Probe Elicits Disbelief at Mosque
As the midday call to prayer was sung out, members of an Inglewood mosque said Wednesday that they were shocked to hear that three of their fellow worshipers were under investigation for a possible plot to shoot up National Guard recruitment centers and synagogues.
Members of the mostly South Asian mosque described the trio -- two African American Muslims and a Pakistani national -- as “friendly, devout” adherents and said that they had been unaware of any dangers the men might have posed.
“They said their prayers on time and were known to myself on a first-name basis,” said Imam Junaid Kharsany, the clerical leader of Jamat-E-Masijidul Islam mosque. “We had no reason to believe that these men were criminals with bad intentions.”
Although no indictments have been issued, sources say the FBI-led investigation has uncovered evidence the men were planning to go on a shooting rampage at any of about two dozen sites in Southern California.
Under one scenario, according to the sources, the first attack would have been waged Sept. 11 at a National Guard recruitment center and a second would have taken place at a synagogue a month later on Yom Kippur. One suspect had purchased an assault rifle and was planning to pick it up July 10, only days after the men were arrested.
Sources, however, said that scenario was only one of many possibilities allegedly uncovered by authorities.
“We don’t believe they had settled on a specific plan,” said one source close to the probe, which has involved more than 200 FBI agents, Los Angeles detectives and counterterrorism experts with other state and federal agencies.
The investigation began after one of the alleged plotters dropped a cellphone during a gas station robbery in Torrance.
“There is no question that was the major break,” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing probe.
That misstep by the suspect, authorities said, enabled Torrance police last month to track down Gregory Vernon Patterson, 21, and his alleged accomplice, Levar Haney Washington, 25, in a string of gas station robberies. Ultimately, authorities say, surveillance of the two men led authorities to Hamad Riaz Samana, 21, arrested Aug. 2 in connection with the case.
Patterson’s attorney, Winston McKesson, continued to assert Wednesday that his client had no connections to any terrorist plot. “It is my fervent belief that when the federal investigation is complete, it will be clear that my client was not involved in any plan to take aggressive action against the United States,” McKesson said.
“He comes from a solid middle-class family with good, core American values. He has done well in school,” McKesson said. “And he has been a law-abiding citizen for his entire 21 years on this Earth.”
Washington’s attorney, Alternate Deputy Public Defender Jerome Haig, declined to comment on the terrorism investigation. “At this point, I am defending Mr. Washington on charges of robbery. If and when there are other charges filed, I will be willing to make a comment at that time,” he said.
Washington and Patterson remain in custody at the Men’s Central Jail in connection with the robberies.
Samana’s attorney did not return phone calls for comment. Samana is being detained at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
In a brief conversation Wednesday, Samana’s father, Riaz, said that he did not know Washington or Patterson and denied that his son had committed a crime.
“I think this is all a mistake,” he said while walking to the store for a pack of cigarettes. “He’s a good boy. Yes, devout.”
The Jamat-E-Masijidul Islam mosque is on a residential street directly under the flight path of planes roaring into Los Angeles International Airport. Many Muslims live within walking distance of the mosque to facilitate the five daily prayers required of devout believers.
Of the three men, mosque members said they knew Hamad Samana the best.
During the interview, Samana’s father, Riaz, said the family moved to their apartment across the street from the mosque five years ago from Karachi, Pakistan. Hamad, a Santa Monica College student, worked at the student library and was his family’s main breadwinner, acquaintances said.
Washington and Patterson were newer arrivals at the mosque and to Islam, said Kharsany, leader of the mosque.
He recalled that Patterson, a former duty-free shop employee at LAX, told him that he became a Muslim about a year ago.
Kharsany said that Washington, who wore tattoos on his neck and forehead, had confided that he was a former gang member and convict who converted to Islam before he got out of prison several months ago.
Washington’s background did not concern him, Kharsany said, because many men have converted to Islam while serving time, often with positive results.
Kharsany was also not surprised that two African American men would attend a predominantly South Asian immigrant mosque, he said, because several black Muslims were already members.
Kharsany said that he believed that Washington and Patterson became acquainted with Samana at the mosque and occasionally saw them together after prayers.
“Washington had tattoos, but his attitude was not that of a gangster,” said Sayed Shadab, 40, a bus driver who attends the mosque. “He was always respectful. He would greet you with a smile.”
Shadab said he did not see Patterson as much but knows Samana’s family.
“I’ve known him since he first came from playing cricket, basketball, volleyball,” he said. “I’d see him in the evenings. Basically, he is a very religious boy. I was shocked when I heard about his involvement in this thing.”
Kharsany described his mosque as nondenominational and moderate. He also said that the mosque did not subscribe to the ultra-orthodox strictures of Islam’s Wahabi tradition, which is common in many Pakistani and Saudi communities.
Authorities say the attacks may have been organized by inmates at Folsom state prison, where Patterson served time for assault, robbery and belonging to a street gang.
The inmates, according to officials, are affiliated with a radical form of Islam practiced by a group called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, which translates as Assembly of Authentic Islam.
Even as the prospect of prison-bred terrorists rankles authorities, experts note, it is hardly a new phenomenon.
“There is a long history of terrorist organizations recruiting in prisons,” said Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins. “The prisoners are susceptible, they are frightened, they are looking for protection and a set of beliefs to deal with life in prison.”
At a Sacramento news conference, the heads of the state prison system and homeland security office refused to discuss specifics of the investigation. They said their efforts to intercept inmate plots have been aided by closer working relationships with federal authorities and by a prison reorganization that has consolidated all investigators under one office.
“The reality is, disruptive groups in prisons have been doing this for years,” said state Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman. “What is new is our ability to investigate, cooperate and collaborate with all law enforcement.
Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report.