Jose Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber," is entering the seventh week of his trial in Miami. He stands accused, among other things, of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Padilla is typically described as a former Chicago gang member, but there was a southern chapter to his life, as well. He converted to Islam in Florida. He learned Arabic and how to read the Koran at one mosque there, and was introduced to a stricter form of Islam at another.
According to mosque officials, Padilla arrived at the Darul Uloom Mosque in 1992 eager to learn Arabic and study the Koran. He had just been released from prison and wanted to convert to Islam. He told his teacher, Shafayat Mohammed, that he hoped it would help him straighten out his life.
"I remember once when I taught him to read Arabic, I had selected him to come up and recite what he'd learned," Mohammed said. "I considered it something of a success to see him learn and to see him participate. It was nice to see a convert guy learn Arabic and get along so quick. It was very impressive."
The Darul Uloom Mosque looks more like a stop at a strip mall than a place of worship. It shares space in a one-story converted supermarket with the Pool Bethesda Christian Center. Christians file into the left side of the building. Muslims enter to the right.
Shafayat Mohammed started the mosque more than 15 years ago. It attracts thousands of worshippers on Fridays because, Mohammed says, the mosque welcomes Muslims and non-Muslims, and he keeps politics out of his sermons.
The mosque also sits on a main thoroughfare in Pembroke Pines, Fla., which means Muslims from all over South Florida drop in on the way to somewhere else. Mohammed recalls Padilla ending his classes and leaving Darul Uloom mosque in the late 1990s.
"Maybe where he went to after he left here, maybe with whom he was affiliated with was where that whole syndrome that took place in him," he said, looking back on Padilla's path to Islam. "Here was just a primary school level for him."
Padilla's Islamic education continued at Majid al-Iman, a one-story building in a lower-income neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale. The FBI says a previous imam there had ties to a group accused of financing terrorism and, unlike Darul Uloom, sermons often touch upon American foreign policy and politics.
At Majid al-Iman, Padilla met one of the men with whom he is on trial — Adham Hassoun. Prosecutors say Hassoun was instrumental in recruiting Padilla into al-Qaida and getting him involved with the global jihadist movement. Sofian Zakkot, a member of the al-Iman mosque, is a friend of Hassoun's. He says the terrorism charges are flat wrong.
"He is a very, very, very nice guy and doesn't deserve what he is going through," Zakkot said. "The jury has been brainwashed against just the look of Adham and Padilla."
Zakkot said outsiders are too quick to link conservative mosques such as al-Iman to terrorism. He says there is no definitive way to predict whether a mosque will inspire violence at all.
Consider Majid al-Iman and Darul Uloom. Padilla may have attended Majid al-Iman but he started at the more permissive Darul Uloom. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers stopped to pray at Darul Uloom when they were living in Hollywood, Fla.
Altif Ali, the head of the Council of American Islamic Relations in South Florida, says that because of the way visitors might tarnish a community mosque, local Muslims have become suspicious of new arrivals.
"Muslims are starting to look at newcomers with different eyes," Ali said. "People are starting to wonder if this will be a person who will do something and paint the whole community with a broad brush. There is a lot of fear being associated with certain places of worship because of the negativity associated with different places."
Members at al-Iman say attendance has dropped off, particularly since the Padilla trial started last month. Prosecutors say that Padilla and his co-defendants used al-Iman mosque to plan their jihad, and that the mosque provided their financing.
Defense attorneys say the government is confusing the men's desire to help oppressed Muslims with violence against the United States.
Padilla's trial is expected to continue through August.