It started out as an investigation into U.S.-based financing of Hamas terrorist operations, which was bad enough. But as federal investigators developed a matrix of suspects, they discovered a possible 9/11 connection.
The Holy Land Foundation terror case has already touched the top Muslim lobby in Washington -- the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- which U.S. prosecutors recently named as an unindicted co-conspirator.
A former senior CAIR official is among five indicted figures in the major terror-funding case. It turns out he is related by marriage to a key suspect in the conspiracy -- a radical Muslim cleric and activist who authorities have linked to al-Qaida.
In fact, they say the cleric is closely connected to the spiritual adviser to the 9/11 hijackers.
Federal investigators have learned that imam Mohammed El-Mezain -- who goes on trial next month with one of CAIR's founding board members -- once lived in the same small Colorado apartment complex with another imam accused of preparing some of the hijackers for their "martyrdom" operation.
El-Mezain and imam Anwar Aulaqi later moved to San Diego, where Aulaqi held closed-door meetings with the al-Qaida hijackers. The two radical clerics also organized pilgrimages to Mecca together, including one made just months before the 9/11 attacks.
According to federal investigators, El-Mezain likely met Aulaqi in Fort Collins, Colo., around 1990, when the two lived next door to each other.
Investigators have traced El-Mezain's address at the time to 500 W. Prospect Rd. in Fort Collins. Aulaqi also listed an address then at 500 W. Prospect Rd. El-Mezain occupied Apartment 19C, while Aulaqi occupied Apartment 23L, as I first reported in my book, "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and
Subversives Have Penetrated Washington."
In February 2001, El-Mezain and Aulaqi arranged for American Muslims to go on an "executive-package" trip to the Saudi holy land through a travel agency in Falls Church, Va., a connection also revealed in "Infiltration." The trip itinerary I obtained lists Aulaqi as the "Imam on Trip," with El-Mezain acting as trip adviser.
El-Mezain and Aulaqi moved in the same circles in San Diego.
Before his recent arrest, El-Mezain headed the San Diego office of alleged Hamas front Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and, like Aulaqi, served as a leader in local mosques there. Aulaqi preached in a San Diego mosque for four years before moving in January 2001 to Falls Church,
Va., to lead prayers at Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the Washington, D.C., area.
There is more to the connection. El-Mezain is a cousin of Mousa Abu Marzook, the political leader of Hamas and a terrorist fugitive. Before Marzook fled the U.S., he lived in Falls Church and attended Dar al-Hijrah.
In early April 2001, after Aulaqi returned from the Saudi hajj trip, two young Saudi men showed up at his Falls Church mosque. One was Nawaf al-Hazmi, the second in command behind the "emir" or leader of the 9/11 operation, Mohamed Atta. The other was Hani Hanjour, the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon.
Both had made their way across the U.S. from San Diego, where Aulaqi had previously ministered to Hazmi and another Saudi hijacker in closed-door sessions at his former mosque. Investigators believe their reunion in Falls Church was not coincidental.
The FBI has sought Aulaqi -- who fled back to his native Yemen on a Saudi jet after 9/11 -- for further questioning since the 9/11 Commission scolded the bureau for failing to adequately investigate the imam.
El-Mezain and former CAIR official Ghassan Elashi -- who are related by marriage -- go on trial July 16 in Dallas in the terror-financing case involving the Holy Land Foundation. U.S. prosecutors have named CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator in the large Muslim charity's alleged plot to funnel more than $12 million to Hamas suicide-bombing operations.
CAIR denies charges that it supports terrorism, and claims federal prosecutors are conducting a witch hunt.
In 1994, however, CAIR was spun off from a known Hamas front called the Islamic Association for Palestine, which publishes Hamas communiques, distributes Hamas recruitment videos, and hosts conferences raising money for the Palestinian terrorist group, investigators say. CAIR co-founders
Omar Ahmad and Nihad Awad were two of IAP's top officers in the early 1990s.
IAP was co-founded by Hamas political chief Marzook, an officially designated terrorist and fugitive from justice.
In an August 2002 court decision regarding the freezing of terrorist assets in the U.S., a federal judge found that "the Islamic Association for Palestine has acted in support of Hamas." The decision was issued in support of President Bush's earlier executive order freezing the assets of the affiliated Holy Land Foundation, now under indictment for funding Hamas. Both Holy Land Foundation and IAP have been shut down on terror suspicions.
In October 1993, eight months before CAIR was formed, the FBI covertly recorded Ahmad and other IAP officials professing their commitment to Hamas during a key meeting in Philadelphia with five Hamas leaders and three top executives of the Holy Land Foundation, including Elashi, according to
federal court records citing an internal FBI report.
At the summit, which took place in a Marriott hotel, IAP allegedly mapped out a strategy to use the U.S. as a fundraising base for Hamas, while agreeing to masquerade the illicit operation under the cloak of charity to avoid U.S. government detection. It was decided, the FBI wiretaps revealed,
that most or almost all of the funds collected by Holy Land Foundation in the future would be steered to Hamas.
The so-called charity shared officers and funds with IAP, and both groups have kept offices in the same Dallas suburb. A subsidiary there originally ran CAIR's website. Investigators say all three groups are interlinked in a terror troika.
Awad, like Ahmad, does not talk much about his pre-CAIR days. But back when he was an IAP activist, he made his support for Hamas publicly known.
At a March 22, 1994, symposium on the Middle East at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., Awad said, "After I researched the situation inside and outside Palestine, I am in support of the Hamas movement."
Three months later, he and Ahmad founded CAIR.
They are not the only CAIR officials with links to Hamas. Elashi, a founding CAIR board member who is related by marriage to Hamas leader Marzook, has been charged with financing Hamas as the top check-writer for the Holy Land Foundation. He was present at the 1993 Hamas summit in Philadelphia,
according to court records.
Elashi and his four Palestinian brothers were convicted in 2004 of using their Dallas-based InfoCom Corp. to illegally ship high-tech goods to Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism.
Another founding director of CAIR -- Rafeeq Jaber -- took over for Ahmad as president of IAP and is still involved in the terror-sympathizing organization. And CAIR Board Director Nabil Sadoun has served along with CAIR Research Director Mohamed Nimer on the board of the United Association for Studies and Research, or UASR, which investigators also believe to be a key Hamas front in America.
In fact, Sadoun co-founded the Washington-based nonprofit UASR with Marzook, who incidentally has enjoyed the public support of CAIR since fleeing the country.
CAIR has repeatedly denied any association with Hamas. But don't believe it, says retired FBI special agent John Vincent, who has worked Hamas cases in Chicago, where IAP is based. "There is no question CAIR supports Hamas," he told me.
He says the evidence clearly shows that the group has aided and protected the operations of groups supporting Hamas, such as IAP and the Holy Land Foundation. Vincent argues that CAIR has managed to hide its true agenda of supporting militant Islam under the "cover" of civil-rights advocacy.
Even more disturbing are the links that CAIR's forerunner, IAP, has maintained with al-Qaida. In 1989, IAP dedicated its annual convention to the late Abudullah Azzam, the fiery Palestinian cleric and mentor of Osama bin Laden. And newspapers published by IAP have often contained articles
praising Azzam, who called for bloody jihad against Israel and its supporters.
The papers also celebrate Hamas suicide attacks on Israelis and publicize Hamas calls for the death of Israel. Awad helped edit the IAP rags before co-founding CAIR.
But that's not all.
Up until 2001, a Palestinian by the name of Ghassan Dahduli served as an IAP vice president. His name was listed in the address book of bin Laden's personal secretary, Wadi al-Hage, who is serving a life sentence in prison for his role in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. The address book was
introduced as evidence at his trial.
Dahduli, who refused to cooperate in the 9/11 investigation, was deported to Jordan soon after the attacks. He served under CAIR's Ahmad when Ahmad was president of IAP from 1991 to 1994, the year he left to start up CAIR. (Though ethnic-Palestinian, Ahmad and Awad were born and raised in Dahduli's Jordan, site of their refugee camp.)
In addition, CAIR has received donations from al-Qaida-tied International Islamic Relief Organization -- one of bin Laden's favorite charities -- according to IRS returns filed by Islamic Relief's U.S. branch that I have reviewed.
Prosecutors have tied CAIR and the Holy Land Foundation closely together.
CAIR board member Elashi, who headed the alleged Hamas front, is a Palestinian native who also helped run an Internet service provider that hosted CAIR's Web portal. Dallas-based InfoCom Corp. also called Al-Jazeera TV a client until the tech firm was raided and shut down by federal authorities for terror ties.
When the Department of Treasury froze the Holy Land Foundation's assets just after 9/11, adding the group to its terrorist blacklist, CAIR decried the action as "unjust" and "disturbing" and demanded the government unfreeze its funds -- some of which, it turns out, have been commingled with those of
Last decade, CAIR received seed money from the Holy Land Foundation. And federal tax records show CAIR has donated money to the illegal Muslim charity.
For example, CAIR's regional office in Northern California sent at least $500 to the Holy Land Foundation's post-office box in Richardson, Texas, in 1999. Signing off on the transaction was none other than Ahmad, the co-founder and past chairman of CAIR. He is listed as a director of that
regional chapter, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif., where he lives and worships at a mosque that has held numerous fund-raisers for the Holy Land Foundation.
Ahmad, in fact, is a longtime member and leader of the large Wahhabi mosque -- called the Muslim Community Association, or MCA -- which last decade also raised thousands of dollars for a special invited guest: Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command to bin Laden.
There is evidence that Ahmad has had a personal hand in raising funds for Palestinians during their intifada, or anti-Israel uprising.
A week before the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Ahmad urged Muslims gathered at the Islamic Society of North America's convention in Illinois to start supporting two orphaned Palestinian children of martyrs instead of one to counteract what he called U.S.-supported Israeli brutality. U.S. prosecutors
also have named ISNA as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case.
Investigators say contributors to the Holy Land Foundation who personally knew the so-called charity's leaders more than likely also knew their money would end up aiding Hamas.
"Those contributors to HLF [Holy Land Foundation] who knew the leaders of Hamas or HLF -- and at least some of those who did not -- contributed their money to support suicide bombings and terrorism conducted by Hamas," charges David Kane, senior special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security.
His definition would include both Ahmad and Awad, who have worked not only with Hamas leader Marzook but also with Holy Land Foundation leader Elashi.
The Santa Clara-based chapter of CAIR has also given funds to Muslims in Chechnya, tax records show, a hotbed of al-Qaida-affiliated terrorism. Chechen terrorists in 2004 slaughtered hundreds of children at a school in Russia.
"CAIR, its leaders, and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups," asserts former FBI counterterrorism chief Steven Pomerantz.
According to the internal FBI memo cited earlier -- which was written in 2001 by former FBI counterrorism chief Dale Watson -- Holy Land Foundation's El-Mezain last decade told an audience at an Islamic conference in Los Angeles that he had raised nearly $2 million for Hamas inside the U.S. The keynote speaker at the MAYA conference, Sheikh Muhammed Siyam, told the crowd: "Finish off the Israelis. Kill them all. Exterminate them. No peace ever."
El-Mezain's pal Aulaqi, the al-Qaida hijackers' mentor, has engaged in similar anti-Semitic vitriol, a former Muslim who roomed with him during the 2001 hajj told me.
CAIR's alleged conspiratorial role in the El-Mezain terror case is not the first time CAIR has been linked to al-Qaida.
After 9/11, an Al-Qaida operative by the name of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali participated in paramilitary training exercises with members of the Virginia Jihad Network -- whose convicted ringleader was none other than CAIR's civil-rights coordinator. The ringleader, Randall "Ismail" Royer, worked out
of CAIR's Washington, D.C., headquarters. His pal Abu Ali recently was convicted of plotting to assassinate Bush.
CAIR has been slow to denounce al-Qaida for terrorism.
In 1998, after bin Laden was fingered for blowing up the U.S. embassies in Africa, CAIR demanded that Los Angeles-area billboards with bin Laden's picture under the headline, "Sworn Enemy," be taken down.
In 2001, when most of the civilized world condemned bin Laden for attacking New York and Washington, CAIR abstained for nearly four months, while demanding a halt to U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, bin Laden's home base at the time.
Despite its general denunciations of "terrorism" in recent years, CAIR still refuses to condemn by name Hamas, an officially designated terrorist group.