed upon that the Muslims are the first line of defense if anything like this is to happen. Statistically speaking if anything was to happen, it was the Muslims who kind of let the FBI or the police know that there is this person who might not be right. They haven't done a good job of capitalizing on the fact that we are there to help, and we are citizens of this country, and we do not want to see anyone hurt. So, they've done a really bad there. And have they done a good job in alienating us? For the most people - probably yes.

The mosque administration insists it has a healthy relationship with the FBI. It also refuses to take an official stance on these terrorism cases, even though Elshiekh worked at the mosque.

Imran Aukhil is the spokesman for the Islamic Association of Raleigh. The group governs the mosques in Raleigh and Morrisville. He says Raleigh's Muslim population has exploded in recent years.

Imran Aukhil: 10 years ago, 15 years ago, everybody in the mosque knew everybody else. But, now when you walk into the mosque for Friday services, me, having been here my whole life, I don't recognize easily about 50 percent of the people I see in the mosque everytime I come in on a Friday.

Aukhil estimates the Raleigh area has about 25,000 Muslims.

Imran Aukhil: It's an open mosque. And there's really no way to track who does what and who says what and why they say that and how they say that.

By listening to this story, you might think these terrorism trials are the topic of daily conversation. But that's hardly true, people don't talk about these cases unless you pry. Some are afraid. Others don't care. They don't think these terrorism trials relate to them, because they don't say anything stupid to arouse suspicion.

But, nearly everyone agrees these cases have changed the local Muslim community in one way or another.

People don't trust each other, they don't trust outsiders, and they don't trust law enforcement like they did before.