Hidden in a remote area off a primitive dirt road lies a mysterious 70-acre compound in which more than 100 Muslims live in seclusion, following the teachings of its founder, a radical cleric with alleged ties to terrorism.
It’s neither a Taliban stronghold outside Jalalabad, nor an extremist madrassa on the outskirts of Karachi.
It’s a place called Islamberg, a closed and seemingly quiet community at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, about three hours north of Manhattan.
It’s also a compound shrouded in local rumors, mystery—and fear—sitting near the huge reservoir system that provides New York City with most of its drinking water.
Quietly nestled in the woods, Islamberg remained unnoticed for the two decades leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by a determined band of Islamic extremists.
That’s when people started questioning the community’s ties to a Pakistani cleric allegedly connected to worldwide terrorism. They also started talking about the unusual sounds of gunfire and explosions some said they heard emanating from the compound.
Islamberg got its start about 20 years ago, when—inspired by the words of the Sufi cleric Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani—a group of primarily black Muslims from Brooklyn left New York City to escape crime, poverty and racism. Aiming to lead what they believed was a peaceful and holy Muslim life, they built a community of some 40 family houses, their own grocery store and a bookstore.
And they weren’t alone. Other groups, also inspired by Gilani, have set up similiar communities in 19 other states. According to the group’s own Web site, the Islamberg community is still “struggling,” and is asking for donations to complete its mosque.
The group lived quietly there for years with little interaction with the local communities except for forays into town for supplies or to sell baked goods at the weekly flea market. Some of the men had jobs at a local credit-processing center or working for the Port Authority in New York City (where they are said to maintain a residence near a bridge that runs between two boroughs).
And then Sept. 11, 2001 happened. Anti-Muslim sentiment soared throughout the United States, and in the case of the Islamberg compound, concern grew among their neighbors.
Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, the Pakistani Sufi cleric whom the Islamberg residents call their spiritual leader, has long been suspected of being one of the founders of a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra, a group that the U.S. and Pakistan say is responsible for a long list of terrorist activities around the world, including murders of rival religious figures in the U.S.
Gilani also was the man American reporter Daniel Pearl was going to see when he was abducted and murdered.
Gilani has denied any connection with either Pearl’s death or with Jamaat al-Fuqra.
The possible connection between Islamberg and extremist Islamic terrorism wasn’t lost on authorities.
And, according to some locals, the Islamberg community has given them plenty of reason to be wary. If you visit the compound’s entry gate, you will be stopped at a guard shack by men armed with guns. And some say that you sometimes can hear gunfire or even explosions coming from the area.
After Sept. 11, local rumors about the compound ran rampant, from the plausible to the patently ludicrous: The compound trained terrorists for combat; there was a tank buried somewhere on the grounds; Usama bin Laden had gone into hiding in the compound.
A series of articles about Islamberg in newspapers and on the Internet further fueled the flames, and people started to focus more closely on the work the men did on New York City’s bridges and tunnels, and how close the compound was to a major reservoir.
But other local residents say fears about Islamberg are unfounded. The region is a hunter’s paradise, practice shooting is a nearly universal hobby in the area, and the sounds of explosions most likely come from a very nearby quarry.
“I live up on Columbia Lake and I hear gunshots all the time, and it’s not from the Muslim community,” Felber said. “I always hear people practicing and shooting their guns and stuff.”
And though the community is noticeably less friendly that it once was, some say that it still welcomes those who make an effort to be sympathetic.
The doctor at the local clinic in Deposit, John Giannone, now fasts on Ramadan out of respect for the community’s beliefs and has maintained a relatively close relationship with the group. When his house was devastated by flooding that nearly wiped Deposit off the map in June 2006, volunteers from Islamberg came down and helped him clear out the debris and clean up the rental home his family had moved into. Giannone says they even did the dishes.
That flood was one occasion when Islamberg shone, according to many. According to several accounts, Islamberg men, women, boys and girls pitched in and helped clear debris, clean people’s basements, distribute food and maintain the emergency shelter where residents gathered. On July 4, the Muslims joined the rest of the community for a dinner to commemorate their shared adversity.
Islamberg’s elders refused a request to visit with them and tour the compound, citing a recent spate of negative publicity. For now, it remains an enigma in the mountains.