U.S. Keeps Close Tabs on Muslim Cleric
Officials Suspect Activist Has Close Ties With Iranian Regime
Muslim cleric Mohammad Asi leads a protest and prayer rally on a Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk near the Islamic Center mosque, as he has done almost every Friday for 19 years. (File Photo/ Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 1, 2003; Page A01
Seven weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Islamic cleric Mohammad Asi made a speech at the National Press Club, calling them "a grand strike against New York and Washington" launched by "Israeli Zionist Jews" who had warned the 5,000 Jews at the World Trade Center to skip work. He warned America that if it continued to offend Islam, "the day of reckoning is approaching."
A small man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard who lives in Silver Spring, Asi, 51, may sound to some like an al Qaeda spokesman. He is actually a U.S. citizen, an Air Force veteran and a fixture in the local Islamic community.
He also belongs to a little-known group of Muslim activists that many U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials believe is closely aligned with the government of Iran. For 14 years, until 1997, Asi ran the Islamic Education Center on Montrose Road in Potomac that serves 1,500 families. The center is funded by the New York-based Alavi Foundation, which law enforcement officials say is closely tied to the mullahs who dominate Iran.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials believe Alavi and its related institutions are a vehicle through which the Iranian regime keeps tabs on Iranians here, obtains data about U.S. technology, promotes Tehran's views on world affairs, provides gathering places for pro-Iran activists and channels money to U.S. academics to gain a friendly reading on Iran.
Officials with the Potomac center and the foundation say they are philanthropic groups providing religious education and services . John Winter, a New York attorney for the foundation, said Alavi and the Potomac center "are not connected to terrorism or exporting high tech or spying on dissidents. The center has a school, a worship center and weekend programs. It's a community."
Asi declines to respond in any way to questions about himself, except to say, "I am an American -- that should be enough."
For the past two decades, current and former U.S. law enforcement authorities say, federal agencies have kept close tabs on Asi and this collection of groups through court-approved wiretaps, searches of offices, surveillance of Asi and others and the tracking of visiting Iranian officials.
No charges have been filed against any current Alavi or Potomac center official, and much of the activity that concerns U.S. officials is not illegal. The officials emphasize that the great majority of people affiliated with the center in Potomac are law-abiding citizens.
The scrutiny, however, is part of what the FBI considers an "intelligence" investigation, aimed largely at collecting information on groups and individuals it believes are hostile to the United States. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has considered Iran to be a leading state-sponsor of terrorism and has closely monitored its links to the United States. Such investigations have acquired greater significance since the Sept. 11 attacks.
No current FBI official would comment on the classified matter. But Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former top FBI official, said the bureau has long believed that Alavi is "a front organization for the Iranian regime that is engaged in covert intelligence activity on the part of a hostile foreign government."
David Cohen, the New York City Police Department's intelligence chief, said in a recent court document that the Alavi Foundation is "totally controlled by the government of Iran" and "funds a variety of anti-American causes," including the Potomac center and other mosques. These organizations, said Cohen, a 35-year veteran of the CIA, have affiliates that support Hezbollah and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, two groups the U.S. government has deemed terrorist.
The Potomac center occupies a verdant six-acre campus in an affluent suburban neighborhood, but it was born during the tumultuous Iranian revolution in 1979. In the United States, activists supporting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini voiced anti-American rage, staging violent protests in Washington and elsewhere.
Rage of a Revolution
A small group of believers including Asi instigated several showdowns at the Islamic Center mosque along Massachusetts Avenue, denouncing the Arab regimes that financed the place as apostates. Sermons were disrupted continually, and there were fistfights.
Meanwhile, as the mullahs consolidated power in Iran, Khomeini's followers began seizing the shah's assets around the world.
In Iran, a group called the Mostazafan Foundation took over the massive holdings of his Pahlavi Foundation, including ports and factories. In the United States, the newly formed Mostazafan Foundation of New York seized Pahlavi's sole asset here -- a 36-story office building on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Evidence soon surfaced of the New York foundation's ties to Iran. A 1981 newsletter of Iran's Mostazafan said that "committed brothers and the Islamic Republic government" had reclaimed the Manhattan building through the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, which changed its name to Alavi in 1992.
Mehdi Haeri, who was a ranking official of the new Iranian regime and is now a lawyer in Germany critical of Tehran, said the New York foundation was always controlled by Iran's Mostazafan. "There is no way they are independent of Iran," he said.
In the early 1980s, according to tax records, the New York foundation started funding Islamic centers around the nation, a number of which espoused support for Khomeini or virulent opposition to U.S. policies. One was the Potomac center -- whose early history was intimately linked with the showdowns at the downtown mosque.
Asi and an associate named Bahram Nahidian, known for his close personal ties to Khomeini, helped lead the activists' fight to control the Massachusetts Avenue mosque in 1980 and 1981.
One of the co-leaders in that effort was Daoud Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam who was a close follower and bodyguard of Nahidian's. Salahuddin has admitted that he fatally shot a pro-Shah activist named Ali Tabatabai at his Bethesda home on July 22, 1980, and then fled the country. From his apartment in Iran, he has said he was acting on orders from the Iranian Embassy in Washington.
In December 1981, the Tehran supporters packed a meeting to elect the Massachusetts Avenue mosque's prayer leader, and Asi won. He filled his sermons with vitriolic attacks on the Saudis, Israel and the United States, which he, like Khomeini, called "the great Satan." By March 1983, the mosque's Saudi-dominated board of directors hired security guards, ousted Asi and his flock, and changed the locks.
The next month, the Potomac center formally opened. Among its leaders was Nahidian, a leader of the local partnership that, according to tax records, received $6 million for the venture from the Mostazafan Foundation of New York.
Within a few months after his ouster from the downtown mosque, Asi took over at the Potomac center as imam and president, joining Nahidian in the leadership of the embattled congregation.
Asi has told people that he was born in Michigan of a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother. As a U.S. Air Force pharmacy clerk in the 1970s, he tried to use his language skills to get into intelligence and was rejected, apparently because of his parents' foreign roots, said his friend Victor Marchetti.
"He was angry about that," said Marchetti, a former CIA official who became a bitter agency critic. That rejection and the Iranian revolution in January 1979 -- while Asi was still in the Air Force Reserves -- helped radicalize him, say people who know him.
Asi was a provocative figure inside the Potomac center, and FBI officials took note when he urged Muslims to take up arms against the forces of "kufr" or unbelief. "We should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world," Asi told a militantly anti-Israeli conference in 1990, just before the Persian Gulf War, as recorded on a tape unearthed by terrorism researcher Steven Emerson. "Strike against American interests," he said.
'I . . . swear allegiance'
A radical pro-Iran Web site, alwelayah.net, reprinted a 1994 public letter Asi wrote to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor, saying, "I . . . swear allegiance to you as leader of the Muslims."
He blamed Jews for framing Jesus and controlling the world's economy. "Muslims will deal the deathblow to Yahud [Jews]," he wrote in an undated essay on a pro-Iran Web site called Muslimedia. In a 1996 magazine article, he wrote on the evil of his enemy: "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew."
Federal officials said they kept tabs as Asi met many times with Iran's top hard-line officials in Tehran and elsewhere to plan opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
About his activities, Asi will talk only about his ouster from the downtown mosque. He still seethes about it. "They violated my rights," he said in a recent interview.
Salahuddeen Kareem, principal of the Islamic school that shares space with the Potomac center, said that although Asi is a blunt speaker, he is no threat to the United States. "He's an authentic and rare and unique patriot," Kareem said.
In 1997, Asi stepped aside as imam at the Potomac center. The reasons are unclear, though some U.S. officials believe the Iranians wanted the center to present a less strident image.
Mullahs and Mostazafan
After two decades of classified investigation, U.S. officials say that, besides having close ties to the hard-line mullahs in Tehran, Alavi also has had close associations for years with the Mostazafan Foundation in Iran.
One of the country's largest businesses, the quasi-public Mostazafan for much of its life has been run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an Iranian intelligence agency. The Revolutionary Guards is a sponsor of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed political group that the U.S. government blames for hundreds of American deaths in car bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon during the early 1980s.
Former FBI official Revell said the U.S. government has concluded that Alavi officials have also worked closely with the Revolutionary Guards, which was itself involved in some of the kidnappings.
Revell said U.S. officials have concluded that Alavi-funded centers such as the one in Potomac have helped Tehran keep tabs on Iranian dissidents and track U.S. research into sensitive high-tech subjects accessible through patent filings and engineering libraries.
"It's obvious Alavi is controlled by the Iranian government," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official. "That was the intelligence community's conclusion."
Kenneth Timmerman, a terrorism expert who has advised law enforcement officials about Alavi and the Potomac center, said the Iranian government uses them to spread pro-Tehran propaganda to U.S. Muslims, especially African Americans.
Alavi denies wrongdoing, or having ties to the Iranian regime. Foundation officials cite a federal judge's 1999 decision in a lawsuit filed by the parents of a Brandeis University junior killed in 1995 in a bus bombing by an Iranian-funded group in Israel.
The family won $247.5 million in damages against Iran but was unable to collect from Alavi because a federal judge ruled that preliminary evidence suggested Iran did not exert "day-to-day control" over Alavi.
"The IRS looks at us carefully," said Alavi attorney Winter. If officials think Tehran controls the foundation, he said, "why haven't they shut it down?"
The Potomac center says it has an accepting and peaceful outlook. It has recently held interfaith dialogues and hosted neighbors, police and local politicians to discuss Islam and condemn the Sept. 11 attacks.
There are signs that radical fervor lives on at the center. For years, Khomeini's picture has adorned the center's walls. Hormoz Hekmat, an anti-mullah activist, recalls attending an event there last year and seeing a large banner with a quote from Khomeini to the effect that "those who struggle against the U.S. will be rewarded by God."
Asi himself is still a regular presence at the center, helping to commemorate the anniversaries of the Iranian revolution and of Khomeini's death. He has appeared many times with Ahmed Huber, a Swiss convert to Islam and Holocaust revisionist who rails against "Jewish bankers." The Potomac center for years has sold tapes of Huber's speeches.
In 2001, U.S. officials froze Huber's assets and those of Bank al Taqwa, on whose board Huber served, declaring both the bank and Huber terrorism financiers. U.S. officials allege the bank has handled funds for Osama bin Laden. Huber has denied involvement in terrorism but told reporters that he has met al Qaeda operatives in Beirut.
Asi seems to avoid talking about bin Laden. But he speaks about other topics to anyone who will listen.
Almost every Friday for the past 19 years, through ice storms and scorching sun, he has led his followers in prayer on the Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk near the mosque. Rising from his woven prayer rug, he stands in his socks hollering his sermon into a bullhorn, denouncing "Jewish Zionist usurpers" and the Saudis.
On one recent Friday, he shouted that a suicide bomber in Israel always "goes to Allah."
Staff writers Scott Higham and Alan Lengel and researchers Margot Williams and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.