Thursday, October 19, 2006
Through a picture window, the former Howard University professor was admiring the garden sanctuary he'd created behind his Northern Virginia home. There are fig and apple saplings, fragrant bushes of mint and oregano, morning glories tilting toward the warm October sun. Clumps of fat green tomatoes hug the fence.
"I'm under home incarceration," explained Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, who is accused of being a terrorist supporter. "I have to do something."
After two years of house arrest, the business professor is to go on trial in Chicago today, accused of being a part of a sprawling U.S. network that helped the Palestinian group Hamas. The Justice Department regarded the case so important that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft himself announced the indictment of Ashqar and two co-defendants in 2004.
"Today, terrorists have lost yet another source of financing and support for their bombs and bloodshed," Ashcroft said at the time.
Prosecutors say they have abundant evidence that Ashqar moved money for Hamas through his U.S. bank accounts and served as a go-between for some of the organization's leaders -- even passing on a request to kill a rogue Hamas operative.
Those acts allegedly occurred before the U.S. government first designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995. The indictment charges that Hamas, nonetheless, was carrying out attacks aimed ultimately at destroying Israel -- and thus was a "criminal enterprise" under federal racketeering laws, which are more commonly applied to drug gangs and Mafia figures.
Ashqar denies being a member of Hamas, which won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in January. But the soft-spoken professor clearly sees himself as a Palestinian fighter -- albeit one living in a suburban split-level with a basketball hoop. Twice, he has refused to testify before grand juries investigating Hamas's activities in the United States, launching hunger strikes that left him emaciated.
"If I am targeted by Israelis, I understand. They are my enemy," he said in an interview last week. "But to be targeted by Americans? I can't comprehend."
Ashqar is one of several Northern Virginia Muslims to be accused in recent years of aiding Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. Like them, the professor offers a far different image than the chanting, AK-47-waving Hamas supporters who appear on the TV news.
A short, bespectacled man in black pinstriped slacks, Ashqar led a visitor across thick, Persian-style carpets into his home in Springfield. It is a slice of the Levant in Fairfax County: The bookshelf holds both the Koran and "A Passion for Excellence," by management guru Tom Peters. Beethoven trilled from a cellphone, the newest toy of Ashqar's 10-year-old nephew, who lives with him and his wife, Asma.
"He cannot stop placing phone calls and getting his friends to call him," Ashqar said, with typical parental exasperation.
But Ashqar's focus is 6,000 miles away. He devours Palestinian newspapers online. In 2005, he ran in absentia for Palestinian president, getting less than 3 percent of the vote. When Ashqar refers to "my town," he means the village of Seida, nestled amid plum orchards in the West Bank, where his journey to Palestinian activism began.