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Muslims denounce raids linked to Al-Arian

A group calls the government's hunt for financial and immigration records "a war on Muslim institutions.''

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Saying the war on terrorism had become "a war on Muslim institutions," American Muslim leaders denounced Wednesday's government raids of homes and offices in northern Virginia, conducted in part to find evidence against Sami Al-Arian.

A mother and her 19-year-old daughter spent three hours in handcuffs while black-clad agents with guns carted documents from their suburban Washington home. A young newlywed saw her passport confiscated on the eve of her planned honeymoon abroad.

These and other stories poured forth at a news conference Thursday in the Capitol Hill offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a public policy and lobbying group.

"Now the witch hunt has expanded into homes and families," said Johari Abdul-Malik, the imam, or Muslim spiritual leader, at Howard University.

In an operation led by the U.S. Customs Service, about 150 federal and local law enforcement officials descended Wednesday on 14 locations in suburban Washington and on a poultry farm in Georgia. Two more northern Virginia locations were raided Thursday, according to documents and sources cited by the Washington Post.

Operation Green Quest, as the raids were dubbed, sought financial and immigration records relating to 20 business and nonprofit organizations connected to M. Yaqub Mizra, chairman of a mutual fund.

Among the organizations raided Wednesday was the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a nonprofit scholarly research organization in Herndon, Va., about 20 miles from Washington.

The institute was the major funder of Al-Arian's now-defunct University of South Florida-affiliated think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, shut down after the Federal Bureau of Investigation confiscated its files in 1995.

Federal authorities have been investigating Al-Arian since 1995 on suspicion he used WISE and a related Islamic charity to funnel money raised in the United States to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Israel.

Al-Arian has never been charged with a crime and has always denied involvement with terrorism. But then-interim Tampa U.S. Attorney Mac Cauley announced last month that his office was still investigating.

Search warrants for Wednesday's raids said agents sought records about Al-Arian, WISE and others allegedly linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar.

Federal officials refuse to discuss the investigation. Affidavits in support of the raids were filed under court seal. However, some clues can be gleaned.

The warrants, for example, were issued in the Eastern District of Virginia, indicating the Al-Arian investigation was not the primary impetus for the raids.

If Al-Arian had been the primary target, the warrants more likely would have been signed by a magistrate in the Middle District of Florida, where Al-Arian is under investigation by Tampa U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, a Justice Department official said.

With Perez's office not commenting, it is is unclear what law Al-Arian may have violated. The activities for which he is known to be under investigation occurred in 1995 and before. But at that time, there was no explicit prohibition against raising money in the United States to support foreign terrorism.

However, there was a law against raising U.S. funds for "specified unlawful activities" overseas. Among those activities is an "offense against a foreign nation ... involving extortion."

Meanwhile, speakers at Thursday's news conference denounced the government actions, which included raids on at least six homes.

Jason Erb of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the raids a "blind fishing expedition." Added Shaker Elsayed, secretary-general of the Muslim American Society: "This is becoming a war on Muslim institutions."

Al-Arian, in Washington for a civil rights conference, attended the news conference but did not speak publicly.

There was a humorous moment when a reporter sitting near him asked about an article CAIR had distributed regarding his case. Struggling with the pronunciation of "Al-Arian," she asked: "Is he living now in the northern Virginia area?"

Al-Arian remained silent while Elsayed responded, saying Al-Arian is being "targeted by Steve Emerson and Emerson liaisons in the Justice Department."

Emerson, an investigative reporter, is the author of the best-selling book American Jihad, which describes what Emerson calls terrorist networks in the United States.

Of the criticism, Emerson said: "CAIR and Al-Arian used to describe me as somebody who had no credibility or influence. Suddenly I'm somebody manipulating the whole Justice Department?"

Implicit links between International Institute of Islamic Thought, Al-Arian and Palestinian Islamic Jihad can be found in a letter that became public after USF commissioned a review of the group in 1996, Emerson said.

The Dec. 11, 1991, letter to the director of USF's International Affairs Center was signed by Ramadan Abdullah, then the director of administration for WISE. It was copied to another WISE employee, Bashir Nafi.

"Our largest contributor is the Washington-based International Institute for Islamic Thought," Abdullah wrote.

Abdullah, also known as Ramadan Shallah, later left WISE and resurfaced in Syria as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Nafi, whom federal authorities also identified as a member of Islamic Jihad, later moved to Virginia to work for the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Immigration agents arrested Nafi outside the institute's offices in 1996 and deported him on visa violations.

In an interview Thursday, Al-Arian dismissed such allegations as old news driven by "Zionist groups who have political agendas." He said the institute never gave more than 40 percent of WISE's annual budget of $150,000 or less.

In St. Petersburg, about 30 supporters of Al-Arian waved signs outside a meeting of the USF Board of Trustees, a reminder of the passions still inflamed over USF president Judy Genshaft's move to fire Al-Arian.

A Palestinian born in Kuwait who is a permanent U.S. resident, Al-Arian was suspended last fall from his tenured computer engineering professorship amid post-Sept. 11 controversy over his purported terrorist ties.

Faculty Union president Roy Weatherford accused the board of abandoning academic freedom to avoid controversy that harms the university's ability to raise funds.

After the meeting, Genshaft said she had not yet made a decision on Al-Arian's future at USF but would soon.

-- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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