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US Government Raids on Muslims Stir Debate - 2002-03-26

Several Muslim organizations and homes near Washington have been raided by U.S. Government agents in search of financial links to terrorist groups. Muslim leaders condemn the raids as part of a post-9-11 crackdown on Islam in America, while the government says they are necessary to pursue the war on terrorism.

Mona Abdul-Fadl was sleeping in her home in Leesburg, Virgina, when a group of men, guns drawn, broke in. "I thought I was going to be kidnapped," she recalls. "What kind of gangsters are these?"

Not gangsters but U.S. Treasury counter-terrorism agents looking for financial links to terrorist groups. They spent five hours searching every inch of her house, says her husband Taha al-Awani, chairman of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg.

In five hours, the agents collected 30 boxes of material, including various documents, computers and cassettes. They left the house in a shambles, says Mr. Al-Awani, along with his own reputation and the school's.

Similar raids were conducted on other Muslim organizations in northern Virginia. While they fund worthy activities in America, the U.S. Government is trying to track down millions of dollars these groups send to off-shore tax havens that may end up in terrorist hands.

Larry Johnson, a former counter-intelligence official in the U.S. State Department, says there is good reason to suspect some funds reach terrorists. That explains the government's all-out effort to locate them.

All in vain, insists Mr. Al-Awani. He believes the raids are based on spurious reports of anti-Muslim zealots who have the ear of the government. He says he has repeatedly told government officials he is more than willing to cooperate in the war on terrorism. Just ask.

"If they had picked up the phone two or three days before and said hand to us this kind of documents, believe me, I would not be hesitant to hand that to them in their offices without all of this mess, without affecting the reputation of our country, inside and outside," he said.

Mr. Al-Awani concedes he cannot speak for every person he has hired, every student who has passed through his school. Individuals may belong to other organizations they do not disclose.

Shaker El-Sayed, coordinator of the National Muslim Leadership Summit, notes the largest organization raided is the International Institute of Islamic Thought. "It is a research organization that has published lots of books," he said. "Lots of conferences were held under its auspices, here and abroad. They are as moderate as it can get. In fact, they founded the Islamic school for Social Sciences that has been accredited by the Pentagon to produce chaplains for the military here."

Mohammad Omeish, president of another raided enterprise, the Success Foundation, told The Washington Post "The message we are getting is this war, even though they claim it is against terrorism, is actually against Muslims."

Even the best Muslims can unwittingly contribute to terrorism, responds Mr. Johnson. There is little doubt the raided organizations were raising money for legitimate purposes. Only, some of that money can go astray. That is why after the 9-11 attacks, a financial task force was set up to try to find out where it goes.

"For the first time ever, IRS, FBI, U.S. Customs, DEA were all in the same room, along with CIA, and were able to start taking a look at the different financial information that was out there and trying to track where the terrorist money came from," said Mr. Johnson. "I am certain in the course of that they have come across some unusual financial movements from these organizations that end up having links or ties with groups or organizations that were involved with terrorism."

According to Mr. Johnson, some organizations in America have given financial help to families whose members have committed suicide bombings in Israel. That kind of insurance policy is unacceptable.

Mr. Johnson says the investigation underway should reveal the complex money trail. It is a gray area, he concedes, though in this case the color is green.