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Muslim Leader Arrested For Terror Ties By: Amanda Garrett and John Caniglia
The Plain Dealer | Thursday, January 15, 2004

Imam Fawaz Damra helped lay the groundwork for an organization that ultimately merged into al-Qaida in the late 1980s.

He was an unindicted co-conspirator of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. And he passionately raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which killed dozens of Jews in Israel during the 1990s.

Yet Damra, spiritual leader to thou sands of Muslims in Northeast Ohio, seemed to fly comfortably beneath the radar of U.S. terror investigators - until Tuesday.

FBI agents swooped in on the Palestinian cleric at his Strongsville home, arresting him on a relatively minor - and rare - charge for lying on his immigration forms a decade ago to conceal his ties to terror groups.

Damra could face prison, deportation and, some say, enormous pressure to reveal what he knows about terrorists and their finances.

"He's a vital piece of a larger puzzle," said Tally Aharony, an analyst with the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-terror think tank.

How much Damra knows is unclear, but he is directly linked to two of the largest terror-funding probes in the United States, and implicated by association in a third sprawling investigation.

Damra's attorney, Joseph McGinness, dismissed claims Tuesday that his client is a villain. He said the charge, which stems from an investigation that began in November 2001, is merely a "knee-jerk reaction" to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, part of a misguided attempt by the government to show it's doing something to weed out terrorists.

About six hours after his arrest Tuesday morning, Damra was led into a courtroom wearing handcuffs. He briefly smiled at his wife and then pleaded not guilty to the charge against him. A judge scheduled his trial for Feb. 23.

In the past, Damra, 42, has sometimes answered questions about his Islamic connections here and abroad. But Tuesday, after pledging his $160,000 house as a bond, he declined to speak with reporters.

As he left the federal courthouse, Damra was surrounded by about a dozen family members and friends. But his support in the broader Muslim community seemed to be unraveling. Some Arab-American and Muslim civic leaders even called for him to resign his post as imam of Parma's Islamic Center of Cleveland - the largest mosque in Ohio.

Local Palestinians, however, showed more solidarity. Many said they were shocked by the immigration charge and angered that the FBI arrested Damra at his home.

"If they wanted to see him, they could have gone to the mosque," said mosque member Hani Aziz.

"To go that early, scaring his wife and children over nothing, I'm really saddened.

"Really, we know our imam," he added. "If there's anybody decent in the world, it's him."

But what is in Damra's heart has never been clear.

In the mid-1980s, he co- founded the Alkifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., part of a network that recruited and trained Muslims to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a venture that dovetailed with U.S. government efforts in the region.

When the Soviets withdrew, however, there was an international fight over what to do with the leftover money and power.

Like many Alkifah centers around the world, the Brooklyn chapter was drawn into the al- Qaida network created by Osama bin Laden. The mosque itself fell under the sway of Omar Abdul Rahman, known as the "blind sheik," who was later blamed for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Damra, meanwhile, settled in Cleveland, where he reinvented himself as a peacemaker and spent more than a decade building tentative, then increasingly sturdy, bridges between local Muslims and Jews.

Nearly all of his efforts collapsed following the terror attacks of 2001, when a grainy videotape surfaced revealing another side of the charismatic cleric.

The 1991 video shows Damra at a Muslim gathering in Cleveland, disparaging Jews in Arabic as "pigs and monkeys" and raising money for the killing of Jews by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Immediately after a television station aired the tape, Damra defended the Palestinians' right to take up arms against Israel.

"Maybe those who did not know this aspect of my life will be surprised," Damra said.

Days later, however, Damra apologized.

In 2003, more questions surfaced when former University of South Florida Professor Sami Al- Arian was charged with racketeering, accused of heading the American branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

A 121-page federal indictment claimed that money for deadly bombings in Israel might have come, in part, from a secret fund established in Cleveland.

Damra is not named in the indictment, but terror experts say that Damra is unindicted co-conspirator No. 1. That co-conspirator offered to hold a fund-raiser for Al-Arian's group as recently as 2001.

Whether Damra is involved in other terror fund raising is unclear, but he is connected to at least two other major cases now under investigation:

Federal investigators have shut down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in Texas, saying it was funneling money to the Palestinian terror group Hamas. According to the FBI, Cleveland Muslims hosted at least two fund-raisers for the charity in 2001. The director of Holy Land has said Damra has helped with fund raising.

Federal investigators are also probing more than 100 Virginia charities and businesses collectively known as the Safa group. Court records show that Safa gave money to both Holy Land Foundation and Sami Al-Arian.

The three - Al-Arian, Holy Land and Safa - are the largest and possibly most important terror investigations going on in the United States right now, said Aharony, of the Investigative Project.

"I think this is the perfect example of how these groups are tied together through financial transactions and social ties," she said.

U.S. Attorney Gregory White declined to say whether Damra is cooperating in other terror cases.

But a Justice Department attorney handling the Al-Arian case in Tampa is working in Cleveland on Damra's immigration case. Al-Arian's trial is scheduled to begin next year.

A federal grand jury secretly indicted Damra in December. The indictment was unsealed Tuesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Bakeman said the case is based on more than 100 pages of confidential documents. Authorities said Damra lied on his immigration forms between Oct. 18, 1993, and April 29, 1994.

The indictment cites three examples of lies by omission:

That he failed to disclose his affiliation to the Alkifah Refugee Center, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its offshoot, the Islamic Committee for Palestine.

That he failed to mention his involvement with "terrorist organizations, that advocated the persecution of Jews and others by means of violent terrorist attacks."

That he failed to disclose a 1989 arrest for assault in New York City. The charge - which involved a fight with a security guard at JFK airport - was later dismissed.

The case against Damra is unusual, said Jim Clark, an Alexandria, Va., defense attorney. Over the past 10 years, there have been only a dozen federal prosecutions focused solely on false information on immigration forms.

One of his clients who is accused of ties to the Safa group is among that group.

"I suspect it's become a fashionable vehicle to get someone in court that they couldn't get there otherwise," Clark said.

But Aharony views such immigration cases differently.

"These people are crooks," she said. "They're trying to get here, to stay here any way they can. This stops them."

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