WASHINGTON – The California imam who helped convert an al-Qaida suspect to Islam headed a Muslim activist group under investigation here for possible financial ties to terrorist front groups.
Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, ministered to a 25-year-old Muslim convert now the subject of an FBI manhunt.
Adam Gadahn allegedly traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to train at al-Qaida camps following his conversion while attending the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, Calif., in the late 1990s. Siddiqi is head of the mosque there.
Congress is reviewing the financial records of the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, as part of a post-9-11 investigation into alleged ties between tax-exempt Muslim organizations and terrorist groups.
Siddiqi served as president of ISNA from 1996 to 2000. He still serves on its board. ISNA did not return phone calls to its Indianapolis headquarters.
The Senate Finance Committee, which is heading the probe, earlier this year asked the IRS for tax records on ISNA – the nation’s largest Islamic organization – to determine the source of the non-profit group’s funding. Names of donors are redacted from public tax documents for privacy reasons.
It’s suspected that many U.S.-based Muslim groups receive the bulk of their money from Saudi-based charities tied to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Many also have been financially linked to Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., which was shut down after 9-11 for ties to the terrorist group Hamas. Its assets have been frozen.
ISNA and Holy Land Foundation shared a web portal before authorities raided the offices of the Muslim-owned web hosting company in 2001.
In a TV interview, Siddiqi said Gadahn did not discuss any plans to travel to Afghanistan with him when he attended his mosque in 1996 and 1997.
“Who knew about al-Qaida at that time?” he said. “We had no idea of anything like that.”
Siddiqi, who was reared in Pakistani religious politics and studied Islam at a Saudi university, made a public appeal for his former pupil to turn himself in to authorities. Siddiqi held the press conference Thursday after FBI agents questioned him.
He told Gadahn he should not get involved with any group that advocates “terrorism.” The thin, mild-mannered Siddiqi asserted in an interview that “Islam is the religion of peace.”
According to “Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam” – a book on the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ recommended reading list – Siddiqi is regarded as “one of the most respected Muslim leaders” in America.
In September 2001, President Bush invited him to lead a prayer during the 9-11 memorial at the Washington National Cathedral. He also read from the Quran.
ISNA’s website says its mission is to “advance the cause of Islam and Muslims in North America.” It lists training imams as its No. 1 goal.
But critics say ISNA is an extremist group disguised as a moderate group.
ISNA “enforces Wahhabi theological writ in the country’s 1,200 officially recognized mosques,” said terror expert Stephen Schwartz, author of “The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism.” Wahhabism, a puritanical, anti-Western strain of Islam, is the official religion of the Saudi government. It’s also practiced by Osama bin Laden.
Members of ISNA’s board include controversial New York imam Siraj Wahaj, named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal case last decade against terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman, a.k.a. the Blind Sheikh.
Siddiqi and Wahaj spoke at the Islamic Circle of North America’s 2001 convention in Cleveland together with Saudi Shaikh Abdur Rahman al-Sudais, senior imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, who has been quoted vilifying Jews as the “scum of humanity” and “the grandsons of monkeys and pigs.” The three were scheduled to speak again in December at an Islamic conference in Kissimmee, Fla.
Siddiqi, who writes a weekly column for a Pakistani publication, has spoken at pro-Hezbollah and pro-Hamas rallies, and has supported an Islamic state in the U.S., while praising martyrdom for the Islamic cause, according to the SITE Institute, an anti-terror watchdog group.
On Oct. 28, 2000, Siddiqi issued a stern warning to America during an anti-Israel rally across from the White House. He and other Islamic leaders had organized the demonstration to protest America’s pro-Israel policy and to support what they called just resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
“America has to learn,” Siddiqi was quoted as saying, “if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Please, all Americans. Do you remember that?”
Then he stressed: “If you continue doing injustice, and tolerate injustice, the wrath of God will come.”
Abdurahman Alamoudi, the former American Muslim Council president arrested last year on terrorism-related charges, appeared with Siddiqi at the 2000 protest rally. And he proclaimed: “Hear that, Bill Clinton! We are all supporters of Hamas. I wish to add that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah.”
ISNA’s secretary-general, Sayyid M. Syeed, is the former director of academic outreach at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a Northern Virginia think tank raided in 2002 by federal authorities on suspicion of terror-financing.
The book “Silent No More” describes Syeed, a native of Kashmir, as a “prominent mainstream Muslim.”
The FBI fears al-Qaida is recruiting American converts like Gadahn to blend in to American society and not raise security suspicions before carrying out suicide attacks in America.
Agents are searching for Gadahn and six other al-Qaida suspects in an attempt to disrupt a possible al-Qaida plot to attack America again this summer.