By Sean Holstege and Dennis Wagner The Arizona Republic
The FBI has sharpened its scrutiny of some Phoenix-area Muslim leaders because of their links to two controversial incidents and a federal probe into the financing of terrorist groups.
No Arizonan has been accused of supporting terrorist groups or actions. However, a Mesa man was charged with lying to the FBI during the financing investigation.
The events that triggered the stepped-up scrutiny were the federal probe into a Muslim charity accused of funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas; a target-shooting episode in Phoenix this year involving a large group of Muslim men and boys firing hundreds of rounds from AK-47s and other guns; and the high-profile removal in 2006 of six Arizona-bound imams from a jetliner after passengers and crew complained of their behavior.
Although some Islamic leaders say they understand the scrutiny, they also view it as another sign that innocent Muslims unjustly fall under suspicion because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Whoever did Sept. 11, go after them and see who they are. I’m not going to pay for them. I’m not going to be guilty,” said Marwan Sadeddin, one of the Valley imams who sued US Airways after being removed from a jetliner in Minneapolis. Like the others, he was questioned by FBI agents after the incident, in addition to being questioned about the arrested Mesa man.
The FBI is monitoring the family and community ties among Valley residents involved in the jetliner, shooting, and charity probes, said John Lewis, who runs the FBI’s Arizona office.
“All of these things come on our scope,” said Lewis, the agency’s former head of counterterrorism operations.
The FBI routinely watches communities and groups that show patterns of radicalism seen in terrorism cases in the U.S. and Europe; those include radical Islamic theology, anti-Western political rhetoric, and fundraising tied to terrorist groups.
Lewis declined to discuss any details of the agency’s monitoring activities.
The only Arizonan arrested by the FBI is Akram Musa Abdallah of Mesa. He was indicted by a grand jury in August on one count of lying to FBI agents. The government contended in court documents that Abdallah falsely told agents he had not raised money in the 1990s for the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that President Bush shut down in 2001.
Five founders of the Texas-based charity are on trial in Dallas on charges of steering $12 million to Hamas after the U.S. declared it a terrorist group.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix physician and Muslim who founded an organization to counter radical Islamic teachings, said Abdallah’s arrest, the target-shooting episode, and what he says are the imams’ extreme views bear vigilance.
“You can’t help wonder where this is going,” he added.
Shortly before noon on a sunny Sunday in March, two Toyota SUVs rolled to a stop along a dirt road in north Phoenix.
About 20 young Muslim males climbed out, armed with assault rifles, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and handguns. The location near Happy Valley Road and 51st Avenue is a desert recreation site for off-road motorists, hikers, and bikers, dozens of whom were enjoying the spring-like weather.
For more than an hour, the shooters blasted away at a granite rock and empty cans in front of a hill.
Officials estimate the fusillade totaled 500 to 1,000 rounds. Some shooters left before police arrived and detained 10 adults and five boys, including an 11-year-old.
The young men and boys told officers the weapons belonged to their parents. They said they were not aware it was illegal to use firearms in the residential area.
Six were arrested and charged with felony weapons violations in Maricopa County Superior Court. Among them were the 20- and 21-year-old sons of two imams at Phoenix-area mosques, as well as the 20-year-old son of Abdallah.
Phoenix police then notified the Arizona Counter Terrorism Center, a clearinghouse for intelligence, and the case was referred to the FBI, Lewis confirmed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was called to trace the guns, its Arizona chief said.
Soliman Saadeldin, brother of one of the imams on the jetliner and a board member at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, was not surprised by the reaction.
“Twenty Muslims? Of course the FBI, the CIA, and the White House would be worried,” Saadeldin said.
Valley Islamic leaders were furious at the youngsters, he added, knowing how the incident might be perceived.
“I’m one of those who got mad at them. (But) they went over there just to have fun shooting. … It’s showing off more than anything else,” Saadeldin said.
He described the target shooting as merely bad judgment by a group of young guys out for a good time.
The Abdallah case
The FBI’s scrutiny of Abdallah came to light in January 2007, when agents raided his Mesa house and loaded what a neighbor said was two vans full of evidence.
Court records show that Abdallah, a 54-year-old Palestinian, denied during interrogation that he had been a fundraiser for the Holy Land Foundation during the 1990s, when the Islamic charity could still legally receive donations.
At the time of the raid, federal investigators were pursuing a criminal case against the foundation based on allegations that it had channeled money to Palestinian terrorists. The organization had been banned after the 9/11 attacks.
The Abdallah case points to the FBI’s continued interest in Arizonans who have raised money for any charity suspected of supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
For many years, several mosques in Phoenix and Tucson legally raised money for the Holy Land Foundation, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States.
Islamic civil-rights groups argue that Muslim Americans donated to the charities to support hospitals and orphanages in the West Bank and Gaza. Although Hamas and Hezbollah have organized attacks against Israeli civilians, their humanitarian missions are central to Palestinians’ fight for survival, civil-rights groups say.
The federal government charged the foundation’s leaders with raising $12 million for Hamas. The first trial in Dallas ended in October 2007 with a deadlocked jury, a stunning setback for the government’s biggest-ever terrorism financing case. A new trial has gone to the jury.
Abdallah is not a witness or defendant in that case. But as the FBI looked into Holy Land Foundation contributions, he was indicted in August on one count of lying about the fundraising to federal agents. An FBI tactical squad swarmed into a northwest Phoenix cafe to arrest him. Abdallah pleaded not guilty and was released without bail. No trial date has been set.
Abdallah, a naturalized citizen who arrived in the country in the late 1970s, did not return calls.
His 20-year-old son, Saiaf, is one of the half-dozen suspects facing felony charges from the target shooting. The younger Abdallah declined to comment except to say, “In the past five to six years, Muslims have been falsely accused of many things.”
The saga of the six traveling imams touched off a national controversy and attracted federal scrutiny. Much of the focus has been on the group’s spokesman, Omar Shahin.
Shahin, who lives in Phoenix and presides over the North American Imams Foundation, led the Arizona delegation of six imams to its conference in Minneapolis in 2006. After boarding the return flight to Phoenix, passengers and crew reported that the men chanted loudly to Allah and spoke angrily about President Bush and America’s war in Iraq.
All six imams were handcuffed and later interrogated, then released with no charges. US Airways banned the men from future flights.
Shahin led a news conference to condemn prejudice against Muslims. The imams later sued the airline, airport police, and an FBI agent, claiming they had been degraded and humiliated unlawfully. US Airways officials have said they acted appropriately. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Shahin’s involvement was one factor that drew the FBI’s attention to the case and intensified its interest in Muslims’ activities in Arizona.
A strident scholar of Islamic law and prolific charity fundraiser, the 47-year-old Shahin had been under the FBI’s microscope before but has never been accused of wrongdoing.
In the late 1980s, Shahin served as imam at the Islamic Center of Tucson, where he headed a Muslim youth group. The mosque was a hub for adherents to the radical Wahhabi school of Islam, some of whom later became important aides to Osama bin Laden in the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Shahin, a Jordanian-born naturalized citizen, said he did not believe Muslims were responsible for destroying the World Trade Center and questioned the accuracy of the FBI’s list of hijackers.
While in Tucson, Shahin raised money for the Holy Land Foundation before the group was outlawed. He also was a fundraiser for the Illinois-based KindHearts Foundation, which the government shut down last year for alleged support of Hamas.
According to tax records, Shahin was a paid employee of a third charity, the Michigan-based Life and Relief Development Inc. In September 2006, FBI counter-terrorism agents seized $134,000 in cash from the home of the charity’s founder as part of a fraud case related to the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal. The charity remains open.
Shahin has served as a Muslim community liaison with the FBI and the Phoenix police. A book released by Shahin last year advocated that Muslims living in Western society follow a strict version of conservative sharia law.
“A Muslim must try his best to abide by the rulings of sharia whenever possible as much as he can. He should not allow himself to be liable to those western laws that contradict the clear-cut Islamic rulings,” Shahin wrote.
Throughout the book, Shahin quotes an extremist Islamic scholar who studied under the man widely credited with inspiring al-Qaeda. The scholar was a speaker at Holy Land Foundation events, prosecutors in the Dallas case said in court this year. They showed jurors photos of the man with Hamas and Hezbollah leaders and in videos preaching to kill Jews.
Shahin declined to comment in detail on his writings, the jetliner incident, or the fundraising case. He is the father of one of the young men arrested in the Phoenix target shooting, Oday Shahin, 20. Another imam stopped in Minneapolis, Mahmoud Sulaiman, 51, a Syrian native, also has a son who was at the scene of the target shooting, but was not arrested, a Phoenix police report stated.
Shahin and his son share other connections with people involved in events that drew the FBI’s interest. Omar and Oday Shahin work with a third imam from the plane, Didmar Faja, a 28-year-old Albanian, at a conservative Islamic school in south Phoenix. Saiaf Abdallah, son of Akram Abdallah, accused of lying to the FBI, also works there, and his mother is a board member.
Shahin declined to comment except to say that his son’s target-shooting arrest is “no big deal” and to caution against drawing unfair conclusions. “All I want to say is there is no connection between these things.”
Civil libertarians, Muslim advocates, and Valley imams all point out that even extreme political views don’t equate to potential violence.
Marwan Sadeddin said the nation is teeming with Americans who hate President Bush’s policies. So why can’t he despise U.S. support for Israel, condemn terrorism, and love America at the same time?
“The foreign policy is wrong,” Sadeddin said. “That’s my personal opinion. That doesn’t mean I’m going to try to change it by force. I’m using my constitutional right to think the way I like.”