WASHINGTON (AP) – Two leaders of a mosque in Albany, N.Y., have been arrested in an alleged plot involving a scheme to buy a shoulder-fired missile, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

Court papers filed in the case alleged that the weapon was to be used to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador at that country’s consulate across from the United Nations in New York.

The two men – identified as Yassin Aref, 34, the imam of the mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, 49, one of the mosque’s founders – were arrested on Wednesday night in a government-run “sting” operation, Deputy Attorney General James Comey told a Justice Department news conference.

Two U.S. law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the two men have ties to a group which has been linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

Such a connection was not mentioned in legal papers, however, and Comey said he could not comment on it, although he said the pair’s background might be brought up by the government later at a detention hearing.

Both face up to 70 years in prison and a $750,000, said Comey in a statement.

“We are working very, very hard to infiltrate the enemy,” Comey said. “Our agents and our informants are putting a full-court press on in this country and around the world. Anyone engaging in terrorist planning would be very wise to consider whether their accomplice is not really one of our guys.”

But under questioning at the news conference, he acknowledged that “this is not the case of the century.”

Among the charges were allegations of money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to conceal material support for terrorism.

The men have ties to a group called Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al-Qaida, according to the two federal law enforcement authorities. U.S. officials have said that Ansar’s members are thought to be affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose network is blamed for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies in Iraq.

The arrests came as FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agents executed search warrants at the Masjid As-Salam mosque and two Albany-area residences late Wednesday and early Thursday.

The Albany case was not related to the Bush administration’s terror alerts over the weekend indicating that al-Qaida may be plotting attacks against U.S. financial buildings, officials said. Some have criticized the decision to issue the warning, which was largely based on intelligence that was several years old.

The two are being charged with providing material support to terrorism by participating in a conspiracy to help someone they believed was a terrorist purchase a shoulder-fired missile. The person was in fact a convicted felon working undercover for the government to reduce his prison sentence for document fraud, officials said.

The informant, a non-U.S. citizen, told the men he was associated with Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan that the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. According to court records, the informant told the pair that the missile would be used to mount an attack on the Pakistani consulate across the street from the United Nations. The target would be the Pakistani ambassador.

No missile ever changed hands.

The informant approached Hossain in November 2003 during a meeting that was secretly videotaped, according to an affidavit by FBI Agent Timothy Coll. The informant told Hossain he imported weapons and ammunition from China, shipped equipment to New York and that Islamic fundamentalists used such weapons to shoot down airplanes. The informant told Hossain he earned $50,000 from the sale of each missile.

Coll said Hossain smiled when he saw a photograph of a shoulder-fired missile and said he could earn a substantial sum from such imports, which are illegal. Coll said the two “then further discussed religion.”

A month later, during a secretly videotaped meeting at Hossain’s pizzeria, the informant proposed giving Hossain $50,000 to launder on the informant’s behalf with the understanding that Hossain could keep $5,000, Coll said.

Hossain said he didn’t need that much money but ultimately agreed to make it appear Hossain had earned the money from rental properties. Hossain recruited Aref, an imam at the mosque, to witness the laundering transactions and said Aref wouldn’t betray their confidence because “he’s not afraid of anything; he’s only afraid of God.”

“It’s totally wrong and totally false and totally a lie,” Hossain’s wife, Mossamat, said in a telephone interview. She said more than a half-dozen agents stormed the family’s apartment at about 1:30 a.m., just as her husband returned from New York City where he had gone to buy a plane ticket to Bangladesh for her mother.

This is the second FBI sting operation involving an alleged attempt to purchase a missile. Last August, a British arms dealer was arrested in New Jersey and charged with trying to sell a shoulder-fired missile to an undercover agent posing as a Muslim terrorist bent on shooting down a U.S. airliner.

Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this story from Albany, N.Y.

AP-ES-08-05-04 1431EDT

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