WASHINGTON - An Islamic cleric from Laurel who has been occasionally linked to Osama bin Laden said yesterday that he has never met the man and had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Moataz al-Hallak, 41, met for three hours Wednesday with federal prosecutors investigating the attacks. The FBI had wanted to question al-Hallak for the past week, but he said he refused to talk to the agents because of what he called a long-running pattern of FBI harassment.
"Those who did this must be tracked down," al-Hallak said yesterday, his voice low and shaky. "I only ask that my family and I be treated with respect and with dignity, and that we be allowed to go on with our lives like other Americans."
In the days after the attacks, al-Hallak emerged as a possible witness for investigators in Maryland, who are attempting to trace possible terrorist networks tied to the Saudi fugitive bin Laden. FBI agents camped outside the Prince George's County apartment complex where al-Hallak lives. Rumors flew about his links to earlier terrorist attacks and his whereabouts, with some speculating that he had fled to Mexico.
Yesterday, al-Hallak stood before a handful of reporters in Washington to say none of the rumors was true. His attorney alternately called the FBI's pursuit of al-Hallak a "fishing expedition" and an "inquisition." Al-Hallak, who wore long, gray robes and a crocheted white prayer cap, praised Allah before he told reporters that he loved the United States and was deeply saddened by last week's violence.
"I am a U.S. citizen. I am a family man," al-Hallak said. "I love this country. I feel very strongly about its people and care very much about its well-being."
Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman, refused yesterday to comment on anything relating to al-Hallak.
Al-Hallak is the former imam - the equivalent of a priest or rabbi - of the Islamic Society of Arlington, Texas, and was a friend of Wadih el-Hage, a follower of Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. El-Hage was convicted in the spring of participating in a global terrorism conspiracy that included the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.
The type of relationship al-Hallak has had with bin Laden team members, however, is a matter of debate. Al-Hallak testified before the grand jury investigating the Africa bombings under a grant of immunity. Prosecutors have received some information that al-Hallak's brushes with bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization have been innocent and coincidental.
Asked directly yesterday about bin Laden, al-Hallak said: "I don't know bin Laden. I don't know what he did. I don't know what he did not do."
Stanley L. Cohen, a New York attorney representing al-Hallak, said yesterday that his client said much the same this week to federal prosecutors, including Patrick Fitzgerald, who helped lead the earlier bombing probe as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York.
Cohen said al-Hallak answered every question he was asked Wednesday and did not seek immunity. Most of the questions were very general and had "nothing to do with the tragedy of last week," Cohen said.
The lawyer said that the meeting was collegial, but that al-Hallak generally had little information to offer. Shown photos of the suspected hijackers, al-Hallak said he did not recognize any of them, Cohen said.
"He was asked, did he have any information, any knowledge beforehand that this was going to occur; the answer was no," Cohen said. But Cohen said al-Hallak would not publicly discuss any other details of the interview, "because my client does not want to interfere with an ongoing investigation that he wishes well."
Earlier investigations have offered other details about al-Hallak's possible ties to bin Laden or his networks. One bin Laden associate who testified at the Africa bombing trial earlier this year was Essam al Ridi, who described al-Hallak as his "best friend" and spiritual mentor. Al Ridi, an Egyptian-born engineer living in Texas who at one time worked as a flight instructor, occasionally ran business errands for bin Laden around 1992 and 1993, court records said.
Sometime in late 1992, al Ridi was contacted by the bin Laden organization, which wanted his help in "the interests of Osama bin Laden in acquiring an airplane," al Ridi testified. Before taking on the business assignment, for which he was to have received a percentage of the sale as his commission, al Ridi said he contacted al-Hallak.
"I asked [al-Hallak] what will be the best way for me to get any commission out of that sale without of course compromising our rules as Muslims," al Ridi said. "He suggested that I have to become an owner of the entity, and, thereafter ... I could resell it to a price that I choose to the new owner."
Al Ridi said he, al-Hallak and "another friend" put up $10,000 of their own money to buy a heavily used airplane from a Tucson, Ariz., plane yard. He refurbished the plane and bin Laden wired him $230,000 from Sudan to pay for the plane, which bin Laden wanted to transport stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudan.
Al-Hallak emigrated from Syria in 1986 and led the congregation of the Center Street Mosque in Arlington, Texas, until he left in January 2000, when his contract expired.
At first, the congregation met in a rented house - much like he does now - and Al-Hallak helped raise money to build the mosque, which attracts nearly 600 worshippers to some services.
He was known by worshippers for having memorized the entire Quran and practices a conservative strain of Islam known as Salafi. He came under criticism by more moderate members of the Center Street mosque. Salafi followers believe they are the only true followers of Muhammad's teachings.
Unlike many imams, al-Hallak does not have a degree in Islamic studies. He was raised in Damascus, the son of parents who ran an import-export business. He studied airplane mechanics there.
Al-Hallak also explained that he preaches for Muslims to set an example for Americans to follow.
"My message is very clear," al-Hallak told Texas Monthly Magazine in 1999. "Hundreds of people know this message. They know what kind of masjid I give the people. I say that our goal here is to set an example, to provide the American people with a model, so that they will know that every Muslim is an honest, straightforward, loving, caring person."
Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.