On a more global scale, a secret, bugged meeting held in a Philadelphia hotel played a crucial role in the conviction of five leaders of the Holy Land Foundation, accused of funneling millions of dollars from America to the terrorist group Hamas. The 1993 meeting was a summit between Hamas members and their supporters in America, and the participants used code names and backward words — “Samah” — to communicate.
But contorted Islam and federal wiretaps came together most spectacularly in 2005, in the case of Shamsud-din Ali. The FBI was investigating the prominent Muslim cleric for a number of wide-ranging crimes, including racketeering; Ali was close to then-mayor John Street, had served on his transition team, and used his political connections to gain loans, donations and lucrative contracts. Authorities eventually convicted numerous people in and around City Hall. Ali, then 67, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.
“I just don’t understand how Shamsud-din Ali could climb that high, get that close to the mayor, without anyone realizing who he was,” Police Inspector O’Connor says. That’s because Shamsud-din Ali, in his younger years, went by the name “Captain” Clarence Fowler, of Mosque No. 12.
The reappearance of Fowler in Philadelphia’s political system appears shocking at first, but on reflection, it seems to fit a broader pattern: a harking back to some of the city’s darkest history, at worst, or a widespread lapse of memory, at least. In 2002, for instance, then-police commissioner Sylvester Johnson fathered a massive policing initiative and named it “Safe Streets.” The city’s managing director at the time, Phil Goldsmith, says he hadn’t heard of the 1970s heroin-and-extortion program of the same name, and notes, “It’s a pretty generic name.” But in 2007, Johnson raised eyebrows and questions when he partnered with the Nation of Islam — specifically, the paramilitary Fruit of Islam — and the modern, milder incarnation of Mosque No. 12 to help clean up Philadelphia’s streets by deploying an army of 10,000 volunteers to patrol the city.
Thousands of men showed up at a rally in November of that year, but a few months later, the program fell into financial ruin.
ON THE MORNING of May 3rd, Dicksy Widing stepped outside her rowhome at the intersection of Schiller and Almond streets, in the Port Richmond neighborhood. Few people on this block have real gardens, so Widing makes do with various seasonal arrangements on the sidewalk.
She waved hello to her friend Donna, who was sweeping nearby.
She watched a dark blue Jeep Liberty approach, across the intersection, in a halting manner. Stopping, starting, hesitating. She saw a police car behind it. All moving slowly.
“Donna,” she called out, “I think you should get off the street. Something’s not right.”
At the intersection, the Jeep came to a full stop. The police car did as well, and from the driver’s door, Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski emerged. He was a few days short of his 40th birthday. Neither he nor Widing could have known the turmoil inside the Jeep. After leaving the bank, the three men had overshot the location of their second getaway car, and they were lost. Now a cop had found them. Warner sat in the backseat, and Floyd started yelling, “BANG HIM!”