DALLAS – Successful terrorist organizations throughout history have used social wings as a means of building popular support, an internationally-recognized terrorism expert said Thursday. Bruce Hoffman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a former Scholar-in-Residence at the CIA, testified in the trial of five men accused of funneling millions of dollars to social support organizations controlled by Hamas.
Hoffman's testimony did not delve into specific charges or evidence against the former officials of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). Rather, Hoffman was a prosecution expert, outlining the structure of terrorist movements like Hizballah in Lebanon and the Irish Republican Army. Terrorist organizations that do not have a social arm, said Hoffman, historically are the "least consequential."
"Is charity in the hand of a terrorist organization a good thing or a bad thing?" asked federal prosecutor Barry Jonas. "Absolutely a bad thing," said Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism.
Charity by terrorist organizations is different from those of truly charitable organizations because a terrorist organization's deeds are "self-serving." In other words, Hoffman said, terrorist organizations perform charitable work in order to "exercise control over the population." For example, most terrorist groups with social arms run or support schools and hospitals. That allows them to indoctrinate the local population and gain their support.
The five HLF defendants are accused of conspiring to provide material support to Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1995 and in a separate designation two years later. HLF routed millions of dollars to Palestinian charities, known as zakat committees that prosecutors say were controlled by Hamas. Defense attorneys argue that the men were merely offering supplies – financial support for widows and orphans, medical supplies and school needs – to needy Palestinians.
Defense attorneys all passed when given a chance to cross examine Hoffman.
Earlier, attorney Nancy Hollander, who represents former HLF Executive Director Shukri Abu Baker, asked FBI agent Lara Burns on cross examination whether she had seen evidence that the Palestinians receiving HLF support were in desperate need of assistance. At another point, Burns was asked about book bags HLF sent to Palestinian schoolchildren.
Hoffman's testimony offered a stark contrast to the defense's arguments, by demonstrating how HLF's charitable work fit into a larger perspective. Viewed in this context, HLF could be seen as part of the "social wing" of Hamas, which was designed to win the hearts and minds of the people for Hamas.
While Hamas purports to be divided into social, political and militant wings, U.S. law prohibits providing support to any of them.
Burns' cross examination followed her second stint on the witness stand for this trial. In her second testimony, she helped summarize dozens of prosecution exhibits, trying to show how they tie the defendants and the zakat committees to Hamas.
Her cross examination lasted a day and a half and often was tedious.
Unlike Burns' testimony, Hoffman's was free of exhibits and moved faster. A mistrial was declared a year ago after jurors could not reach unanimous verdicts on most counts against the defendants. Some jurors indicated there was not enough evidence to show the men did anything but provide charity.
Hoffman did not testify in that trial. His testimony marks another adjustment in the prosecution's case since then. Burns' return to the stand is another. Last week, jurors heard from a former HLF insider, who testified that he was sure money he routed to HLF would ultimately benefit Hamas.
The trial is in recess until Monday.