Mazen Mokhtar, a computer professional trained at Johns Hopkins University, is a familiar face to young activist Muslim men in New Jersey, often delivering what acquaintances describe as mild speeches extolling marriage and religious piety.
But Wednesday, Mokhtar, an Egyptian-born American citizen, found himself issuing a statement denying government accusations that he has aided violent terrorists. Some of those who know him expressed surprise at allegations that he worked with a British man who is accused of soliciting funds for terrorism by operating jihadist Web sites.
"I do not support and I have never supported any action that harms innocent people," Mokhtar, 36, said in the statement, released by his attorney. "I have never knowingly assisted any terrorist group."
Mokhtar has often lectured to youth groups at mosques, has spoken at Rutgers University rallies supporting the Palestinian cause and was invited to speak later this month at a summer camp run by the Young Muslims of North America.
"From our experience, he is a very nice guy," said Omar Ranginwala, an official with the Young Muslims group who is involved with the camp. Mokhtar, a father of three, is "soft-spoken and not known to have been associated with extremist views or Web sites."
"We are all very surprised that this thing came up," he said. At this point, group members "don't have much knowledge about it."
This year's camp is to be held at Villanova Academy, an Islamic school in Pennsylvania, and its theme is "A Few Good Men/Lives of the Khulafa Rashideen (Pious Caliphs)."
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the group's summer gatherings were called "Jihad Camp." Advertised speakers in August 2001 included Imam Siraj Wahaj, identified by federal prosecutors in 1995 as a "possible unindicted co-conspirator" in the terrorism case against blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and Saffet Catovic, a Bosnian associated with the Benevolence International Foundation, a now-defunct Muslim charity accused by the U.S. government of financing terrorism.
"It was to help them to understand what the concept of jihad really is," said Ranginwala, saying that it is more about a struggle to live a faithful life than about engaging in holy war.
Mokhtar's lawyer, Yasser Helal, confirmed that Mokhtar has been under investigation by U.S. authorities since at least March, when Homeland Security agents seized computer files and other records in a search of Mokhtar's North Brunswick, N.J., home. Helal said he was not prepared to discuss the investigation or to comment on allegations that Mokhtar worked with British citizen Babar Ahmad to create backup copies of the jihadist Azzam.com Web site when administrators shut down that site after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In court papers filed in the case, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent contends that "a concerted effort existed between the administrators of Azzam, including Ahmad, and individuals in the U.S. . . . to further the goals of Azzam, that is, to solicit funds for blocked organizations, namely the Taliban and the Chechen Mujahideen, in an effort to support their goals."
Ahmad was swept up in a recent international wave of arrests of suspected al Qaeda operatives, some accused of involvement in scouting financial targets in the United States. Ahmad allegedly possessed classified routes of a 2001 U.S. naval battle group and is believed to be linked to captured al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Although Mokhtar is not named in the complaint filed by U.S. authorities against Ahmad, a Web site that Mokhtar registered and administered, www.minna.com, is cited.
Helal said Mokhtar wants to cooperate in the probe. He said authorities returned computer files and records to him two weeks after their search, but he believes they have made copies of the material.
Neighbors in Mokhtar's North Brunswick townhouse community said they had seen authorities searching his home earlier this year but knew little of his activities. One said small groups of men dressed in robes occasionally dropped by at night. He described the Mokhtar family as friendly but said they kept their distance.
Nearby, in a working-class area of New Brunswick, about two dozen men filed into the storefront Masjid Al-Huda mosque Wednesday for midday prayers. Imam Abdul Basit, who came from Pakistan three years ago, said Mokhtar occasionally leads the Friday prayers.
"We sometimes invite him to come and give [a] sermon," Basit said. "If we knew from any day that he is saying something bad, we would stop him immediately." But, he said, "I never hear anything bad, only how we can be a good Muslim."
Magdy Mahmoud, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Mokhtar is one of many young men on the lecture circuit, "a wise man in the community, a humble man." Mahmoud said Mokhtar visited several mosques in New Jersey and was not affiliated with just one.
Mahmoud said Mokhtar distinguished himself by the "balanced views" he presented to his audience. "People with radical views don't usually attract large audiences," he said.
Mohamed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union in Paterson, N.J., said Mokhtar's lectures there were benign. "Compared to others, he was much more moderate," Younes said.