MIAMI – An elderly Miami imam and two of his sons have been arrested on federal charges they provided some $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, while three others in Pakistan have been indicted on charges of handling distribution of the funds, authorities say.
Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, was arrested Saturday at the Miami Mosque, also known as the Flagler Mosque. One of his sons, Izhar Khan, 24, another imam at the Jamaat Al-Mu’mineen Mosque in nearby Margate, Fla., was arrested there. Another son, Irfan Khan, 37, was detained in Los Angeles. The three are U.S. citizens. Their mosques are not suspected of wrongdoing, authorities said.
Also named in the indictment are three others at large in Pakistan — Hafiz Khan’s daughter, grandson and an unrelated man, all three charged with handling the distribution of funds, authorities said. The Pakistani Taliban are designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
The indictment lists about $50,000 in transactions. According to the indictment, the funds were used to buy guns, support militants’ families and promote the cause of the Pakistani Taliban. It alleges that Hafiz Khan owns the religious school in northwest Pakistan that shelters members of the Pakistani Taliban and trains children to become militants.
Khan’s 19-year-old grandson, Alam Zeb, who is accused of collecting and distributing money sent from the U.S. to the Pakistani Taliban, denied the charges against him and his family Sunday.
“It is baseless,” Zeb told The Associated Press in Sarsnai, a village in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where the elder Khan used to live and established a madrassa, or Islamic school.
Zeb also denied U.S. allegations that the madrassa that Khan founded is used to shelter or support the Pakistani Taliban or has trained sent children off to learn how to fight Americans in Afghanistan.
The oldest of four brothers, Zeb also expressed surprise at the allegations against his uncle, Izhar Khan. He said the uncle spent about a month in the village a year ago — what Zeb said was the man’s first visit in 12 years.
He said he learned about the allegations Sunday from his mother, Amina Khan, who also has been accused of collecting and distributing money for the Pakistani Taliban. She was identified in the court documents as the daughter of the elder Florida imam.
In the United States, attempts to reach the U.S. men’s attorneys and families were unsuccessful. However, another son of Hafiz Khan, Ikram Khan, told The Miami Herald that his father was too old and sick to be involved in the plot.
“None of my family supports the Taliban,” he told the newspaper. “We support this country.”
If convicted, the South Florida men face 15 years in prison for each of the four counts listed in the indictment. All three are expected in court Monday.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said suspicious financial activity triggered the investigation three years ago.
U.S. authorities said the indictment recounts recorded conversations in which Hafiz Khan allegedly voices support for attacks on the Pakistani government and U.S. troops in the region, officials said.
The Pakistani Taliban is a wing of the terrorist group that originated in Afghanistan. It claimed responsibility for paired suicide bombings Friday that killed 87 people in what it said was vengeance for the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. The group has also been linked to the Times Square car bombing in New York in May 2010.
The Pakistani militant group is allied with al-Qaida, is based in the northwest of Pakistan near the Afghan border and has links to that country’s Taliban insurgency.
The Miami Mosque — a small, white house in a crowded residential area — was founded in 1974 and is the oldest mosque in the city, according to Mohammad Shakir, a local Muslim community leader. Hafiz Khan has been leading prayers at the mosque for about 14 years, Shakir added.
Hafiz Khan has been suspended indefinitely as imam, said Asad Ba-Yunus, a spokesman for the Muslim Communities Association of South Florida, which runs the mosque. He said his organization is not aware of any attempts to raise funds for illegal activity that took place on its properties.
In Pakistan, Zeb told AP that Khan regularly sent money from the U.S., but said it was only used to fund operations of the five-room madrassa, which is housed in a cement building.
“By Allah’s will, he sent money for the madrassa expenses, which we used to pay off the salaries of the teachers and nothing else,” Zeb said.
Rahmat Bacha, a 46-year-old villager who took over operations of the madrassa about a year and a half ago, said only about 100 girls attend the school, where they learn the Quran and how to read and write in Urdu.
However, an AP reporter saw several boys attending classes as well.
Khan ran the madrassa until he left for the U.S. more than 15 years ago, said Bacha. Another local villager, Naseeb Ahmed, ran the school until about two years ago when all of the villagers fled to refugee camps at the start of an army operation against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat. The school was closed and opened again about a year and a half ago, said Bacha.
Other residents of Sarsnai village, which has a population of about 2,500, said they were surprised by the allegations against the madrassa and Khan and his family.
“We have not noticed any bad things in the madrassa so far,” said Shah Bacha, a 50-year-old shopkeeper. “Only girls are studying there, and I have known Sher Khan since my childhood, and there was nothing wrong with him.”
Ramzan Ahmed, whose brother was the village elder, said locals never suspected Khan or his family of supporting the Pakistani Taliban.
“We respected him always as he deserved,” Ahmed said. “I don’t know what made the Americans think of him as an aide to terrorists.”
Zada contributed to this report from Sarsnai, Pakistan.