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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

Islamic American Nonprofits Face Increased Scrutiny in U.S.

Charities' financial records are sought to see if any money is funneled to terrorist groups.

November 04, 2001|LISA GETTER and CHUCK NEUBAUER and ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 1996 anti-terrorism law made it a crime to support any group designated a terrorist by the U.S., but prosecutions have been rare. Grand juries in Illinois, New York and Texas have spent several years investigating several Islamic nonprofits and their links to Hamas. The only indictments issued so far have been for refusing to testify.

The U.S. government has turned more often to measures that require a lower standard of proof than criminal prosecution, such as the State Department designations and asset seizures by the Treasury Department.

In addition to the two groups already barred from the State Department aid program, the Treasury letter sought information on Islamic Relief Worldwide in Burbank; the Islamic Center in Tucson; Care International Inc. of Boston; and the Global Relief Foundation, Benevolence International Foundation and the Islamic Assn. for Palestine, all based in Illinois.

Treasury officials say they are investigating other groups and individuals who may be added to their list of suspected terrorists, but declined to name them. Treasury is relying on information from the FBI, CIA, State Department and foreign governments, as well as from its own search of bank records, public filings and even Web sites.

Israel, Canada, Britain and other countries have found evidence that Islamic charities are funneling money to terrorists.

The Treasury memo about the U.S. nonprofits was sent after Sept. 11 to the National Assn. of State Charity Officials. The association disseminated it to members, who as state charity regulators keep files of nonprofits that often include income tax returns, state incorporation records and audits.

Treasury officials would not say why the eight nonprofits were singled out. But a review of hundreds of pages of tax returns, incorporation documents and court records, as well as interviews with experts and officials from the organizations revealed hints of relationships that may have stirred investigators' suspicions.

The Islamic Center in Tucson was once headed by Wa'el Hamza Jalaidan, who Treasury officials say is now Bin Laden's chief of logistics.

The center was founded in 1971 by students at the University of Arizona. Its new $1.5-million mosque was funded in part by the Saudi government, said Omar Shahin, the center's imam, or spiritual leader.

Jalaidan was president of the Tucson center from 1984-85, state incorporation records show.

"As far as I remember, he never mentioned Osama bin Laden," said Rehmatullah Mir, who served on the center's board with Jalaidan and remains an officer. Mir, who would answer questions from The Times only in writing, said he doesn't know when Jalaidan left Arizona or where he went.

U.S. authorities believe Jalaidan was one of the founders of Al Qaeda, which was created in the late 1980s.

Some other people who would later become Bin Laden's key lieutenants also spent time at the Islamic Center in the 1980s.

Wadih El-Hage, Bin Laden's personal secretary, was a member of the center when he lived in Arizona in the 1980s. Mir said he could "barely recall" El-Hage. Two weeks ago, a federal judge in New York sentenced El-Hage to life in prison for helping plan the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

Ghassan Dahduli was another member of the mosque in the 1980s. He studied landscape architecture at the University of Arizona from 1984-87.

More recently, Dahduli was picked up on immigration violations in Texas as part of the large U.S. sweep of suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks. He remains in custody. He was listed in El-Hage's phone book, found by investigations after the 1998 embassy bombings. Dahduli's attorney dismissed the entry as the result of a brief encounter at a Dallas restaurant when El-Hage recognized Dahduli from Arizona.

Shahin said that members of the mosque raised money for Bin Laden in the 1980s when Bin Laden was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, a cause supported by the U.S.

"Our government, America, used to support Bin Laden," Shahin said. "Osama bin Laden was made in America. Our government was sponsoring and supporting him. We are following our government."

Shahin, like representatives of the other nonprofits, said he was unaware Treasury was gathering information about the center. "We have no problem supplying what they ask for," he said.

He said the Tucson center has hosted conferences for the Islamic Assn. for Palestine, another group now under Treasury scrutiny. The center has also raised money for Holy Land, the Texas charity barred from the State Department aid program.

Holy Land first attracted federal attention because of a $210,000 contribution it received in 1992 from Mousa Abu Marzook, political leader of Hamas.

Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement in the West Bank and Gaza, was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization in 1995.

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