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Hip Muslim Moms group undone by D.C. Metro bomb plot

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 11:22 PM

When Esraa Bani's phone started ringing Wednesday with news reporters on the line, she had no idea that an Ashburn man named Farooque Ahmed had been arrested for plotting to blow up Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia, or that such a story could have anything to do with her.

But Ahmed's wife, Sahar Mirza-Ahmed, was a member of Hip Muslim Moms, a freewheeling group of 50 or so young mothers Bani had started. Suddenly, the coupon-clipping, play date-arranging suburban mothers were thrust into the national spotlight, associated with a horrifying plot that, as they noted, could have harmed their own families.

"We all have family members who ride the Metro - we ourselves ride the Metro," said one Northern Virginia member who joined this year and did not want her name associated with terrorism. "So we're as scared as anybody else would be."

Bani, 26, who works for a nonprofit organization and was dressed Thursday evening in a stylish geometric-patterned tunic, started the group two years ago using a Meetup Web page as an alternative to the stodgier, older mom groups across Loudoun County.

"This area has tons of young Muslim professionals and their families," she said, sitting in her family room as her 2-year-old daughter played nearby. "They're really a new generation of Muslim Americans. We don't fit into the traditional groups."

Now Hip Muslim Moms is being disbanded - a victim of the relentless attention generated by Ahmed's arrest.

Bani said she was deactivating the Meetup page and had canceled a group trip to Imagination Stage on Friday, leaving her with $100 worth of unused tickets. The group also had been about to launch some charitable efforts. But its first clothing drive, which had been scheduled for Sunday, will not take place.

"A lot of moms were really sad," Bani said. "They called me up and were in tears. They were really sad that this beautiful, pure group got tainted by this . . .and a lot of the moms were commending the feds, saying the government is embodying the Islamic values - they're saving lives."

Hip Muslim Moms, she said, was "spontaneous, open-minded, savvy, educated, fun-loving, into organic stuff."

The group's members were from different national and ethnic backgrounds, living all over the metro area. About half wore hijab, the head scarves donned by some Muslim women to fulfill a religious requirement for modest dress, Bani said. And about 10 percent were not Muslim.

They typically met in small groups and exchanged recipes and child-care tips as their children played. Rarely did religion or politics come up.

"It wasn't about being Muslim," one member said. "It was about interacting with other moms."

Mirza-Ahmed, who grew up in England and has a young son, had taken a more active role in the group in recent months, members said, hosting a recent play date at her Ashburn house, where she served iced cappuccinos.

Members described her as "pleasant" and very affectionate with her child and said they were shocked to hear of her husband's arrest.

Farooque Ahmed is accused of telling FBI agents posing as terrorists that he was ready to become a martyr in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was training himself for battle. Ahmed is charged with conspiring to support al-Qaeda in the plot to bomb Arlington County Metro stations. He is still being detained, after a hearing Friday in Alexandria, and he has not entered a plea to the charges.

Several members of Hip Muslim Moms said they doubted that Mirza-Ahmed knew of his alleged plans.

"They were planning to go to hajj" in Mecca, said one woman who described herself as close to Mirza-Ahmed but also did not want her name used and linked to terrorism. "She was very excited about it."

The woman said she had met Farooque Ahmed several times when visiting her friend but did not know him well. She added that Mirza-Ahmed, who is of Pakistani descent, was very Westernized. "She hardly spoke Urdu," she said.

Members of Hip Muslim Moms included accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers and women who were staying home to raise their children, Bani said. They usually held meetings in the afternoons, bringing along their young children and leaving before their husbands got home.

But occasionally, they left the kids with their husbands and got together for a night out. When they went to the movies to see "Sex in the City 2," they wore stilettos.

"We're just normal people," said the member who joined earlier this year. "It's sad to see our name associated with the actions of people we've never met."

She said she was relieved that the government had stopped the plot but frustrated that the suspect's religious extremism would give "an innocent group like Hip Muslim Mothers a bad name."

As the sky darkened outside Bani's house, she stared at her laptop, where mentions of the group were proliferating, and let out an exasperated sigh.

"It says here that we're a 'decidedly non-jihadi-sounding social group,' " she said. " 'Sounding?' Aaaah!! Okay - things like this really boil my blood."

bahrampourt@washpost.com Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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