FBI continues search for data

Agents search house, lockers, office in Columbia sweep
Friday, October 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A day after FBI agents raided the office of the Islamic American Relief Agency, a local nonprofit organization with alleged links to terrorism, authorities searched three storage lockers in Columbia Thursday as part of what authorities described as a long-term, ongoing investigation.

Since Wednesday, two houses — one in Columbia and another in Connecticut — have been searched, along with at least one office and three storage units, in what appears to be a sweep of individuals and organizations linked to the Khartoum, Sudan-based Islamic African Relief Agency. The organization’s U.S. headquarters is the Islamic American Relief Agency in Columbia.

The FBI and 12 other agencies removed dozens of computer hard drives, filing cabinets and boxes Wednesday from the relief agency with offices at 201 E. Cherry St.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Lanza, who acted as spokesman in the Columbia raids, repeatedly emphasized that the agency was “looking for documents, not people,” and that no one has been detained.

The Treasury Department froze all assets of the Islamic African Relief Agency and its affiliates, alleging that the organization and its five senior officials have links to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and Hamas. In a release detailing the action, the department listed the name “Islamic American Relief Agency” among the aliases used by some of the Sudan-based organization’s 40 entities.

Sam Meyer, manager of Columbia Storage at 1411 Hickory Road, said three agents — including one FBI agent and another from the Treasury Department — came to his business Wednesday afternoon asking about three specific storage units.

“They indicated they were obtaining search warrants for a few storage units,” Meyer said. “They didn’t present a warrant to me, but they don’t have to by law.” Meyer said warrants only need to be shown to the person leasing the unit.

The agents then changed the locks on the three storage units in preparation for Thursday’s search.

Neither Meyer nor Lanza would disclose the name of the person who had rented the units. Lanza would not confirm that the person was connected to the IARA, saying only that the person had authority over the units and was in Columbia.

When the agents returned Thursday, Meyer said, they asked a few questions and “we cooperated.”

Homes also searched

The Columbia home of Mubarek Hamed was also searched. Hamed, executive director of the Columbia relief agency, could not be reached for an interview at work or at his home just west of Scott Boulevard.

Mark Elliot, who lives across the street from Hamed, said he saw his neighbor’s house being searched Wednesday afternoon. He said a law enforcement official told him to “watch the news” when he asked what was happening.

Hamed, a water resources economist with the state Department of Natural Resources, asked for a leave from his job Thursday, department spokeswoman Connie Patterson said. Patterson said Hamed has worked for the department since June 2002, and she did not know when he plans to return to his job.

Also on Wednesday, FBI agents raided the home of Majeed Sharif, a Wolcott, Conn., Islamic leader, as part of the investigation of the Sudanese organization. Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Thursday that the Wolcott and Columbia residential searches were part of an ongoing investigation.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control, under whose authority the storage lockers were searched and vans impounded at the Columbia agency, added the IARA to its list of “specially designated global terrorists” on Wednesday.

In Columbia, Police Chief Randy Boehm confirmed that his department had helped conduct some of the surveillance of the organization although he would not say when it had occurred or who it had targeted. He said his department’s main role was to provide support for the federal agencies involved.

“We were primarily involved in helping them with securing the perimeter of the locations that were being searched, helping with some surveillance of some of the key people that they were interested in, things of that nature,” Boehm said.

“We have been aware of this investigation for some time,” he said Thursday. “Obviously, it’s not something we were at liberty to talk about. We’ve been aware that the search warrants were going to be served for at least the last few days, but we didn’t know exactly when that was going to occur until very recently.”

He said he did not know whether any more searches would be conducted as part of the investigation, but that he “probably wouldn’t be at liberty to say, even if I did. … I do know this is an ongoing investigation, so there’s certainly the potential for additional things to occur. But I couldn’t say that for sure, and I certainly couldn’t say when.”

Boehm emphasized that he has no reason to think Columbia residents were ever in any danger. “We don’t have any information to suggest that we have terrorists in this community or any people that were in any way a threat,” Boehm said. “I think it’s important to let the community know that while this is a significant issue that is being dealt with, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that we’re at risk.”

The FBI has also been in touch with the office of U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., of Columbia.

Hulshof requested a briefing from the Treasury Department explaining the investigation, said Scott Baker, his spokesman. Representatives from the department are scheduled to brief Hulshof today.

The Islamic American Relief Agency is also the subject of an ongoing Senate investigation into nonprofit groups suspected of funneling money to terrorist organizations. A spokeswoman for the Senate Finance Committee said investigators had not been in contact with the FBI regarding the groups in question.

In January, the Senate committee asked the IRS for copies of confidential tax information including donor lists, audits and criminal investigations from the Islamic American Relief Agency and more than two dozen other nonprofit groups. Staff members are in the process of reviewing them, but the committee did not share any of the documents with federal law enforcement.

Peter Barnes, Mike Burden, Bernell Dorrough, Pate McMichael, Ben Miller and Kate Moser of the Missourian and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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