A key piece of evidence against a jailed mosque leader accused of supporting terrorism has come into question, with federal prosecutors acknowledging that a note found in a terrorist camp may have been mistranslated.
Yassin Muhiddin Aref is charged with aiding a government informant in a sting operation involving a fake plot to buy a shoulder-fired missile to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat.
The translation discrepancy stems from a notebook that the FBI said was found in a terrorist camp in northern Iraq last summer. The indictment said an entry in Arabic script referred to Aref as a "commander" and listed his former address and phone number in Albany.
However, FBI translators now have a copy of the original entry and disagree with the earlier conclusion, saying the word was in the Kurdish language, not Arabic, and actually means "brother," prosecutors told the judge in a letter.
Aref is the imam of the Masjid As-Salam mosque in Albany. Also charged earlier this month in the sting operation was Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, 49, one of the mosque's founders.
The notebook was cited last week by Magistrate David Homer as part of his rationale for refusing to set bail for Aref.
Defense attorneys say the translation error undermines the entire government case, and that both men should get out on bail. "It's a travesty," lawyer Terence Kindlon said.
U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby said authorities are not yet sure which translation is correct, but said it doesn't change the case.
"It doesn't change their behavior. It doesn't change the significance of where this notebook was found," he said Tuesday.
Aref, a native of Kurdistan, and Hossain, who is from Bangladesh, face up to 70 years in prison if convicted.
Also Tuesday, prosecutors said they would try to restrict the release of some information relating to the case.
"The United States believes that disclosure of this material would raise issues of national security that the court should address before any of this material is provided to the defense," Suddaby said in a court filing.
Under the Classified Information Procedures Act, the government can ask to submit only summaries of classified evidence. If the court refuses but the attorney general insists, the government can keep the material secret.
According to an FBI affidavit, the men laundered money for the purchase of the launcher they were told would be used to assassinate the ambassador at the Pakistani consulate across from the United Nations in New York. The murder supposedly was meant to punish the Pakistani government for cooperating with non-Muslims.
In fact, there was no such plot. The purchase of the RPG-7 grenade launcher and the assassination scheme were fabrications put forth by a convicted felon who was secretly cooperating with federal prosecutors to reduce his prison sentence on document fraud charges.
The arrests in Albany were unrelated to the Bush administration's recent terror alerts indicating al Qaeda may be plotting attacks against U.S. financial buildings, federal officials have said.
According to the FBI affidavit, Hossain approached the FBI informant in the summer of 2003 about getting a fraudulent New York driver's license. In subsequent meetings, the informant told Hossain that he imported weapons from China, the affidavit said.
At a videotaped meeting on Nov. 20, the informant showed Hossain a picture of an RPG-7, a fairly rudimentary anti-tank weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The two discussed using such a weapon, according to the affidavit.
The FBI said its informant, who wasn't identified except as a non-U.S. citizen, told the men he was affiliated with Jaish e-Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan that the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization.
Authorities said the men were paid $65,000 in checks and cash to purchase a missile and disguise the source of the money involved.
Two U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke only on condition of anonymity said Hossain and Aref have ties to a group called Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al Qaeda. Prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, Ansar was based in an area of northern Iraq that may have been outside of Saddam Hussein's control.