Federal agents seized cars, scores of boxes and 14 computers in a raid on the Islamic American Relief Agency near Providence and Broadway that began Wednesday afternoon and ended about six hours later. No arrests were made.
FBI Special Agent Jeff Lanza said the raid was part of a long-running, ongoing investigation of the agency.
The U.S. Department of Treasury said in a release Wednesday that the name Islamic American Relief Agency is one of the names used by some of the 40 organizations worldwide with links to the Islamic African Relief Agency, which the treasury department alleged to have links to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban. On Wednesday, the department blocked “all accounts, funds and assets” of the Islamic African Relief Agency and its affiliates in the United States.
The department alleged that the overseas branches of the Islamic African Relief Agency provided “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to Bin Laden in 1999. The treasury department also believes that as early as 2003, the group was responsible for moving money to the Palestinian territories to support terrorist activities and served “as a conduit to Hamas in one Western European country.”
FBI, IRS Criminal Investigation and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents along with state highway patrolmen and Columbia Police surrounded the organization’s office in a small, nondescript brick building at 201 E. Cherry at about 2:30 p.m. At least two vans were searched and towed from the scene while nearly 30 agents worked inside the building, removing filing cabinets, binders, computers, a fax machine and sealed paper bags and boxes. One box was marked “posters of Iraq” in black marker.
The documents were seized under a warrant obtained by the FBI and other federal, state and local agencies under the authority of the Office of Foreign Asset Control.
“The warrant is being executed pursuant to an ongoing federal investigation,” Lanza said. “It’s a federal criminal investigation and the affidavit in support of the warrant is sealed.”
Lanza would not say what agents were seeking but emphasized the warrant authorized a search, not arrests.
FBI agents were also searching a Columbia home, Lanza said. He would not elaborate.
Attempts to reach any of the individuals listed as directors on the agency’s 2002 tax form were unsuccessful and no one answered the agency’s phone.
Lorenzo Vidino of The Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research agency, said the Islamic American Relief Agency has been “used by the Sudanese government” to spread radical Islam, and “still is.” The agency also has provided employment and financial support to Somali fundamentalists, he said.
Vidino said members of the agency’s board are involved with other charities whose assets have been frozen, and some are under investigation themselves.
“We’ve been watching this charity for a long time, but we never had a smoking gun,” said Vidino. “I suppose (the government) did.”
Agents moved in and out of the building while police officers from various local, state and interstate agencies provided security around the building Wednesday.
Detective Jeff Westbrook of the Columbia Police Department said he arrived at the scene atabout 2 p.m.
“We’re basically providing security,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on inside.”
Officers with the Federal Air Marshals, the U.S. Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also involved. The Mobile Response Unit of the Columbia Police Department and one other large police vehicle were used as temporary operation bases while police cars closed off all entrances, including shutting off access to the Walgreens drive-through pharmacy window.
Lanza would not comment on whether the search was connected to the January request by the Senate Finance Committee to turn over IRS files on the Islamic American Relief Agency.
Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., who asked the FBI before Sept. 11, 2001, to divulge any information it had about terrorism cells in Columbia, said he was not given advance notice of Wednesday’s raid.
“There hasn’t been any information exchanged between then and today and that’s what’s troubling — this was out of the blue,” Hulshof said.
Hulshof said he would contact FBI officials today to find out what motivated them to act Wednesday.
Bernell Dorrough, Kate Moser, Jennifer Oladipo, Mike Burden, Robbie Ketcham, Heather Olson, Nadia Afifi and the Associated Press contributed to this report.