The Justice Department unsealed an indictment yesterday accusing a senior Hamas leader and two other men of a 15-year racketeering conspiracy that raised millions of dollars for the militant Palestinian group, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States for carrying out bombings, kidnappings and other attacks in Israel.
The indictment, handed up in Chicago, includes the deputy chief of Hamas's political wing, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, and a former Howard University professor, Abelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar of Fairfax County. Ashqar, 46, and a third defendant, Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, 51, of suburban Chicago, were arrested Thursday night. Marzook, who was expelled from the United States in 1997, is believed to be living in Syria.
The case is the latest in a series of aggressive moves by U.S. prosecutors against alleged Hamas supporters who have lived in the United States. Last month, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging the nation's largest Muslim charity and seven of its top officials with funneling money to the group, which is also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement.
The new charges also signal an unusual strategy by the Justice Department, which for the first time has labeled Hamas a "criminal enterprise" and which is attempting to use racketeering and conspiracy statutes more commonly applied to drug gangs and mafia figures.
"The individuals named in this indictment are alleged to have played a substantial role in financing and supporting international terrorism," Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said at a Washington news conference. "They are alleged to be material supporters of a foreign terrorist organization, taking advantage of the freedoms of an open society to foster and finance acts of terror."
But defense lawyers and relatives of the defendants decried the indictments as politically motivated, arguing that they stem from U.S. support for Israel and are based on dated allegations that have dogged all three men for years.
Much of the activity outlined in the indictment happened before President Bill Clinton designated Hamas a foreign terrorist group in 1995. The three defendants have been the focus of FBI intelligence and criminal investigations for at least a decade.
Stanley L. Cohen, Marzook's attorney, called the charges "categorical rubbish" and said the indictment amounted to "a Republican National Committee press release."
"There is nothing new here," Cohen said. "All of this stuff is anywhere from 10 to 15 years old. . . . Everything that is in the four corners of this indictment the government has had for years."
Ashqar appeared yesterday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, where U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan ordered him imprisoned without bond until federal marshals can take him to Chicago. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman described Ashqar as dangerous and said he might flee.
After the hearing, Ashqar's wife walked rapidly from the courtroom and said: "There is just no justice whatsoever for the Muslim people in this country. This is an Israeli witch hunt. This is an Israeli case, not an American case."
Salah pleaded not guilty at a hearing in Chicago, according to the Associated Press.
The new indictment alleges that, beginning in 1988, the three men conspired with 20 others to use bank accounts in Mississippi, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states to launder millions in support of Hamas, and that the money was used to pay for fake passports and killings, kidnappings and other crimes in Israel.
Ashcroft described the operation as a "U.S.-based terrorist-recruiting and financing cell" and said that some Americans have been victims of Hamas operations. Officials said they hope to seize $2.7 million in bank accounts under the defendants' control.
Marzook, a recurring subject of U.S. investigations, was deported to Jordan in 1997 after living in the United States for 15 years. Salah was incarcerated by Israel from 1993 to 1997 for allegedly recruiting and training Hamas members, and since then is alleged to have directed an associate in Chicago to scout for potential targets in Israel. Ashqar is accused of opening bank accounts and maintaining U.S. records for Hamas.
Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, said that focusing on alleged criminal activity allows prosecutors to more easily include activities before 1995, when Hamas was designated a terrorist organization.
"There are people who will say this is a creative legal manipulation," said Levitt, who is writing a book about Hamas. "But from the government's perspective, they have found a way to hold people accountable for their crimes."
Hamas supporters dispute the terrorism label, arguing that the group oversees significant charity work and is embroiled in a legitimate political struggle with Israel.
Ashqar, a native of the West Bank, is a well-known local Muslim activist who friends said worships at Dar Al-Hijra mosque in Falls Church.
He received his doctorate from the University of Mississippi in 1997 and has lived in Northern Virginia for seven years. Howard University declined to renew Ashqar's contract last year. Howard officials did not return calls yesterday.
"He is an absolutely peaceful man," said Bushnaq Yaser, a friend who attended yesterday's court hearing. He described both Ashqar and his wife, who teaches at a private school in Fairfax County, as "highly educated and a product of this country."