Despite his attempt to laugh off a surprise primary challenge by ex-congressman Bob Dornan, Huntington Beach Republican Dana Rohrabacher could be in big trouble. His health is fine and, despite persistent rumors, he’s avoided sex scandals. But the congressman has direct connections not only to a recently arrested Islamic terrorist suspect, but also to Muslim Americans who’ve professed allegiance to such terrorist groups as Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda—groups that have aided suicide bomber missions around the world and have been identified by President Bush as threats to national security.
None of this is likely to escape Dornan’s notice. The man who lost his last two runs against Democrat Loretta Sanchez for the central Orange County congressional district has already promised to make the War on Terror his No. 1 campaign issue. In the months ahead, count on Dornan to focus on Rohrabacher’s long, close association with three Muslim Americans investigated by federal authorities for alleged support of anti-U.S. terrorist activities:
• Abdurahman Alamoudi, who was arrested in September on money laundering charges after he allegedly accepted a briefcase containing $340,000 in sequentially numbered $100 bills from front groups tied to Osama bin Laden and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Alamoudi, 51, founded the American Muslim Council (AMC) and, though careful to project a moderate image, has praised such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hezbollah. He is currently awaiting a February trial in Virginia. In that case, a federal agent has reportedly supplied an affidavit swearing that Alamoudi told other Muslim Americans in 1996, "If we are outside this country, we can say, ‘Oh, Allah, destroy America!’ But once we are here, our mission is to change it."
Pro-Israel groups say Alamoudi repeatedly named Rohrabacher as a guest of honor at political meetings. At one of those meetings, five months before Sept. 11, Rohrabacher blamed the United States for Middle East tensions and for rubberstamping "whatever Israel wants." Alamoudi’s AMC responded by giving the congressman an award.
Using his political connections, Alamoudi helped organize the Muslim chaplain program for the Defense Department. The program was recently embarrassed when an Alamoudi-backed chaplain ministering to Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees was allegedly caught mishandling classified material. In a March 2002 affidavit, a U.S. customs agent declared that Alamoudi associate Jamal Barzinji operated several companies that secretly offered financial support for terrorists involved in international murder and bombings and that Barzinji is close to the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Federal Election Commission records show that Alamoudi and his associates have given Rohrabacher more than $15,500 in contributions over the years.
• Alamoudi associate and Rohrabacher contributor/travel companion Khaled Saffuri, a Palestinian Muslim by birth who has ties to Islamic radicals throughout the Middle East. According to Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the conservative Center for Security Policy, Saffuri frequently attended Washington, D.C., strategy meetings with Rohrabacher and his longtime political ally Grover Norquist, the conservative political strategist. Even Rohrabacher’s allies were anxious about the relationship. In December 2001, a Rohrabacher congressional staff member outlined for Rohrabacher Saffuri’s secret role in providing financial assistance to the families of suicide bombers and Saffuri’s outrage that Bush had frozen the assets of the Saudi-directed Holy Land Foundation for its suspected terrorist ties. The staffer told Rohrabacher that Saffuri was "giving money to an organization that makes it possible for suicide bombers to carry out their missions" and that his "loyalties" are not to the U.S. The memo concluded, "I know Saffuri is your friend and that you think highly of him. I believe that as your friend, if he is a true friend, he will understand the reason that you would not want to receive further counsel from him." Rohrabacher ignored the warning—which was first published without names in the conservative Insight magazine in May 2002—and the staffer quit. According to J. Michael Waller, a senior writer at Insight, Rohrabacher’s activity was evidence that a "terror-support network across the United States" had "bought themselves political access and political cover in Washington in what appear to have been attempts to undermine existing federal counterterrorism laws."
• Abdulwahab Alkebsi helps run Middle East organizations associated with Alamoudi and Saffuri. He is a Rohrabacher contributor and is currently a program officer at the Arab-funded National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. Alkebsi has vocally opposed FBI investigations into U.S.-based Muslim groups. The Yemen-born activist claims the probes are "harassment" and that Muslim leaders such as himself are "victims."
Back home in Huntington Beach, Rohrabacher is a flag-waving, pro-war conservative. But in Washington, he has often joined Alamoudi, Alkebsi and Saffuri in their criticism of U.S. policy. In 2001, just before Sept. 11, for example, the congressman declared the U.S. had acted "immorally or amorally" in the Middle East and that "sometimes it comes back to haunt you."
House of Representatives disclosure records show that, between 1998 and 2002, the Arab American Institute and the Islamic Institute gave Rohrabacher four all-expenses-paid trips to the Middle East.
In such limited circles, Rohrabacher has complained of Israel’s influence on U.S. foreign policy. That position has led him to several embarrassing blunders. In September 2002, OC Weekly revealed that Rohrabacher had not been honest about his relationship with the pro-bin Laden Taliban. These days, Rohrabacher touts his opposition to the Taliban, but in 1996 he told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs that Taliban leaders are "not terrorists or revolutionaries" and that their "takeover of Afghanistan would be a positive development" for the U.S.
The congressman also maintained a cordial, behind-the-scenes relationship with bin Laden associates in the Middle East in the months just before Sept. 11. On April 11, 2001, Rohrabacher traveled with Saffuri and others from Washington, D.C., to meet in Qatar with Taliban leader Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. The regime that was protecting bin Laden from U.S. intelligence operations wanted Rohrabacher to help increase U.S. aid to it, at the time already more than $100 million annually. Rohrabacher emerged from those meetings to tell Middle Eastern news media that the meeting had been "frank and open" and that the Taliban leaders were "thoughtful and inquisitive" as well as "flexible."
Rohrabacher was obviously mistaken. Five months later to the day, bin Laden’s terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In the days following those attacks, the congressman claimed he had anticipated the Sept. 11 suicide missions a day before they were launched, but could not get National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to hear his warnings. He eventually blamed the disaster on Bill Clinton, who had been out of power for eight months. The Orange County Register dutifully reported the congressman’s attack on Clinton, but left out his questionable involvement with the Taliban.
Now that he’s in a tough primary fight, Rohrabacher won’t find it so easy to dodge questions about his Middle Eastern friends. Ask Dornan why he thinks he can win and he won’t hesitate to reply: "9-11." For the typically longwinded, flame-throwing ex-congressman, the campaign strategy is both uncharacteristically simple and credible.
"What was Dana thinking?" said Dornan shortly after announcing his run for office. "Why would he be working with those characters? It’s unforgivable. He’s got a lot of explaining to do."