« on: Today at 02:17:36 PM »
FBI says imam Ahmad Afzali worked both sides and tipped off suspects
The Queens imam arrested in the Denver terrorism probe is an FBI informant the feds say became a double agent - tipping suspects that they were in the government's crosshairs.
Ahmad Afzali, 37, insisted he's been loyally helping the government root out extremists since 9/11.
His lawyer, Ron Kuby, calls him a fall guy.
"I think the FBI is angry that they blew this case, and they want to blame poor Imam Afzali for blowing the investigation," Kuby said.
Afzali told the News just hours before he was arrested Saturday night for lying to the feds that "someone is trying to set me up."
His parents immigrated to Fresh Meadows from Afghanistan when he was 7. They owned pizzerias and were wealthy enough to give their son every new gadget, schoolmates said.
He became religious in high school, and preached at the Masjid Hazrat Abu Bakr Islamic Center, New York's largest Afghan mosque, until 2007, when he opened a funeral business.
Afzali has a wife, three kids, and a taste for luxury cars - always in white, neighbors said.
In interviews last week, he told The News he was always happy to help the FBI.
"They come for information, and I always help," he said. "I have helped them many times."
According to the government, agents approached Afzali Sept. 10 and showed him a photo of Najibullah Zazi, 24, a fellow Afghan immigrant who moved from Queens to Denver.
The next day, Sept. 11, FBI wiretaps caught Zazi's father telling his son he'd gotten a call from Afzali warning him the FBI was showing his photo.
The father was urging his son to call Afzali when call-waiting beeped: Afzali was on Zazi's other line.
"They asked me about you guys," the imam told the suspected terrorist, according to a transcript. "They came to ask me about your characters."
He continued, "I'm not sure what happened. And I don't want to know ...I told them that 'they are innocent, law abiding.'"
Afzali told Zazi to take comfort that the FBI was just asking around about them.
"Trust me, that is a good sign," he said. "The bad sign is for them coming to you guys and picking you up automatically."
Afzali told Zazi: "Listen, our phone call is being monitored."
Hours later, Zazi called the imam to say his rental car had vanished. Afzali allegedly asked if there was any "evidence" in the car and Zazi said no.
The car contained bomb making notes, the FBI says.
According to the government, when questioned April 17, Afzali said it was Zazi who called him, not the other way around.
He allegedly denied tipping Zazi to the probe or asking about evidence in the car - and even denied saying the call was being taped.
Kuby said that charge made no sense. "Why on earth would he lie about the contents of a conversation that he knows is being recorded?" he said. "It would be insane for him to lie about that!"
Kuby said his client might have been confused about who called whom, but was trying to help. "The government asked him to make contact with (Zazi) and find out what he was up to," Kuby said. "So he left out a bunch of things. He's not a trained stenographer. He is doing everything they want him to do."
Prosecutors are skeptical. "Why would he ask Zazi about 'evidence' in his car?" said one official close to the case.
Cousin John Afzali, 42, manager of the family-owned pizzeria Valentino's, called the charges "bogus."
"He's a good guy. He's not extreme. I don't think they got the right person," he said.
Neighbors and friends said they couldn't image Afzali was mixed up in terrorism.
"This guy's got more money than God," said Steven Hayes, 37, who went to Parsons Junior High and Jamaica High School with Afzali. "I'm shocked. Not this guy."
He is famous in the neighborhood for his parade of fancy new cars, from Jaguars to BMWs to Hummers, which he polishes lovingly in his driveway.
"Whatever the latest car comes out, he's got it," said neighbor Yossi Matato, who said he recently saw a new white Jaguar at the house.
The president of the Masjid Al-Saaliheen mosque in Fresh Meadows, who did not want his name used, said Afzali came to see him Friday so upset that he cried.
"He was very sad and scared. He didn't want to be involved," the mosque president said. "He said, 'they asked me questions but I had no idea. I hope they don't turn it around on me.'"
He said yesterday's celebation of the annual Eid holiday was ruined for Muslims worried about what the arrests meant. "The whole community is in full upside-down shock. Everybody is afraid, everybody is talking about it," the imam said.
With James Gordon Meek, Kate Nocera, Kerry Burke and Clare Trapasso