NEWARK, N.J. — To one North Jersey counterterrorism task force, Mohammad Qatanani was considered an essential ally – a moderate Muslim leader known for inviting FBI agents into his congregation to conduct seminars on terrorism prevention. Fifteen miles away, in Newark, a different counterterrorism task force labeled Qatanani a possible terror suspect who had been categorized as a “person of interest” on his application for a green card.
His deportation trial – testimony concluded Monday and a ruling is due in September – has raised questions as to how smoothly counterterrorism efforts are coordinated in New Jersey, and about the ability of immigration authorities to get information from other agencies or check a person’s background in their country of origin.
Qatanani, a 44-year-old Palestinian, has been the spiritual leader at the Islamic Center of Passaic County since 1996. The mosque is in Paterson, the heart of New Jersey’s Arab American community and home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the region.
Qatanani’s 1999 bid for U.S. residency was rejected, and he is facing deportation by U.S. immigration authorities who say he failed to disclose on his green card application a 1993 arrest and conviction in Israel for being a member of the militant group Hamas.
Qatanani has denied being a Hamas member and said he was never made aware of any charges against him. At his deportation hearing, he testified that he had been detained – not arrested – by the Israelis and subjected to physical and mental abuse in detention.
Since the proceedings began in early May, a number of witnesses have testified on the imam’s behalf – including a rabbi and several high-ranking New Jersey law enforcement officials. Hundreds of his supporters have maintained a vigil outside the federal courthouse in Newark for the duration of the trial, often using a megaphone to conduct prayers and plead for justice.