November 16, 2018

At two Inland Empire Mosques, Muslims shocked by attack, disgusted by ISIS

For the last two years, multiple times each week, Gasser Shehata prayed around lunchtime at the same San Bernardino mosque as Syed Rizwan Farook, the 28-year-old Muslim who, with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, recently carried out the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He prayed with us shoulder to shoulder. That’s why we are in shock,” said Shehata, a 42-year-old San Bernardino resident, originally from Egypt, who was outside Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America on Sunday afternoon with his friend, 18-year-old Rahemaan Ali.

Muslims from around the area expressed horror and shock that a man they thought to be peaceful and immersed in Islam committed such an atrocity — and emphatically distanced themselves and their religion from the Dec. 2 rampage inside the Inland Regional Center that left 14 dead and 21 wounded.

A memorial near the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino for the victims of the terror attack.

According to officials, the attack began at 11 a.m., when Farook — a public health worker for the county — and his wife stormed a holiday party at the center, armed with semiautomatic rifles and pistols. They opened fire on a room filled with many of Farook’s co-workers and led police on a chase around San Bernardino, which ended in their deaths during a shootout that also left one police officer wounded. Officials later collected thousands of rounds of ammunition from the couple’s SUV and the garage of their nearby Redlands apartment, where reportedly there were also 12 pipe bombs.

Malik reportedly pledged allegiance on Facebook to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State. Officials are also probing the couple’s online communication with known Islamic extremists.

And although the FBI is uncovering Farook’s path to Islamist radicalization, those who knew him at the two mosques he frequented in San Bernardino and Riverside said they are shocked by the attack, and angry that groups such as ISIS say they represent Islam and are attracting some young Muslims to its destructive cause.

“He never really talked about politics, never said he’s pro-ISIS or against ISIS,” Shehata said. “We are all anti-ISIS. We hate them. We wish the whole world could go beat them up. We’re actually surprised that America hasn’t beaten them. They beat Saddam in one week.”

Almost immediately after the attack, national and international media outlets swarmed Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah and the Islamic Center of Riverside, where Farook also prayed, trying to piece together how and when he became radicalized.

“We understand every time there’s a terrorist attack, the rumor is that this person got radicalized at the mosque, so the media right away comes to see the mosque,” Shehata said. “If we hear a Muslim having extremist ideas, we will call the FBI.”

“Right away,” Ali added.

“I will call the FBI on Abdurraheman even though I love him,” Shehata said, using another name for Ali.

The problem, though, he said, is that it creates an atmosphere where ISIS supporters understand they must stay under the radar.

“Now nobody trusts anybody,” he said. “If I get crazy ideas I will not tell it to nobody because I know my Muslim brother will call the FBI on me.”

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in a telephone interview that Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS have adapted to and effectively used the rise and influence of social media “faster than the traditional domestic extremist groups” in the United States.

“I’m not sure if monitoring somebody’s search terms would be helpful, realizing that they ought not put all their thoughts and feelings online,” Segal said. “It’s going to get even more difficult to track these people.”

An ADL report released in April and updated in November identified 69 American residents known to be linked to Islamic extremist plots in 2015, more than double the number linked to such terrorism in 2014, and triple the year before.

“It adds to this sort of obvious trend that this threat is continuing to grow,” Segal said.

Still, he cautioned that any backlash against Muslims in the United States would be wrong — and used by ISIS as recruiting propaganda.

“Beyond the fact that you can’t blame the acts of terrorists on an entire religious community, what people don’t understand is when you engage in that kind of activity, all you’re doing is actually acting in the way that ISIS is claiming that Americans are,” he said.

At the Islamic Center of Riverside, Mustafa Kuko, the mosque’s imam, said he spoke many times with Farook, and offered him guidance regarding Muslim laws for finding a spouse. He said Farook never discussed politics with him or gave any hints of his radicalization.

“[He was] looking for someone who’s committed religiously — not about money or fame or beauty,” Kuko said of Farook’s search for a wife.

Shortly after Farook returned in July 2014 from Mecca, Saudi Arabia — where he married Malik after meeting her on an online Muslim dating site — Kuko was among those who joined them for a small wedding celebration at the Riverside mosque. Shehata and Ahmaan said they saw Farook’s wife at the wedding celebration, but never spoke with her and didn’t know what she looked like because she wore a full facial covering, called a niqab.

Kuko said Farook came to the mosque daily, including to the Fajr prayer, which is at dawn, and would sit in the corner of the room until prayer was called.

Amir Abdul-Jalil, a Muslim who was surrounded by media while giving an impromptu television interview in the mosque’s parking lot on Dec. 4, said he learned about the attack that day, and found it hard to believe that Farook did it.

“My first reaction, and my reaction to this point, is there’s no way this brother … he’s not that type of person,” Abdul-Jalil said. “I would describe him as one of the most sweet people I’ve met in my 50 years.”

Abdul-Jalil said Farook, who also repaired cars on the side, fixed his automobile and asked that he pay only for the parts. He added that Farook “knows Islam very well,” which is one reason he was so shocked to hear about the attack.

“Maybe someone else who doesn’t really know Islam could’ve done it — but not him,” Abdul-Jalil said.

Another member of the mosque, Salihin Kondoker, said his wife, Anies, was Farook’s co-worker and was shot three times in the attack, narrowly avoiding two other bullets that whizzed above her head as she walked out of the restroom when the attack began. Kondoker said the only time his wife, who is now out of the hospital and recovering at home, ever mentioned Farook was a few years ago when she spent a day training him, and mentioned a new Pakistani co-worker. (Farook is an American-born citizen, but his parents are from Pakistan.)

Kondoker said he views the attack as a crime that would not be condoned by any religion, and that ISIS (a name he rejects, opting to call them Daesh, an anti-ISIS Arabic acronym) has a political — not religious — agenda.

“That’s one reason we’re coming forward and talking. This absolutely has no connection with the faith,” Kondoker said. “Let’s say 2,000 people act this way. [That] does not really change [the] dynamics of 1.9 billion.”

He expressed his support for an American-led military campaign to destroy ISIS, and added that he believes “there’s more behind” ISIS than what is seen, without elaborating.

“I’m pretty sure there’s a power, something behind there, which we don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, conspiracy theory stuff out there on the Internet. We don’t know what to believe.”

Kuko said he’s sure that ISIS will eventually fall, just like other extremist entities.

“There are so many sects and groups that were deviant [in Islam’s history],” Kuko said. “They disappeared. I’m sure they’ll vanish. ISIS will vanish.”

At the Riverside mosque, a 34-year-old Muslim named Brent, who declined to provide his last name, said he and his fellow Muslims do not recognize ISIS as Islamic, and that Americans should understand that the San Bernardino attack “is not an Islamic attack.” He described ISIS as “a cancer in the body of Islam, but at the same time, we reject them as being Muslims and being a part of the body.”

“While the cameras are off, you have people that are fervently against ISIS and what they represent,” he said. “I cannot stop ISIS with my hands but I’m speaking against them, what they represent. And their actions in the world are not tolerated by the majority of the Islamic community.”

That ISIS is not Islamic was a common theme in interviews at the two Inland Empire mosques where Farook prayed.

“There’s nothing religious about ISIS,” Shehata said. “It’s about politics. It’s about power. It’s about conquering lands. And they’re using religion to their advantage.”

He said the key is for Muslims to study Islam, as ISIS tries to brainwash young, ignorant Muslims. “Muslims need to learn their religion, that is all,” Shehata said. “There’s nothing to modernize. The old message was loving.”

“Islam teaches us that if you kill one innocent soul, it’s as if you killed the entire humanity,” Ali said. “He [Farook] cannot bring any scholar, any verse in the Quran, any narration from the prophet, anything from a religious point that could support him to what he has done.”

In the meantime, people such as Shehata said he and other Muslims repulsed by ISIS should do what they can to speak out against and discredit the group.

“[W]hat’s incorrect — we say it’s incorrect. If we hear that there’s an imam somewhere saying crazy stuff, we’ll criticize him,” he said.

“That’s all we can do. We cannot travel to Pakistan and fight him.”