EUGENE, Ore. - "I think they wanted things to be closer to the way they were in Saudi Arabia." That's how one witness described the evolution of al Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHF) into a radical organization whose leadership reportedly funneled money to Chechen terrorists.
Over the past two days, jurors heard from two converts to Islam who both met defendant Pete Seda—charged with filing false tax returns and failing to disclose the withdrawal of over $100,000 in cash from the United States—while he was head of the Quran Foundation.
And while their experiences differed in the details, they dovetailed in their description of an organization and a man who shifted from moderate to increasingly radical.
Barbara Cabral, a hair stylist at the local JCPenney who converted to Islam after having met Seda, described how she and her late husband used to travel to Seda's Ashland home to attend weekly prayers. Daveed Gartenstein Ross, who grew up in Ashland and converted to Islam while in college at Wake Forest, said he first met Seda when he began attending Friday prayers at Seda's home, out of which he ran the Quran Foundation. He eventually came to work for the organization.
Both witnesses told jurors how they noticed a change when Seda and his congregants got involved with the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation. Speaking of the new facilities that were purchased with Saudi money, Cabral recalled that "it was nice to have a place to go…a permanent location."
Despite this "generosity," both witnesses told similar stories of the radicalism they had witnessed at the Ashland property. Of note, were the occasional sermons of Hasan Zabady, who Cabral called "very negative." She recounted how Zabady referred to the United States as the "devil's land," and urged Muslims to "move to an Islamic land." Gartenstein-Ross echoed her testimony, saying that he remembered Zabady arguing that "Muslims would become corrupted living in the West."
Despite these statements and actions, Gartenstein-Ross said, Seda treated Zabady as a respected guest, referring to him with the honorific "Sheikh."
Both witnesses went on to explain that the radicalism at AHF was not limited to the rhetoric of the occasional guest speaker. After traveling on the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1999, Cabral recounted that Seda had appealed to her for $400 "to help the mujahideen in Chechnya." She gave the money. Cabral also described a jewelry sale organized by Zabady's wife that raised over $1,500, "and all the funds were to go to the mujahideen in Chechnya."
Gartenstein-Ross painted an even more disturbing picture of the organization, gleaned from nine months working there. He spoke at length about his responsibility for distributing literature for AHF, and how he was instructed by Seda to give certain materials to Muslims and other material to non-Muslims.
For example, Muslims were given the "Noble Quran," which contained an Appendix entitled "A Call to Jihad: Holy Fighting in Allah's Cause," extolling the righteousness of violent jihad. Gartenstein-Ross also discussed how he had distributed Mohammad bin Jamil Zino's "Islamic Guidelines for Individual and Social Reform." In the book, Zino explains:
"Jihad is obligatory on every Muslim in two ways: by spending one's wealth or offering oneself for fighting in the cause of Allah."
Non-believers were not provided these materials. Instead they were given a more moderate interpretation of the Quran and a pictorial history of Islam.
Seda's attorneys used cross-examination to argue that, regardless of the views of the Saudi branch of al Haramain, Seda's Ashland office simply did not agree. For example, defense counsel pointed out that despite the anti-Western rhetoric of Sheikh Zabady, Seda continued his involvement in interfaith dialogue, community outreach, and other public events. Gartenstein-Ross was also pushed to concede that during an interview with the FBI in 2000 he told them "Mr. Seda hates terrorism and believes it gives Islam a bad name."