RED HOUSE, Va. - To federal prosecutors, the collection of mobile homes on a field near this tiny southern Virginia town is a "compound" linked to a violent Muslim sect.
To the neighbors, it is a mysterious place where outsiders do not seem welcome. But to Abdul Jabbar, 26, a chemist who grew up on the bleak streets of South Philadelphia, it is a place he can live in peace, pray and teach school.
In the last seven years, Jabbar and dozens of other Muslims have left poor urban homes to resettle in this corner of Charlotte County, so rural that it has not a single stoplight in its 500 square miles.
Their community is one of a handful of isolated Islamic settlements established across the country by followers of the Muslims of America, a group that promotes advanced studies in Islam and encourages its members to live in small villages, "free from the decadence of a godless society."
Here they attracted little attention, even in a hamlet where all the Christian churches are Baptist. Neighbors said they had peaceful, if distant, relations with them.
'We are concerned'
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, federal officials arrested three Muslims on gun charges, and prosecutors linked them to an obscure organization they identified as Al Fuqra, which they say has committed firebombings and murders in the past two decades. The Red House community, they said, was part of that organization.
"We are concerned," said John Brownlee, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
"First of all there is a history of violence," Brownlee said, referring to suspicions of Al Fuqra's involvement in a bombing in Portland, Ore., a killing in Tucson, Ariz., and the recent shooting of a deputy sheriff in California. "That history, coupled with an Al Fuqra compound 85 miles from Roanoke and the arrest of three members on charges of possessing firearms is cause for concern."
The Muslims of Red House deny any connection with Al Fuqra. They maintain that Al Fuqra does not exist, except as a slander by the authorities. They say they are law-abiding citizens and followers of Sheik Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, a cleric in Pakistan who uses the Quran to treat illness and who founded Muslims of the Americas in 1980.
The sheik, who over the years has told his followers that "Zionist plotters" plan to rule the world, also told them to take their children and flee the nation's cities.
For the last two decades, they have done just that, creating rural enclaves across the United States and Canada, including the group's headquarters in Hancock, N.Y., in the western Catskills.
Those who came to Red House said they did it to escape crime, not commit it. "I grew up in South Philadelphia," Jabbar said. "A friend of mine was shot four times over a basketball game and died. It could have been me."
Law enforcement officials say they have had peaceful relations with the Muslims, with the only offenses an occasional traffic ticket.
Yet well before Sept. 11, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating in Red House undercover, negotiating to sell machine guns to several Muslims. The investigation had already led to the arrest of a man who jumped bail in Colorado after being convicted of conspiracy to murder.
After the terror attacks, Brownlee ended the investigation, saying he was following the Justice Department's directions to "prevent first and prosecute second."
"We looked at these in the context of other Al Fuqra activities and decided we wanted them off the street," Brownlee said.
Vincente Pierre, 44, identified in court as one of those trying to buy a machine gun, and his wife, Traci Elaine Upshur, 37, were arrested instead on charges of conspiring in 1998 and 1999 to buy two semiautomatic pistols for Pierre, a felon who is not allowed to own a gun. They were convicted on Nov. 30.
Although terrorism was not mentioned at the trial, Thomas P. Gallagher, the ATF agent in charge of the case, testified at a pretrial hearing that Pierre belonged to Al Fuqra, which Gallagher said was "suspected in at least 17 bombings and assassinations and 12 murders." Prosecutors say they do not believe there was a connection to Sept. 11.
Members of the Muslim of America regard those accusations as the latest manifestations of a Zionist conspiracy to target Muslims.
'We are what you see'
"We are what you see," Suhir A. Ahmad, the national spokeswoman for the group, said in an interview at the Red House village in December. Ahmad, who lives in Northern Virginia, has a Ph.D. in Islamic political science from Quranic Open University, established by Gilani in Fresno, Calif.
Ahmad has described her doctoral thesis, later published as Target Islam, as an expose of "Zionist-Israeli conspiracies" to "maliciously link American Muslim organizations and individuals" with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Twenty years ago, she said, the sheik told his followers to flee the crime and degradation of the nation's cities. "We weren't running from anything except sin and immorality," she said, "and we were running to privacy and wholesomeness."
They moved into mobile homes, started schools and found jobs wherever they could.
In Hancock, N.Y., some residents work as toll collectors at New York City's bridges and tunnels and live in the city during the week, commuting home on weekends. Others work at one of the area's largest companies, Deposit Computer Services Inc., in Deposit, N.Y., where the owner, Frank Fiumera, said he considered them like family.
Before Sept. 11, Ahmad said, she was working with other Muslim groups to lay the groundwork for a Muslim political party. Although they hope to continue, she said, the terrorist attacks dealt a severe blow. "I take 9/11 personally," she said. "It was an attack on the American dream, not just for Christians but for all of us."
In this part of Virginia, about 300 people belong to Muslims of America, said Abdus-Salaam, who lives in the settlement. Most live in houses nearby, he said. While he acknowledged that some owned guns, he pointed out that many other people here did, too.
20 mobile homes
The settlement consists of 20 mobile homes and a one-story mosque that is nearing completion. There is no fence, only a gatehouse that the authorities say has rarely been guarded.
Yet Brownlee and other officials point to a string of evidence to support their concerns about the Red House settlement and Al Fuqra. In 1989, they say, police officers in Colorado Springs found target practice silhouettes labeled "FBI Anti-Terrorist Team" and "Zionist Pig," in a storage locker rented by Pierre's father-in-law. Pierre's handwriting was identified by Colorado officials as being on one of the targets.
They also found 10 handguns, explosives, a plan to attack a Hare Krishna temple in Denver and a plan to kill an imam in Tucson.
Four months later, Imam Rashad Khalifa, considered a heretic by his enemies because of his interpretation of the Quran, was stabbed to death at the mosque in Tucson. His killers have never been identified.
But Gallagher said federal officials believed members of Al Fuqra had help with surveillance of the victim from Wadih El-Hage, 41, who was sentenced to life in prison this year for conspiring with Osama bin Laden in the bombings of two American embassies in Africa in 1998.
Edward Flinton, who admitted writing the plan to murder Khalifa, was arrested at a Muslims of America community in South Carolina. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder.
A 1993 report by the Anti-Defamation League said Al Fuqra came to light in 1983 with the arrest of Stephen Paster, a Fuqra member later convicted of bombing a Portland, Ore., hotel owned by the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru.
Searches of Paster's home turned up weapons and and documents describing the construction of electronic bomb mechanisms.
The Anti-Defamation League report also identified Gilani as the leader of Al Fuqra, taken from the Arabic word for "the impoverished."
In the early 1990s, Al Fuqra was linked in congressional testimony to the planning of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And detectives said that Clement Rodney Hampton-El, one of the men convicted in a related plot to blow up New York City landmarks, worked with Al Fuqra.
More recently, a man who was staying at a Muslims of America community near Badger, Calif., was charged in the killing of a Fresno County deputy sheriff.
Ahmad said none of those crimes had anything to do with the Muslims of America.
'We are law abiding'
"We are law abiding," she said. "When it comes to our attention that someone has committed a crime, we work with the authorities to remove that element. We do not want that element to bring disgrace and harm to us as a community."
Robert Dannin, a New York University anthropologist who has studied African-American Muslims for 15 years, said he doubted the connection between the Muslims of the Americas and violence. As Sufi Muslims, Dannin said, they are contemplative and mystical and are disliked by Islamic fundamentalists.
The Red House arrests, he said, should be seen in context. "Any trailer park in this country will have caches of weapons owned by guys with criminal records," he said. "Singling these guys out after Sept. 11 is like Casablanca: 'Round up the usual suspects.'"
Brownlee, the federal prosecutor, said he hoped the arrests were isolated cases, but he defended the government's tactics.
"It's my obligation to make sure there are not any more," he said. "We're going to continue to do our job, within the confines of the Constitution, and continuously evaluate the threat levels."