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Hamdan Azhar

Hamdan Azhar

Posted: November 5, 2009 08:01 AM

Death of a Detroit Imam Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

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DETROIT -- Six days have passed since his father's untimely death, and Omar Regan's eyes betray a hint of moistness. It is a chilly Tuesday morning, and the Detroit diner at which he has agreed to meet - Superior Coney Island on Wyoming St. - is only two miles from the warehouse where Luqman Ameen Abdullah was killed by FBI agents in a hail of gunfire.

"My father was really, truly a great dude," he tells me. "Straight-forward, he would say what was on his mind...he taught us to be straight up." Mr. Regan, 34, an actor and motivational speaker, was at home in California when he started receiving frantic phone calls last Wednesday afternoon. The national media quickly caught wind of the story - "FBI raids in Detroit, dog shot, airlifted to hospital." He called his father - "when he didn't pick up, I assumed they were holding him." Then one of his sisters called. "They've killed Abu," she screamed hysterically. "And that's when it hit - it hit me hard," he says, "when you hear them crying and screaming in shock."

We have just ordered breakfast when we are joined by one of Mr. Regan's brothers - there are 13 siblings in all. "This is my brother Mujahid," he says by way of introduction. The shock on my face is palpable, and they exchange a knowing laugh. Mujahid Carswell, 30, is one of the eleven individuals charged in the criminal complaint; the initial press release from the US Attorney's Office calls him "armed and dangerous." He lives in Windsor, Ontario - across the river from Detroit - and was at home with his family when he found his house surrounded by heavily-armed agents. He voluntarily surrendered himself and a federal judge approved his release with a monitoring device on Friday. But the official responsible for fitting the device went home early, he says, so he wasn't released until Monday, and missed his father's funeral.

The waitress brings us our scrambled eggs with grits and halal bacon (made with beef instead of pork.) I confess to never having tried grits, and Mr. Carswell looks at me in mock disbelief. "You have to try some," he insists, "but not the sweetened version" as he glances disapprovingly at his brother who is pouring spoonfuls of sugar into his bowl. "Look, I don't care about what my father said. People say stuff all the time. What did he do? He fed the people every Sunday for 30 years."

Mr. Regan joins in, "The non-Muslims in the neighborhood call us and they're in tears. If someone on the street would ask him for food, he'd go in the house. I have to feed them - that was his attitude." "In the snow", interjects Mr. Carswell, "with no money to do it with. People have to be fed. The government isn't doing it, it's up to you." At the end of the day, asks Mr. Regan, "If he was such a bad guy, why did people love him so much?"

The funeral service for Mr. Abdullah, affectionately known as Imam Luqman in the community, was held this past Saturday morning at Detroit's Muslim Center, with an estimated 1500 individuals in attendance. "There were Muslims of every race, of every denomination; there were Evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses, atheists, men, women, and children...The funeral procession stretched for four miles," says Mr. Regan. I arrived just as the procession was departing for Knollwood Cemetery in Canton - over 25 miles away. At the burial ground, the atmosphere seemed rich with emotion, yet oddly festive at the same time, with children running around and women chatting in small groups. Ron, 31, a white cemetery employee, estimated the crowd of 1000 as the largest he had ever seen. "He must have been well-liked."

"My whole life," says Mr. Regan, "I've seen police bother him." He recalls a particular incident when the call to prayer (adhaan) was being broadcast at the mosque and the police came. "They drove the car onto the sidewalk, and the cop got up on the roof and broke the speaker. They handcuffed my father. He didn't bother nobody." Eventually, the non-Muslims petitioned to get the speaker back. "They said, 'Why ya'll stopped singing those songs in the morning?'"

The government accuses Mr. Abdullah and his followers of seeking to "establish a separate Sharia-law governed state within the United States." Mr. Regan offers a different perspective. "My father wanted a decent neighborhood, without liquor stores, drugs, gangs, and violence. He wanted children to grow up in a good environment." Mr. Carswell takes issue with the government's portrayal of his father as a danger to the community. "Have you ever been to my community?" he asks angrily. "What have you done for my community?"

I ask about the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, the much-discussed 45-page document that details the government's grounds for obtaining arrest warrants for Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Carswell, and nine others. "This is character assassination," argues Mr. Regan. "They want to say Muslims are terrorists so they can look justified in doing what they're doing. All they have to do is sway public opinion. People say, 'I seen it on TV', and they believe it." "It's not just character assassination," adds Mr. Carswell. "They shot him 18 times."

I ask if the government has officially contacted his family. Mr. Regan offers a wry smile: "To express their condolences?" No, he responds, nor does he expect them to. "I couldn't have listened to them talk about my father anyways. 'You liars', I would have said."

How has the family been handling the situation? "We're taking it day-by-day," answers Mr. Regan. "We're not excited and over-emotional. We know that Allah is in control, and Allah called him home. We're hurt because we miss him. Insha Allah (God Willing), he's in paradise. He was always doing something for somebody." As the brothers get up to leave, we shake hands and I thank them for their time.

The Community

The interview has gone much better than expected - not bad for a biostatistician, I think. All I need to do is make some quick phone calls and get some statements, and I would be done. As I pull out of the parking lot, however, an alternate plan comes to mind. I quickly plug in the intersection of Joy and Dexter into my GPS, and soon I am off to the heart of Luqman Abdullah's neighborhood.

I drive the three miles and watch the neighborhoods around me go from bad to worse. Entire blocks are deserted, and homes and businesses are boarded up and rotting away. The constant din of construction in Ann Arbor seems like a blessing in comparison. Hardly anyone can be seen walking on the street by the time I arrive at Eagle's Coney Island diner. I have heard that the Imam used to get coffee here, and I am anxious to meet ordinary people who knew him.

The cold air hits my face as I get out of the car. I enter and find about a dozen men, ranging in age from late teens to senior citizens, seated in booths eating lunch. Trying not to feel self-conscious, I walk up to the thick bullet-proof glass which separates the attendants from the customers. The menu advertises a "recession special" of a "Coney egg sandwich" for only 99 cents. I glimpse a "No Loitering" sign and approach the counter. "Do you - take credit cards?" I ask falteringly, the words barely having left my mouth before I wish I could take them back. I have four dollars in my pocket, and I order coffee and a side of French fries for $2. (As any true New Yorker will tell you, street coffee beats Starbucks any day.)

I select a table in the corner, and start toying with my fries, wondering what I am doing with my life. As a biostatistics graduate student, I should have been in class learning about Cox survival models at that moment. Instead I approach a wrinkled gentleman who looks to be in his late 60s. "I'm a writer," I announce, hoping he can't see through the deceit. "The guy who got killed a few days ago, Imam Luqman, did you know him?" He smiles politely back at me. "I don't know anything about that." I walk up to the cashier, a pretty white girl only a little older than me. "Yes, he used to get his coffee here regularly," she tells me. "Good man."

Everything seems to be just around the corner - Mr. Abdullah's residence, the former location of Masjid Al-Haqq that he had been evicted from earlier in the year, and the makeshift mosque his followers had been using since. I decide to leave my car at the diner, hoping it won't get towed or broken into, and cautiously start to walk around the neighborhood. I overcome my initial hesitation and interview over a dozen people, mostly on the street, but also in some of the stores in the area. While some are hesitant to talk and deny knowing anything, most are happy to share their recollections of Imam Luqman. From no less than nine individuals, I hear a consistent story of a peaceful man who lived an otherwise unremarkable life and was known for feeding the hungry and homeless.

I catch Toby, 11, and Martin, 8, playing basketball on the street on Holmur Ave. "I remember him coming to our block and giving out bread," Toby tells me. "No one else did that." Matt, 57, is raking his neighbor's lawn on Hazelwood St. when I approach. When I mention the Imam's name, he scratches his head. "Oh, are you talking about those Muslims?" he asks suddenly, pronouncing the word 'Moozlum'. "I've lived here for twenty years. They were good people - generous people."

Nate, 61, has a stand outside the Thrifty Scot Supermarket on Joy Rd. where he sells incense and DVDs. He remembers Mr. Abdullah as a regular shopper at the store; "he was very distinctive," he tells me, in his robes and garments. "Used to feed the poor from his mosque. Never bothered nobody."

D., 34, is a barber at No Limit Cuts. After I've left, I notice the sign at the entrance -"In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." He is chatting casually with an older gentleman when I walk in. He tells me that people are angry and upset about what happened. "Only the Muslims?" I ask. "It's not just about Muslims," he insists. "It involves the whole community."

I meet Al, 77, further down Joy Road. He tells me he knew Imam Luqman well. "How do you feel about what happened?" I ask. "They fucking shot someone who fed kids, that's what they did." He becomes emotional, as he tells me that "they were afraid of him and they killed him." When I ask him about his religious affiliation, he tells me that he's Baptist.

More common than anger, however, is bewilderment. Many people ask me for the inside scoop of what happened - everyone wants to know why he was killed. Anna, 80, has lived in Detroit all her life. When I ask her about the allegations in the media, she responds, "I never heard nothing like that about them." "What I know is that they were generous, he was always helping people."

I drive two miles to the local police precinct on Livernois and Elmhurst. The desk attendant refuses to comment and asks me to call the Detroit Police Department's Public Information office. I ask to see a superior, and eventually a lieutenant agrees to speak to me off the record. I ask if there have been incidents in the past with Imam Luqman and his followers. She shakes her head. "As far as we were concerned, they were good neighbors."

I have spoken to Mr. Abdullah's family, and have tried to gauge community sentiment to the best of my abilities. I head towards I-96 for the 40-minute drive back to Ann Arbor. As the decaying remnants of Detroit fade into a blur in my windshield, I am left with more questions than answers.

The Complaint

The US Attorney's office has released a 45-page affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint before a magistrate judge. After a finding of probable cause, arrest warrants were issued last Tuesday. The next stage of the process - when the evidence is presented to a grand jury and indictments are handed down - has yet to take place.

The complaint against Mr. Abdullah and ten others formally alleges six crimes: possession of firearms and body armor by a convicted felon, providing firearms to a convicted felon, tampering with motor vehicle identification numbers, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and conspiracy to sell or receive stolen goods. The evidence was obtained through an "undercover operation" involving at least three "confidential sources" and at least two "undercover employees of the FBI." The substance of the criminal activity alleged involves, among other things, dealings in supposedly stolen fur coats, laptops, and LCD TVs.

The bulk of the document (29 pages) consists of a background section which accuses the defendants of far more serious offenses. Based on informants' statements, these include an alleged plot to violently overthrow the government. However, since this information is only "background", no formal charges have been filed based on these accusations.

Critics have taken issue with the layout of the affidavit itself. They accuse the government of using unethical means to introduce unsupported innuendo into the public debate - including information that fails to meet proper evidentiary standards and would not hold up in a court of law. While a judge has found probable cause to believe the defendants committed crimes, these are limited to the six offenses listed above and everything else is merely speculation.

"If the government doesn't have solid evidence, they'll do everything they can to convict you in the court of public opinion" says a distinguished professor of criminal procedure at the University of Michigan Law School who agreed to speak off the record. "It's wrong, but that's how they do it." The Associated Press headline on Wednesday - "Leader of Radical Islam Group Killed" - indicates that they may have already succeeded.

The AP story goes on to say, "No one was charged with terrorism. But Abdullah was 'advocating and encouraging his followers to commit violent acts against the United States.'" When asked about such contradictions, US Attorney Terrence Berg told the New York Times that "the charges speak for themselves." Several legal scholars I spoke with disagreed, however, calling the affidavit "bizarre" and "unusual." Why was no one charged with terrorism? Is the government making a distinction between "terrorism" and promoting violence against the United States? Or is there simply no substantive evidence to support such a charge?

The government has tried to assuage concerns of Muslim and Arab leaders in Southeast Michigan by referring to this as an "isolated incident." Irregularities in the government's account, however, and its handling of the case suggest otherwise. For example, the affidavit is signed by an agent who is part of a "counter-terrorism squad." Why is a counter-terrorism squad investigating tampering with VIN numbers and the sale of stolen furs in the first place?

Inquiries to Mr. Berg's office were directed to Public Information Officer Gina Balaya. "The affidavit speaks for itself," she tells me. When I ask her to clarify the terrorism angle, she refuses, citing an "ongoing investigation." When I press her further, she says that her job isn't to answer questions, but merely to distribute copies of the press release and affidavit to interested parties. "That's all I can do."

Special Agent Sandra Berchtold, spokesperson for the Detroit division of the FBI, was more responsive. She defends the alleged innuendo in the background of the affidavit as necessary to justify the "armed and dangerous" designation made in the warrants about the suspects.

The American Muslim Taskforce (AMT), a national umbrella organization of major Islamic organizations, has long been critical of dubious FBI tactics that target underprivileged individuals within the Muslim community. Dr. Agha Saeed, AMT chair, attacks the FBI's continued use of agent provocateurs. "The task of a civilized government," he tells me, "is not to trick people into doing something wrong, and then say gotcha." Rather, the government should "always encourage people to do the right thing at the right time."

Asked about infiltration of houses of worship and monitoring of religious services - both of which were significant components of the FBI's investigation - Ms. Berchtold directs me to the publicly available portions of the Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guidelines (DIOG). Just because something is legal, though, doesn't make it right. Omar Regan grew emotional when he asked me, "What world are we living in?" "The government is supposed to serve and protect the people," he said. "Instead, they use scare tactics that build mistrust in the community."

Abdullah Bey El-Amin, imam of the Muslim Center - one of Detroit's largest and most influential mosques - accuses the FBI of preying on the weakest segments of the population. "You go to the poorest part of town," he says, "where people don't have jobs, they don't have running water, they don't have heat, and you say 'I have a fur coat you can sell.'" "They weren't even sophisticated enough to get this stuff and steal it," he continues. "The FBI had to bring them stuff." What about media reports of a dangerous plot to take over the United States, I ask. "They couldn't even take over their own block. And the FBI knew this, and they let it go on for three years."

"We don't condone the type of behavior that is alleged," he reiterates. But in three years of investigation, the strongest case the government could build involved allegedly changing the VIN number on a used truck. "It wasn't even a new truck," he exclaims. "Why doesn't the government sic dogs on the crack importers and drug dealers who are destroying our communities instead?"

The Investigation

The circumstances of Luqman Abdullah's death continue to be a topic of speculation throughout the community. One widespread narrative maintains that the FBI had Mr. Abdullah cornered in a warehouse and then dispatched a dog to subdue him. When he shot the dog, agents returned fire, killing him. Mr. Regan, who washed his father's body in preparation for the funeral, confirms the presence of 18 gunshot wounds. He also says the coroner told him that his father's body was handcuffed when it arrived.

The US Attorney's press release describes "an exchange of gunfire" after Mr. Abdullah fired the initial shot. However, the Associated Press quotes the FBI's Agent Berchtold as saying "Abdullah fired a weapon and was killed by gunfire from agents." Paul Chevigny, Professor Emeritus at the New York University School of Law, was unfamiliar with the facts of the case, but when the above scenario was presented to him as a hypothetical situation, his response was unequivocal. "Killing a dog," he said, "is certainly not grounds for killing a person."

The FBI Shooting Incident Review Team is conducting an internal inquiry. Meanwhile, since the incident occurred in the city of Dearborn, the Dearborn Police Department is handling the criminal aspects of the investigation. While a press release from Chief Ronald Haddad states that his department is "the lead investigative agency in this incident", his office is nevertheless referring all media inquiries to the FBI. (Interestingly, the mayor's chief spokesperson, contacted on Tuesday afternoon, seemed to suggest that the FBI was calling the shots and seemed unaware of Dearborn PD's leading role.)

Ms. Berchtold was asked about how many FBI agents had been involved in the incident, and if they had been suspended pending investigation or if they were still on duty; she refused to comment. She confirmed that a K-9 was involved and was airlifted for emergency veterinary assistance. She was unable to discuss why a K-9 unit was involved in the first place or whether that was standard FBI procedure in such situations. (An FBI press release indicates a memorial will be held for the dog in Quantico, Virginia.)

Meanwhile, numerous organizations, including the American Muslim Task Force, the Muslim Alliance in North America, and the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, have joined Mr. Abdullah's family and continue to call for an independent investigation.

Post-Script

Something Omar Regan told me during our interview sticks with me. "They forgot about the people in the hood," he had said. From the comfort of my well-lit, secure, heated office on the medical campus of the University of Michigan, I look up the statistics. Detroit is officially the poorest city in the United States. Nearly 34% of residents and 48% of children live below the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that comes to $22,000 -- most graduate student research assistants here are paid more than that.

A black man, a Muslim, and a community leader is shot 18 times in an FBI raid amidst allegations of entrapment and unethical conduct. The media frenzy drives the story for a few days and we are inundated with talk of nefarious Muslim plots to take over the United States. Meanwhile, the struggle to survive continues in the inner city and somewhere a child wonders what happened to that guy who spent thirty years feeding the poor and hungry.

This is a story about the death of an Imam, a family's mourning, and a community's search for answers. But it is just as much a story about the greater issues of race, religion, poverty, authority, and justice in society. If we can understand that much, then perhaps we will have learned something from the unfortunate death of Imam Luqman Abdullah.


Hamdan Azhar
is a graduate student in biostatistics at the University of Michigan. An accomplished writer on international affairs, his works have been published in the Huffington Post,
Counterpunch, and the Asia Times.