MIAMI (AP) — A 76-year-old Miami imam and two of his sons have been arrested on federal charges they provided some $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, while three others in Pakistan have been indicted on charges of handling distribution of the funds, authorities say.
Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, was arrested Saturday at the Miami Mosque, also known as the Flagler Mosque, where he is an imam. One of his sons, Izhar Khan, 24, an imam at the Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen Mosque in nearby Margate, Fla., was arrested there. Another son, Irfan Khan, 37, was detained at a Los Angeles hotel. The men are U.S. citizens. Their mosques are not suspected of wrongdoing, officials said.
Also named in the indictment are three others at large in Pakistan — Hafiz Khan's daughter, grandson and an unrelated man, all three charged with handling the distribution of funds, authorities said. The Pakistani Taliban are designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
Attempts to reach the men's attorneys and families were unsuccessful on Saturday. However, another son of Hafiz Khan, Ikram Khan, told The Miami Herald that his father was too old and sick to be involved in the plot.
"None of my family supports the Taliban," he told the newspaper. "We support this country."
If convicted, the South Florida men face 15 years in prison for each of the four counts listed in the indictment. All three are expected in court Monday.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said suspicious financial activity triggered the investigation three years ago. "This is based on the defendant's words, actions and records," Ferrer said at a news conference Saturday.
The indictment lists about $50,000 in transactions.
According to the indictment, the funds were used to buy guns, support militants' families and promote the cause of the Pakistani Taliban. It also alleges that Hafiz Khan owns a madrassa, or religious school, in his native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan that shelters members of the Pakistani Taliban and trains children to become militants.
The indictment recounts recorded conversations in which Hafiz Khan allegedly voices support for attacks on the Pakistani government and American troops in the region, officials said.
The Pakistani Taliban is a wing of the terrorist group that originated in Afghanistan. It claimed responsibility for a pair of suicide bombings Friday that killed 87 people in what it said was vengeance for the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. The group has also been linked to the Times Square car bombing in New York in May 2010.
The Pakistani militant group is allied with al-Qaida, is based in the northwest of Pakistan near the Afghan border and has links to that country's Taliban insurgency.
The Miami Mosque — a small, white house in a crowded residential area — was founded in 1974 and is the oldest mosque in the city, according to Mohammad Shakir, a local Muslim community leader. Hafiz Khan has been leading prayers at the mosque for about 14 years, Shakir added.
Hafiz Khan has been suspended indefinitely as imam, said Asad Ba-Yunus, a spokesman for the Muslim Communities Association of South Florida, which runs the mosque. He said his organization is not aware of any attempts to raise funds for illegal activity that took place on its properties.
Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, described the father and son imams as "very quiet individuals" who seemed pious. He said he never heard them preach extremism.
"I was very shocked, just as others in the community were shocked," Hamze said. "We absolutely don't support terrorism or support of terrorism."
Muslim leaders said they were reluctant to speculate about whether the alleged financial support to the Pakistani Taliban did in fact take place and whether it was intentional.
"I think it's important to get all the facts before any decisions or statements are made," Hamze said.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said in a statement late Saturday that the indictments show the U.S. must be vigilant in dealing with extremist threats.