The flying imams: In crawls the Star Tribune

On the day that the six flying imams were removed from the US Airways flight at the Minneapolis airport, John reported the connection between imam ringleader Omar Shahin and the KindHearts charity whose assets have been frozen by the government. Through the magic of Google, John reported the Senate testimony of Steven Emerson on KindHearts and Shahin. That was on November 20, almost three weeks ago.
Today the Star Tribune takes up the story from Shahin’s point of view: “Imam, a U.S. citizen, denies terrorism links.” The Star Tribune reports that Shahin denies he knew anything about the charity’s links to terrorism:

Emerson identified Shahin as a fundraiser for KindHearts, a Toledo-based Muslim charity that has been a subject of federal scrutiny for suspected links to terror-related groups in the Mideast. Emerson also noted Shahin’s work as an imam for the Islamic Center of Tucson, which, he said, “has an extensive history of terror links.”
Shahin, 45, who said he came to the United States in 1995 and became a U.S. citizen in 2003, said KindHearts engaged him as a fundraiser in 2004-2005 “because they knew I was a good speaker and fundraiser.
“I raised money for schools and Islamic centers” and remained in Phoenix, Shahin said. “If I knew anything about any ties to terrorism, I would have been the first one to report it.”
The U.S. Treasury Department froze KindHearts’ assets in February during an investigation into whether it gave money to groups affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has gained power in Palestine and is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. After the asset freeze, Shahin said, he had no contact with KindHearts’ leaders.
As for the Tucson Islamic Center, Shahin said he served as an imam there from 2000 to 2003. “I did not meet anyone who had anything to do with terrorists,” he said.
Imams, or prayer leaders, are chosen by fellow Muslims and are not ordained clergy.
In 2002, the Washington Post reported one expert’s view that a strain of radical Islam at the Tucson center deeply influenced Hani Hanjour, who was in the cockpit when United Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“All that happened long before I got there,” Shahin said.
He said most of his fundraising has been separate from KindHearts and the Tucson center. “I raised money for Sept. 11 victims, for tsunami and Katrina victims, for Pakistani earthquake victims that went to the Red Cross,” he said.

Star Tribune reporter Pamela Miller writes that she sought to contact Steve Emerson yesterday, but that he was traveling and unavailable for comment. Did the Star Tribune just wake up to Emerson’s testimony? I called Emerson the day after reading John’s November 20 post and can report that he didn’t have anything to add to his Senate testimony.
To balance Shahin’s denials regarding KindHearts and the imams’ conduct, Miller relates an interview with US Airways spokesman Andrea Rader and with one passenger of the view that the imams’ conduct was calculated to terrorize those on-board. Here is the summary of Rader’s comments:

Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said the imams’ ejection was not the result of concerns about Shahin. Rather, she said, it was based on passenger and crew member concerns about the men’s behavior. Among the reports relayed to Capt. John Wood and later documented in a police report were the imams’ unusual seating arrangement, the movements one made around the plane, their intense discussions in Arabic, alleged anti-American statements and their request for seat-belt extenders — potential weapons — that they did not use.

Miller does not directly confront Shahin with the evidence cited by Rader. Moreover, Miller seems oblivious to the relevance of Shahin’s KindHearts’ connection — whether or not it affected US Airways’ decisions at the time — to an evaluation of Shahin’s account of the incident. Was the incident staged for ulterior purposes or not? Miller doesn’t even raise the question and the reader is left in a cloud of unknowing.
In his excellent column a week ago, Richard Miniter summarized the evidence as follows:

Contrary to press accounts that a single note from a passenger triggered the imams’ removal, Captain John Howard Wood was weighing multiple factors.
* An Arabic speaker was seated near two of the imams in the plane’s tail. That passenger pulled a flight attendant aside and, in a whisper, translated what the men were saying: invoking “bin Laden” and condemning America for “killing Saddam,” according to police reports.
* An imam seated in first class asked for a seat-belt extender – the extra strap that obese people use because the standard belt is too short. According to both an on-duty and a deadheading flight attendant, he looked too thin to need one.
A seat-belt extender can easily be used as a weapon – just wrap one end around your fist, and swing the heavy metal buckle.
* All six imams had boarded together, with the first-class passengers – even though only one of them had a first-class ticket. Three had one-way tickets. Between the six men, only one had checked a bag.
And, Pauline [Miniter’s pseudonym for a passenger on the flight] said, they spread out – just like the 9/11 hijackers. Two sat in first class, two in the middle and two back in the economy section, police reports show. Some, according to Rader, took seats not assigned to them.
* Finally, a gate attendant told the captain she was suspicious of the imams, according to police reports.
So the captain made his decision to delay the flight based on many complaints, not one. He also consulted a federal air marshal, a U.S. Airways ground-security coordinator and the airline’s security office in Phoenix. All thought the imams were acting suspiciously, [US Airways spokesman] Rader told me.
One more odd thing went unnoticed at the time: The men prayed both at the gate and on the plane. Yet observant Muslims pray only once at sundown, not twice.

Miniter’s column concluded:

Tucked away in the police report is this little gem: One imam had complained to a passenger that some nations don’t follow sharia law and had said his job in Bakersfield, Calif., was a cover for “representing Muslims here in the U.S.”
What are the imams really up to? Something more than praying, it seems.

Is the Star Tribune trying to protect its readers from information that would allow them to make up their own minds regarding the incident?

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