Raids Seek Evidence of Money-Laundering
by Judith Miller
New York Times
March 21, 2002
WASHINGTON, March 20 — Federal law enforcement officials today raided 15 organizations and individuals in Northern Virginia and a chicken farm in Georgia, all of them, the authorities said, suspected by the Treasury Department of laundering money for Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
The raids were the first to be coordinated by the Treasury Department's counterterrorism task force responsible for stopping the flow of money to terrorist organizations in the United States and abroad.
The department announced the raids in a single-page press release that gave the number of targets but provided little other information about them or the nature of what the authorities sought.
People close to the Treasury investigation said, however, that among the main targets was a commercial building at 555 Grove Street in Herndon, Va., where the SAAR Foundation, a Saudi-financed charity that is now defunct, had an office until recently. No representative of the foundation could be located for comment. The Grove Street building, about 20 miles from Washington, also houses offices of several other Islamic charities and individual Muslims who, officials said, are being investigated for the possibility of money-laundering activities.
One other place searched today was the office of the International Islamic Relief Organization at 360 South Washington Street in Falls Church, Va., another Washington suburb.
That charity has a parent, the Muslim World League, that officials said was also searched. Corporate records show that the Muslim World League, which is financed in part by the Saudi government, is based at the same address as the relief organization, in Falls Church, but that it has used the Herndon building as a mailing address.
Last October, the Treasury Department listed another Islamic charity financed by the Muslim World League, the Rabita Trust, as having connections to Al Qaeda. Search warrants were also served today, officials said, on the International Institute for Islamic Thought, which is at 500 Grove Street, across the street from the SAAR Foundation. Officials said the government had been investigating the institute for at least three years.
An employee there, Tarik Hamdi, whose home was also raided today, was mentioned in the New York trial resulting from the bombing of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. A battery for a satellite phone was carried to Afghanistan by Mr. Hamdi that year; this phone, a prosecutor at the trial said, "is the phone that bin Laden and others will use to carry out their war against the United States."
Neither Mr. Hamdi nor anyone else connected with the institute could be reached for comment today; a call placed to the lawyer for the organization late in the day was not returned. But in the past, officials of the institute have denied that any of its money supports terrorist activities.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Customs Service, one of the agencies involved in the raids, declined to comment on them. So did Frank Shults, a spokesman for the office of the United States attorney for Northern Virginia. The Treasury Department's press release said no further information about the search warrants could be disclosed.
But officials and others familiar with the inquiry said the government was collecting bank records and other financial information about several groups, including the SAAR Foundation, which, though officially dissolved in 2000, until recently maintained an office at the 555 Grove Street address.
Officials said SAAR had been financed in large part by Suleiman Abdel Aziz al-Rajhi, a Saudi banker and financier who is said to be close to the Saudi ruling family. Mr. Rajhi, among other things, is said to have an indirect financial interest in Piedmont Poultry, in Gainesville, Ga., which federal agents also raided today. The Treasury Department said the raids had involved more than 150 agents and officers of the Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service and several other Treasury agencies. Local police departments in Virginia assisted. The Treasury Department statement said the offices and residences that were targets of the raids had been searched, and material from them seized, without incident. It said federal investigators had begun processing the resulting evidence. The statement also noted that no one was arrested during the raids and that affidavits filed in support of the seizures were under court seal.
Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert, focused on 555 Grove Street in his new book, "American Jihad: Terrorists Among Us." In the book, Mr. Emerson listed several charities at that address, including the SAAR Foundation and Safa Trust, which was also raided today, as organizations that had financed groups and individuals connected to terrorism. In an interview, Mr. Emerson said he believed that the raids were aimed at helping the government collect information about how money that finances terrorism is laundered through Islamic charities in the United States. Such cases are very difficult to prove and prosecute, he said.
Officials confirmed today that the government was seeking information about possible money-laundering not just for Al Qaeda, but also for what the State Department describes as other terrorist groups.
These include the Palestinian military group Hamas, which claims responsibility for the scores of suicide bombings in Israel, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is also suspected of having raised money for its activities through humanitarian groups operating in the United States. In 1996, Congress passed a law making it a crime to raise money for terrorist groups, even if the money is not directly used to support terrorism.