In the crucial financial front of the war against militant Islam, the Justice and Homeland Security Departments on Tuesday began a major offensive against the ruthless terror organization, Hamas, with a sweeping indictment of its American funding arm. The prosecution brings to boil a long simmering dilemma: While waging a war against Muslim extremists, how much self-imposed, uncritical, hyper-deference does America owe to Islamic tenets that are central to the success of the enemy?
At a news conference in Washington Tuesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia (who, in his former life, prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombers) announced the unsealing of a 42-count indictment, charging a so-called charitable organization, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), and seven individual defendants with underwriting Hamas to the tune of nearly $60 million since the late 1980s. Hamas, unremittingly and unrepentantly, seeks the destruction of Israel by any means necessary, and is the backbone of the intifadas in which suicide bombing has been the tactic of choice. It has, for nearly a decade, been specially designated by the United States under various statutes, regulations and executive orders as a terrorist organization.
The indictment specifically alleges that HLF and its principals provided material support to Hamas, engaged in prohibited financial transactions with it, and violated the federal money laundering laws doing so. Moreover, premised on the reporting obligations flowing from HLF’s status as a Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization, the indictment charges that the defendants obstructed government operations and filed false tax returns. Under the statutes involved, convictions could result in crushing fines, decades of imprisonment for the individual defendants, and the forfeiture of over $12 million.
Hamas is a transliteral acronym for “Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya,” meaning the “Islamic Resistance Movement.” It operates primarily in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin (killed earlier this year by Israeli Defense Forces), Hamas is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood–the militant Egyptian organization that has, since the 1920’s, been the fount of much Islamic terror. To this day, as the indictment alleges, the Hamas charter states that “the purpose of HAMAS is to create an Islamic Palestinian state throughout Israel by eliminating the State of Israel through violent jihad.”
Like many terror organizations, Hamas is multi-tiered. Atop its hierarchy is a political bureau, currently led by Khalid Mishal and Mousa Abu Marzook, which, the indictment explains, coordinates terrorist activities. The political bureau accomplishes this by directing two nominally compartmentalized entities: a military wing, called Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which carry out attacks against Israel; and what the indictment describes as a “social wing,” known as Dawa (literally the “calling” to Islam), which operates as a “welfare agency, providing food, medical care and education to Palestinians in order to generate loyalty and support for the organization and its overall goals.”
The military and social activities, in fact, liberally cross-pollinate. Indoctrination of Palestinian youth begins from the cradle. Inculcated into children are hatred and dehumanization of Jews, as well as the glories of becoming a shaheed–in the propaganda, a “martyr” in the noble struggle against the Zionist entity; in reality, a terrorist who offs himself in the process of cold-blooded mass murder. Social welfare, in fact, is a recruitment valve for the military wing. Indeed, Hamas’s social activities include summer camps for children that are every bit as militaristic as al Qaeda’s more infamous proving grounds in the Afghan-Pakistani borderland.
Naturally, Hamas’s military and “social” activities have to be funded, and this is where political correctness, in wartime no less, makes matters delicate. Charitable giving, called zakat, is one of the “five pillars of Islam.” Similar in concept to tithing, all Muslims able to do so are expected to contribute a certain percentage of their income (usually put at 2.5 percent) to charity. In the aggregate, this is quite a considerable sum. What “charity” exactly consists of, though, is a fuzzy concept, made more so by the fact that Islam does not have an established hierarchy to define such religious obligations with universally accepted precision.
Thus, for example, Salam Al-Marayati, then the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a 2002 hearing about terrorism financing, that zakat:
aims at purifying the intentions of a believer through a social manifestation that benefits those who are less privileged. All other pillars [of Islam] focus on the belief and practice of the individual for the individual. Zakat comprises a major instance of the social justice emphasis in Islam.
Of course, privilege and social justice are amorphous and thus highly subjective notions. In the hands of jihadist elements, they are pregnant with possibilities, easily embracing far more than feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and sheltering the homeless.
Because of our national chariness about critically examining anything that touches on how Islam is interpreted and practiced in the United States, the abettors of terrorism, witting and unwitting, are thus given a capacious license for mischief. The Islamists simply assert that they are “practicing their religion” by “contributing to charity”; the mainstream media, academia, and even swaths of government take these assertions at face value, as though they were consonant with Western notions; and anyone who dares question the arrangement is immediately scalded by an alphabet soup of Muslim interest groups as a baleful Islamophobe.
It’s a suicidal mindset. As Tuesday’s indictment demonstrates, “charitable giving” includes paying for the afore-described indoctrination in madrassas, mosques and summer camps–schooling the people who will one day kill us that they should be killing us. More importantly, these “alms” subsidize the families of suicide bombers (encouraging ever more shaheeds) and go to direct purchases of military arsenals and equipment–or, because money is fungible, free up funds that are then available for belligerent purposes.
In 1988, HLF was created in California, specifically to support Hamas, by three of the defendants named in the indictment, Shukri Abu Baker, Mohammad El-Mezain and Ghassan Elashi. By 1989, it had already sent nearly a $1 million to Marzook and Sheik Yassin (to the latter through an account called the Islamic Center of Gaza–another ostensibly charitable entity used by Yassin to conduct Hamas activities). HLF finally incorporated in Texas in 1992–which is why the prosecution is in Dallas.
Proving that “charity” is an elastic term, part of the HLF funding was allegedly expended on conventions and seminars throughout the speech-friendly United States, where international networks of radical clerics and other Islamists were free to conspire and to unburden themselves of the fiery jihadist rhetoric that might, in at least some of their native lands, have landed them in the hoosegow. At these confabs, the indictment relates, Hamas was praised “through speeches, songs and violent dramatic skits depicting the killing of Jewish people.”
Things became more difficult after the Oslo accords of October 1993. Hamas was by definition committed to subverting any “peace process” premised on the sustained existence of a Jewish state. When its intentions predictably became manifest through warnings and heinous attacks, the Clinton administration officially designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1995 (and again, under beefed-up antiterror legislation, in 1997)–rendering it risky for HLF to champion Hamas openly.
The indictment charges that HLF responded by going covert through several ruses, including making small contributions to innocuous, non-Palestinian entities while the big bucks went to the terrorists. (Concerned about American law enforcement, HLF’s president, the defendant Shukri Abu Baker, is alleged to have proposed to underlings: “We can give $100,000 to the Islamists and $5,000 to the others.”) Another program, masquerading as charitable support for needy families and orphans in the occupied territories, is said to have channeled money to families whose relatives were killed or imprisoned waging jihad, including suicide bombings. HLF was itself designated as a terrorist organization in December 2001; in many ways, the charges announced Tuesday were just a matter of time.
For one defendant, it is actually the second matter of time just this month. The indictment charges Ghassan Elashi, the original HLF treasurer who rose to become its board chairman in 1999–and who, not coincidentally, is related by marriage to Hamas heavyweight Marzook (legally, a specially designated terrorist unto himself). Only three weeks ago, Elashi was convicted in yet another federal case for, among other things, illegally using a Dallas-based computer services business to send high-tech shipments to Libya and Syria–state sponsors of terrorism.
The defense should be expected to fight the HLF case aggressively. In fact, a sully-the-accuser defense was already in the works even before the indictment was unsealed on Tuesday. On Monday, HLF lawyers attempted a preemptive strike, filing a formal complaint with the Justice Department that accuses the FBI of falsifying evidence. And, as the New York Times reported on Wednesday, Baker (HLF’s president) attacked the indictment as a government campaign of anti-Muslim intimidation–sigh–while other HLF spokesmen intimated that the timing of the charges was calculated by the Bush administration to divert attention from the ongoing Democratic convention in Boston.
Nevertheless, two defendants charged in the case with providing material support to Hamas appear to have voted with their feet–underscoring the urgency of bringing the case now and undermining claims that it is trumped up. Haitham Maghawri, the former executive director of HLF, and Akram Mishal, HLF’s project and grants director (as well as the cousin of Hamas chief Khalid Mishal), have fled the country. That development has caused Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who has been pressing for scrutiny of the HLF-Hamas ties for nearly a decade (see), to question why the investigation has taken so long to yield charges and why two of the chief suspects have been permitted to slip the noose.
The case illustrates the still-essential role of law enforcement in the government’s counterterrorism efforts. While, under the Bush strategy, the military is taking the battle to the enemy on the front lines, the war cannot be won unless we can stop new terrorists from being minted faster than we can neutralize the currently active crop. That means following the money and choking off the supply lines.
It also means being clear-eyed about what charity is. And what it isn’t.
Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.