In a development that caught Lodi residents by surprise today, an FBI informant testified that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man had spent time in Lodi during 1998 and 1999.
People who have lived in Lodi for years and attended the mosque during that time were skeptical at the idea of Ayman al-Zawahri spending time here.
“If he was here, I would have known about it,” said Nasim Khan, who was president of the mosque in 1998.
The testimony from paid informant Naseem Khan (no relation to Nasim Khan) came this morning during Hamid Hayat’s federal trial in Sacramento. The 23-year-old Lodi man is charged with providing himself to terrorists, and with lying to the FBI about it. His father is also charged with lying to the FBI, though his part of the trial was not in session today.
For years after 2001, the 32-year-old informant worked undercover in Lodi, and he eventually befriended Hayat and began secretly recording their conversations. Naseem Khan has spent days on the witness stand, and it was under government questioning today that he mentioned the name of al-Zawahri, considered second-in-command of al-Qaida.
The bespectacled man, now 54, has appeared with Osama bin Laden in videos aired on Arab television stations and has been on the U.S. government’s most-wanted list since the 9/11 attacks, according to numerous news reports and sources.
Half a dozen Muslim Lodi residents contacted today by the News-Sentinel instantly recognized his name and knew he has served as bin Laden’s right-hand man and spokesperson. They all denied that he spent any time at the Lodi Muslim Mosque.
The FBI’s informant testified today that he was living in Lodi in 1998 and 1999 and “every time I would go to the mosque (al-Zawahri) would be coming or going” from the mosque.
He testified that he and al-Zawahri spoke in passing but never had a conversation, and that the man “disappeared” in 1999.
Lodi residents who have lived in the city for decades and have been involved with the mosque for decades doubted the testimony.
“I’ve been in Lodi for 20-something years and never saw him,” said Taj Khan (also no relation to the other Khans), a News-Sentinel columnist who has been active in the city’s Muslim community for years.
Hayat’s attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, said al-Zawahri was apparently in the Bay Area on a fund-raising trip in 1995, but said “he never hung out at the Lodi Muslim Mosque.”
Both Mojaddidi and Nasim Khan, the former mosque president, pointed out that Lodi’s Muslim community is comprised almost entirely of Pakistani natives, and al-Zawahri is Egyptian.
“In Lodi, we don’t have that many Arab people coming for fund-raising. It’s usually people from India or Pakistan who want to build a small mosque,” said Nasim Khan, adding that those on fund-raising trips would have gone through the mosque’s president first before trying to solicit funds in the community.
Current Lodi mosque president Mohammed Shoaib said he never saw al-Zawahri at the mosque. Ubader Rahmon, former imam of the Stockton Islamic Center, also said he never met or saw the man.
Naseem Khan had a television on in his Oregon apartment when FBI agents came to talk to him about working for them. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri happened to appear on TV and agents asked the future informant if he knew either man. He said he’d never met bin Laden but had seen al-Zawahri in Lodi, according to his testimony today.
Before long, Naseem Khan had moved back to California and was working full-time for the FBI.
“He has just damaged our community for no reason at all and is getting paid to do that,” Taj Khan said, referring to more than $200,000 the informant made as a paid informant for the FBI.
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service contributed to this report.