Government Finally Reaches the Holy Land in Complex Case of Providing Financial Support to Terrorist
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
America has a disposition toward war. The nation was created through war, and except for brief periods of respite, America has been at war with itself and other countries throughout its history. When not at war with other nations, America has found a need to declare “war” on one social ill after another, particularly over the last five decades. Beginning with President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” through President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” following 9/11, government officials have consistently used a war slogan to justify one social crusade after another.
In 2007 we wrote in this column (under the title “The Holy Land Foundation Verdict”) about the efforts of the Bush administration, as part of its “war on terror,” to convict the Holy Land Foundation of Texas for terrorism-related activities. We will revisit some of the historical background of that column as a lead into this one.
Under its original name Occupied Land Fund, the Holy Land Foundation was established in California in 1989 by Ghassan Elashi and other Palestinian Activists. The purpose of the Foundation was to provide assistance to Palestinians displaced by a Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The uprising became known as the “intifada.” The most aggressive resistance in the intifada came from the Iranian-backed organization called Hamas which had been established in 1987. The political leader of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzook, was married to Elashi’s cousin.
Three years later, in 1992, Holy Land moved its headquarters to Richardson, Texas. The Foundation came under the scrutiny of the governments of the United States and Israel the following year. An Illinois businessman named Muhammad Salah detained in Israel informed authorities that Holy Land, which had become America’s largest Muslim charity, was actually a front for Hamas. While he later claimed that he had provided information to the Israelis under torture, he told the authorities that Marzook, who was living in the U.S. at the time, had actually funded the creation of Holy Land with hundreds of thousands of dollars of start-up money.
Armed with the information provided by Salah, the FBI in October 1993 bugged a meeting at a Philadelphia hotel between Holy Land organizers and what the agency called “Hamas sympathizers.” The FBI captured conversations among the participants about how to raise money for Hamas without attracting the attention of U.S. authorities. Both groups knew U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were on “high alert” following the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
By accident or design, the Salah information was leaked to the news media in late 1994 linking the Holy Land Foundation to Hamas. The Dallas Morning News took the lead in the media-based investigations uncovering ties between the Foundation and Hamas activists. Holy Land and other American-based Muslim groups expressed outraged, publicly denying any link between the Foundation and Hamas.
Nonetheless, United States law enforcement agencies stepped up their surveillance and investigations of the Foundation. In 1995 Marzook was detained by federal agents at the JFK International Airport in New York. The United States declared him a “specially designated terrorist.” These federal investigations reportedly developed troubling information that Holy Land was flying “militant clerics” with Hamas ties into the country to headline charity fundraisers in the United States. The clerics often called for a violent “jihad,” or holy war, against Israel. Hamas was promptly declared a “terrorist organization” by the United States.
Israel responded to these revelations by ordering the closure of a Holy Land office in 1996 in a Jerusalem suburb. The Israelis said the closure was due to the Foundation’s fundraising activities for a “foreign terrorist organization.” Israel pressured the United States to close the Foundation’s Richardson-based headquarters, but the U.S. refused to directly confront Holy Land. However, New York Senator Charles Schumer, an openly gay lawmaker with strong ties to the Israeli lobby, stepped up Congressional pressure on Holy Land by sponsoring legislation that made it a federal crime to raise money for foreign terrorist organizations. He called for a “federal investigation” into the “financial ties” between Hamas and Holy Land.
In 1997 the Commerce Department developed information that an Internet service provider and computer services firm called InfoCom had been set up in Richardson by Elashi’s family and funded by Marzook. The firm was located next door to Holy Land. The department had learned that InfoCom had contacted Saddam Hussein’s government about setting up a domain extension “.ig”. The United States responded to these developments by deporting Marzook, although he had not been indicted for any criminal wrongdoing.
By 1999 federal investigators had learned that InfoCom had violated export laws, as the Dallas Morning News reported, “by doing business with customers in Syria and Libya, both of which the U.S. considered state sponsors of terrorism.” Pointing out that allegations involving Holy Land and Hamas had been swirling since 1996, President Bill Clinton’s State Department considered but stopped short of adding the Foundation to a list of foreign terrorist organizations which already included Hamas.
Federal investigators continued to work the export law case against InfoCom for the new two years before shutting the company down just six days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The firm and its Muslim supporters vehemently protested the law enforcement action, denying any links to either terrorism or Holy Land. The FBI responded to the public criticism by pointing out that it had seized from InfoCom 20 boxes of Holy Land records that included the charity group’s bank records, correspondence and videos.
The FBI examination of these boxes of documents had barely begun when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The agency’s investigation surged into warp speed, pulling together what the Dallas Morning News called “eight years of intelligence and evidence on Holy Land.” Armed with this evidence and a political climate bordering on hysteria, the FBI stormed Holy Land’s offices with search warrants and authority to seize its assets.
Standing in the Rose Garden on December 4, 2001, President Bush announced that he had ordered the Richardson-based office of the Holy Land Foundation and its offices in three other cities to be closed. Calling the group a “front for Hamas,” Bush ordered all its assets frozen. Federal investigators estimated that the group had raised $57 million between 1992 and 2001 – $12 million of which had been sent charities connected to Hamas since 1995 when that group was designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
On July 7, 2004 Elashi, his four brothers and InfoCom were convicted in federal court of shipping computers to Libya and Syria and falsifying the value of other shipments. Marzook, a Louisiana Tech graduate, had been indicted but deported before the indictment was handed down.
Two and one-half weeks after this conviction, Elashi, five other men, and Holy Land are named in a 42-count indictment in Dallas. The indictment charged that the charity group and its officers had engaged in a conspiracy to deal with terrorists and launder $12 million to them.
On April 16, 2007 Elashi began serving a 6 ½-year federal prison system imposed following his conviction in the InfoCom case.
On July 16, 2007 jury selection began in the Holy Land case. It took eight days to select a jury, and another two months before the case actually went to the jury on September 20, 2007. The jury was in turmoil from the very beginning. Four days into the deliberations the jury foreman sent a note to trial judge Joe Fish saying “the jury is having trouble staying on task with the charge.” That was clearly understandable. After sitting through nearly two months of “arcane testimony,” the jury had to listen to what the Morning News called “magazine-length legal instructions.” The jury instructions were in fact 54 pages in length – a daunting task to comprehend.
In the September 26 note to trial judge Joe Fish, the jury foreman said that jurors frequently attacked each other and that “opinions, not facts, are discussed. Some are closed to deliberations, which shuts off conversations that are meaningful.”
On October 18, 2007 the jury reached a verdict, but Judge Fish was out of town attending a conference. He ordered the jury verdict sealed until he retuned. Four days later the verdict was un-sealed before the judge, but Fish and courtroom observers were stunned when several jurors told the judge that they no longer agreed with the jury decision. The jury foreman was even more stunned.
“When we voted, there was no issue in the vote,” she told the judge. “No one spoke up any different. I really don’t understand where it is coming from. All 12 made that decision.”
Judge Fish promptly ordered the jury back into deliberations only to have the jurors return a hour later with one of them still “uneasy” about the panel’s decisions. Judge Fish was forced to declare a mistrial.
William Neal is the only juror to speak publicly about the deliberations. He said he wasn’t surprised by the hold-out juror who, as the Morning News reported, “sometimes dozed off during the trial.
“She was sleeping during deliberations,” Neal said. “we’d hear her snore, and we’d say, ‘Wake up!’ she said she was bullied. She felt so threatened, she would break down. What do you do when someone cries? I stopped being nice. ‘This isn’t fun and games,’ I told them. ‘This is not about personal feelings’.”
Neal described for the media an eerie scene in the judge’s chambers after Fish had declared the mistrial involving the holdout juror.
“She looked at the judge and said she was confused,” Neal reported. “He [Fish] just looked at her. There’s not much you can say to that. Ignorance is a formidable weapon. You can’t attack it.”
“I’ve never seen anything like what happened yesterday,” said former Dallas federal prosecutor John Helms the day after the mistrial. “It looks like they had four days to sit at home and think about it.”
Some 200 Holy Land supporters, and the Elashi family in particular, were elated with the trial’s outcome.
“Like Rosa Parks once was persecuted for simply sitting in a front seat of a bus, my dad was singled out for feeding, clothing and educating the children of Palestine,” said Noor Elashi, daughter of Ghassan Elashi.
“We’ll be all right,” said Shukri Abu Baker, a former Holy Land CEO, told a United Church of Christ minister there to support the group.
“We’re in goods hands,” he added, looking up to the ceiling.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, compared the government’s action in the Holy Land case to McCarthyism in the 1950s.
“Today’s campaign has a different name and a different target,” he said. “The campaign is anti-terrorism and the target is the American Muslim community.”
After fourteen years of investigation, nearly two months of trial, 19 days of jury deliberations, four days of waiting in limbo, and a lone juror holdout that prompted a mistrial, the government announced it would retry the case. The government presented its case.
The government kept its promise this year. A jury announced on November 24, 2008, after only eight days to deliberations, that it had found all the Holy Land defendants guilty of all 108 counts charged in the original indictment. It proved to be one of the hardest fought and costliest victories in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
“[It is] a great day for the U.S.,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Roper said after the convictions. “Money is the lifeblood of terrorists, plain and simple. The jury’s decision attacks terrorism at its core. The jury’s decision [also] demonstrates that U.S. citizens will not tolerate those who provide financial support to terrorist organizations.”
All told, it took the United States government fifteen years and cost untold millions to secure the “jury’s decision.”
This time relatives of the defendants left the courtroom somber, although one female relative said loudly: “My dad’s not a criminal. They treated him like an animal.”
Those comments didn’t set well with court personnel who instructed other family members to calm her down.
Elashi and Abu-Baker were convicted of a combined 69 counts, including money laundering, tax fraud, and supporting a designated terrorist. Three other defendants were convicted on a lesser number of counts: three counts of conspiracy against Mufid Adbulgader and Abdulrahman Odeh, and one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Holy Land itself was convicted of all 32 counts leveled against the organization.
Citing the defendants’ ties to the Middle East and the lengthy sentences that probably awaited them, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ordered all of them taken into immediate custody. Indeed, the sentences could be lengthy: supporting a terrorist organization carries a maximum 15 years on each count and money laundering carries a maximum of 20 years on each count.
“This is definitely the most notable victory that the government has had in this type of case,” former federal prosecutor Matthew Orwig told the media after the convictions. “[But] even this one was very difficult to come by.”
Not everyone believed the convictions were a “victory.”
“We respect the jury’s decision, but we disagree and we think the defendants are completely innocent,” Khalil Meek, longtime spokesman for the Muslim community in North Texas including a group of Holy Land Foundation supporters called Hungry for Justice, told the New York Times. “For the last two years, we’ve watched this trial unfold, and we have yet to see any evidence of a criminal act introduced to a jury. The jury found that humanitarian aid is a crime.”
Therein lies the problem. A primary objective of the American government is to isolate individual terrorists and terrorist groups. Once these individuals are designated by the State Department as terrorists, no other individual or group, no matter how well-intentioned, can provide financial assistance or aid to these individuals and groups without running afoul of tough federal laws.
“We intend to appeal the verdict, and we remain convinced that we will win,” Meek said.
Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter and daughter of Ghassan Elashi, Noor Elashi, was devastated after the verdict: “I feel heartbroken that a group of my fellow Americans fell for the prosecution’s fear-mongering theory. This is truly a low point for the United States of America, but this is not over.”
The Holy Land verdict came on the heels of another terrorist-related verdict announced by a Manhattan federal jury on November 20, 2008 convicting two arms dealers in an alleged plot to aid terrorists. The jury reached its verdict after being told by prosecutors that the arms merchants, a Syrian native named Monzer al-Kassar and a Chilean named Luis Felipe Moreno Godoy, planned to sell millions of dollars in weapons that would be used to kill Americans.
The jury reached its verdict after only six hours of deliberations following a two-week trial that, according to the New York Times, “was full of intrigue, and evidence about the shadowy world of international arms deadling.” The Times reported that prosecutors told the jury that Kassar and Godoy had agreed to sell 15 surface-to-air missiles, 4,000 grenades, nearly 9,000 assault rifles, and thousands of pounds of C-4 explosives to FARC guerillas in Columbia for a profit of more than one million dollars.
Al-Kassar and Godoy were both convicted on five counts of money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and to kill Americans. They now face terms up to life imprisonment on February 18, 2009 when U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff will impose sentencing on them.
A factor that will certainly be considered in al-Kassar’s sentencing was his involvement in the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro during which a 69-year-old old, and wheel-chair bound, American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer was shot and thrown into the sea. Al-Kassar was later acquitted in Spain on charges flowing from that hijacking.
The New York Times reported that members of the Klinghoffer family, including his daughter Lisa, attended most of the Manhattan trial.
“We’re happy to see justice done,” Lisa Klinghoffer told the New York Times after the verdict.
These two cases offer a look at the diverse nature of the “war on terror.” The Holy Land case involved individuals who believed they were providing humanitarian aid to people in need. Al-Kassar and Godoy are hard-core arms merchants with longstanding ties to terrorists and terrorist groups. They clearly had an intent not only to harm American interests but kill Americans as well. There has never been any real credible evidence that the Holy Land Foundation or any of its members intended to harm American interests or kill Americans. They simply provided financial assistance for humanitarian reasons to a group and individuals designated by our State Department as terrorists.
The contradiction in the two cases is staggering. Al-Kassar and Godoy are terrorists, by any definition. The American government has a legitimate national security interests to bring them to justice and remove them from the international terrorism marketplace. But the government crusade – some would call a vendetta – against Holy Land does not remove “terrorists” from the world terrorism marketplace. The government will simply send people to a federal prison for a long time for providing humanitarian aid to needy people through the wrong group of people.
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair