Mystery surrounds FBI raid on North Side mosque
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FBI agents yesterday raided a North Side residence known to many in the neighborhood and the Pittsburgh Islamic community as both an Islamic school and mosque.
The agency would say only that the search was in connection with a "criminal investigation" and wouldn't elaborate.
The raid began around noon when authorities shut down the intersection of Boyle and Hemlock streets, residents said. The activity centered around a three-story green house located in the 1300 block of Boyle Street. It is home to the Sankore Institute and Light of Age Mosque, which doubles as a school for people seeking to learn the Koran and Islamic religious teachings.
FBI spokesman Jeff Killeen confirmed that the FBI was at the home. Mr. Killeen referred questions to Margaret Philbin, the U.S. attorney's spokeswoman, who said that the FBI executed a search warrant at the home yesterday morning or afternoon.
Authorities did not say if anyone was taken into custody, but residents said several men in tunics and traditional Muslim garb were led out of the house, patted down and searched along Boyle Street. The agents may have executed the raid during Friday prayers known as the Jummah prayer, neighbors said.
The group moved into the neighborhood around February and posted fliers that said "we are here to help you make the North Side a better place to live, worship, work and play." The group urged people "to join us in clothing and feeding the poor, cleaning up our community and making the North Side a safer, more beautiful place for our children."
Neighbors who witnessed the raid said FBI agents surrounded the home for more than four hours yesterday. They said there was a tactical squad at the scene backing up agents.
"It's scary to see guys with guns slung over their shoulders right in front of you," said Harold King, of Avalon, who was visiting a relative.
The mosque is a provisional member of the Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh. Most of its members are African-American.
The home has two entrances, one facing Boyle Street and a side door on Hemlock Street. The Hemlock Street entrance is used by women and the Boyle Street entrance by men, neighbors said. Some orthodox Muslims do not mix genders, unless women are related or married to the men in their company.
"They are some of the nicest people in the neighborhood," said Anthony Carboni, who lives nearby on Sandusky Street. Mr. Carboni said he would often see people at the home playing football outside or hosting cookouts in the neighborhood.
A jitney driver, Andre Hammer, of the North Side, who was driving by the intersection, said he passed by the residence several weeks ago and saw police cars parked outside. Mr. Hammer said he would often see men outside of the home talking.
Gigi Lincoln of Boyle Street said she watched the men being lined up against several houses. Mrs. Lincoln said the agents searched each of the men extensively and then had police dogs walk past them. She said agents also used a robot to enter the home.
She said they loaded some of the men into the back of a white van, but said they did not appear to be handcuffed.
Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said "any time law enforcement officials raid a house of worship it raises concerns," but said it would be premature to comment further.
First Published July 1, 2006 12:00 am