In a federal indictment issued recently out of the Eastern District of Virginia, a grand jury charged Soliman Biheiri with three counts of immigration violations. Although these are seemingly innocuous charges, Biheiri is a central figure in a complex terrorism investigation spanning several years and several terrorist attacks.
According to the affidavit supporting his arrest, a company founded by Biheiri, BMI, was a financial conduit for several known Hamas and al Qaeda moneymen. Upon arrest, Biheiri had contact information for two individuals described by the Treasury Department as "financial advisers to al-Qaeda." In addition, Biheiri's estranged wife told federal investigators that she witnessed her husband destroying documents after the 9/11 attacks.
Investigators are now exploring links between Biheiri, the Saudi-sponsored International Islamic Relief Organization, and Mercy International, a charity implicated in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
WHO IS SOLIMAN BIHEIRI
Fifty-one-years old and Egyptian by birth, Biheiri received a Master's degree in economics from the University of Freibourg in Switzerland before leaving for the United States in January 1985. Two months after he arrived in the U.S., he founded BMI, a New Jersey-based investment bank specializing in Islamically permissible investments.
In the 1980s and 90s, Biheiri and BMI offered a series of financial services to Muslims in America. With advertisements in popular Islamic magazines such as The Message, The Minaret, and Al Jummah, BMI solicited funds for real-estate investments and offered leasing services for wealthy Muslim business owners. By 1992, BMI boasted over $1 million in medical equipment and automobile leases under management, and advertised housing developments in Maryland and Indiana with projected revenues in excess of $25 million.
SOLIMAN BIHEIRI & SULIMAN AL-ALI
In 1985, Biheiri met a man named Suliman al-Ali in New Jersey. The two became personal friends, attending Islamic conferences together and entertaining at each other's homes. In 1989, al-Ali left the United States for Saudi Arabia to become a full time fundraiser for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). As described in the Biheiri affidavit, IIRO has extensive contacts with Islamist terrorist organization, including al Qaeda and Hamas.
According to tax filings, Al-Ali raised over $500,000 in his first year with IIRO. Impressed with his fundraising abilities, the Saudis sent al-Ali back to the U.S. to open IIRO's official office in the Washington, D.C. area.
Al-Ali landed in Washington, D.C. in 1991 with his checkbook and a mission. By this time, the Saudi-relief infrastructure that supported the jihad in Afghanistan had shifted focus to Eastern Europe. Muslims in Bosnia were being massacred by the Serbs and al-Ali had $10 million to put towards Bosnian aid. Over the next several years, al-Ali channeled at least $4 million of this money to BMI investments run by Biheiri.
THE TROUBLE BEGINS
On August 18, 1998, eleven days after al Qaeda decimated the U.S. embassies in East Africa, Biheiri received a disturbing phone call. Hassan Bahfzallah, the secretary of the Investment Committee for IIRO in Saudi Arabia, contacted Biheiri to inquire about IIRO investments with BMI and the activities of Suliman al-Ali. A couple of days later, Biheiri became "very alarmed" when he received a personal letter from Abdullah al-Obaid, the secretary general of the Muslim World League and a man Biheiri described as the "Pope of the Muslim[s]."
Biheiri was instructed to "cancel the validity of Dr. Suliman Al-Ali's signature in regards to all [IIRO] accounts with your firm." Biheiri, BMI and al-Ali were later sued by IIRO's affiliate Sana-Bell, who claimed that their funds had been misappropriated by the pair. At the trial, Biheiri acknowledged that al-Ali withdrew over $1 million from BMI accounts that had disappeared.
Soon afterwards, an FBI agent investigating Hamas money laundering identified Biheiri's BMI as an entity involved in funneling money to Hamas operatives in the United States. As a result, Biheiri was subpoenaed by the FBI.
The FBI discovered that the true principals behind BMI were actually Musa abu Marzook and Yasin Qadi. Marzook was a powerful Hamas leader who resided in the United States until he was arrested and finally deported in 1997. Qadi has been described as a terrorist financier by the U.S. Treasury Department. As head of the Muwafaq relief organization, he is alleged to have funneled millions of dollars to al Qaeda in Eastern Europe, Africa and South East Asia. By executive order, both Marzook and Qadi are now designated terrorists.
In the course of the investigation, a BMI officer approached the FBI with a shocking confession. The officer told federal agents that he believed funds he transferred overseas on behalf of BMI might have been used to finance the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
Several financial transfers involving Biheiri's friend and business partner al-Ali have increased concerns about the BMI confession regarding the embassy bombings.
In the two years before the embassy attacks, al-Ali disclosed that he sent almost $200,000 to Mercy International in Canada, a branch of the Michigan-based Mercy International. The legal name of the Canadian office is actually Mercy International Relief Agency.
Additionally, al-Ali and IIRO funneled millions of dollars to a Chicago-based chemical company run by a director of Mercy International. The company was raided by the FBI in 1997 amidst allegations of terrorism support and suspicious chemical compounds. The Mercy director is currently serving a 51-month sentence for fraud. IIRO's offices in Virginia were also raided as part of the investigation.
At the 2001 embassy-bombing trial, federal prosecutors identified several companies and charities that served as fronts to aid the attackers, including Mercy International Relief Agency. Prosecutors cited telephone records showing that Osama bin Laden's satellite phone was in contact with the mobile phone of Mercy director Ahmad Sheik Adam; and Bin Laden lieutenant and key orchestrator Wadih el Hage testified that he kept his files at the Mercy International office in Kenya. In his Rolodex were found the business cards of two Mercy officers in Kenya and one in the United States. Also, Mercy International receipts dated July 24, 1998, make mention of "getting the weapons from Somalia."
In the United States, Mercy International originally went by the name Human Concern International (HCI), an organization created in the 1980s to support the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Their Pakistan offices were headed by Ahmed Khadr, a close associate of bin Laden and an al Qaeda moneyman. In 1989, HCI changed its name to Mercy International-USA and moved to Michigan.
In response to news reports implicating "Mercy International" in the embassy attacks, Umar al-Qadi, president of Mercy in Michigan and founder of Mercy International Relief Agency in Canada, has publicly insisted that his organization had no relation to the organization in Kenya or the bombings themselves. Qadi explained that his group was named "Mercy International-USA" while the group in Kenya was "Mercy International Relief Agency." However, in July of 1995, Umar al-Qadi himself registered a "Mercy for International Relief Agency" in Ontario, Canada, which he described as a sister organization.
Many questions remain unanswered about the activities of BMI, IIRO, and Mercy International. Biheiri's friend al-Ali fled the United States following the FBI raid of his Virginia offices. According to an official at the Saudi embassy, he was arrested in Saudi Arabia in October of 2000, but has remained free on bail for the last three years. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Biheiri's detention hearing is scheduled for today (Thursday) in the Eastern District of Virginia. As a central figure in a complex financial network, Soliman Biheiri could potentially shed more light on the hazy underworld of terrorism financing.
Matthew Epstein is an attorney and senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995. Ben Schmidt is a terrorism analyst for the Investigative Project.