Masjid Al-Ikhlas

25 Washington Terrace, Newburgh

Masjid Al-Ikhlas. Source: Masjid Al-Ikhlas website.

Founded in 1992 to serve Newburgh’s growing Muslim community, Masjid Al-Iklhas is located in a what was once a warehouse. In 2009, the mosque became the focus of national media attention, involving one of the FBI’s most notorious sting operations: a terrorist plot that never was.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the falling of the Twin Towers, the rise in Islamophobia pushed many Muslims from New York City to move to the more tolerant Hudson Valley, with many settling in Newburgh. In just a few years, the numbers of Muslims attending mosques in the mid-Hudson region doubled. In a post-9-11 era of enhanced government surveillance, the FBI found Newburgh and Masjid Al-Iklhas, primarily serving migrant South Asians and local African Americans, a strategic place to “look” for “terrorists.”

The FBI sent an undercover informant, Shahid Hussain, a businessman and Pakistani immigrant, to Newburgh to look for potential radicals and help the FBI convict them before any real terrorist attacks could take place. The brother-in-law of a Pakistani billionaire real estate tycoon, Hussain had agreed to help the FBI after they had caught him laundering money and engaging in tax fraud.

Unable to find any actual radicals dedicated to “Islamic Terrorism,” Hussain attempted to recruit congregants of the mosque by flaunting wealth. Eventually, he befriended James Cromitie, and, through him, three others: David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen. Knowing their economically vulnerable positions, Hussain coaxed the four into participating in an ostensible terrorist plot, offering them vacations, rent, and even a quarter of a million dollars in return.

The FBI coordinated with Hussain to supply the four men with instructions and weapons. They hoped to catch the four red-handed and waited until the last minute to end the fabricated plot.

On May, 20, 2009, the FBI arrested the “Newburgh Four” as they came to be known, thus foiling a would-be attack on two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and aircraft flying into the Stewart Military Air Base in Newburgh. While government agencies and the media alike initially praised the FBI for preventing deadly attacks, recordings and court proceedings made clear that the government had created the threat. This was evident to the judge who presided over the case: “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition,” said U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon as she convicted the four for terrorism. She later sentenced each of them to 25 years in prison.

While Hussain’s tried to be inconspicuous in his deceit, many of the older members of the mosque strongly suspected that he was a government spy early on, especially because he seemed focused on younger, vulnerable members of the religious community. Nevertheless, others did not confront or report Hussain. The mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, asked, “how do you go to the government about the government?”

Imam Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad preaches a message of interfaith dialogue to worshipers at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., at a prayer service on May 22, 2009. (Alex Weisler) Source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The FBI has faced increased public scrutiny in the aftermath of this case of entrapment. Yet, the effects of government excess are felt worst in the most marginalized communities, with the four “terrorists” that never were still behind bars. Masjid Al-Ikhlas still stands and continues to serve the needs of Newburgh’s changing population. A 2014 documentary called The Newburgh Sting tells the story of the Newburgh Four.

Getting there:

Take the Metro-North train (Hudson Line) to Beacon. At the station, take the Stewart Shuttle to the Broadway and Route 9W stop in Newburgh. From there, it is an approximately 9-minute (0.5 mile) walk  to the masjid.

To learn more:

Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, The Newburgh Sting, Q-Ball Productions, 2014.

Paul Harris, “Newburgh Four: poor, black, and jailed under FBI ‘entrapment’ tactics, The Guardian, December 12, 2011.

Mohtad Allawala, International Studies, Class of 2023.

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