The Usual Suspects


It is September 16, Day Six of the manhunt for the collaborators in the suicidal dive-bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Activist attorney Stanley I. Cohen—the man some say might defend terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden if he is captured and brought to justice in America—is in his fourth-floor loft in Loisaida, pacing and fretting. For the past 10 hours, Cohen has been mulling over an anonymous communiqué someone has been circulating to Arab and Muslim leaders, calling on them to “refuse to participate . . . as a point of principle and . . . of self-defense” in the FBI’s far-reaching investigation into the attacks.

Cohen is worried: Arabs and Muslims, current and former clients as far away as Texas, are frantic. Some are considering going into hiding because of what the FBI is asking them to do. The communiqué alleges that the FBI is twisting the arms of some imams to get approval for agents to “hold assemblies with members of our communities at which they propose to project slide shows of photographs depicting Arabs and Muslims [from] whom they are seeking more information.”

According to the document, “It is the FBI’s hope that community members will recognize the persons in the photographs, and then submit to interviews with agents, detailing all they know. Their proposed slide shows can only be regarded as ‘fishing expeditions’ at best, creating a coercive forum in which they can pursue any fanciful line of inquiry, no matter how unrelated to the current events.” At worst, the communiqué warns, “such assemblies would give [the FBI] unlimited scope to stain any unfortunate Muslim’s reputation with guilt by inference, making our community leaders, religious teachers and scholars easy targets for those who would wield the weapons of insinuation, rumor, and character assassination.”

Cohen sighs and begins counting would-be casualties on his fingers. In “the first war of the 21st century,” as President George Bush put it, the usual suspects—those Arabs and Muslims linked to terrorism abroad and hate crimes at home—will be the first to call him.

Five days earlier, after returning from his office near the smoldering ruins of the twin towers, an antsy Cohen tries to hunker down in what he calls “my ground zero.” His three phones, which he believes have been monitored by the FBI for the past 15 years, have been ringing nonstop. On this somber Wednesday afternoon, Cohen barks at his growling chocolate Labrador retriever, Sadie, hangs up on a call, and answers the ear-splitting ring from his cell phone.

The caller, Cohen would tell this Voice reporter later, was Said Assi, the father of Mazin Assi, a 22-year-old Palestinian American who was charged with two other Arabs in the attempted firebombing of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel in the Riverdale section of the Bronx last October. Mazin and co-defendant Mohammed Alfaqih, 19, will be the first to be tried later this month under New York’s new hate crime law. The third, who was 15 at the time and has not been identified because of his age, will be tried in Family Court. Attempted arson carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, but as a hate crime the maximum punishment is 15 years.

Immediately after the World Trade Center tragedy, Said began raising concerns about a pending neurological examination of his son; the trial was three weeks away, and he wanted Cohen’s advice on resolving an insurance problem.

But Cohen, who, along with attorney Lynne F. Stewart, is representing Mazin, has heard Said’s voice break before under emotional strain. He can tell that the hardworking immigrant is frightened—that he’s petrified by the anti-Muslim fervor building in New York City in the wake of the kamikaze-style bombing of the World Trade Center by suspected Muslim extremists. Cohen can’t guarantee Mazin’s safety, but he cautions Said to keep his son shuttered and off the streets. After hanging up, Cohen is more determined than ever to petition the Supreme Court in the Bronx for a four-month delay.

“I do not want to change the venue,” Cohen says defiantly. “I want my client tried by people of color in the Bronx. I want my client tried by a jury of people who understand the difference between anger and hate, a people who understand the legitimacy of fighting back.

“What I don’t want is for Mazin Assi to be tried in this anti-Arab climate that is so pervasive right now. I think Muslims will be lynched all over the United States in the coming weeks. I think the FBI is going to whip up such fury that it will replace the hysteria caused by the shark attacks this summer. I can’t have a young Muslim man tried in this light.”

Cohen gives his word to Said Assi that he will do all he can to protect his son’s constitutional rights. He isn’t bluffing. The firebrand throwback to the ’60s represents Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, the Hamas political leader who was jailed in New York and then turned over to Jordan in 1997.

It is now 6:30, and Cohen seems more accurate in predicting the type of calls he’ll be fielding this evening. “I figure it is only a matter of time before the FBI and other delusional, paranoid wannabes start bothering clients of mine,” he scoffs. “Already, they are being harassed, intimidated, and frightened.”

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 alone—but 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.

“Mazin Assi, who has a serious diabetes problem, a low IQ, and speaks some English, some Arabic, is in and out of both worlds,” Cohen offers. “He was interrogated literally around the clock, and denied access to insulin. The cops told him they would get him some only after he told them he did it. Paramedics eventually showed up but said they didn’t have the authority to give him an insulin injection. The cops said my client made a modified confession or admission about his role. He was then taken to a hospital, given an injection of insulin, and taken to court. He became very ill, went into insulin shock, and remained in intensive care for three days.”

Mazin, who sat in jail for seven months because he couldn’t make the stiff $100,000 bail, was released in June after posting half of the money. Cohen chastised Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson for making a big deal out of nothing.

“Rob Johnson, whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for, is in my opinion being driven by the need to court the synagogue or pro-Zionist lobby in the Bronx,” he charges. “This is a case that can reasonably be done away with, in which all sides can benefit.” Johnson would disagree. “This particular case having happened at the time it did, on the eve virtually of Yom Kippur, and at a time of strife in the Middle East, is of particular importance to the entire city, and we are going to treat it that way,” the D.A. said shortly after the men were charged.

Late into the night on Day Six, Stanley Cohen is still reassuring Arabs like Said Assi, steadfastly refusing to consider the possibility that Mazin could be convicted and that the penalty would be severe—a way for jurors to send a message about hate crime in the age of the “new war.” He then consults with Moataz Al-Hallak before retiring to bed. Al-Hallak, he reiterates minutes later, will not voluntarily cooperate with the FBI. “If they want him to come talk, there is this wonderful document that says, ‘We command,’ ” he declares. “It is called a subpoena. Subpoena us and we will come in and do what we have to do.”