An attorney for the Islamic American Relief Agency said Thursday that the charity was actively “trying to combat terrorism” and has “the same interest in stopping terrorism as any other American citizen.”
Shareef Akeel is representing the Columbia charity, which was raided last week as part of a nationwide terror investigation. The raid coincided with the U.S. Treasury Department freezing the organization’s assets and naming the Islamic African Relief Agency, an affiliate of the Columbia charity, as a “specially designated global terrorist.”
The FBI, along with 12 other agencies, removed dozens of computers and boxes of documents from the Islamic American Relief Agency, 201 E. Cherry St. on Oct. 13. Three local storage units and the Columbia home of the agency’s executive director, Mubarek Hamed, were also searched.
Hamed, reached Thursday for the first time since the searches, referred all questions to Akeel.
Akeel, a Detroit civil–rights lawyer, said he was retained by the agency on Tuesday. He has been practicing law since 1996. He is also leading the class action suit filed on behalf of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq.
Alleged terrorist group affiliations
The Treasury Department listed the Islamic American Relief Agency as an alias and affiliate of the Sudan-based Islamic African Relief Agency and alleged that the charities raised more than $5 million to finance terrorist activities abroad involving Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and Hamas.
Akeel said the two relief agencies are different entities and points to the independence of the Columbia agency as a reason that he took the case.
“I am trying to clearly understand and digest this issue,” he
said. “The Treasury Department blocked the funds of the Islamic African Relief Agency in Sudan. My client is the Islamic American Relief Agency.”
The two organizations have separate boards and are run by separate individuals, Akeel said, adding the trustees of the Columbia charity do not know the individuals working with the need-based agency in Sudan. He said the two agencies have had no dealings since the U.S. government imposed unilateral sanctions on the Sudan agency in 1998.
The Columbia charity changed its name from the Islamic African Relief Agency in 1997.
One of Akeel’s first actions as counsel for the relief agency was posting a news release on the organization’s Web site, www.iara-usa.org. The news release states that the Islamic American Relief Agency is an independent humanitarian organization established in 1985 and “does not have any affiliates.” The Web site also classifies the agency as a member of InterAction, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of more than 160 U.S.charities.
InterAction suspended the membership of the agency late last week “in light of the actions of the U.S. Department of Treasury and the loss of their tax-exempt status by the IRS.” Spokesman Sid Balman Jr. said Thursday that InterAction was unaware of the presence of its name on the Islamic agency’s Web site, but would ask the agency to remove it. He said the agency’s membership could be reinstated “theoretically,” pending actions by the Treasury Department.
The home of Majeed Sharif, an Islamic leader, was also searched in Wolcott, Conn., last week in conjunction with the seizure of potential evidence in Columbia. The FBI said federal agents from 26 of its 56 field offices interviewed 80 to 90 people nationwide in relation to what is being called a criminal investigation. The warrant authorizing some of the searches remains under seal in a federal court in Jefferson City.
"Picking up the pieces"
Thursday, Akeel said he was occupied with “picking up the pieces administratively” and expressed hope that the investigation will not be long term. He said his client has “no knowledge of any wrongdoing” and will “bend over backward” to help the government.
Akeel’s first concern was for the relief agency’s donors, many of whom were being questioned by authorities. The agency had no way to reach them because donor lists and mailing lists were confiscated during the searches.
“Many people who are very far removed from the investigation are being affected,” Akeel said. “They just thought they were doing good.”
Akeel said the relief agency has done everything it can to ensure the money it collects gets to those who need it.
“They have executed controls, had yearly audits, made their records open to the public, engaged in discourse with officials and maintained contracts with those who receive their aid, which they have the right to terminate at any time,” he said. “What else can they do?”
Akeel said relief agency employees and board members feel especially bad about the investigation’s timing. The agency was raided the day before the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year. Muslims donate to charities throughout the month as zakat – the fifth pillar of Islam - which encourages charity for the poor.
Due to raids on four Islamic charities in the last three years, many Muslims have become concerned about donating to charities without aiding terrorism. On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department rejected a request from various Muslim groups to provide a list of charities to which it would be “safe” to donate. The department said such a request would be impossible to fulfill.
The Treasury Department, however,published a list Tuesday of 27 charities designated for supporting terrorism. Secretary John W. Snow said in a press release, “When you open your hearts to charity during Ramadan, we encourage you to educate yourself on the activities of the charities to which you donate, to help ensure that your generosity is not exploited for nefarious purposes.”
Akeel hopes the Columbia charity will soon be cleared of any wrongdoing, and that people will not judge it before it has had a chance to defend itself. “In America, American justice should prevail,” he said. “People deserve their day in court. I hope the IARA get theirs.”