By Stephen Stirling
An attorney for a Flushing imam accused of aiding an alleged al-Qaida terrorist said he was trying to help, not trick, federal agents grilling him on the suspect’s whereabouts and activities.
Ahmad Alfazi, a Fresh Meadows resident and an NYPD informant, was one of three people arrested Sunday as part of a widening terrorism investigation centered around another man, Najibullah Zazi, who allegedly drove to Queens from Colorado Sept. 10 with bomb-making instructions on a laptop computer, the FBI said.
As the probe expanded, federal agents visited storage facilities in Long Island City and reportedly had more than a dozen people under surveillance in a sweep that has spread out from Queens to other parts of the city.
The NYPD said they have not changed their protocol despite the investigation, noting there is no knowledge of an imminent threat. Authorities said the NYPD has more than 1,000 officers assigned daily to counterterrorism units.
Alfazi was arrested after the FBI said he tipped off Zazi and his father, Mohammed, who was also arrested, to the investigation and lied about the extent of his relationship with them.
But Alfazi’s attorney, Ron Kuby, said the imam was cooperative and that anything left out of his written statement to the FBI was due to the fact he was compiling a “summary” of the events rather than a direct transcript.
“He was trying to do what he thought the government wanted him to do,” Kuby said Monday ata news conference outside Brooklyn federal court, where Alfazi’s hearing was postponed until later in the week. “He was trying to find out what Zazi was doing. He was trying to get information.”
According to court papers filed by the Department of Justice, Zazi traveled to Queens from Colorado Sept. 9, where he arrived the next day and stayed with acquaintances at 144-67 41st Ave. in Flushing.
On Sept. 10, federal agents quizzed Alfazi, who had served as an imam in Flushing and an informant for the Police Department, about Zazi. Alfazi said he recognized him and pictures of several other men he was shown.
But the FBI said after the interview, it intercepted several phone conversations in which Alfazi allegedly told Zazi he had been questioned about his whereabouts.
“I was exposed to something yesterday from law enforcement,” Alfazi said, according to court papers. “And they came to ask me about your characters.”
He added, “Listen, our call is being monitored.”
Neighbors of Alfazi said he and his wife were quiet and friendly and he could often be seen driving luxury cars through the neighborhood.
“If it weren’t for that, the fancy cars I mean, I’d probably have never noticed him,” said Jake Gallakis.
Others said they were initially shocked that the FBI had made an arrest in their community, but the disbelief faded quickly.
“You can’t really be that surprised by it anymore once you think about it,” Jennifer Cologne said. “Things are very different than they were 10 years ago. I guess this is an ideal community to get together something like that.”
On Sept. 14, the FBI executed search warrants on Zazi’s car and several apartments he had visited in Queens. The FBI said it found a laptop with digital copies of handwritten documents containing instructions on assembling explosive devices and a digital scale with Zazi’s fingerprints on it.
“The arrests carried out are part of an ongoing and fast-paced investigation. It is important to note that we have no specific information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack. As always, however, the American people should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activities to their local authorities,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.