Texas Charity, Leaders Are Charged With Aiding Hamas
Moving against a shuttered Islamic charity that was once the nation’s largest Muslim American philanthropic group, a federal grand jury in Dallas on Tuesday indicted the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation and its leaders for allegedly funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian group Hamas.
The 42-count indictment accuses the founder and six top officers and fundraisers of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development of using the charity to “provide financial and material support” for Hamas, the militant Palestinian group the U.S. government says is a terrorist organization. Hamas is accused of scores of suicide bombings in Israel.
Although the criminal charges stop short of alleging direct links between Holy Land and terrorist attacks against Israeli victims, federal officials said that between 1995 and 2001, the charity aided the militant group by channeling more than $12.4 million to the families of suicide bombers and other terrorists and to a social aid network of Palestinian hospitals, orphanages and schools dominated by Hamas.
The indictment come as the crowning move in a decade-long effort by the Justice and Treasury departments to unravel what they had described as Holy Land’s secret activities on behalf of Hamas. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said at a news conference that the charity’s officers had, in effect, “rewarded past and future suicide bombings and terrorist activities on behalf of Hamas.”
Just after dawn Tuesday, federal agents seized Holy Land’s founder, Shukri abu Baker, at his suburban Dallas house and rounded up other former Holy Land officials during morning raids in the Dallas area.
Federal agents also arrested the foundation’s director of endowments, Mohammed El-Mezain, near his home in the San Diego suburb of Scripps Ranch. And in a related development, authorities took into custody Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, a former paid fundraiser for Holy Land. Hamdan was not named in the indictment, but several lawyers familiar with the case speculated that the move was an effort to pressure him to testify for the government.
Abu Baker and Holy Land Executive Director Ghassan Elashi appeared late Tuesday in a Dallas federal courtroom before U.S. Magistrate Paul D. Stickney, who ordered them held in custody for at least three days. Ashcroft said two other Holy Land figures being charged, Haitham Maghawri and Akram Mishal, were at large outside the United States.
Also charged were Holy Land officials Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulraham Odeh.
The charges against the charity and the seven individuals include providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering. Elashi, who headed a computer and Web hosting firm, was convicted last month in Dallas in a related case for illegally shipping computers to Libya and other nations Ashcroft had described as “state sponsors of terrorism.”
Abu Baker, a charismatic, bearded Palestinian emigre, was instrumental in Holy Land’s success, calling the charity “my baby.” He oversaw its transformation from a storefront operation in Culver City to a fundraising powerhouse that broadcast television infomercials during the Muslim season of Ramadan and lined Texas highways with billboards appealing for Palestinian aid.
Holy Land took in $13 million in donations in 2000, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, its funds were frozen by President Bush, who accused the charity of being a terrorist front. Federal officials suspected that Abu Baker had acted as an agent for Mousa abu Marzouk, a top Hamas strategist who bolstered Holy Land with two $100,000 gifts in 1992.
Tim Evans, a Fort Worth lawyer for Abu Baker, said his client was “devastated” by the charges. But the indictment was hardly a surprise. In recent months, several former Holy Land officials appeared before the grand jury. A tense Abu Baker said last year that he woke every day with the fear of an indictment “always in the back of my mind. Mentally, I’m already in court.”
The indictment alleges that in the late 1990s and since, Abu Baker and other Holy Land officials transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars from the charity’s accounts in north Texas to Palestinian charity committees run by Hamas loyalists. That money, the indictment charges, went to “Hamas-controlled organizations in the West Bank and Gaza [Strip], as well as for direct payment to individuals whom [Holy Land] supported on behalf of Hamas, including family members of martyrs and prisoners.”
“This stuff wasn’t going to buy schoolbooks and lunch buckets,” said one counterterrorism official in Southern California.
Lawyers for Abu Baker and the charity insisted that they saw little evidence of new revelations.
John Boyd, a New Mexico lawyer who has represented Holy Land in civil appeals in the past, said that many of the allegations in the indictment repeat accusations detailed three years ago by the FBI as part of a government justification for freezing more than $5 million in the foundation’s assets.
“There’s nothing new here,” Boyd said. “They had all this information in November 2001. Why did they wait until the middle of the Democratic convention to indict?”
Ashcroft did not comment on the timing of the indictment, but touted the government’s use of the Patriot Act in obtaining wiretapping evidence.
John Pistole, FBI executive assistant director for counterterrorism, also credited “critical assistance from our foreign allies and partners.”
One former federal investigator involved in the investigation said the financial transactions “make it obvious the Israelis” aided the inquiry. “It appears they’ve been able to close the loop on how the money was disbursed.”
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, would say only that “in Israel we have over the last few years very much upgraded the way we track and deal with money transfers.”
Holy Land attorneys said defense lawyers would challenge the government’s suspected use of Israeli documents and secret surveillance evidence.
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Kevin Pang and Mike Anton in Southern California and Scott Gold in Houston contributed to this report.
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