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Head of US Islamic Charity Charged With Funding Terrorism - 2002-10-09

The United States government is charging the head of a Chicago-area Muslim charity with using donations to fund terrorism and other violence throughout the world. The U.S. Attorney General says the charity's director preyed on good hearts to fund evil.

The indictment says 40-year-old Enaam Arnaout has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group and other violent groups going back at least a decade. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft flew to Chicago Wednesday to announce the charges in person. "Arnaout is accused of defrauding charitable contributors by falsely claiming that the Benevolence International Foundation used donated fund solely for humanitarian relief,' he said. "In fact, funds were being used to support al-Qaida and other groups involved in armed violence overseas."

Mr. Arnaout has denied any links to terrorism or terrorist groups. He has been jailed since April on two separate charges of perjury. Last December, federal agents raided the suburban Chicago offices of the Benevolence International Foundation. They seized records and froze the foundation's assets.

Mr. Ashcroft says the foundation's offices in Bosnia were raided in March, giving investigators proof of what they say is Mr. Arnaout's link to al-Qaida. "The documents recovered in the Benevolence International Foundation's Bosnia offices provide for the first time documentary proof of the founding of al-Qaida and the oath sworn by al-Qaida members," said John Ashcroft.

The U.S. government says Benevolence International has sent money to Chechen rebels fighting the Russian army, and has financed a trip to Bosnia for Mamdouh Salim. Mr. Salim is awaiting trial in New York on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Wednesday afternoon, Benevolence International Foundation lawyer Matthew Piers called the government's charges against Mr. Arnaout disturbing. "This charge is, as near as we can tell, an amalgamation of falsehoods, of half-truths and of guilt by association compounded by a massive effort to re-write world history for the past 15 years," he said.

Mr. Piers says the contacts between Mr. Arnaout and Osama bin-Laden cited in the government's charges occurred before the foundation's creation in 1992, and at a time when the U.S. government and Osama bin-Laden were both supporting Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviet army. He says if the charges against Mr. Arnaout are the U.S. government's idea of a war against terrorism, then the country is in trouble.

Mr. Ashcroft says the government will continue going after what he calls terrorists' blood money, and will make no distinction between terrorists and those who finance them. "What is perhaps the most disturbing thing about this case is that Enaam Arnaout is charged with using a purportedly charitable organization to deceive Muslim-American charitable givers, who are obliged by the principles of their religion to donate to legitimate charities," he said.

The Benevolence International Foundation itself is not named in the government's indictment. A court date for Mr. Arnaout has not been set yet. He could get 90 years in prison if he is convicted.