The first imam killed in the domestic war on terror was a black American: Luqman Ameen Abdullah, born Christopher Thomas, gunned down by federal agents in a warehouse in Dearborn, Michigan, last October. He was, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court on October 27, the day before he died, "a highly placed leader of a nationwide radical fundamentalist Sunni group consisting primarily of African Americans" whose "primary mission is to establish a separate, sovereign Islamic state ('The Ummah') within the borders of the United States, governed by Shariah law."
A shadow world of blacks has grown up through the post-9/11 cracks in America, the complaint proposes, a world alien and hostile to democracy, swayed by "anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric," intent on establishing its own land and its own rules, a land sympathetic to the terrorists who struck nine years ago. In the days immediately following Luqman Abdullah's death, news accounts characterized him as an extremist killed in a shootout by the FBI. This is familiar ground, particularly in urban Detroit: A black radical dead from law-enforcement bullets. And a Muslim, to boot.
But that alarming criminal complaint, with a large portion of its 43 pages devoted to a carefully crafted, informant-driven, political profile of the imam, did not charge him with treason or terrorism or even with that convenient catch-all, material support for terrorism. No, federal agents wanted a small-time thief, they said, engaged in shipping and receiving stolen goods.
A November 10 indictment of 10 of the imam's friends, congregants and family members swept up in the same operation that left the imam dead, makes no mention of anything political at all. Rather, its allegations portray a petty fencing ring: 50 stolen laptop computers, 54 power-tool kits, 46 television sets, and the like changed hands; pay offs were made: $100, $200, $500. Almost as a coda and an echo of violence, felony gun charges were brought against defendants.
Soon after the first overheated news accounts, the questions began. What evidence, other than the words of informants, implicated Luqman Ameen Abdullah in anything other than trying to help his mostly indigent and homeless community? Where was the autopsy report? Why no terrorism charges? What were informants doing scooping up every bit of rumor in mosque and community? Why was a man dead in a shootout over power-tool kits? Why was he shot in the back? And what was this "Ummah" group anyway? No one in Detroit or in Imam Abdullah's immediate circle seemed to know anything about it, nor had anyone heard any of his purported inflammatory rhetoric calling for a separate state. What was going on?
When I first heard about the case last fall, it hit me with a sickening shock of recognition; Abdullah's death recapitulated many stories I reported in Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. Over a thousand imams in the post-racial United States have been interrogated, detained, jailed, deported since 9/11. A black man is now the first to be killed. In Philadelphia, the imam of the Ansaarullah Islamic Society, a mosque seeking to minister to the poor in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, was arrested in 2004, the man who took his place was arrested soon after, informants riddled the mosque, other congregants were arrested and deported until the whole collapsed beneath a landslide of debt, congregants fleeing in fear. In New York City, Muhammad Khalil ? "a fan" of Osama bin Laden, as the New York Daily News put it at the time ? was arrested in 2003 with the assistance of an informant. No mention of bin Laden or violent jihad ever made it into Khalil's trial ? he was convicted of running a visa fraud operation, his mosque was seized and congregants scattered like sheep.
Since Sept. 11, this scenario has been repeated over and over: ominous, well publicized allegations are floated at the time of arrest only to vanish at the time of prosecution. But the taint of arrest billows and lingers ? mosques are smothered, communities infused with fear. The death of Imam Laqman Ameen Abdullah has now brought something else into the picture, something old and very American: race. During the Civil Rights movement, informants funneled endless amounts of purported information to the FBI and malicious stories were spread everywhere by federal agents. Martin Luther King Jr. held a particular fascination for J. Edgar Hoover, who quite simply wanted King dead. Informers and wiretaps and bugs wove themselves into the fabric of King's life ? all to assuage the FBI director's desire to rid the country of this perceived threat. Hoover developed a list of what he called Key Black Extremists ? or KBEs, in bureau parlance ? who needed to be "neutralized" at all costs.
This effort gained violent traction ? the kind on display in the death of Imam Abdullah ? when the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party rose to prominence. Many died in Panther confrontations with law enforcement authorities around the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the most notorious and revealing case involved the deaths of Fred Hampton, charismatic leader of the Chicago Panthers, and his associate Mark Clark, killed in their beds in a blizzard of bullets during a predawn police raid on Hampton's apartment in December of 1969.
That raid was facilitated by an FBI informant, William O'Neill, who was trying to get out from under felony car theft charges. In the wake of the killings, the newspapers reported that police encountered an armed and dangerous foe. Hampton fired. There was a shootout. Police praised their forces for restraint. An independent investigation came to a different conclusion: Hampton and Clark were killed without provocation. O'Neill admitted he had drugged Hampton into a stupor that night. (O'Neill later committed suicide in remorse.) A decade after the killings, authorities finally agreed to pay $1.85 million to settle a wrongful death suit brought by the families of the slain Panthers.
In Detroit, the autopsy report in the Luqman Abdullah case was initially withheld from the public and not released until February. The report cites 21 gunshot wounds riddling the imam's body. Photographs, not released until April, show the imam lying on the warehouse floor, his hands cuffed behind his back. Deep puncture wounds can be seen in close ups of his lifeless face, wounds that could be consistent with a dog attack. Police said they opened fire on the imam after he shot a police dog sent into the warehouse.
Congressman John Conyers, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, the local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the ACLU, the NAACP, the National Action Network, and other groups and community leaders have called for an investigation of the incident. The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is reviewing the case. The state attorney general has just named a prosecutor to look into the matter after the FBI refused to hand over documents to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office because, the bureau said, the documents are "classified."
Who was Luqman Abdullah? Who was this man who posed such a threat? Omar Regan, the iman's broken-hearted son, told me his father "went through a lot" in his life. He was "rough around the edges" and started out as a father who was "not affectionate" but who became "the sweetest man."
He also was an old friend of H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, former head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a leader of the Black Panther Party. Brown is now imprisoned in Colorado for the slaying of two Georgia police officers.
I was talking recently to a major black leader in Philadelphia who told me that last year, federal agents warned local political leaders to stay away from a prominent black event in the city because one of the participants was "a terrorist" associated with Amin's "Ummah." "There's a lot of intelligence," this man told me, "that they are picking up people associated with him around the country. I heard the number was 50." ("Ummah," it should be noted, means nothing more than community. Muslims use it to characterize the community of faith.)
Rap Brown is the thread that leads directly to Abdullah. Brown-Amin connects the violence of racial disorders and investigations of the 1960s and '70s with the terrorism investigations of the 21st century. Lawmen have long memories.
Meanwhile, Omar Regan has looked at the criminal complaint naming his father and noted that the informants that supplied most of the political characterizations in it also sought to entrap Imam Abdullah into a violent act during the 2006 Super Bowl. Alas, "Abdullah said he would not be involved in injuring innocent people for no reason," the complaint states. I was stunned to see that.
Members of Imam Abdullah's Masjid Al-Haqq, which is close to penniless, say seemingly random interrogations of congregants continue and mosque attendance has fallen off drastically at Friday prayer. But the poverty-stricken community still relies on the Sunday soup kitchen the imam ran faithfully for years and which his family is struggling to maintain. It could be that this destitute part of Detroit will lose a critical social institution and service agency, thanks to the war on terror. It happened in Philadelphia. It happened in New York.
Muslims all over the country are becoming more and more concerned about the presence of informants and undercover operatives in the their midst. To what purpose are they in a house of worship? What kinds of information are they gathering up and for what purpose? Why are investigations involving mosques invariably tarred with the broadest of terrorist brushes by authorities? What kind of democracy can stand on a bedrock of informers and secret police?
At this stage, Omar Regan, who makes his living as an actor, comedian, and speaker based in Los Angeles, wants to get some specific answers to specific questions. Why was his father handcuffed? Why was he shot so many times? Why was he shot in the back? Did he even, in fact, have a gun? How can the FBI, which ran the informants, owned all the goods, leased the warehouse, and provided all money, provoke such a situation?
"People are still scared," he said. "They are still interrogating people. The more people push about injustice, the more they harass Muslims in that area [of Detroit]. My father took care of all these people. They leaned on him. He was a reason a lot of them didn't commit suicide. They came for food. For shelter."
"It's the FBI setting the whole thing up," he continued. "How can that be legal?"