Feds indict 5 from relief agency

U.S. Attorney asserts Columbia charity illegally transferred money to Iraq.
Thursday, March 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:14 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

A federal grand jury indicted five men associated with the Columbia-based Islamic American Relief Agency on Tuesday on charges of illegally transferring $1.4 million to Iraq between March 1991 and May 2003 while U.S. government sanctions were in place.

The 33-count indictment announced Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s western district also accuses the organization of stealing government and public money, falsely representing its fundraising goals to the public and lying in a 2001 CNN interview in which the organization denied that a man connected to Osama bin Laden had worked for the group.

Mubarak Hamed, 50, and Ahmad Mustafa, 54, both of Columbia, and Ali Mohamed Bagegni, 53, an Iowa resident formerly of Columbia, were arrested Wednesday and released on bond, U.S. Attorney spokesman Don Ledford said. He could not provide the defendants’ bond amounts.

Both Mustafa and Hamed were arrested Wednesday in Columbia.

Another man charged­ — Khalid Al-Sudanee, 55, of Jordan — may be extradited to the U.S., Ledford said. The fifth man named in the indictments, Abdel Azim El-Saddiq, 50, of Palos Heights, Ill., had not been arrested.

In October 2004, the IARA-USA’s small, nondescript headquarters behind the Walgreen’s on Broadway was raided by the FBI, along with other federal and local law enforcement officers. Agents removed scores of boxes, 14 computers and two vans at the brick building at 201 E. Cherry St.

The FBI characterized the raid at the time as part of a criminal investigation, and the U.S. Treasury Department released information about IARA-USA’s suspected links to the Islamic African Relief Agency, a suspected terrorist organization.

All accounts, funds and assets of the agency, which described itself as a charity focused on famine relief in Sudan, were frozen. The same day as the Columbia raid, agents raided the Connecticut home of Majeed Sharif, the president of the United Muslim Mosque. The two groups were believed to be linked, the Missourian reported in October 2004.

A federal appeals court on Feb. 13 upheld a lower court’s decision to continue to block the organization’s assets, which IARA-USA had sought to unfreeze immediately after the 2004 raid. But no criminal charges were filed against the organization or any of its members until Tuesday.

A woman answered the phone at the number listed for Mustafa. She would not discuss the charges.

At the number listed for Hamed, a woman said he no longer lives at the residence.

“Today’s indictment paints an alarming picture of theft, money laundering and fraud by the U.S. branch of an international charitable organization,” stated Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein in a news release.

But Shereef Akeel, the organization’s Michigan-based attorney, said IARA-USA denies any wrongdoing or involvement in terrorism and reacted with frustration to the indictments, which he said have “nothing to do with terrorism.”

The tone has changed drastically, Akeel said, in a telephone interview. “The allegations substantially differ” from those first made against the organization in 2004.

“What we have today is an Internal Revenue code and the Iraqi Sanction act,” he said. “These are very serious allegations, but the game has changed. They are completely different from what we were told for the last two and a half years.”

The men are accused of violating the Iraqi Sanction Code — an executive order declared by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 during the Persian Gulf War. The Office of Foreign Control liberalized its policy in 2003, allowing individuals to engage in some transactions with Iraq by granting them a special license.

But according to the indictment, IARA-USA did not apply for the license. The organization funneled the money through an associate in Jordan, who then transferred the funds to Iraq, the U.S. Attorney is asserting.

“This is a case of what was purportedly a charitable organization who knew the rules, broke the rules and lied to the government about it,” Ledford said Wednesday.

Akeel said he “had no knowledge” of the IARA-USA not seeking a license to send money to Iraq. He did note that the group sought official U.S. authorization to send money to Sudan.

When asked about the two and a half years between the 2004 raid and Tuesday’s indictments, Ledford said the government’s case was “a huge investigative endeavor,” which involved the collaboration of several law enforcement agencies and tracking money transfers both in the United States and overseas.

“This is still an active investigation,” he said. “There are aspects of this case that may yet come to light.”

The indictment also charges that the organization stole money from the U.S. government when it received money from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help fund its relief projects in Africa. The organization was supposed to provide matching contributions for grants. In December 1999, USAID cut off IARA-USA, citing the organization’s failure to match contributions. The indictment charges that the IARA-USA kept about $85,000 of the money and did not return it.

Ledford said the organization engaged in an “overall campaign of deception,” which included lies to the public and the government. Part of the deception mentioned in the indictment is a 2001 CNN interview in which the organization’s leaders denied that Ziyad Khaleel was an employee of the organization. Khaleel is believed to be an associate of bin Laden, according to the indictment.

The indictment also charges that Hamed claimed that he had applied for his job with IARA-USA in Columbia, but was actually transferred from the Sudanese-based IARA. The organization has consistently denied any links with the Sudanese organization.

“Now that we know what the charges are, we will prepare for a proper defense,” Akeel said. “I have strong faith in the judicial system, and the truth will come out.”

Ledford said the investigation was ongoing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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