Interview with Louay Safi and Louise Shelley - 2002-03-27



Last week, Federal agents from the U.S. Customs Service raided offices in the Washington area of some Islamic organizations, as well as private homes. The raids were part of an ongoing investigation into possible links to a private financial empire that allegedly supports radical groups. As we mentioned earlier in our program, many American Muslims are dismayed and outraged. They claim there is no justification for what was done and say the raid was just a fishing expedition.

With us today is Dr. Louay Safi, Director of Research for the International Institute of Islamic Thought. It's a 20-year-old organization, I believe, that was among those raided last week. It serves as a think tank in the field of Islamic culture and knowledge. Welcome, Dr. Safi.

Thank you.

And your version, can you tell us what happened?

On Wednesday, our offices were raided by a team of Federal agents, led by the Customs Service of the Treasury Department. And I was in my office. They asked me to step out. I stepped out. I asked what was going on, what was happening. They said they have a search warrant. I said, let me see it. They said, we can't show it to you immediately; we have to secure the premises. And then we were asked to move to a conference room. We have about 20 staff members. And it took us about two hours to be able to see the search warrant and to find out what was the raid about.

You were caught off guard and very surprised, I take it?

I was surprised. And I was, later on, after reading the search warrant, which was based on a sealed affidavit, I was shocked. And I felt really that now the campaign on terror is heading in the wrong direction.

Did they give you any more detail of the purpose of the raid, what their motivations were for doing this?

The search warrant talked about probable cause of aiding terrorist organizations overseas, but we were not shown the affidavit. We don't know what kind of allegations were brought against those organizations. And we were shocked because, really, we have maintained a very good relationship with Federal agencies and departments. We were about to have a program that was designed by the State Department. We were participating in it. And so it was really very shocking to us to see that our organization and 14 other Muslim organizations have become now the subject or target of investigations on terrorism.

Is it possible that some of the money that is involved in your organization could have perhaps been well intended to go toward charitable groups, well-meaning groups, and then somehow, from there, you might have lost control of it and it might have gone to another organization that you might not support? Is that possible?

Some of those organizations that were raided are research organizations. In fact, one of them is the Fiqh Council. This is the highest religious organization for Muslim Americans. It provides religious opinion that guides Muslims as to how they can live Islamically in the United States. So these are very respected organizations.

One of them is the Graduate School for Islamic and Social Sciences that trains chaplains for the Army and the Navy. So these are not shadow organizations that have been raided; these are very respected.

We have communication with Federal agencies. We have been invited to the State Department and to the White House. And so we are not really people who can be suspected or can be treated this way. We feel, and the Muslim community feels, really outraged that our best organizations have become targets, have been already tarnished by this kind of behavior. And we hope and we feel, I myself believe, this is some sort of isolated instance, somebody in the Treasury Department figured it out wrong, and they didn't consult enough with other organizations and other Federal agencies, and ended up raiding our offices.

We also want to talk to another guest who is with us today, Dr. Louise Shelley, the head of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, which is at American University here in Washington. Perhaps you can help us understand some of the background behind this. We, of course, asked representatives from the U.S. Customs Service to join us in this discussion. They declined, citing the legality of the investigation. Can you tell us, based on your expertise, what you think was the motivation behind this?

The motivation behind these investigations is as you have been talking about. It is to find if there is money being diverted from charitable organizations to support terrorist activity. And it is not the first time that we have had organizations in the United States, religious organizations, investigated for money laundering. And not necessarily Islamic organizations. We have had other organizations in the United States that have been investigated. Sometimes people are willing; sometimes it has been unwilling activity. So it is not something that is totally new. I know of investigations and indictments as long as eight years ago.

What is different in this case is the number of organizations and the lack of knowledge, and sometimes the force that was used in entering the premises. And that is a concern of human rights issues and it is a concern also in some of the areas where I think many of the investigators are not very knowledgeable about the Islamic world.

One of the problems we have had in this war on terrorism is that we have taken all kinds of people who are not trained in terrorism, who don't have much historical or geographic knowledge, and have put them on these investigations. And so I am sure that mistakes are going to be made because some people are just not equipped to do this.

I guess we are going to have to wait to get more information, perhaps, as the investigation develops. But just one last question, Dr. Safi. What can your organization do now? How can you function?

Actually, now we have been really disturbed and diverted away from our main purpose. And we are disturbed really because we feel that the targeting of our organizations, Muslim organizations, have been unfair and unjustified. You don't target the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops because some Catholics in Ireland have been using violence. Nor do you target some Jewish rabbis because some Jewish extremists are doing violence in the Middle East.

So we feel that this is wrong. This is un-American. This has taken us away from our purpose. It is tearing up our community. So we hope that this can be contained, and we would like to see apologies from the Treasury Department.

I imagine you will probably take that opportunity to get that message out to various authorities.

And thank you both for joining us today. I appreciate your being here.

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