September 21, 2009 / 7:57 PM / 9 years ago

New York imam held in al Qaeda bomb plot probe

* Afghan-born imam accused of lying about plot suspect

* FBI says he denied telling suspect about inquiries

* Preaches at mosques, has cooperated in terrorism probes

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK, Sept 21 (Reuters) - A New York City imam linked to an accused al Qaeda-trained militant was ordered to remain in custody on Monday as part of a U.S. federal investigation into a suspected bombing plot.

Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, had been arrested on Saturday in New York on charges of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the central figure in the case, Najibullah Zazi, 24, who authorities say admitted to taking bomb-making courses at an al Qaeda training facility in Pakistan.

The FBI says it found notes on bomb-making on Zazi’s computer and several backpacks at a home in the New York City borough of Queens where he had recently visited, leading to suspicions of an unspecified bomb plot.

Zazi and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, were arrested in Denver on Saturday, also on charges of lying to the FBI. They were due to appear in court in Denver later on Monday.

All three Afghan-born men have maintained their innocence. They face up to eight years in prison if convicted.

Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak of Brooklyn federal court ordered Afzali held until the next hearing on Thursday.

Afzali, his bald head uncovered in court, had a long beard and wore tan robes. He blew kisses to family members in the gallery as he was led out of court and back to jail.

Defense attorney Ron Kuby told the court he was working on a bail application, and prosecutors responded that they were uncertain whether they would oppose bail for the man who is well known in the Queens Muslim community and previously served as an informant for New York City police.

Afzali and the Zazis are part of an investigation that led to New York City police and FBI raids last week on several apartments in Queens.

The searches were triggered by a visit from Zazi, who had been under surveillance and was monitored on his journey from Colorado to New York in a rented car earlier this month. The Zazis and Afzali were questioned by the FBI following the raids, and the charges of lying resulted from those conversations.

Afzali, who delivers sermons at New York City mosques and operates a funeral home, has cooperated with New York City police in the past, providing information about people of interest in terrorism investigations.

He is accused of lying to FBI agents, including about a call in which he tipped off Zazi that U.S. authorities had asked about him and that their calls were being monitored. Authorities questioned the imam on Sept. 10 about Zazi and others, according to court documents filed by the FBI.

“I was exposed to something yesterday from the authorities. And they came to ask me about your characters. They asked me about you guys,” the imam told Zazi on the monitored phone call, according to the court documents.

Authorities say that a week later Afzali lied in an interview with New York police and FBI agents when he denied that he had told Zazi and Zazi’s father that he had been approached by investigators. (Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)

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