Portland Islamic center faces tough questions about its possible bin Laden ties Even before TNT link, mosque had begun a public relations campaign
In the weeks before Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye was arrested, the Southwest Portland mosque he led retained two attorneys and hired a public relations firm to defend itself against media inquiries linking it to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Kariye, 41, was arrested by members of the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force at Portland International Airport early Sunday. He and his four young children and brother, Hakim, were planning to fly to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Charles Gorder, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oregon, said in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday afternoon that residue of the explosive TNT was found inside two pieces of luggage belonging to Kariye and his family after his arrest at the airport.
Kariye, the imam, or religious leader, of the Islamic Center of Portland- Masjed As-Saber, was charged with two felony counts of unlawful use of a Social Security number. He appeared in court Monday and pleaded not guilty. There were no charges of terrorism mentioned at the arraignment.
The FBI would not comment beyond a brief news release issued Sunday about the arrest.
But documents suggesting that money may have flowed from the Islamic center to a charity set up by bin Laden's former personal secretary, Wadih El Hage, are at the root of the media inquiries.
The center's president, Alaa Abunijem, said he would not discuss specifics.
'Sometimes people have an agenda, and they would rather twist the facts to sell papers than tell the truth,' said Abunijem, a Palestinian American who emigrated from Jordan and works for Intel Corp.
Kariye 'would never do anything to harm the Muslim community or himself or anyone else. He is one of the best people I know,' said Talal Abdulkarim, a spokesman for the Islamic center.
Kariye is 'no flight risk'
Philip Lewis, Kariye's defense attorney, said in court that his client poses no flight risk, has no criminal record and 'has been preaching peace and moderation' in the community for many years. He was interviewing for a teaching position in Dubai, he said.
But prosecutor Gorder said Kariye is a flight risk, noting that he had 'several thousand dollars in cash' when he was arrested.
Kariye was scheduled for a detention hearing at 1:30 p.m. today, when U.S. District Court Judge Donald Ashmanskas is to decide whether to release Kariye from the Multnomah County Detention Center into his brother's custody. Trial is set for Nov. 5.
Hundreds of supporters from the mosque turned out in support of Kariye on Monday, filling the courtroom and overflowing onto the courthouse steps.
'He's never done anything wrong,' said Omar Wiilhawd, one of the members of Kariye's mosque who said he knew the sheik very well. 'This is a witch hunt for Sept. 11. Arabs and Muslims are clearly being targeted. With the terrorism task force, it seems like in 2002, America's becoming a new Nazi state.'
The indictment accused Kariye of using false information Ñ including a changed name Ñ while applying for and receiving three Social Security cards with variations on his name between 1983 and 1995 and using false information in applications for asylum and U.S. citizenship.
The Islamic center, a place of worship for hundreds of the city's Sunni Muslims, held an open house for agents from the Portland office of the FBI on Aug. 31 and then for the general public last Saturday.
According to Abunijem, visitors included Charles Mathews, special agent in charge of the Portland FBI office.
Portland-based terrorism expert Gary Perlstein said Monday he was not surprised to learn the task force apparently had been watching Kariye.
Perlstein, a retired Portland State University law enforcement professor, said he has no personal knowledge about Kariye or the mosque. But, Perlstein said, 'we have some problems around here. Portland has a radical Muslim community, but it's trying to keep in the background.'
Tom Nelson, an attorney for Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, described Kariye as a 'highly respected and well-regarded scholar and religious leader. He's not a rabble-rouser at all.'
As the Islamic center's imam, Kariye led Friday prayer meetings at the mosque that regularly drew 300 to 400 followers.
Kariye lived in an apartment complex adjacent to the mosque. Neighbors say Kariye's family had packed hurriedly before their abrupt departure.
Clothes were still hanging on lines in the small patio area behind their apartment.
Next-door neighbor Steven Tani watched the family, including several children and an older woman, pack and leave Sunday morning.
'His daughter told me, 'We are leaving forever,' ' Tani said. He said he did not know the girl's name but thought she was in her early teens.
When he asked where the family was going, the girl replied, 'Overseas,' Tani said.
Kariye, a native of Somalia, has lived in Portland for at least 10 years, attending both Portland State University and Portland Community College. Until January, he was married to a woman named Alicia Valdez. According to court records, they have four children.
Contacted at her Southeast Portland apartment, Valdez said she was surprised to learn that he had been arrested on false identification charges.
'He was an American citizen. He became a citizen by marrying me,' she said.
Valdez described Kariye as 'a very peaceful man' and couldn't understand why he would be arrested by the terrorism task force.
El Hage, the former bin Laden aide, is serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, crimes linked to bin Laden.
The 1998 indictment against El Hage and his co-conspirators states that El Hage faxed a copy of a report about the Taliban government in Afghanistan to 'brothers in work' in Florida, Texas and Oregon.
El Hage, a Lebanese-American, also served as director from 1994 to 1998 of a Muslim charity organization named Help Africa People.
Abunijem said the mosque plans to increase security because of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, with armed security guards and surveillance cameras. He said his fear was that the news of a possible terrorist link could jeopardize innocent people who worship at the mosque.
Tribune reporter Jennifer Anderson contributed to this report.