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Imam's arrest shocks New York's Afghan-American community

  • Story Highlights
  • Prominent imam Ahmad Wais Afzali accused of lying to FBI in terror probe
  • Afzali, who runs an Islamic burial service in Queens, maintains innocence in case
  • Friends, neighbors say members of community looked up to Afzali
  • Friend says case may negatively affect community's relationship with authorities
By Kiran Khalid
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The arrest of a local imam for allegedly lying to the FBI about tipping off a suspected terrorist sent shock waves through the Afghan community in New York.

Ahmad Wais Afzali, a prominent imam in Queens who runs an Islamic burial service for the Muslim community, has maintained his innocence in the case.

He's charged in connection with a terror probe that revolves around 24-year-old Najibullah Zazi. Prosecutors said Zazi received explosives training with the intent to bomb a high density target in the United States, and that Afzali jeopardized their investigation by telling Zazi that federal investigators were on to him.

Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby, said his client was trying to help investigators find Zazi, whose family attended his mosque several years ago.

Kuby said the imam "consistently cooperated" with police in previous investigations and now "feels ill-used."

Afzali, 37, immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan with his family when he was 7 years old. He was released on a $1.5 million bond Thursday.

Hours later, he told reporters surrounding him and his wife outside their home in Queens that he'd received many messages of support.

"I am grateful not only to the Afghani community, I am very grateful even to the non-Muslims and the Muslims," he said.

The Afghan community in Queens is a tightly-knit one, where much of the social interaction centers around religion. It's in that climate that Afzali flourished, establishing himself as a role model to young Muslims who seemed lost, says Abdul Rouzyi, the owner of an Afghan kebab restaurant in the area.

"He's young, good-looking and rich," Rouzyi told CNN. "A lot of people looked up to him."

Rouzyi said he had seen young Afghan and Pakistani kids who were into drugs turn their lives around after being mentored by Afzali.

Ahmad Wahidi, a 20 year-old college student who knew Afzali through the local mosque, the Masjid Al-Saaliheen, said the community's anger and shock over Afzali's arrest has been muted by fear.

"Nobody really talks about it because they're scared," said Wahidi. Wahidi said the fear is rooted in the belief that Afzali's words were twisted against him.

Ahmad Wais, president of the Masjid Al-Saaliheen and a childhood friend of the imam, said this case may have a negative impact on the Afghan-Muslim community's relationship with law enforcement.

"Personally, I feel that the law enforcement, what they did with this guy -- even the people who want to help, now they're afraid to come forward."

Afzali seems to believe the justice system will vindicate him.

"We all are American citizens. I was raised in America. I have been American since I was 7 years old. Before being judged in media, papers and TV, know the facts from fiction."

All About TerrorismFederal Bureau of InvestigationAfghanistan

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