YORK -- From his home atop a rural ridge, Mayson Merk hears the drone of Arabic chanting from the forest below and the staccato crackle of gunfire in the night.

Merk swears he once saw a man with an AK-47 guarding the entrance to these woods, home to a village of devout Muslims. But what goes on behind the canopy of trees remains a mystery and a worry to him.

"They seem suspicious of everyone," Merk, 19, said of the villagers. "I can't say they are bad people. I just don't know what their intentions are."

The village, known as Holy Islamville, has been a source of speculation and concern since it was established in 1983 by Sheikh Mubarik Ali Gilani, a mystical Pakistan-based cleric, and a group of his followers.

Villagers say the settlement is a peaceful place of introspection and worship that welcomes people of all faiths. But some critics suspect the 34-acre village harbors a darker purpose as a radical Islamic training ground stocked with weapons and cloaked in secrecy.

Fears and rumors about Islamville ratcheted up in the wake of 9/11 and gained steam with government-funded reports linking Gilani and his organization, Muslims of the Americas, to Jamaat ul-Fuqra, a terrorist group tied to at least a dozen fire-bombings, killings and other crimes across the United States.

These attacks by ul-Fuqra members prompted the State Department in 2000 to place Gilani and his followers on a list of known terrorist groups. They have since been removed from that list, and Gilani denies any ties to ul-Fuqra.

A 2006 report from the government-funded Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Nashville, however, described Gilani as an international terrorist who recruits ex-cons and promotes the purification of Islam through violence. The report, intended for law enforcement use, states that Gilani's group has some 35 settlements across the country, though Muslims of the Americas puts the number at 22. The York County "commune" is named in the report as one of seven covert paramilitary training camps operated by ul-Fuqra.

The Christian Action Network, a conservative and controversial group based in Virginia, drew from that report to produce its 2009 documentary, "Homegrown Jihad," which has drawn further attention to the York compound.

Ali Rashid, an Islamville elder, insists people have nothing to fear from his village and that reports to the contrary are mired in lies and misperceptions. He said Islamville is home to doctors, lawyers, bus drivers and others who contribute to the greater community.

"We are not terrorists and we are not associated with terrorists. We are a humanitarian group," Rashid said. "We are not plotting against the country. I served in the military and I love my country. All of that stuff is made up."

Police are watching

Law enforcement officials said Islamville has been on their radar for years and remains a source of concern, given its close proximity to the Catawba nuclear power plant and Charlotte's banking hubs. But authorities have visited the site numerous times and found no evidence of weapons stockpiles or illegal activities, said State Law Enforcement Division Director Reggie Lloyd.

"Law enforcement has been all over that place and if there was something there, we wouldn't be talking about it, we would be doing something about it," he said. "At this point we don't consider it something the public should be concerned about. It's just not what these groups are trying to portray it to be."

Islamville is on a rural stretch of land a couple of miles from the town's center, not far from the North Carolina border. Modest homes dot the surrounding landscape, and a mixture of American and Confederate flags fly in yards.

Acclaim Drive, which backs up to Islamville, looks like any other street in the area until you notice the heavily fortified chain link fences and "No trespassing" signs circling some homes. Among neighbors, reactions to the compound range from ambivalence to anger and concern. Some report hearing frequent gunfire and people moving through the brush near their homes at night.

One woman said she fears for her family's safety and has called the sheriff's office two dozen times to investigate the goings-on at Islamville. Like many of her neighbors, she has never set foot in the village.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant has been to Islamville dozens of times. He doesn't agree with many of their beliefs, but he doesn't see much of a threat either.

"There has never been a call about that place that has not been investigated," he said. "We have been out there, walked that land and have seen absolutely nothing to be concerned about in terms of violations of the law."

A holy place

Islamville's entrance lies at the end of a cul-de-sac, with no sign or landmark to announce its presence, just a rutted dirt-and-gravel road that snakes down a hill into the woods.

The settlement is a rustic place with unpaved roads and few amenities. Its 18-acre core includes homes for five or six families who live on the property, tending to its shrine and worshipping in a small mosque deep in the woods, beside a communal graveyard, Rashid said. About 50 other families live outside the gates and visit the site for prayer and functions, he said. Like Rashid, most are black Americans from inner cities.

Gilani has not visited the property since 1989, but he communicates with the village by phone and his presence lives on in teachings, Rashid said.

On a recent afternoon, villagers were accommodating to two visitors from The Post and Courier who arrived at the settlement unannounced. Rashid offered to let the strangers roam unattended. "We have nothing to hide."

There were no signs of guns, firing ranges or training facilities of any type. The few people around seemed busy with study or prayer. All wore traditional robes and head dress.

Rashid said he too has heard gunfire in the area but insists it came from outside the compound where hunters roam. Gilani forbids firing guns on the property, he said.

A burly New York native with a gravelly voice, Rashid said he was among the first settlers who heeded Gilani's call to move from crime-infested inner cities to the rural countryside where they could live, learn and worship in peace. "You see what is going on in the inner cities today," he said. "I feel like he saved my family."

Most youths in the village are home-schooled and obtain their high school equivalency diplomas before pursuing a higher degree outside the compound. Eighteen-year-old Shabaan Ahmad, for example, studied in the village before enrolling in York Technical College. He hopes to become a doctor.

"We are just living our lives like anyone else," Ahmad said, as he scrolled through messages on his cell phone.

The heart of the village is the Baitun-Noor Holy Khanqah shrine, an ornate brick building constructed around a single-wide mobile home where God's name in Arabic is said to have appeared on a wall during a gathering in 1996. Gilani declared the building a holy shrine, and miraculous manifestations of Allah's name, rainbows, Arabic script and other images have appeared there on numerous occasions, Rashid said.

Thousands of people, including law enforcement officers, have visited the site over the years and participated in interfaith services and other events, Rashid said. "That," he said, pointing to the shrine, "is what this place is about."

A call to arms?

Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, said he has been investigating Gilani's group for years and considers them a serious threat. "Homegrown Jihad," which Mawyer wrote and directed, features grainy footage from an undated video titled "Soldiers of Allah." Gilani is seen on the tape shooting a military-style rifle and exhorting Muslims to learn to defend themselves.

"We are establishing training camps," Gilani says in the video. "In upstate New York, in Canada, in Michigan, in South Carolina or in Pakistan -- wherever we are, you can reach us."

The tape also shows footage of guerilla warfare training, with students learning the arts of shooting, garroting, carjacking and setting off explosives. Mawyer's group also points out that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was on his way to interview Gilani in 2002 when he was kidnapped and later beheaded in Pakistan. Pearl's slaying stunned the world, and his story was made into a motion picture starring Angelina Jolie.

"I think this group poses a tremendous threat because they are well-armed, they are well-trained and they have a history of terrorism," said Mawyer, a former editor of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority Report.

Others aren't convinced. Law enforcement officials say the video of Gilani appears to have been shot many years ago, around the time he was rallying against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The locales in the guerrilla training footage appear to be from foreign lands, as do the participants, they said.

Muslims of the Americas has denounced the tape and stated that the guerilla training footage is actually from freedom fighters in Kashmir. A rebuttal video produced by Gilani's organization denies any ties to terrorism and stresses the group's humanitarian work after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other crises. The video also includes footage of FBI officials absolving Gilani of any connection to Pearl's killing.

In the video, Gilani states he has instructed his American followers never to rise up against their country. His organization accused the Christian Action Network of trying to start a holy war between Christians and Muslims, a claim Mawyer denies.

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's center on extremism, said the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle in these competing allegations.

Gilani and Muslims of the Americas have espoused hateful anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist rhetoric for years, Segal said. But none of its members have been implicated in high-profile, homegrown terrorist activities the government has uncovered in the past few years, he said.

"It's not the most active and militant group in the United States, but it's also not a group to be ignored either," Segal said.

Steve Emerson, an author and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism, said Gilani has less of a following than he once did but that he remains a potential threat to communities if his ideology is being mixed with paramilitary training. "He is a notoriously radical Islamic extremist who has encouraged his followers to engage in fighting the 'enemies of Islam.' "

Stirring the pot

SLED's Lloyd said he wants people to be mindful of potential threats but that he gets frustrated with groups like the Christian Action Network who seem to be fomenting fear to gain attention and hawk videos.

"We want people to pay attention to things," he said. "But we don't want groups trying to exploit that for their own agenda and drumming up things that just aren't there. It doesn't make anyone safe when they do that."

Visits by Mawyer's group have sparked tensions. The documentary includes one confrontation at the York compound in which Rashid angrily orders the filmmakers to leave the property as police arrive to keep order. Mawyer and associates were back in York this month to speak with residents, gather more evidence and distribute their videos.

Sheriff Bryant said calls and e-mails about the compound increase every time the group shows up or someone watches a clip of Mawyer's appearance last year on Fox News' "Hannity" show, which featured clips from "Homegrown Jihad" and commentary about law enforcement's inability to shut down these camps.

Mawyer said he is only trying to draw attention to the threat and help residents who feel law enforcement has turned a blind eye to the problem.

Jerry Clark, who lives on Acclaim Drive near the compound, recently had a visit from Mawyer's group and heard all about their video. For now, he's giving the folks in Islamville the benefit of the doubt.

"They don't bother me, and I don't bother them," he said. "I just sure hope it stays that way."

Rashid feels the same way. He said he can't do anything to stop people who "invent things" about his group and that he respects their right to free speech. He just hopes people will keep an open mind.

"I am 71 years old," he chuckled. "If I wanted to try to overthrow the country, I would have done it long before now."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com