By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The United States has a long history of public speakers given to fiery rhetoric. The question in a time of heightened concern about terrorism: When do they cross the line and become a real threat?
A debate based on that question surrounds a case to be heard this fall at the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt. Submitted evidence includes public pronouncements by Abdul Alim Musa, who has served for 18 years as imam of a mosque in Southeast Washington.
Among his past statements: Zionist American agents blew up the World Trade Center; Palestinian suicide bombers are heroes; the U.S. government saturated U.S. cities with heroin in the 1960s to snuff out blacks' rebellion; white, "sissy" federal agents are best handled by the teachings of his lecture, "How to Punk the FBI."
The government hasn't charged the imam. But a longtime and devoted member of his mosque, Darrick Jackson, 37, is charged with not truthfully answering a question during a background check while working as a security guard at Andrews Air Force Base. Prosecutors say that Jackson didn't provide his Muslim name in 2005 when asked if he had ever used or been known by another name. They say that Jackson knew that a connection to the controversial imam would have lessened his chances of staying at Andrews.
Musa, 62, has been trying for years to build an Islamic community in the Benning Road area, one that he would like to see replicated nationwide until the United States becomes an Islamic state. Barrel-chested, with a graying beard offset by black robes, Musa is a showman and rambling orator who quoted Patrick Henry for nearly 11 minutes in a lecture called "The Amerikkkan Way" and who has spoken of his desire to see the Chesapeake Bay cleaned in five years.
Jackson's attorneys say the government's concern about the imam led it to overcook a guilt-by-association case against a person qualified to work at Andrews. Jackson no longer works there. If convicted of making a false statement -- in this case, a federal felony -- he could spend five years in prison.
According to court records, the government proposed showing jurors, among other things, a 17-word video snippet featuring Musa that aired this year on Fox News.
"If you don't stay out of our way and leave us alone, we're going to burn America down," Musa said from behind a podium at the University of California at Irvine on Sept. 9, 2001, according to the Fox video.
That comment was part of what for Musa was a typically wide-ranging speech -- it careened from subjects such as his visits to Pakistan to the Japanese holdout fighters of World War II but centered on Jamil Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, a prominent Black Panther in the 1960s. Musa set up the "burn America down" comment by saying that he was paraphrasing Al-Amin, which prosecutors have since acknowledged.
Musa never threatened to burn the United States down, according to a longer video and transcript of the speech posted on the Web site of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
"His bark is worse than his bite," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, which is based in Washington. Although that bark might unnerve Muslim leaders, many of whom reject Musa's strident views, Bray said he doesn't consider him a national threat. "Whether you agree or disagree or classify what he says as repugnant, he has a right to say it," Bray said.
John Miller, an assistant director and chief spokesman for the FBI, said Musa's comments about white, "sissy" and dishonest federal agents were "incorrect," "bigoted" and "stupid." And Musa knows as much, Miller said, but makes the remarks to get attention. "The FBI has gone to great lengths to reach out to the Muslim community nationwide," Miller said, adding that Musa's opinion of the FBI doesn't track with those of national Muslim leaders.
Musa says he isn't racist. When he criticizes Jews or "Euros," his frequent term for white people, Musa says he is criticizing the Israeli and American systems.
Prosecutors say the case against the former Andrews security guard isn't about religion; it's about the need to take the protection of sensitive government installations seriously. Prosecutors say they need not prove that Musa is a threat, only that his views are so extreme that anyone conducting a background check would have wanted to know the guard's connection to him.
Musa's Al-Islam mosque, rising two stories above Benning Road, is entered through the back. People walk down a staircase, down a hallway and back up to an open room about the size of a tennis court, where, on a recent Friday, congregants sat on the floor listening to Musa. The mosque typically draws at least 100 congregants to Friday prayer services, he said.
"Today, the talk is strategic management under conditions of political repression," the imam said that day.
Musa was born in Arkansas in 1945 and grew up in Oakland, Calif., coming of age in the 1960s during that city's black revolutionary movement. But he added a twist: He thought that by controlling organized crime, he could grab power for African Americans.
Musa became a drug dealer and set up an operation in Colombia. Federal court records bear out his past, which Musa highlights in biographies on his Web sites: he was arrested on charges including heroin smuggling, currency smuggling and assaulting a federal agent; he was incarcerated at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., and other institutions.
Musa had come to see himself as part of the problem. While incarcerated, he said, he accepted "traditional orthodox Islam." Upon returning to civilian life, his colorful past and comedic wit helped him succeed on the Muslim speaking circuit. Then came the 1979 Iranian revolution, which Musa supported wholeheartedly, believing that it signaled the revival of his religion.
U.S. Muslim leaders eventually told him to cool it, Musa and Islamic leaders said, but he refused. "No more [camera] lights. No more nothing," Musa said of how he was subsequently treated.
In 1989, he landed in Washington. He bought a small house on A Street SE, converting the first floor into a mosque and using the second floor as living quarters. His efforts to improve the neighborhood caught the attention of other Muslims. "There is great admiration for him because he decided to do that," Bray said.
Musa opened his mosque to Washingtonians returning from prison, including those who had converted to Islam. During services, he talked about his past. His congregation expanded, and he set up the mosque nearby on Benning Road about 10 years ago. He still lives in the neighborhood.
At public gatherings, Musa regularly pushed issues. Speaking at a rally in 1999, he held up a check made out to "Hamas, Palestine." The purpose, Musa said in an interview, was to attract federal agents.
"I would love to have a case in court with the FBI. I would love for them to arrest me on any trumped-up charges," he said.
"I tried to get a case several years ago. We had a demonstration. I waved a check for Hamas, cashier's check, by the way. And I said, 'I'm donating this to Hamas.' Then I waited for them to arrest me. They didn't arrest me. So I put the thing back in the bank."
Two years later, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Musa went to FBI headquarters to distribute an open letter to agents. Among his suggestions: Investigate Israelis. A year later, he wrote an open letter to another audience.
"You Muslim leaders should be ashamed of yourselves!" he wrote, castigating local leaders for inviting President Bush to visit the Islamic Center in Washington and comparing them to German Jews of the 1930s. He closed the letter with a disclaimer of sorts: "I ask Allah's forgiveness for anything I might have said to defame anyone."
Another hit, for him: appearing in the "hot seat" on Fox News's "Hannity's America" and engaging in rapid-fire, across-the-table arguments with the host.
"Imam, if you are not on the terror watch list, you ought to be."
"I am. I am on the terror watch list."
"You belong on the terror watch list . . . "
"Hey, man, you belong on the insane list, of people that support George Bush."
Musa, who is married and has two daughters, 5 and 10, said his vision for an Islamic community in the District is going slowly. But during a recent lecture, he said that Bush's performance has hastened the overall trend toward an Islamic nation:
"The American ship is going down. And it's clowns like that that's driving it down. We don't have to do nothing. Just step back, pray, fast, do good deeds, and stuff like that. And let that guy go. . . . When he finishes, nobody will love, nobody will trust, and nobody will believe anything coming from the United States of America."