By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Cohen's rant is interrupted by another phone call. "FBI!" he announces. "What took them so long?"
The caller, Cohen says, identified himself as a special agent in the FBI's field office in Dallas. He told Cohen the agency was looking for Moataz Al-Hallak, a Muslim imam who was the former spiritual leader of several mosques in Texas. Al-Hallak previously was questioned by prosecutors in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa linked to Osama bin Laden. "We refused to talk to them," Cohen recalls. But one subpoena later, Al-Hallak was dragged before a federal grand jury in New York.
"He went into a grand jury and answered questions honestly and truthfully," Cohen says of Al-Hallak, who never was charged with wrongdoing. "I think he embarrassed the government because the grand jury got to see a soft-spoken, articulate, and charismatic Islamic leader who isn't a bomber, who isn't crazy, and who isn't involved in terrorist plots. I thought that as a result of that the government had decided to leave him alonebut apparently not."
Al-Hallak left the Northeast on Monday, the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center, and traveled to Texas, according to the feds. During verbal sparring with the agent, Cohen learns that the head of the FBI field office had held a news conference earlier, mentioning Al-Hallak as someone the FBI would like to talk to. He says the agent told him they want to question Al-Hallak about whether he told people about the attacks before they occurred. "They said that he was not a suspect, that they were interested only in talking to him, and by making this fact public they hoped he would come in voluntarily," Cohen claims.
It took several phone calls to track him down. Cohen caught up with Al-Hallak, now a teacher and religious leader in another state, as he was driving back home from a road trip. "Much to his shock and outrage, the FBI is sullying his character and bullying him," Cohen says. "His attitude to all this is, 'Here we go again.' "
Cohen and Al-Hallak debate their next move. Under no circumstances should Al-Hallak talk with the FBI. If approached, he should remind them that his attorney is Stanley Cohen. "My concern is," says Cohen later, "that given the histrionics, given the environment, given the demagogues who are rampaging with their little American flags and their body counts, this holy man, a large figure with a big, black beard and dressed in Islamic religious garb, could be slaughtered on the highway. He could be killed by people who obviously would see that he is a Muslim and assume that he is a bad guy involved in what happened in New York." Cohen accuses the FBI of endangering Al-Hallak.
As the phone calls subside, the upcoming trial of Mazin Assi dominates Stanley Cohen's concerns once more. "What drives an Arab American young man to attack a synagogue, assuming that prosecutors could prove he even did it?" the attorney asks.
He says that Mazin's family, Palestinians who were expelled from Israel, emigrated to the United States from Jordan in 1974 after languishing in refugee camps. "They are not anti-Semitic," he contends. But like many Arab Americans, Mazin was deeply disturbed by stone-throwing young Palestinians being gunned down by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.
Cops allege that in the early morning hours of October 8, Mazin, Alfaqih, and the 15-year-old, enraged by the violence against Palestinians, went to a liquor store, bought a bottle of cheap vodka, and made Molotov cocktails. The three allegedly told investigators they were looking for a synagogue to vandalize, and Adath Israel at 475 West 250th Street was the first one they drove by, just hours before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. Two of them got out and one threw a bottle with flammable "purplish liquid" at a window. The device did not ignite. According to police, one of the assailants placed another Molotov cocktail at the entrance to the synagogue, which also fizzled. Finally, someone allegedly threw a rock that crashed through a window.
In one police report obtained by the Voice, investigators said that a member of the synagogue found the Molotov cocktails"one broken and one intact, as well as a rock . . . outside a broken door" of the temple. "While the broken bottle was singed and the intact bottle had a burned rag sticking out of it, there was no fire damage to the building or grounds," the report stated. "The damage to the building consisted of a broken glass entrance door possibly caused by the rock." A rabbi and other leaders at the synagogue "all stated that there were no recent, unusual incidents or threats," the report noted.
Police and Mayor Giuliani labeled the attempted firebombing a hate crime. Citing "ongoing tensions in the Middle East as well as the Jewish high holy days," City Hall beefed up protection of both "Israeli and Palestinian houses of worship and meeting places" in the 50th Precinct.
On October 10, cops detained 12 Arab Americans in connection with the attack on the synagogue. Eight were released the next day, and their arrests were thrown out. Cops pinned the crime on Mazin and his cohorts. But Cohen protested the alleged mistreatment of his client by police.