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Except for a metallic green “Muslims of America” sign at the entrance, there’s little to distinguish the cluster of trailer homes near a country crossroads in Red House, Va. Yet federal authorities say the fenced compound was the home of a terrorist cell — not connected to the Sept. 11 attacks but instead to al-Fuqra, an obscure Muslim sect with a history of violence in the United States. The path of federal authorities’ investigation of the group shows how the response to any hint of terrorist activity has shifted from watchful waiting to quick arrest and prosecution. Before Sept. 11, the compound, which houses about 20 families, had been under surveillance for three years because of suspicion that residents were stockpiling machine guns, said Thomas Gallagher, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A week after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., two residents of the compound were charged with purchasing pistols illegally. Vincente Rafael Pierre, 45, and his wife, Traci Elaine Upshur, 37, were both convicted. A third resident, Bilal Abdullah Ben Benu, 27, faces charges including illegally transporting ammunition for AK-47 automatic rifles. The story is full of unanswered questions, beyond the central question of why alleged terrorists would set up housekeeping in an isolated hamlet in the flat farm country of central Virginia. Residents of the compound, mostly black Muslims, will say little beyond proclaiming their innocence and complaining that they are victims of religious and racial prejudice. Pierre said in court that al-Fuqra was a “phantom, nonexistent organization.” Prosecutors decline to say what kind of terrorist activity they suspect. Instead they cite al-Fuqra’s history and warn that some of the compound’s residents are dangerous. Al-Fuqra, which means “the impoverished” in Arabic, was founded in Brooklyn, N.Y., 20 years ago by a Pakistani cleric, Shaykh Mubarik Ali Gilani. The group “seeks to purify Islam through violence,” according to a 1998 State Department report. Its members are suspected in at least 17 bombings and 12 murders, Gallagher said. In 1992, Colorado’s attorney general charged al-Fuqra members in Buena Vista, Colo., with firebombing a Hare Krishna temple in 1984 and conspiracy to murder a Muslim cleric in 1990. The cleric, Sheik Rashad Khalifa of Tucson, Ariz., was killed after receiving death threats over his interpretation of the Quran. “I considered them very dangerous,” said Douglas Wamsley, who prosecuted the case for the attorney general. “They had concocted a plan to kill a man, and he was indeed killed.” Members of the group also bilked the state of more than $355,000 through false workers’ compensation claims, and used the money to buy a 100-acre mountain compound in Buena Vista, Colo., Wamsley said. One al-Fuqra member was convicted on charges related to the temple bombing case. Three were convicted and two pleaded guilty in the Khalifa case. Afterward, other al-Fuqra members cleared out of the compound, leaving a cache of AK-47s and other weapons. Pierre also belonged to the al-Fuqra group in Colorado. “But frankly, he was the least involved member of the group,” Wamsley said. He was charged with workers’ compensation fraud, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to two years’ probation. In February 1993, Matthew C. Gardner, who still lives in the Red House compound, bought the 44.5-acre plot with five other people for $39,000. The families hauled in trailer homes and named their main road after Gilani, the al-Fuqra founder. Residents patrolled the property carrying walkie-talkies and sometimes a gun or big stick, Gallagher said. Six years ago Pierre moved into a brown trailer in the compound with seven of his eight children. Pierre said in court he made money selling Islamic clothing door-to-door. From July 1998 to March 1999, federal agents watched Pierre and Upshur try to buy .45-caliber handguns at a shop called the Outpost. Pierre would order and pay for the weapons, while Upshur would sign the paperwork. Because he is a convicted felon, Pierre is not allowed to own a gun, and prosecutors suspected Upshur was buying guns for her husband. Benu, also a felon, has yet to be arraigned and has not entered a plea. Pierre’s lawyer, Thomas Wray, said his client was wrongly swept up in the rush to capture potential terrorists. “It bothers me that they’d go after someone when their evidence wasn’t sufficient,” Wray said. Pierre said al-Fuqra is “just a figment of someone’s imagination due to their ignorance of the Arabic language or perhaps due to their hate or prejudice” toward Islam. Gardner and other residents of the compound declined to speak with an Associated Press reporter. He told The Washington Post earlier this year that residents of the trailer compound have no connection to al-Fuqra or terrorists. “We don’t harbor them or feed them or give them our money,” he said. “We don’t go to school for terrorism. I don’t understand how they can equate that with what’s happening up here.” Muslim leaders echo the feeling of being targeted. “There’s a general chill in the Muslim community right now,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic advocacy group based in Washington. Hooper said Muslims feel threatened when hundreds of people have been detained and police view entire communities as suspects instead of focusing on individual crimes. But Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. Attorney in Washington, said cases such as that of al-Fuqra show the importance of good surveillance of potential terrorists. “These incidents indicate there are members of terrorist cells in America still,” diGenova said. Authorities’ handling of the Muslims from Red House seems to reflect that cautious attitude. Before ordering Pierre held without bond in September, U.S. Magistrate Glen E. Conrad conceded that Pierre might have only loose ties to Al-Fuqra. However, Conrad said, “you’re oftentimes known by the company you keep.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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