History will remember Albany terrorism sting as a witch hunt

By Fred LeBrun


First published: Friday, January 12, 2007

Albany Times Union


     Someday we'll look back on the present national paranoia over terrorism and the excesses done in its name with the same national embarrassment that Americans feel for Sen. Joe McCarthy's communist witch hunts of the 1950s and our appalling treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.


    But not anytime soon, and certainly not before Yassin M. Aref, the former imam at an Albany mosque, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a pizza shop owner, are sentenced on Feb. 12.

    A federal jury convicted the pair of a varying number of counts in an FBI money laundering sting operation with terrorist overtones involving a phony missile launcher. They each face 25 years in jail.

    There are motions before the court to throw out the conviction, but since the judge tipped his pro-prosecution hand during the trial, they will come to naught. And the inevitable appeal will stutter along. But given the dismal times for due process in our vaunted system of justice, the chances of reason, of common sense, prevailing over hysteria and hellbent ideology are slim.

    History will see these two as victims. Not innocents, but victims. Of this I am utterly convinced. Small comfort for them, or their families. They have 10 children between, all under the age of 13.

    This case should never have seen a courtroom. Because once the mesmerizing ingredients were brought into a trial -- the convoluted and selective translations, a glib informant avoiding 15 years in jail and the exploitation of our fears and anxieties over global terrorism by prosecutors, -- the results were predictable. The trial had remarkably little to do with Aref and Hossain. This was not our federal court system's finest hour, or the FBI's, either.

    From the beginning, the feds knew better. Up front, the Justice Department in Washington admitted that this case was not all that strong or the defendants all that dangerous. But the FBI put a lot of resources and a lot of money, time and ego into a complicated sting that took months and months and leaps of faith to swallow. So the feds wanted a couple of scalps for all their efforts. They got them.

But that still begs the question of why the feds pursued this prosecution with such zealousness, even after recognizing as they must have that Aref and Hossain never posed any threat to our national security.

    It seems there was an ulterior motive, also reflective of our times. Sending a chilling message through the American immigrant Muslim community.

    Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, the lead prosecutor, told our reporter Brendan Lyons after the trial, that he was convinced that if a real terrorist showed up in Albany, "I am convinced they both would have helped him." Strange, since there is not a shred of evidence to support that.

"It's not just these guys, it's what happens tomorrow when a guy is somewhere and overhears someone talking about an attack," Pericak said. "We want that person to call the FBI. If they call the FBI because they're a good citizen that's great, but if they call the FBI because they think this is a sting and they might get caught up in it, that's OK, too."

    Well, according to the Muslim Solidarity Committee, a local support group for Aref and Hossain, the government has been dazzlingly successful in spreading fear and distrust in the local immigrant Muslim community. However, that would be a fear of the FBI and our government.

    Looking up from a warm seat somewhere, Senator Joe must be viewing all this with a knowing smile.


LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.