Rick Leventhal, FOX News, March 23, 2009
If you didn’t know where to look, you’d probably never find Islamberg, a private Muslim community in the woods of the western Catskills, 150 miles northwest of New York City.
The town, sitting on a quiet dirt road past a gate marked with No Trespassing signs, is home to an estimated 100 residents. There are small houses and other buildings visible from the outside, but it is what can’t be seen from beyond the gate that has some watchers worried.
Islamberg was founded in 1980 by Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, a Pakistani cleric who purchased a 70-acre plot and invited followers, mostly Muslim converts living in New York City, to settle there.
The town has its own mosque, grocery store and schoolhouse. It also reportedly has a firing range where residents take regular target practice. Gilani established similar rural enclaves across the country–at least six, including the Red House community in southern Virginia–though some believe there are dozens of them, all operating under the umbrella of the “Muslims of the Americas” group founded by Gilani.
Federal authorities say Gilani was also one of the founders of Jamaat al-Fuqra, a terrorist organization believed responsible for dozens of bombings and murders across the U.S. and abroad. The group was linked to the planning of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and 10 years earlier a member was arrested and later convicted for bombing a hotel in Portland, Ore.
Gilani also denies any connection to Jamaat al-Fuqra, as do residents of the MOA compounds, who say the “terrorist” group doesn’t exist and was created by enemies of Islam hoping to destroy their communities. Members also deny sending a portion of their earnings to the Sheikh, but a former resident told FOX News that 10 to 30 percent of their income is regularly delivered to Gilani in the form of cash donations.
FOX News attempted to visit Islamberg after earlier efforts to set up on-camera interviews were rebuffed. A spokesman said by phone that residents typically shy away from interviews since they worry their words will be manipulated and turned against them. He accused FOX News of misrepresenting the group and suggested covering an Islamic festival in Binghamton later in the month to celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. Then he hung up.
Another resident drove out, dressed in a cap and robe, video camera in hand, and moved so close to a female producer that he actually made contact. The resident kept his camera rolling for the next 15 minutes without saying a word, but he finally began to answer questions.
The man said residents get along with their neighbors and don’t trust the media, which he said paints their town as a guarded compound “where no one can enter and exit.”
“It’s a village,” he insisted, “with people of all backgrounds, cultures and races.”
He said he was a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, still active in the reserves, who grew up in Brooklyn and converted to Islam while in the service.
“I got awards for ‘bridging the gap’ between American and Saudi soldiers,” he said, noting that he had helped process the bodies when 19 U.S. servicemen were killed in a 1996 terror attack in Saudi Arabia. He said there were many veterans in Islamberg, including one with a Purple Heart citation from Vietnam.
The man denied the existence of Jamat al-Fuqra, and at first denied giving a share of his earnings to Sheik Gilani, but he later admitted that “all churches have tithes.”
During the interview, two state police cars roared up, as one of the residents had called the cops, a common occurrence when reporters show up at the gate.