"I didn't see the evidence," explained one male juror who this week voted to acquit former Florida professor Sami al-Arian on charges he conspired to help Palestinian terrorists kill Israelis and Americans.
Don't blame federal prosecutors for that. They did the best they could with the reams of circumstantial evidence they had, which was powerful enough by itself to sway even al-Arian's defense team to admit he had at least "some affiliation" with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and may have cheered news of the terror group's attacks.
But prosecutors could have had an open-and-shut case if it weren't for a reluctant FBI agent who in hindsight turned out to be al-Arian's guardian angel.
Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, a devout Muslim from Egypt who speaks fluent Arabic, refused to secretly tape-record his fellow Muslim brother al-Arian in defiance of repeated requests from FBI colleagues working the al-Arian case. And that ultimately hurt the government's chances of putting al-Arian away.
Rewind to 1998
That year, Abdel-Hafiz met a Muslim activist through a friend at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center outside Washington, a hard-line Wahhabi mosque the agent regularly attended at the time, and the same mosque that would later give aid and comfort to some of the 9/11 hijackers. The two men exchanged business cards. Not long afterward, Abdel-Hafiz got a call from al-Arian in Florida.
The Tampa professor and Muslim activist said he got the agent's business card from the mutual acquaintance and wanted to know if he would do him a favor and, among other things, poke around the FBI to see if it had ever opened an investigation into alleged death threats against terrorism researcher Steve Emerson. Al-Arian wanted to try to catch the pro-Israel Emerson possibly exaggerating claims he made in congressional testimony about such threats. Remarkably, Abdel-Hafiz agreed to look into the issue for al-Arian, bureau sources tell me.
Hearing of the encounter, the FBI's Tampa field office asked Abdel-Hafiz to follow up by asking al-Arian several questions related to a counterterrorism case they were building against him -- and secretly record his answers. Abdel-Hafiz agreed to speak to al-Arian by phone but said he would not record the conversation without al-Arian's knowledge. The lead Tampa agent on the case, Barry Carmody, was scandalized by his refusal, calling it "outrageous."
Then Abdel-Hafiz met, unexpectedly, with al-Arian at an American Muslim Council conference in Washington and wrote a summary of their conversation, which he had not coordinated with Tampa. The report he filed was not well received by Carmody and his team of investigators in Tampa -- or by FBI agents John Vincent and Robert Wright, whose Chicago investigation dovetailed with the al-Arian case.
"After Gamal had a conversation with Sami al-Arian, he made a lot of self-serving statements for al-Arian and denigrated the FBI agent (Carmody) who was investigating the case," says Vincent, who also had a run-in with Abdel-Hafiz over his refusal to wear a wire to record another Muslim under terror investigation -- Soliman Biheiri, who is tied to al-Arian (investigators found the his phone number in Biheiri's computer address book). Abdel-Hafiz tried to explain to Vincent that a "Muslim does not record another Muslim."
"So we knew there was a problem," Vincent adds. "We had suspicions about whether Gamal would write down conversations accurately."
What's more, "There were also complaints that he was meeting with subjects of investigations in Washington without advising the Washington field office," he says. Abdel-Hafiz, 46, is a good friend and former college roommate of Biheiri's Washington-based ex-bookkeeper, Abbas Ebrahim, as I first revealed in my book, "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives
Have Penetrated Washington."
Agent Carmody says Abdel-Hafiz hurt the al-Arian probe by refusing to record the professor in the bureau's effort to get him to admit financing Palestianian terrorist acts. Al-Arian even bragged to Abdel-Hafiz that the Tampa office did not have a strong case against him -- thanks in large part
'Sami is a very smart man'
In an exclusive interview for my book, I asked Abdel-Hafiz why he did not record al-Arian at their private meeting. And he told me, simply, "I had no recording equipment with me." Hmm.
But then he went on to say the Tampa office of the FBI handled the case clumsily. "These people think Sami al-Arian is an idiot," he says. "But Sami al-Arian is a very smart man."
Or at least smart enough to get a little help from a friend on the inside.
Abdel-Hafiz, a devout Sunni Muslim whose Egyptian father is known as a Quran memorizer, showed a pattern of pro-Islamist behavior, say agents who worked with him. Yet FBI headquarters overlooked it and even promoted him.
Carmody, Vincent, and Wright all complained to headquarters about Abdel-Hafiz twice refusing on religious grounds to tape-record Muslim terrorist suspects. Despite that, he was handpicked in early 2001 by former FBI Director Louis Freeh to become the FBI's deputy legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- a key post in the battle against al-Qaida, which had hit American military barracks inside Saudi and a warship in neighboring Yemen.
After 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi nationals, Abdel-Hafiz was in a prime position to run down leads in the Saudi capital. Only, that didn't happen, at least not as often as headquarters had hoped. Agents back in Washington complained about his performance there, saying they were not getting answers to the hundreds of leads they were sending him in Riyadh. Abdel-Hafiz says he was one of only two people manning the office there and was further hobbled by an antiquated computer system.
But he and his boss Wilfred Rattigan, a black convert to Islam, had nonetheless found time to fly off to Mecca for the hajj, where they surrendered their FBI cell phones to Saudi nationals and were out of contact with officials back in the U.S. who were trying to ring them up about investigations into al-Qaida and 9/11. Both Rattigan and Abdel-Hafiz, who have since been reassigned within the bureau, wore traditional Muslim headgear and robes while on the job in Saudi Arabia, further outraging fellow agents.
When a senior supervisor was sent to the Riyadh office nearly a year after 9/11, she found secret documents strewn all over the office, some even wedged between cabinets. She also found a huge backlog of boxes each filled with three feet of paper containing secret, time-sensitive leads. Much of the materials, including information on Saudi airline pilots, had not been translated or reviewed.
It's anyone's guess how many terror cases were compromised in the Saudi office. But agents who worked with, or tried to work with, Abdel-Hafiz on domestic terror cases have no doubt he hurt their efforts to put away al-Arian. And if prosecutors don't retry al-Arian on any of the counts the jury deadlocked over, investigators fear they might lose momentum in a related terror-financing case in the Washington suburbs involving the so-called Safa group -- a case that is potentially bigger than the al-Arian case.
Safa case now in jeopardy?
A key conduit in the alleged Safa terror-financing network, a think tank called the International Institute of Islamic Thought, or IIIT, is headquartered in a three-story brick office building at 500 Grove Street in Herndon, Va. (this site and others raided after 9/11 can be viewed by clicking on the "Wahhabi Corridor" link posted on the companion website to my book at http://www.sperryfiles.com). Investigators traced funds from IIIT to al-Arian, who had been accused of heading the U.S. wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Taha al-Alwani, an Islamic scholar at IIIT, was an alleged unindicted co-conspirator in the al-Arian indictment. Investigators have accused al-Alwani -- who also heads one of the nation's most prestigious Islamic institutions, the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (which has trained Muslim chaplains for the U.S. military and U.S. prison system) -- of taking steps to conceal alleged payments to Palestinian terrorists. In a letter seized by investigators, al-Alwani advised his pal al-Arian to construct a "facade" to disguise a $50,000 donation to one of al-Arian's alleged PIJ terror fronts in the U.S.
Despite the government investigation, IIIT is still in business, still listed in the lobby directory on the second floor of the Herndon building.
What's more, IIIT president al-Alwani once signed a copy of a fatwah declaring that violent "jihad is the only way to liberate Palestine," according to a federal affidavit for a search warrant used to raid the think tank in 2002. In a search of al-Arian's home computer, investigators back in Tampa found copies of a document called "The Manifesto of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine," which shuns any peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel. It also calls the U.S. "the great Satan America."
Another Safa group leader, Jamal Barzinji, is also directly connected to al-Arian -- and closely tied to Palestinian terror causes, according to the same affidavit.
"Barzinji is not only closely associated with PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] but also with Hamas," alleges senior federal agent David Kane in the affidavit, which was also used to obtain warrants to search the homes of Barzinji and his partner al-Alwani.
In addition, Barzinji is a long-time associate of al-Qaida fundraiser Abdurahman Alamoudi, now serving time in federal prison. Al-Arian is also close to Alamoudi.
Some of the information gleaned from the Herndon raids aided the conviction of Alamoudi. And investigators say their investigation of Barzinji, al-Alwani and their Saudi-backed Safa group entities is still alive.
But they had hoped for a conviction of al-Arian, because it would have moved the Safa case forward. "We were hoping for a snowball effect," says a law enforcement official who originally helped the feds build the case.
Right now he says only a small share of the hard drives and other materials confiscated from the homes and offices raided more than three years ago have been fully translated. "They don't have the damn resources," explains the official, who works with the FBI and the National Counter Terrorism Center in McLean, Va. "They don't have the (Arabic) language skills or computer forensic personnel to go through it all. And yet it's a gold mine of information."
Secret plot to 'infiltrate' Washington
One of the more disturbing developments from both investigations so far is the allegation that al-Arian and al-Alwani and other Islamic activists in the Washington area may have hatched a secret plan, according to other confiscated documents, to "infiltrate the sensitive intelligence agencies"
in Washington, and spy for the enemy.
Both Alamoudi and al-Arian were no strangers to the White House. During the trial, al-Arian's lawyers used his meetings with senior government officials, including Karl Rove in the White House, to defend him against charges he was involved in terrorist activities. They argued that official Washington would not have embraced a terrorist (even though they had embraced convicted terrorist Alamoudi).
But that may have been part of the plan. Al-Arian had ingratiated himself with Rove's best friend Grover Norquist, a powerful GOP operative in Washington sympathetic to Muslim causes. Norquist, whose name was invoked by al-Arian's lawyers in the trial, started an Islamic lobbying group several years ago and recently married a Palestinian Muslim activist. The Islamic group, which was founded with seed money from Alamoudi, has placed a number of questionable Muslim activists -- including the son of a Wahhabi preacher who helped Osama bin Laden's second in command raise money -- inside the Bush administration, including the White House, the Transportation Department and the Homeland Security Department, as well as other sensitive
Al-Arian, who has met privately with Norquist in his Washington offices, has said that Norquist "delivered" on his promise to get President Bush, via Rove, to agree to end the government's use of undisclosed evidence to deport suspected Middle Eastern terrorists. A paid lobbyist for Norquist's Islamic Institute -- David Hossein Safavian -- in fact lobbied the government hard on that issue, as I first reported in my book. (Safavian also shows up on Senate lobbying records as a paid agent for terrorist Alamoudi.) And before 9/11, al-Arian was scheduled to meet with Bush in person to discuss the issue. It seems plausible to some investigators now that al-Arian may have also got Norquist to deliver on the placement -- or infiltration -- operation. Even Safavian ended up inside the White House with a high-level job, before getting caught up in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal and losing his coveted position.
And loyal Muslim brother Abdel-Hafiz all the while was inside the FBI also doing al-Arian favors -- and he is still working there as an agent with access to classified information. And believe it or not, the bureau is busy hiring more Muslim agents like him.
That's right: before Abdel-Hafiz graduated from the FBI academy in 1995, there were no other Muslim agents in the bureau. Now there are seven, and FBI Director Robert Mueller is busy recruiting more.
"We are recruiting Muslims as special agents," he said. "We have been very active in pushing more for Muslim Americans to consider a career with the FBI."
Paul Sperry, formerly Washington bureau chief of Investor's Business Daily, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington" (Nelson Current, 2005). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Note: The backdrop to this story is the Muslim Brotherhood, a worldwide jihadist movement that gave rise to Hamas, PIJ and al-Qaida. The more famous members of this Muslim mafia include Osama bin Laden's mentor Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But it has a large American presence, too, and its known American members include Alamoudi. Before going to the slammer, he attended 9/11-tied Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., which is run by several members of the Muslim Brotherhood who also run the Muslim American Society, or MAS, which is headquartered in neighboring Alexandria, Va. -- in the same office park where bin Laden's nephew ran a charitable front. Investigators believe MAS operates as the U.S. front for the Brotherhood. Dar al-Hijrah's original deed of trust was signed by Alamoudi pal Barzinji. Their associate Biheiri is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Biheiri's ex-bookkeeper is pals with FBI agent Abdel-Hafiz, who is from Egypt, birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdel-Hafiz also attended Dar al-Hijrah. I will stop there.)