7 Accused of Raising Funds at Airports for Iran Terrorist Group
Five Iranian nationals and two Iranian Americans appeared in federal court in Los Angeles on Wednesday on charges of raising more than $1 million to fund terrorist activities abroad.
Most of the money was solicited from unsuspecting travelers at Los Angeles International Airport and sent to bank accounts in Turkey controlled by an anti-Iranian government group called the Moujahedeen Khalq, according to the FBI.
The bureau arrested the seven people Tuesday after a three-year investigation, said James V. DeSarno Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI Los Angeles office. The arrests were made at various locations, including one at a West Los Angeles Starbucks.
All seven are suspected of being members of what the FBI called a cell of Moujahedeen Khalq, although at least one of those arrested denied belonging to the group. The Moujahedeen Khalq, also called MEK, routinely solicits money, usually from Asian travelers, at LAX and other airports on behalf of a charity called the Committee for Human Rights, the FBI says. The travelers are shown photographs of starving children and victims of alleged Iranian government atrocities and told the money is used to support the refugees. The FBI says the group raises between $5,000 and $10,000 daily, just in Los Angeles.
The FBI says the Committee for Human Rights is a sham charity. The money, the agency alleges, is funneled to MEK bank accounts in Turkey. From there, investigators allege, more than $400,000 has been transferred to an auto parts store in the United Arab Emirates.
“This transfer did not appear to be related to humanitarian relief,” DeSarno said.
DeSarno said the agency suspects the money has been used to buy arms, but he said, “we have not been able to tie money from this group to a particular terrorist act.”
U.S. law does not require the government to prove the money is used to fund specific activities, merely that it is given to an organization classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. MEK has been so classified since 1997.
The organization originated as one of many groups opposing the shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. It was among the forces within Iran that eventually overthrew the shah and occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. After the revolution, the MEK fell out with the more powerful Muslim clerics who emerged as the leaders of post-shah Iran. The group was eventually outlawed within Iran, and members went into exile.
The MEK currently enjoys the support of Saddam Hussein and is headquartered in Iraq. The MEK carries out raids against the Iranian government from bases in eastern Iraq, according to the State Department’s biennial terrorist report.
That report states: “Following a philosophy that mixes Marxism and Islam, [MEK] has developed into the largest and most active armed Iranian dissident group. Its history is studded with anti-Western activity, and, most recently, attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad.”
The group has several thousand armed soldiers organized into a National Liberation Army in Iraq, the State Department says. It has taken responsibility for several bomb attacks within Iran.
The U.S. classification of the MEK as a terrorist organization has been controversial. In 1998, 220 members of Congress objected to the classification and signed a statement saying the MEK was a legitimate resistance movement.
The State Department has refused to change the classification.
Jay Fredman, attorney for Mohammad Omidvar, one of the men charged in Los Angeles, said he can not understand why the U.S. government persists in prosecuting people who oppose the Iranian government, which is classified by the U.S. as a terrorist state.
He said his client shares some beliefs with the MEK but is not a member. “We ought to give these guys medals,” Fredman said.
In addition to Omidvar, those arrested Tuesday include: Tahmineh Tahamtan, Mustafa Ahmady, Hossein Afshari, Ali Reza Moradi, Hassan Rezai and Najaf Eshkoftegi. Omidvar lives in Anaheim. The others are Los Angeles residents. Eshkoftegi and Omidvar are U.S. citizens.
Omidvar’s wife defended him outside court.
“My husband is in this country 23 years,” Sabrina Omidvar, 32, said. “The only thing he had in his whole life was a parking ticket and that was dismissed. He’s a good citizen. These are all false.”
She said her husband, who manages a jewelry store, was arrested at gunpoint outside their Anaheim home as she and their 2-year-old daughter watched.
The FBI identified Tahamtan as the leader of the Los Angeles operation.
Many Iranian Americans living in Southern California similarly oppose the Islamic rule of their homeland, but frequently regard members of the Moujahedeen Khalq as traitors because they sided with Iraq during its eight-year war against Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died in that war.
Supporters of the Moujahedeen Khalq in Los Angeles refused to speak with reporters Wednesday, except one who refused to give his name for fear of FBI action against him.
He insisted that the FBI had targeted people who are merely opponents of the Iranian regime, not Moujahedeen Khalq members.
“They present these guys all as members of the Moujahedeen. That’s an absolute lie,” he said. “These are ordinary people; their only guilt is that they have attended one [anti-regime] rally.”
Mohammad Parvin, founder of the independent Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran, said he was “really disturbed” by the arrests.
“What is ironic is that representatives of this (U.S.-identified) terrorist regime, such as Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister . . . are welcome in the United States, but opponents to the regime are treated like this.”
“The whole Iranian community, regardless of their political affiliation, should be very disturbed by this,” said Parvin, of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Moujahedeen Khalq supporters quietly deliver the organization’s newspaper to Iranian bookstores in Westwood and pay KSCI Channel 18 to air a one-hour weekly television called “Simaye Azadi” or Manner of Freedom. The show is shown here Saturdays at midnight.
“They are not that active in California because there are not that many people who like them,” said Nader Rafiee, a TV producer, director and performer of Encino, who was granted a rare interview with Moujahedeen leaders seven years ago. “Their activities here are just fund-raising.”
The only Moujahedeen Khalq affiliate that could be reached Wednesday was at the National Council of Resistance of Iran office in London. A man answering the phone there declined to answer questions.
Ali Shakeri, an Iranian expatriate and human rights activist who staunchly opposes the Moujahedeen Khalq, said he nonetheless wondered if the arrests were an overture by the Bush administration to right-wing members of Iran’s government. Bush officials have voiced plans to review U.S. relations with the Islamic regime.
Times staff writers David Rosenzweig and Robin Wright contributed to this story.