By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
More than four years ago, federal agents swarmed into homes and businesses in Herndon and elsewhere in Northern Virginia, carting away 500 boxes of documents they believed contained evidence of an international terrorism financing network.
The raids, which targeted some of the most established Islamic organizations in the United States, caused an immediate firestorm in the Muslim community.
So far, the March 2002 searches have led to the convictions of two people, including prominent Muslim activist Abdurahman Alamoudi, who admitted in federal court that he plotted with Libya to assassinate the Saudi ruler.
But no charges have been filed against the principals of the Herndon-based cluster of companies and charities that are at the center of the investigation, and Muslims say the raids were no more than a fishing expedition.
"They are still trying to prove that they weren't wrong in the first place,'' said Nancy Luque, an attorney for the Herndon charities. "You storm into people's homes, take their children's toys, terrorize the women, and 4 1/2 years later, you haven't got a scintilla of evidence against any of them.''
Yet, a grand jury investigation is proceeding in Alexandria, and at least one high-profile witness has recently been called to testify. Law enforcement officials insist that the so-called Herndon charities investigation is still moving forward, with agents and prosecutors immersed in tracing what they say is a Byzantine trail of transactions between corporations and related charitable entities here and overseas. The investigation is focused on a Herndon-based network of Muslim charities, businesses and think tanks.
Federal prosecutors have strongly defended the raids, saying during a 2004 court hearing that they would file charges against some or all of the Herndon-based network, possibly under racketeering statutes once used to target the Mafia. Prosecutors declined to comment last week. Law enforcement sources said they still expect further prosecutions, but they would not comment on timing or the nature of the possible charges. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the case's sensitivity.
Although the specifics of the investigation remain unclear, prosecutors are now seeking the testimony of a potentially key witness. Last week, the attorney for Sami al-Arian -- a former Florida professor who was acquitted in one of the nation's highest-profile terrorism cases but then pleaded guilty to a single charge -- said he had been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Alexandria.
The lawyer, Linda Moreno, said prosecutors want to ask Arian about his ties to the International Institute of Islamic Thought, or IIIT, one of the key Herndon organizations under investigation.
The primary reason the investigation has taken nearly half a decade, according to court documents and interviews, is the complexity of trying to trace the elaborate money trail.
"Such a massive ream of documents came out of those search warrants,'' one law enforcement official said in an interview last year. "It takes incredibly lengthy investigative work.''
During the 2002 raids, federal agents fanned out to more than 15 sites in Falls Church, in Leesburg and in Fairfax County, including Herndon. They spent 12 hours alone at IIIT -- an Islamic think tank set up in Herndon in the early 1980s -- where they seized about 25 computers and documents that included financial records, mailing lists and staff lists.
Muslim leaders held news conferences denouncing the raids as violations of their civil rights and denying terrorist ties. One woman whose home was searched said agents, brandishing weapons, broke in and held her and her teenage daughter in handcuffs for five hours.
Federal officials believed at the time that they had ample evidence of terrorism connections, court documents show.
The searches primarily targeted a group of Middle Eastern men who operated a tightly connected Herndon-based network of more than 100 organizations, known collectively as the Safa Group, some of which existed only on paper, according to court documents.
In an affidavit filed in support of the search warrants and unsealed in 2003, Homeland Security agent David Kane wrote that he had "seen evidence of the transfer of large amounts of funds from the Safa Group organizations directly to terrorist-front organizations since the early 1990's." Kane named Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which kills Israeli civilians in suicide bombings and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, as a likely recipient of Safa Group funding.
Kane also laid out alleged ties between Arian and IIIT, writing that IIIT was once the largest contributor to what he called a Palestinian Islamic Jihad front group run by Arian. A federal jury in Tampa last year deadlocked on nine charges that Arian aided terrorists and acquitted him of eight other counts. He then pleaded guilty to one count of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad and was sentenced to 57 months in prison. With time already served, he is expected to be released from prison and deported next year.
Moreno characterized Arian's ties to IIIT as "extremely limited and extremely old.'' She said Arian had been transferred to a jail in Virginia, but she could not give a date for his grand jury appearance.
Luque said her Herndon clients are all U.S. citizens who have no terrorist ties and "have embraced this country.'' Some of the organizations raided in 2002 have closed, including several affiliated with Alamoudi, who is serving a 23-year prison term. But the Herndon groups, including IIIT and Safa Trust Inc., are still operating, Luque said. One of the main organizations named in the 2002 search warrant, the SAAR Foundation, dissolved in 2000.
Luque ridiculed the argument that the investigation is highly complex. "A snail could have looked through the property seized quicker than they have,'' she said.
Experts in terrorism financing said such investigations, which may involve layers of shell companies in offshore jurisdictions, are highly complicated. Lee Wolosky, who tracked terrorist financing for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, said the Herndon probe should be judged more by whether it helped investigators gain crucial intelligence on terrorist ties than by how many indictments it yields.
"Just because there haven't been domestic indictments doesn't mean the government isn't advancing its interests,'' Wolosky said.
But Richard K. Gordon, a former specialist in money laundering and terrorist financing at the International Monetary Fund, said the Herndon probe seems "to be taking a long time.''
"After 4 1/2 years, you ought to be able to get the evidence or decide you can't,'' Gordon said. "It's not like we're infiltrating the Mafia, where it takes five years to get insiders.''
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.