Imam charged with supporting Taliban
Miami - A Miami imam and two of his sons were arrested on Saturday on federal charges they provided some $50 000 to the Pakistani Taliban, designated by the State Department as a terrorist organisation, officials said.
Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, was arrested after morning services at the Miami Mosque, also known as the Flagler Mosque, where he is an imam. One of his sons, Izhar Khan, 24, an imam at the Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen Mosque in nearby Margate, Florida, was arrested after morning services there.
Another son, Irfan Khan, 37, was detained at his hotel room in Los Angeles around the same time. The men are US citizens. Their mosques are not suspected of wrongdoing, officials said.
Also named in the indictment are three others at large in Pakistan - Hafiz Khan's daughter, grandson and an unrelated man, all three of whom are charged with handling the distribution of funds.
The indictment lists about $50 000 in transactions. The funds were used to buy guns, support militants' families and promote the cause of the Pakistani Taliban, according to the indictment. It also alleges that Hafiz Khan owns a madrassa, or religious school, in his native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan that shelters members of the Pakistani Taliban and trains children to become militants.
'We support this country'
Attempts to reach the men's attorneys and families were unsuccessful on Saturday. However, another son of Hafiz Khan, Ikram Khan, told The Miami Herald that his father was too old and sick to be involved in the plot.
"None of my family supports the Taliban," he told the newspaper. "We support this country."
US Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the investigation was sparked three years ago by suspicious financial activity and was not based on an undercover sting operation.
"This is based on the defendant's words, actions and records," Ferrer said at a news conference on Saturday.
The indictment recounts recorded conversations in which Hafiz Khan allegedly voices support for attacks on the Pakistani government and American troops in the region.
The Pakistani Taliban is a wing of the terrorist group that originated in Afghanistan. It claimed responsibility for a pair of suicide bombings on Friday that killed 87 people in what it said was vengeance for the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The group has also been linked to the Times Square car bombing in New York in May 2010.
The Pakistani militant group is allied with al-Qaeda, is based in the northwest of Pakistan near the Afghan border and has links to that country's Taliban insurgency.
Meanwhile, relations between the US and Pakistan have been strained since the raid that led to Bin Laden's killing.
If convicted, the South Florida men face 15 years in prison for each of the four counts listed in the indictment. All three are expected to appear in court Monday.
The Miami Mosque - a small, white house in a crowded residential area - was founded in 1974 and is the oldest mosque in the city, according to Mohammad Shakir, a leader in the local Muslim community. Hafiz Khan has been leading prayers at the mosque for about 14 years, Shakir said.
Hafiz Khan has been suspended indefinitely as imam, said Asad Ba-Yunus, a spokesperson for the Muslim Communities Association of South Florida, which runs the mosque. He said his organisation is not aware of any attempts to raise funds for illegal activity that took place on its properties.
Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, described the father and son imams as "very quiet individuals" who seemed to be pious. He said he never heard them preach extremism.
"I was very shocked, just as others in the community were shocked," Hamze said. "We absolutely don't support terrorism or support of terrorism."
Muslim leaders said they were reluctant to speculate about whether the alleged financial support to the Pakistani Taliban did in fact take place and whether it was intentional. "I think it's important to get all the facts before any decisions or statements are made," Hamze said.
Across the street from the Miami mosque, neighbour Odelia Fernandez said she found the elderly bearded man to be respectful. Even though language barriers prevented them from communicating, they would wave hello to one another.
'Hard to believe'
Khan's next-door neighbour, Jorge Gonzalez, said he frequently saw Khan walking to the mosque.
"It's hard to believe," Gonzalez said. "The Taliban sleeping alongside my room - wow."
US Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement late on Saturday that the indictments show the US must be vigilant in dealing with extremist threats.
"This is yet another indication that the threat posed to the US and other free nations by violent Islamist extremists did not end with the killing of Bin Laden; that the war against enemies of freedom continues," the Florida Republican said. "It also highlights the need for the US to receive more cooperation from Pakistan to counter this threat."
This is not the first terror case to come out of the area. In June 2006, a group that became known as the "Liberty City Seven" was arrested in the Miami neighbourhood of that name. They were charged in a plot to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower. The plot never got past the discussion stage, prompting some defence attorneys and terrorism experts to describe the case as overblown. Five were convicted, while two were acquitted.