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12 Washington-area Muslims investigated for alleged terrorist ties | (KRT) The FBI and a federal grand jury are investigating at least 12 Muslim men from the Washington area whom the government suspects of sharing ties to terrorists.

The men and their attorneys say they are the victims of overzealous agents who are attributing sinister motives to activities as innocent as the men's participation in paintball games.

Several searches of the men's homes turned up a mixed bag of evidence, according to inventories of the seized items.

The items included what agents described as a "terrorist manual" and a "printout of the FBI headquarters building" in downtown Washington, as well as an array of paintball equipment. But one of the inventories listed a "grenade launcher" that a prosecutor said he thinks is a flare gun.

The FBI's search warrants said the government was seeking evidence that the men had violated laws banning "material support" of terrorism or foreign terrorist groups - the same laws the Justice Department has used to prosecute accused terrorist cells in New York, Detroit and Oregon. Some of the searches also sought evidence that the men had trained to fight abroad and "kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country."

All of the men were students of Ali Al-Timimi, an Islamic scholar whose home was also searched. The group includes the son of a prominent Yemeni diplomat, and a St. Louis native who converted to Islam.

The Yemeni pleaded guilty June 5 to a weapons charge and has agreed to testify before the grand jury. A third man, from South Korea, was charged with passport fraud after he entered the country to testify before the grand jury.

The rest of the men have not been arrested or charged.

Most belonged to a paintball group that regularly met for about a year in a rural Virginia field for war games - which FBI agents believe may have been a training exercise to fight abroad with groups designated by the United States as terrorist organizations.

In interviews with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the subjects of the investigation and their lawyers denied any links to terrorism.

"There is no terrorist ring, and once the investigation is complete, they'll realize that the individuals are innocent," said Salim Ali, the lawyer for Ibrahim al-Hamdi. Al-Hamdi, 25, is a son of the former second-in-command at the Yemeni embassy and a relative of the slain North Yemeni president of the same name.

Al-Hamdi pleaded guilty of possessing a semiautomatic rifle, a weapon that would have been legal had he been a U.S. citizen. He is being held without bond.

What the government described as a "grenade launcher" was found at the Maryland home of Masaud Khan, a U.S.-born, Pakistani-reared kitchen designer.

Gordon Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, said he believes that the item turned out to be a flare gun.

"I'm not suggesting there should be no concern, but if a guy had a grenade launcher, presumably we would have arrested the guy," Kromberg said.

"It's very easy to jump to conclusions on facts like these. You know the guys are playing paintball, they're playing soldiers," said Kromberg, who said he has donned fatigues himself and played paintball. "On the other hand, if they're doing more than that, maybe there's a problem."

Kahn's lawyer, Danny Onerato, said Khan was "a law-abiding citizen. Mr. Khan hasn't been arrested, and we don't anticipate him being arrested."

Onerato said he believes that, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, judges are more willing to authorize search warrants when agents are seeking evidence related to terrorist activity. "You need probable cause, but there's a lax standard in these cases," Onerato said. "No one is going to want to be the judge who does not sign off on a search warrant (where there's potential terrorist activity)."

But another suspect, Hammad Abdur-Raheem, predicts the inquiry may end differently.

"They're probably going to arrest all of us and try to charge us (for) material support of terrorist group or conspiracy or sleeper cell," said Abdur-Raheem, 35, a Gulf War Army veteran and Washington native who converted to Islam in 1994.

"I'm trying to get my family ready for it. On the one hand, I can't blame (the prosecutors) - I saw September 11, too. But what I say to them is, `Go get the guys responsible for September 11, but don't get innocent people because of the actions of some idiots.'"

The FBI declined to comment. "We wouldn't have a comment, because it's a pending investigation," said Debbie Weierman, spokeswoman for the FBI Washington field office that is handling the investigation.

The men whose homes were searched are in their 20s and 30s. Most took Islamic classes from a prominent local Muslim scholar and lecturer, Ali Al-Timimi, who had suggested that the men travel abroad to Muslim countries after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Timimi's northern Virginia townhouse and car were also searched.

Abdur-Raheem said most of the men regularly attended al-Timimi's lectures, which began informally at homes and then were held at the Center for Islamic Information and Education in Falls Church, Va. But after Sept. 11, he said, the board of the center parted ways with the scholar, who travels widely to give Islamic lectures, both in the United States and abroad.

In an e-mailed response, al-Timimi told the Post-Dispatch there was no "split" with the center's leaders and that they had continued to seek his advice. He said he stopped lecturing publicly in the United States after Sept. 11, "as emotionally charged environments are not hospitable for analysis or intellectual criticism."

The attacks of Sept. 11 also brought an end to the paintball gatherings. After more than a year of regular outings to a woodsy plot of land in Spotsylvania, the men abruptly stopped the games, fearing what it would look like to a world reeling from Sept. 11.

Within a week or two of the attacks, several members met over Chinese food at the home of Yong Ki Kwon - a Muslim convert from South Korea - and asked the teacher, al-Timimi, to come too.

"We invited him to dinner because we wanted to get his take on what was happening," said Ismail Royer, 30, the former St. Louisan and member of the paintball group who attended al-Timimi's lectures.

"We were all kind of confused about this situation. So Ali came and said, basically, `The United States is going to declare war on the Muslims, and it's not going to be restricted to any one area.' Ultimately he thought it was going to be like World War III between the United States and the Muslim world and he said: `You basically need to leave the United States because the United States is going to be very inhospitable to Muslims.'

"So, we all resolved that we should basically go and live in Muslim countries because we didn't want to be caught here in the middle of a big war," said Royer, 30, who converted from Catholicism to Islam at age 19 in St. Louis.

Many of the friends from the paintball club heeded Al-Timimi's advice to leave the United States. Royer went to Bosnia for seven months. Others struck out individually to Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Several - including Kwon, the dinner host - also left for Pakistan. Some are still abroad, in Saudi Arabia.

"Ali Timimi had advised us that if we were able to make hijra, his advice was to do so," said Abdur-Raheem, using the Arabic word for migration that Muslims use to describe the Prophet Mohammed's flight for his life from Mecca to Medina in 622.

"It's not even that he encouraged us to go. He was just telling us only what scholars say Muslims should do - `In times of difficulty, move.' He wasn't saying anything exotic. (The agents) were asking me, `Did he say, "'Go and fight in Afghanistan?"' But no, he didn't. I don't know where they got that from."

Abdur-Raheem said the FBI agents he spoke to believe that these trips made by al-Timimi's students were made to conduct training with Islamic terrorist groups. Of particular interest to them, he said, was the militant Lashkar-I-Taiba group in Pakistan that is battling Indian forces over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, claimed by India and by Pakistan.

The search warrants executed in May sought evidence that some of the men provided support to Lashkar-I-Taiba, which the U.S. government designated as a terrorist group in December 2001, after India accused the group of taking part in an attack on the Indian parliament.

Royer, who said he met members of the group while fighting with the Bosnian Army in the mid-1990s, said he went to Pakistan and helped write press releases and set up a worldwide e-mail list for Lashakar-I-Taiba in 2000. He said he gave al-Hamdi and Kwon a contact number for Lashkar-I-Taiba leaders when they traveled to Pakistan.

Al-Hamdi traveled there before the attacks on Sept. 11, Royer said; Kwon left shortly after the post-Sept. 11 dinner meeting with al-Timimi; Royer said Kwon told him he left Pakistan before the group was put on the terrorist list.

Caliph Basha Raheem, whose Virginia apartment was searched on May 8, said that subjects of paintball and team members' foreign travel came up repeatedly with FBI agents who questioned him before the search.

"They told me that, `We know it was jihad training.' They think (the paintball) was training to go overseas and fight, basically, because some people went overseas after Sept. 11, and a couple of others are still overseas," said Raheem, 29, who said the paintball games, which fluctuated from five to 30 players until they abruptly stopped after Sept. 11, 2001, were different things to different people.

"I can't speak for everybody else, but for me, I was just training to prepare myself if I have to defend myself and my family one day. I wasn't planning on going anywhere. I don't even have a passport."

In late February, when the FBI searched the northern Virginia homes of al-Timimi, and of his students Nabil Garbieh and al-Hamdi, the warrants said they were seeking evidence that the men and Kwon had provided material support of terrorism or foreign terrorist groups.

According to the agents' inventory, they seized from Al-Timimi's apartment a number of items similar to those seized from the other men's homes: Arabic documents, financial and travel records and computer equipment. They also seized items described only as "Misc. Jihad/extremism literature" and a "will for Kwon," the inventory said.

In e-mail responses to the Post-Dispatch, Al-Timimi said he had hundreds of volumes of books at his home and "for me not to have literature written by contemporary Islamic movements - in all their various stripes and colors - would mean that I am not a serious observer of the modern Muslim world. And my position against terrorism and Muslim inspired violence against innocent people is well known by Muslims."

He said Kwon's will was among his belongings because Kwon had made a pilgrimage to Mecca and had adhered to Islamic teachings that recommend preparing a will before making the trip.

"So the existence of his will is no more than a case of a young convert who wanted to leave his will with someone in the community before he went out on pilgrimage ," Al-Timimi wrote in an e-mail.

According to court records, federal agents arrested Kwon on a passport fraud complaint April 29, after he arrived in Virginia from South Korea to testify before the grand jury. There is little other information available in the court record on Kwon, 27, who took part in the paintball games and studied with al-Timimi like many of the other men.

Kwon's lawyer, Matthew Wartel, declined to comment on the scope of the search warrants that named Kwon. "I can't talk about it. All the factual matters in this case are under seal by the judge's order."

Royer said he received an international call from Kwon in April, less than two weeks before Kwon left his parents' home in South Korea. Kwon told him that federal agents from the United States visited their home twice.

"The FBI came with the U.S. legal attache and with the South Korean police and the Korean police said, `Cooperate if you know what's good for your family,'" Royer recalled.

Kwon has been in prison since his arrest in late April. He has not yet been indicted on the passport fraud complaint that is keeping him there.

Al-Hamdi has also remained in prison after unsuccessfully claiming diplomatic immunity - with the Yemeni embassy's full support. He faces sentencing Aug. 1 on the weapons charge.

Salim Ali, his lawyer, said Al-Hamdi hadn't realized it was illegal for aliens to have a weapon if they're in the country on a non-immigrant visa. Al-Hamdi has been in the United States on a diplomatic visa - thanks to his father's status - since 1993.

Abdulwahab al-Hajjri, Yemen's ambassador to the United States, wrote a letter to the State Department on April 18 - after al-Hamdi had been in detention for a month on the weapons charge. The letter included a not-so-subtle reminder of his government's cooperation in the war on terrorism.

"Yemen has taken steps that allowed U.S. officials access to Yemeni suspects on Yemeni soil, an act that has caused the government much consternation with opposition forces inside Yemen ," al-Hajjri wrote. "We, therefore, find it somewhat disconcerting to see the case of Mr. Al-Hamdi being drawn out in this manner."

His lawyer declined to discuss the issues that led the FBI to search his apartment in the first place: the travels abroad of al-Hamdi and his fellow paintball team members, and whether they involved training with groups such as Lashka-I-Taiba.

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© 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services