By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.Occupation as Slavery
Ashqar was 9 when Israel took control of the area from Jordan after the 1967 Middle East war. He still remembers his fear and anger.
"Before the Israeli occupation, there were no restrictions. We could go wherever we wanted to," Ashqar said, his hands fluttering. "We used to stay up late, to play, to stay with the relatives, the friends."
The Israelis installed checkpoints and a 7 p.m. curfew, he recalled, and his older brother was detained for six weeks without explanation. Ashqar himself would spend 16 days in a cramped jail cell in 1981, accused of participating in an anti-Israel demonstration, he said.
"I consider the occupation as a form of slavery," Ashqar declared.
In college, Ashqar became a leader in a growing student movement that fused political activism with conservative Islam. The movement was dominant at the Islamic University of Gaza, where Ashqar began teaching business administration in 1985. Several professors eventually became leaders of Hamas, a Palestinian nationalist movement which includes a broad social-service network as well as an armed wing.
After Israeli authorities closed the college, Ashqar headed to the University of Mississippi in 1989 to pursue his doctorate in business on a U.S. government scholarship.
Prosecutors in Chicago say that the quiet graduate student shifted tens of thousands of dollars through his Mississippi bank accounts to Hamas activists. Evidence of his support for the group is overwhelming, they say.
For example, in December 1993, FBI agents slipped into Ashqar's apartment and discovered "a treasure trove of Hamas-related documents," according to the prosecution's court filings. They included minutes of confidential Hamas meetings; details of recent Hamas attacks on Israeli soldiers; and a fax from Mousa Abu Marzook, a Falls Church businessman, asking Ashqar to arrange the transfer of $40,000 to another Palestinian activist, according to the court filings.
Marzook is also charged in the Chicago indictment. He was deported by U.S. authorities in 1997 and is a top official in Hamas's political bureau, believed to be living in Syria. The third defendant in the case is Muhammad Salah, an Illinois businessman.
Ashqar used his telephone as "a kind of switchboard," linking Hamas operatives in various countries who couldn't call each other directly, according to the prosecution's court documents. In December 1993, according to the documents, Ashqar passed on a message from one operative to a senior Hamas official in Syria, calling for the execution of a rogue Hamas member who had killed three men. Unbeknown to Ashqar, the FBI was listening in.
Ashqar and his attorney, William B. Moffitt, have declined to discuss the charges, saying they will argue their case in court.
The indictment lists no pro-Hamas actions by Ashqar after March 1994, other than his refusal to testify before grand juries. The U.S. Treasury Department designated Hamas a terrorist organization in January 1995.
But the indictment mentions several deadly attacks by Hamas members on Israeli soldiers and civilians starting in 1992. And in April 1994, Hamas's military wing claimed responsibility for a car bombing against a bus in the Israeli farm town of Afula that killed seven. It was the start of a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians over the next several years, part of an escalating conflict that would claim thousands of lives on the two sides.'What Can I Await?'
Ashqar pulled some 8-by-10 glossies out of a drawer in a carved wooden table in the living room.
"Let me show you some pictures," he said.
They show him standing in front of a friend's house in August 1998. Ashqar's pale, emaciated arms poke from a pale-blue hospital shirt. His face, normally a jowly oval, has collapsed into a triangle, his chin a bearded point.
Ashqar had just emerged from a New York prison hospital after a hunger strike that lasted six months, during which he was force-fed. He was detained for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Marzook and Hamas financing.
"I can't see myself as a collaborator against my people," he said softly.
Ashqar has pleaded innocent and says he rejects terrorism or suicide bombings. "Israel is a reality," he said, explaining that he favors a separate state for the Palestinians. He scoffed at al-Qaeda, "these crazy people of September 11."
But since 1991, Ashqar said, law-enforcement officials have been pressuring him to provide information, questioning his university professors and causing him to lose jobs. The Justice Department opened an investigation in 1996 into Palestinian immigrants, including Ashqar, who appeared to be moving around large sums of money, a former official said.
The Palestinians "really did use some of this money for charitable and religious purposes," said Mark Flessner, a former prosecutor involved in that investigation. But the probe appeared to show that "they would take a small percentage to support terrorism."
Flessner said the investigation was shut down in 2000 after numerous internal disputes, some over the use of classified information.
By 1997, Ashqar moved to Northern Virginia to be near friends in the Muslim community.
"People were very sympathetic with him. He became a well-known person" after his hunger strike, said Mohamad al-Hanooti, an imam who often preaches at Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, where Ashqar was elected to the governing board.
Ashqar was an assistant professor at Howard until 2003, when the university declined to renew his contract. That year, he was again jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury in Chicago.
The current indictment came a year later. Ashqar has been out on a $2.6 million bond secured by the properties of friends in the Washington area. Local Muslims have raised tens of thousands of dollars for his legal defense.
If he is acquitted, he expects to be deported. If he is convicted of racketeering, Ashqar could face life in prison. It is a frightening prospect, he acknowledged. But he said he would survive because of his faith.
"That's very important in my thinking," he said, walking through his garden, an ankle bracelet monitoring his movements. "If I go to jail for the rest of my life, what can I await? Just a reward from God."
Staff writer Peter Slevin and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.