FBI agents worked out a simple but comprehensive sting. Undercover operatives rented a warehouse and offered the imam and his congregants money for help in moving batches of furs and small electronic items. Money, goods, trucks, warehouse, and plans were all supplied by covert federal agents, and all activities were reported, virtually in real time, by informers close to Abdullah and inside the mosque.
Then, as the sting unfolded on October 28th, Abdullah was gunned down by FBI agents as they sought to round up the purported members of the fencing operation. No one else was harmed. The FBI claimed Abdullah fired first, killing a police dog, which was taken by helicopter to a veterinary hospital. After he was shot, the imam was handcuffed behind the back and dragged from the warehouse into a trailer full of TVs and other “stolen” goods. Presumably, at this point he was dead, though no information has been released describing his condition or the circumstances of his removal from the warehouse. Abdullah’s body was photographed in the trailer and picked up by the Wayne County medical examiner, who then declined to release autopsy findings. The head of the local FBI office claimed that he was “comfortable with what our agents did” to protect themselves.
This whole murky incident with a still unfolding aftermath has caused deep anxiety and not a little anger in Detroit’s African American and Muslim communities. Why was the imam shot in the back? Why was the dog given emergency medical treatment and the imam handcuffed and dragged around? Was he dead when the shooting ended? Did he even have a gun?
Was Abdullah’s death an instance of score settling for his unrepentant association with Rap Brown, known as Jamil Abdullah al-Amin since the 1970s? In a conversation I had recently with a black leader in Philadelphia, he said that rumors are spreading on the street of nationwide interrogations of African American Muslims who, in the past, associated with al-Amin. (In Philadelphia, a mosque founded by civic-minded entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, well known for his efforts to assist the black community, has been attacked by anti-Islamic groups for its purported association with “The Ummah.”)
Members of Abdullah’s congregation and prominent Muslims in Detroit told me that Abdullah was indeed incensed by the poverty and racism he saw all around him and could indeed deliver harsh attacks on the government -- but that hardly distinguished him in a city as ravaged and beaten down as Detroit. Moreover, those who knew Abdullah insist that they never heard him promote any violent separatist effort on behalf of any organization.
National Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance in North America, insist as well that “The Ummah” is nothing more than an association of largely African American mosques. (“Ummah” is an Arabic term that refers to the Muslim community.) The alliance calls the FBI description of the Ummah “an offensive mischaracterization.” (Abdullah El-Amin, an imam at the largest African American Detroit mosque, told the New York Times that he had heard Abdullah discuss a separatism that would be “sort of like the Pennsylvania Dutch have their own communities and stuff.” There are similar comments from Abdullah in the criminal complaint.)
In any event, the indictment that followed Abdullah’s death, naming 11 of his congregants and associates, makes no mention of radical politics or the shadowy “Ummah” or “offensive jihad” -- all highlighted in the earlier criminal complaint. The 11 were indicted as petty criminals, charged with selling and receiving stolen goods, tampering with vehicle identification numbers, and weapons offenses.
Many officials and organizations, including Congressman John Conyers, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, the local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization, the ACLU, and the NAACP, have called for an investigation of the killing -- calls unanswered so far by the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is reviewing the case. The state attorney general named a prosecutor to look into the matter after the FBI refused to hand over documents to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office because, the bureau said, the documents were “classified.”
In early June, Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist asked by CAIR to review the autopsy findings (they were finally released in February), said Abdullah’s face was pierced by wounds and lacerations consistent with a dog attack. His jaw was fractured. Wecht also said there were two gunshot wounds in Abdullah’s back, not one. This prompted Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt to defend his findings and accuse Wecht of emotionalism, according to a Detroit Free Press report. “We don't always say what others would like us to say,” Schmidt commented. “We can only describe what we see.”
As the wait for reviews and investigations and answers drags on, the immediate area served by Abdullah’s mosque -- blighted, black, and destitute -- frays further, and is in danger of losing a small but critical social and economic resource. Abdullah ran a well-attended soup kitchen for years, worked to rid the neighborhood of gang violence, and sought to provide support for the poor, the homeless, and ex-convicts. His family and his depleted mosque are now struggling to keep the house of worship and soup kitchen going. Mosque attendance has plummeted and contributions, never robust, have evaporated; law-enforcement investigators continue to fan out through the community.
“People are still scared,” said Omar Regan, one of Abdullah’s 13 children, who makes his living as an actor, comedian, and motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. “They are still interrogating people. The more people push about injustice, the more they harass Muslims in that area [of Detroit]. My father took care of all these people. They leaned on him. He was a reason a lot of them didn't commit suicide. They came for food. For shelter.”
Regan is incensed that the FBI provided the money to acquire stolen goods, the actual goods as well, and even the warehouses to store them in, while working out plans for moving the goods through informants and undercover employees clustered around Luqman Abdullah and the Masjid al-Haqq mosque. And now Omar Regan’s father is dead.
“It's the FBI setting the whole thing up,” he lamented. “How can that be legal?”
It’s a question more and more people are asking as the war on terror grinds on, now directed by the Obama administration. If nothing else, the cases of the Newburgh Four and the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy show that street-smart accused conspirator James Cromitie knew what he was talking about when he said that chronically poor people will “do it for the money” and “don’t care about the cause.”