FBI agent details how informant was used to build case against Albany mosque leader, pizza shop owner
By BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer timesunion.com 9/15/06

ALBANY — Mohammed Hossain was working at his Central Avenue pizza shop three years ago when the FBI made their play for him.

Until then, by all accounts, the Bangladeshi immigrant had committed no crimes, paid his taxes, worked numerous jobs and saved enough money to buy a couple of rundown houses in Albany that he fixed up and rented for income.

The sting began that day, in July 2003, when Special Agent Timothy Coll, the case’s lead investigator, sent an undercover informant into Hossain’s restaurant with an assignment to become his friend.

The informant, posing as a wealthy import-export businessman, brought gifts for Hossain’s children and expressed an interest in buying the struggling restaurant, according to Hossain.

“I told the cooperating witness to play a role,” said Coll, who took the stand Thursday at Hossain’s trial on charges of money laundering and supporting terrorism.

That role was filled by Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant who was facing prison and deportation after being arrested two years earlier in an unrelated FBI investigation involving fraudulent driver’s licenses. Coll explained how Hussain had signed a plea deal in which he’d agreed to help authorities in other investigations, but this was his first case that didn’t involve phony licenses.

Within weeks, Hossain and the informant were embroiled in intimate discussions about Islam and their personal philosophies, expressing deep fondness for one another as their conversations wended from religion to money and, ultimately, terrorism.

Coll, who is scheduled to resume his testimony this morning, did not say what made the FBI single out Hossain, whose co-defendant, Yassin Aref, is the jailed spiritual leader of a Central Avenue mosque. The pair face up to 400 years in prison if convicted of the charges, which include allegations they took part in laundering proceeds from a fictitious plot to sell weapons to terrorists.

It’s not known why the FBI zeroed in on Aref, a Kurdish refugee and religious scholar who authorities have admitted was the “ultimate target” of their investigation. At the time, Hossain and Aref were close friends and prayed at the same mosque, which Hossain had a hand in opening.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William C. Pericak did not ask Coll Thursday what triggered the investigation. Instead, Coll spent much of his testimony giving the jury an inside look at the sting operation, which was built largely on secretly recorded conversations between Aref, Hossain and the informant.

He explained how the FBI hid their cameras in clocks, placed recording devices on the informant’s body and sat in cars nearby using transmitters disguised as tape measures and pagers to listen in on the dozens of conversations that unfolded over a year beginning in the summer of 2003.

Many of the recordings — grainy surveillance films and muddled audiotapes — were played in court on a giant projection screen that also contained running transcripts so the jurors could follow what was being said as the conversations drifted between English, Arabic and Urdu.

On Nov. 20, 2003, following several meetings between the informant and Hossain, they were talking about religion and Hossain’s need for money when the informant stood up inside his former office on Route 7, near the Albany International Airport, and strolled to a large item wrapped in plastic on the floor.

The informant, a former Loudonville resident who used to run a gas station on South Pearl Street in Albany, hoisted a shoulder-fired missile atop his shoulder, telling Hossain he made lots of money importing the “ammunitions” from China and selling them to “Mujahedeen brothers” in New York City.

“This comes for our Mujahid brothers,” the informant stated. “Today, it’s going to New York. … This hits planes. … Good money can be made from this.”

“I’ve seen it on television,” Hossain said. “I had never seen it … but it’s not legal.”

“What is legal in this world,” the informant responded, laughing loudly. “There is nothing that is legal in this world. Everything has to be illegal. … That’s all this is all about, all Islam is about.”

The meeting continued for several more minutes, and Hossain recounted a historical story about a Muslim who wrote a letter to a Roman emperor, warning the leader that “My soldier love death more than life and your soldier love life more than death.”

Still, moments later, Hossain, in his broken English, said that the story’s meaning was a “clear indication even though enemy we cannot kill them like a coward.”

Many conflicting statements like that are throughout the tape recordings played in federal court this week. Defense attorneys say their clients were misled by the informant that the arms scheme was legal.

But prosecutors contend the pair willingly took part in the phony plot even after the informant warned them the weapon would be used to kill a Pakistani ambassador scheduled to visit Manhattan in early 2004.

Authorities have said they believe Aref associated with known terrorist figures while living in the Middle East and that, like Hossain, he did not walk away from the plot despite allegedly knowing the men were helping launder money made from selling missiles to terrorists.

Still, the surveillance footage played in court Thursday showed that Hossain and Aref insisted the deal be put in writing. At a meeting in December 2003, when the deal was being finalized, they drafted a handwritten document with their names and the terms of the money transactions.

It came during a meeting at which the informant explained that he would eventually give Hossain about $50,000 — mainly in $5,000 cash installments — and in return wanted to be paid back $2,000 a month with checks written to his business from Hossain’s personal checking account. For Hossain’s part, according to the indictment, he was to be paid at least $5,000.

Thursday’s testimony was also marked by the heart-wrenching story of a former acquaintance of Aref’s, Mohammed Aziz, a Kurdish refugee who was among thousands of people severely injured in 1988 when Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to drop mustard gas on a Kurdish city near the Iranian border.

Aziz, who now lives in Nashville and is in line for a lifesaving lung transplant, recounted on the stand how the deadly gas caused him to lose his eyesight as it seared his lungs so badly that he needs an oxygen tank at his side at all times to feed him fresh air through the tubes in his nose.

But Aziz’s testimony was not about his hardships or the fact he’d lost 15 family members that day.
Instead, federal prosecutors put him on the stand to recount how he saw Aref working at the Syrian office of a political group, the Islamic Movement for Kurdistan, in 1998 and 1999. At the time, Aziz, like thousands of other Kurdish refugees, used the office to get help with transportation and medical needs at a time Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and United Nations sanctions prevented them from moving abroad with ease.

Aref’s work there, according to federal authorities, is proof that he lied on a visa application seven years ago about having any connections to political groups. The charge was added to the 27 felony counts that evolved from the sting.

Still, under cross-examination by Aref’s attorney, Terence L. Kindlon, Aziz did not portray the IMK’s three-man office in Damascus as a clearinghouse for terrorist intelligence. (Federal authorities filed a memorandum earlier this year saying a phone number there had been used to gather intelligence for Osama bin Laden.) Instead, Aziz spent much of his time on the stand explaining how the IMK workers there helped refugees, many of whom had no money.

When he first took the stand, Aref jumped to his feet, smiling broadly and waving to Aziz, whose nephew had attended college with Aref in Syria while they both worked at IMK headquarters there.

“Are you in pain,” Kindlon asked Aziz. “Always,” he answered. “I’m not the only one. There are hundreds like me.”

The trial is scheduled to resume today at the U.S. District Courthouse.

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.