News

After police foil terrorist attack on Islamberg, New York Muslims push for justice

This combination of three Jan. 22, 2019, photographs released by the Greece Police Department in Greece, N.Y., shows Brian Colaneri, from left, Andrew Crysel and Vincent Vetromile. Authorities said the three men, all from the Rochester, N.Y., area, were charged with plotting to attack Islamberg, a rural upstate New York Muslim community, with explosives. A fourth suspect has not been identified publicly because he is a juvenile. Photo courtesy of Greece Police Department

(RNS) — News of arrests in an alleged terrorist plot to attack their small village has sent “shock waves” through Islamberg, a predominantly black Muslim community in upstate New York, residents say.

Now, members of the beleaguered community say they want real action after learning that four young men had allegedly planned to attack their community with homemade explosives and guns.

“We are in shock. Just imagine waking up and having to tell your children about this plot, that their lives are in danger,” Islamberg Mayor Rashid Clark said in a news conference Wednesday (Jan. 23). “If our families are to be safe, we want all suspects caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

According to police, the plot to attack Islamberg unraveled when a 16-year-old high school student showed a photo on his phone to friends at Odyssey Academy in Greece, N.Y. Greece is about 200 miles northwest of Islamberg.

“He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?” police say the teen told friends in the cafeteria.

Students reported the comment to authorities, who investigated and found that the 16-year-old was communicating with three other people, identified as fellow Boy Scouts, on the chat service Discord to coordinate an attack.

Together, they had allegedly stockpiled 23 legal firearms and built three homemade bombs using Mason jars, duct tape, black powder and projectiles like BBs and nails, according to police.

Greece police say it was part of a “serious plot” to attack Islamberg, which has been home to about 200 African-American Muslims for nearly 40 years. The 70-acre gated homesteading community, tucked in the western Catskill Mountains, is also the headquarters of The Muslims of America organization.

“If they had carried out this plot, and we have every indication that was what they were going to do, people would have died,” Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan said in a statement. “The kid who said something saved people’s lives. Everything worked and as a result, nobody’s dead and that’s a good story.”

Police in Greece arrested Brian Colaneri, 20; Vincent Vetromile, 19; and Andrew Crysel, 18, on Saturday, along with the 16-year-old, who is being prosecuted as an adolescent offender. All four are charged with three counts of criminal possession of a weapon and one count of conspiracy. Authorities noted that the investigation is ongoing and that more arrests may be made.

In this Sept. 7, 2017, photo, Muslim schoolboys stop to drink from a pipe carrying well water at Islamberg in Tompkins, N.Y. People in the Muslim enclave in upstate New York say they are frustrated by repeated accusations that their community is a breeding ground for terror. Though police and analysts dismiss those accusations, they have persisted from the time the enclave was settled near the Catskill Mountains in the 1980s. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that state troopers were increasing patrols around Islamberg “out of an abundance of caution” and that the State Police Hate Crimes Unit would assist in the investigation.

“In New York, we stand with the Muslim community and we will hold those behind this thwarted plot responsible to the full extent of the law,” Cuomo said.

In a statement, Islamberg residents thanked God, law enforcement officials and the high school tipster for thwarting the “heinous plot.” But they say they want more to be done. After all, they say, this isn’t the first time they have narrowly avoided a “would-be massacre” of their community.

For more than a decade, Islamberg has been a focus of right-wing conspiracy theories and has found itself the target of anti-Muslim white supremacist attacks as a result.

In 2017, a Tennessee man named Robert Doggart was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for plotting to burn down a mosque, cafeteria and school in Islamberg.

Doggart, a 65-year-old, white, Christian minister who once ran for U.S. Congress, was inspired by claims promoted on Fox News and several right-wing websites that Islamberg was a terrorist training camp. In wiretapped calls, he said he planned to recruit a militia to travel to Islamberg and “carry out an armed attack” that included burning down a mosque or “blowing it up with a Molotov cocktail or other explosive device.” He also said he would be willing to kill children and “cut (residents) to shreds” with a machete.

If carried out, analysts say, it would have been the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

In this Sept. 7, 2017, photo, Tahirah Clark, left, and Faruq Baqi walk with New York State Police Capt. Scott Heggelke, center, in the Muslim enclave of Islamberg in Tompkins, N.Y. With them are Maj. James Barnes, second from right, and Muhammad Matthew Gardner, right, a spokesman for The Muslims of America. The troopers were making a goodwill visit to the village. “These folks that live here are American citizens. They’re lived here for over 30 years. They built this community. They have ties within, outside of this community,” Barnes said. “And there’s not a problem here.” (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In 2015, the FBI issued an alert after an Arizona man affiliated with militia groups allegedly threatened to attack Islamberg in a Facebook video. And for several years, a group of anti-Muslim bikers and right-wing activists led by American Bikers United Against Jihad drove past Islamberg in their annual Ride for National Security.

“The lies about Islamberg have been proven wrong countless times,” The Muslims of America’s chief executive, Hussein Adams, told media. “But what speaks volumes is that after 30 years there have been no instances where members of our community have done anything related to these accusations.”

TMOA said the new alleged plot sent “shock waves” of fear through the community, giving residents flashbacks to the “panic and unease” they endured after previous incidents. “And each time it happens, these grave tragedies compound the trauma of the previous instance,” Islamberg attorney Tahirah Clark said.

After the Doggart case, in which he was released to his family on $30,000 bail, TMOA officials were shocked to learn that domestic terrorism is not always considered a federal crime, and they are now pushing for a change in policy.

“Domestic terrorism should be recognized as a federal crime and include a stiff penalty,” Clark said. “These four individuals and those who threaten individuals on the basis of their faith are terrorists. In fact, there should be no bail set for anyone being investigated for such a serious crime.”

The three adult suspects are being held in Monroe County Jail on $50,000 bail. The 16-year-old has been arraigned and is being held on $1 million bail.

Local Muslim leaders stood in solidarity with Islamberg residents, asking for tangible action and suggesting that the bail set in the current case was low and the charges inadequate.

“Anyone accused of plotting an act of violence targeting a religious minority should face state and federal hate crime and civil rights charges commensurate with the seriousness of their alleged actions,” Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New York chapter, said in a statement. “The low bail set in this case seems (to) indicate that the potentially deadly plot is not viewed as a serious offense.”

The Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier also issued a statement. “No one deserves to worship in fear of being attacked or hurt. Places of worship should be the safest places in our country,” the statement says. “Instead of promoting and exploiting Islamophobia, which inevitably results in these types of incidents, our nation’s top leaders should speak out strongly against bigotry of all kinds.”

Historians and scholars who study Islam in America told Religion News Service that TMOA is a fairly isolated community that minds its own business.

“They’re quiet, they’re peaceful, they’re just trying to keep their kids out of trouble,” Aminah Al-Deen, a professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University, said.

TMOA describes itself as an “indigenous American Muslim organization” made up primarily of black Sunni Muslims. It was founded by controversial Pakistani Sufi cleric Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani. Reports suggest his followers number fewer than 3,000 in the U.S.

The organization operates a network of 22 small communities in rural areas around North America, including Islamville in South Carolina, Islamville in Tennessee and Red House in Virginia. (Other TMOA villages have faced similar anti-Muslim threats and scrutiny.) Gilani – who claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through both his grandsons, and traces his lineage to the prominent Sufi scholar Abdul Qadir Gilani – set up the organization in 1980.

A few years after founding the group, Gilani urged his followers to leave their crowded, crime-ridden cities behind and establish rural communities centered on Islamic lifestyles. Zain Abdullah, a Temple University professor who has researched black Muslims in New York, said TMOA is part of a larger movement of black Muslims throughout the 20th century who created small, isolated communities where they could live out their faith, much in the way that some American Jewish communities have.

“Especially for African-American Muslims, their identity seems to constantly be under attack,” he said. “Creating these enclaves was a way to safeguard their identity and community, perhaps from the racism and harassment of their neighbors and the authorities.”

The right-wing focus on Islamberg has fed off of Gilani’s alleged connections to a shadowy and militant Pakistani group called Jama’at al-Fuqra, which the U.S. government has tied to violence and other crimes in the 1980s.

A decade ago, Christian Action Network founder Martin Mawyer produced a documentary, “Homegrown Jihad: The Terrorist Camps Around the U.S.,” which accused TMOA of running terrorist training camps around the country, a claim that law enforcement officials have dismissed. Ryan Mauro, head of the Clarion Project – which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-Muslim hate group – produced a conspiracy theory-filled project called the “Fuqra Files” that honed in on Islamberg. Last year, Mauro and Mawyer launched a joint petition to push the Trump administration to review al-Fuqra for “possible designation as a foreign terrorist organization or international criminal network.”

As a Fox News contributor, Mauro has been able to “mainstream his claims,” explained Mobashra Tazamal, senior research fellow at The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University-based research project focused on Islamophobia. “These baseless accusations and lies are able to spread with the help of the internet and the media, but they don’t just remain in the online sphere. … Such conspiracy theories can have violent consequences.”

The Clarion Project did not not respond to a request for comment. Mawyer told RNS in statement that the Christian Action Network stands behind its “Homegrown Jihad” film and a book that accused TMOA of being a terrorist group.

He also condemned anyone who planned to harm the community.

“We find it offensive, criminal and an act of foolishness for anyone to plot an attack against Muslim of America communities,” he said. “Furthermore, we have no knowledge whether the four individuals recently arrested for attempting such a criminal plot were aware of either our book, film or other writings about MOA.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, TMOA is an outgrowth or successor of Jama’at al-Fuqra, but news investigations, security analysts and law enforcement have dismissed accusations that the community is a terrorist training ground.

“It’s just a name that’s attributed to them,” Al-Deen, the professor, explained. “Their community in New York is a good one, and why people want to attack them, I don’t know. It’s peculiar, and the group is now struggling to survive.”

TMOA says it has no affiliation with al-Fuqra, and Islamberg residents argue that such claims are both baseless and dangerous fuel for Islamophobia.

“Let us be clear, the terrorist threat against Islamberg by the four current suspects … is about hatred toward Islam and hatred toward American Muslims,” Adams said. “Islamophobia has proven to be a lucrative business, one that trades in hate and produces terrorists bent on executing their nefarious plots to destroy Muslims.”

At the news conference, one reporter asked Adams whether he thought law enforcement’s reaction to the alleged plot was enough.

“Well, what is enough?” he asked. “We don’t know who else is out there. The police said they’re looking into the possibility that there are other suspects involved. So what do we do until then?”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, focuses on Muslims in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

ADVERTISEMENTs