DALLAS – A former fund raiser for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) testified Friday that money from the foundation went to Palestinian charities controlled by Hamas.
Mohamed Shorbagi said he knew this through Hamas literature, a London-based Hamas website and word-of mouth.
Shorbagi pleaded guilty in August 2006 to providing material support to Hamas by routing money to HLF. According to his plea agreement, he "made regular monetary contributions to the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) on behalf of himself and others, knowing that HLF then supplied some or all of that money to HAMAS, including donations made after October 26, 2001."
He agreed to testify for the government in hopes of reducing his seven-year prison sentence. But that doesn't mean he has changed his views.
Under questioning from federal prosecutor James Jacks, Shorbagi unapologetically stated that he is an Islamist, a supporter of Hamas and Sharia law. As a former HLF insider, his testimony could help the government's case against HLF and five former officials. They are accused of illegally sending millions of dollars through Palestinian charities, called zakat committees, controlled by the terrorist group.
In Palestine, most organizations are run by either Hamas or the secular Fatah movement, Shorbagi said. Based upon the charities and individuals who received HLF money, Shorbagi concluded they were connected to Hamas. "When you know money goes to Mahmud Zahar, you know money goes to Hamas."
Some of those organizations were charities that distributed food and others were schools where children were taught Islamist ideology.
Shorbagi became the imam for a mosque in Rome, Georgia in 1993. Among his responsibilities was the collection of zakat, or charity, at the mosque. He said he sent all the money collected to HLF. Haitham Maghawri, a named defendant in the case who lives abroad, and defendant Mohamed El-Mezain were his main contacts.
By sending money to HLF, he said he felt he was helping organizations that had "clean hands." He defined "clean hands" as not being a corrupt organization like those run by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which ran the Palestinian Authority. In his view, Hamas would use the money for the appropriate behaviors that he wished to support.
Shorbagi was asked whether HLF changed its behavior after Hamas was designated a terrorist organization in 1995 and 1997. He replied that defendant Shukri Abu Baker, HLF's former executive director, set up an office in Gaza to distribute money rather than HLF sending directly to individuals. The recipients of the HLF funds were still tied to Hamas, he said. In addition, HLF continued to advertise in publications by the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP), another U.S.-based charity that Shorbagi said was part of Hamas.
Exhibits already in evidence show that the IAP and HLF were parts of a "Palestine Committee" in America created to help Hamas both politically and financially. The IAP played a propaganda role, publishing the Hamas charter, communiqués from the group and other articles in support. In addition, HLF and IAP had an agreement to work together on fund raising.
In civil litigation, a federal judge has found that IAP "desired to help Hamas' activities succeed, and … engaged in some act of helping those activities succeed."
To help Hamas succeed, Shorbagi said he turned to the owner of a successful carpet company where he worked in Rome. The owner of Alexandria Carpet provided donations ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars at a time, which Shorbagi routed to HLF.
When HLF officials learned that Shorbagi's boss had made a donation to another organization, Shorbagi testified they weren't happy. "HLF was supposed to get his money to Gaza," he said. At one point, defendant Ghassan Elashi suggested creating a fund using his boss' money that HLF could invest and profit from the interest.
Jurors seemed attentive during Shorbagi's testimony, which began Thursday afternoon. A soft-spoken man with a slight accent, Shorbagi told jurors that he came to America after he was 18 and attended several colleges. He became involved with an organization known as the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA).
MAYA helped Muslim students preserve their identities as they came to America from conservative Middle Eastern countries and faced "culture shock," he said.
Most of the people who spoke at MAYA events were from the Muslim Brotherhood, Shorbagi said.
At some of the MAYA conferences, Shorbagi said he attended unadvertised, closed-door sessions. One such closed meeting in 1992 was described as "a meeting from Hamas inside." Shorbagi testified that he saw defendants Elashi and Baker at the event, which featured Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook as the speaker.
Marzook discussed "how Hamas was becoming a major player in the Middle East." He talked about how they needed to help Hamas grow in political power. At another meeting in 1994, Shorbagi saw defendants Mohamed El-Mezain, Baker and Elashi. Marzook introduced the Hamas political leader, Khalid Mishaal, as the speaker. Mishaal spoke about how Palestinians were sacrificing all they had "so we need to keep up with that."
Defense attorneys had just started cross examining Shorbagi when court recessed for the weekend. The early questioning emphasized that Shorbagi's sentence already has been reduced, and could be trimmed more in exchange for his testimony.
In other testimony, prosecution expert witness Matthew Levitt returned to the stand Thursday over defense objections. Levitt was the trial's first witness, offering jurors a primer on the Middle East and Hamas.
It was clear, Levitt said Thursday looking at telephone records and documents found inside HLF offices, that the defendants had access to private contact numbers for top Hamas officials.
El-Mezain, for example, had the personal telephone number for Marzook, the Hamas deputy political chief. And a document found at HLF had Hamas letterhead and an office number. That number "was not made public to the world," Levitt said. "It does clearly establish a connection between Hamas and this phone number."
The defense did not cross examine Levitt after his second appearance.
On Wednesday, Steve Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a deputy at the National Security Council (NSC) during the Clinton Administration, testified about U.S.-led efforts to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 1990s. Middle East security and peace is important to U.S. interests and foreign policy, he said, explaining that America has a keen interest in facilitating talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
Those efforts led to the Oslo Accords, which were "followed by a lot of terrorist violence by Palestinian groups that were looking to bring the peace process to a halt if they could," Simon said. Hamas was one of these organizations.Shorbagi's cross examination is expected to continue when court resumes Monday morning.