Silver Linings: Trial Exposed Secrets
October 26, 2007
It's understandable that attention this week is focused on the mistrial declared in the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) Hamas-support case. The government failed to persuade jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the foundation and its officials deliberately routed money to Hamas through a set of Palestinian charities.
With the exception of Mohammed El-Mezain, the defendants find themselves exactly in the same position they were in when this case was indicted in 2004. El-Mezain was acquitted on all but one count against him. But that count, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, is no minor threat to his freedom.
But more importantly, we know much more about HLF and its leaders today than we knew when the trial started in July. And what we learned about what had been America's largest Muslim charity and many of its allies is not pretty.
While most analyses of the court case dub it a government failure, there is a public service in exposing secrets about a group or its leaders that they'd prefer you never know. That's what happened here. And that's what HLF and its allies are hoping you'll forget in the fog of the mistrial.
We know HLF officials lied about their support of Hamas, both informally and to US courts. And we know defendant and former HLF CEO Shukri Abu Baker believes in deception as a means to an end.
We've seen this before. Post-mortems on the HLF trial invariably invoke the 2005 trial of former University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian. He was accused of leading an American support cell for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Jurors in his trial acquitted him on eight counts and hung on nine others. He later pled guilty to providing goods and services to the PIJ.
That trial saw retired FBI agent Manny Perez testify that, in a 1991 meeting with him, Al-Arian denied having anything to do with the PIJ. Three months later, Al-Arian spoke at a Cleveland mosque, exhibiting no reaction when the imam introduced him as the head of PIJ's "active arm."
Other evidence showed Al-Arian served on the PIJ governing board.
Like he did with Perez, Al-Arian spent the next 12 years lying to anyone else who asked about his PIJ affiliation. He lied to IPT founder and Executive Director Steven Emerson during an interview for the 1994 documentary Jihad in America.
Emerson: Would you say you support the Islamic Jihad factions?
Al-Arian: No, we don't support any political groups at all.
At one point in the interview, Al-Arian even feigned ignorance about what the initials PIJ stood for. Earlier that year, FBI surveillance tapes show, he battled with PIJ founder Fathi Shikaki to keep the group together after a financial crisis threatened Iranian support.
He lied to his bosses at the university when questions came up about his think tank's relationship to PIJ. In 1995, he lied to Florida reporters, again denying any relationship to the PIJ, especially when a researcher who ran Al-Arian's think tank emerged as the new PIJ commander following Shikaki's assassination.
Ramadan Abdullah Shallah was less than six months removed from Tampa when he became the PIJ secretary general. He remains in that position today.
In 1995, Al-Arian claimed to have no idea Shallah, who had been a director at the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, was connected to the PIJ. In fact, Al-Arian said that he "never heard that name, `Shallah'" and anyway he was not responsible for Shallah coming to America. During his trial, prosecutors showed the INS petition for Shallah's work visa that Al-Arian signed in 1993.
The HLF case offers some startling similarities.
"We don't sponsor any speakers from Hamas to begin with," Baker told Dallas Morning News reporter Gayle Reaves in 1996.
"We were never associated with Hamas to start with to distance ourselves later on. We never associated with Hamas anyway."
Baker's own credit card bills show he and other HLF defendants repeatedly covered travel expenses for Hamas leaders, including Mohammed Siyam and Mahmud Zahar, in the early 1990s. The men spoke at HLF fundraisers in the U.S. and South America that generated tens of thousands of dollars.
True, that travel occurred before the 1995 executive order banning transactions with and support for Hamas, but stands in direct contrast with Baker's public denials.
In 2001, he signed a sworn declaration submitted in HLF's court challenge to a US designation of HLF as a terrorist group. In it, Baker claimed to "reject and abhor Hamas, its goals and its methods. I reject terrorism by anyone. I do not believe it accomplishes anything and I believe it to be morally wrong."
Yet Baker actively participated in a secret 1993 meeting of Hamas members and supporters in Philadelphia. The entire transcript of that meeting, secretly recorded by the FBI, is in evidence. And nowhere in it does Baker reject the group's ideology or call for it to temper its violence.
Called just weeks after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in 1993, finding ways to "derail" the deal was the meeting's stated purpose. Those at the meeting expressed concern the Islamist Hamas would be marginalized by the PLO's ascent to power and acknowledged they opposed any deal that left Israel intact.
In fact, Baker sits silently while a speaker identified as Abdul Rahman suggests that "the most important thing we can provide in this stage is to support Jihad in Palestine. I believe it is the only way if we want to bring the goals of the [peace] accord to fail."
It is in that weekend of meetings that Baker advises the group to remember "War is deception. Deceive, camouflage. Pretend that you're leaving while you're walking that way. Deceive your enemy."
On that point, on page 7 of Government Exhibit 16-57, he and others discuss ways to talk to Americans without showing their true objectives.
"But I cannot approach them through my strict Islamic address. I can't tell him I demand the '48 borders," Baker said. "No way, no way on earth, okay? No, I approach it through humanitarian suffering, refugees' rights and issues which the Americans will agree with you on."
Details about the Philadelphia meeting remain the most significant disclosures of the entire HLF investigation. They show that the foundation played a role in a larger Muslim Brotherhood network aimed at organizing Hamas support in America among other things. The Palestine Committee included HLF, the Islamic Association for Palestine, a think tank called the United Association for Studies and Research and, later, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Ahmad, CAIR's original chairman, convened the meeting on page 10 of Government Exhibit 16-47. "This meeting was called for by the Palestine Committee," he said, "in order to have a seminar or a meeting to the brothers present here today in order to study the situation in light of the latest developments on the Palestinian arena, its effects and impact on our work here in America."
And Palestine Committee founders made it clear on page 14 of Government Exhibit 16-53, they were opposed to peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That's why they didn't like Oslo.
Omar Ahmad: We've always demanded the 1948 territories. I mean, we demanded …
Unidentified Speaker: Yes, but we don't say that publicly. You cannot say it publicly. In front of the Americans…
Omar Ahmad: No, we didn't say that to the Americans.
That may be why so many are trumpeting the mistrial as exoneration. The hope seems to be that the more noise made about the verdict, the less people will remember these disclosures and inquire about them.
"The case against HLF was a political witch-hunt that had nothing to do with America's security," wrote Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Chairman Parvez Ahmad on his blog Wednesday. "The closure of HLF appears to be an attempt to block humanitarian assistance to some of the most impoverished people in the world - Palestinians living under Israel's Apartheid-like occupation."
Similarly, DePaul University law professor M. Cherif Bassiouni penned a CAIR fundraising letter calling the trial "one of the great abuses of the American legal process:"
What is additionally outrageous in this case is the fact that the Department of Justice named 306 individuals and organizations as un-indicted co-conspirators in the case. The exhaustive list includes several major American Muslim organizations in this country."
Such intimidation and harassment leveled against American Muslims and their religious, civic and charitable organizations by this administration is yet another manifestation of the recent erosion of American constitutional freedoms.
The fear-mongering campaign opted for by many in this administration – and supported by avowedly anti-Muslim groups - has created a climate of Islamophobia that is contrary to the basic values of this otherwise tolerant country.
So major American Muslim organizations were named unindicted co-conspirators, but Professor Bassiouni didn't name any. CAIR, of course, is one, and the Philadelphia transcripts and Palestine Committee records give us a good sense why. CAIR has blamed that designation – announced in June - for a drop in fundraising that dates back years.
All of this informs us about current debates involving CAIR's genuine agenda and similar debates about whether to unquestioningly accept denials about radicalism despite evidence to the contrary.
Esam Omeish, president of the Muslim American Society, would have us believe his praise of Palestinians who "have known that the jihad way is the way to liberate your land" is not a call for violence, even if he said it as the second Intifada flared in 2000.
Similarly, MAS Freedom Foundation Executive Director Mahdi Bray claims it was all a big laugh when he pumped his fist joyously as American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi asks the crowd at a rally how many of them joined him in supporting Hamas and Hizballah.
Maybe. Maybe not. Remember that MAS leaders acknowledge the group was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the U.S. MAS wasn't on the HLF trial's unindicted co-conspirator list. But the group was tasked in a Palestine Committee "confrontation work plan." The plan, hatched in the wake of the Oslo accord, was designed for "we who own the cause of Palestine and Islam." Organizers feared their visceral rejection of Oslo could isolate them as extremists and radicals. MAS was to "educate the brothers in all work centers, mosques and organizations on the necessity of stopping any contacts with the Zionist organizations and the rejection of any future contacts."
Failure to do so could "break the psychological barrier that the Arabs and Palestinians have so that they accept the Jews and their country."
Bet they wish you didn't know that.