Expert: Charities sent money to Islamic fighters
EUGENE, Ore.—An expert witness for the prosecution testified Tuesday that Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia, including the one an Oregon tree surgeon is accused of smuggling money for, were regular conduits of funding to Muslim fighters in the volatile Caucasus region.
But under cross examination, international terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann conceded he had never interviewed anyone directly involved with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation about providing aid to Chechnya, and never included Al-Haramain in the chapter on Islamic charities in his book on terrorism, "Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe."
Kohlmann's testimony came in the U.S. District Court trial of Pete Seda, also known as Pirouz Sedaghaty. The Iranian-born tree surgeon and naturalized U.S. citizen is accused of smuggling $150,000 to Saudi Arabia so it could go to fighters in Chechnya, and filing a false tax return to cover his tracks. The defense counters the money was meant for refugees and the mistakes in the tax return were made by an accountant, not Seda.
"A significant portion of the aid from these charities almost certainly does go to good causes -- widows, orphans and refugee camps," Kohlmann said under cross examination by defense attorney Bernie Casey. "Up to a third of the money is skimmed off and diverted to other causes, including paying the salaries of foreign fighters."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles F. Gordon Jr. went through a long list of e-mails, websites and images recovered by government experts from computers seized by Internal Revenue Service agents in a 2004 search of the Al-Haramain prayer house in Ashland.
Kohlmann said they included religious edicts instructing Muslims to support holy war in Chechnya, images from websites that supported Muslim fighters in Chechnya, and photos of well-known Arab fighters who helped Afghans drive out the Soviet Army who went on to fight in Chechnya.
Kohlmann explained that Chechnyans have been trying to throw off control by Russia and the Soviet Union for centuries, and that after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1990s, foreign fighters moved into the conflict in Chechnya, where they infused the local revolutionaries with their own brand of radical Islam. Atrocities were committed by both sides in the war.
Gordon played excerpts from a video taken from the prayer house showing Muslim fighters training at the Qafqaz Institute in Chechnya, and scenes of fighting, children playing with assault rifles, a downed helicopter, and explosives blowing up a railroad.
Kohlmann said the video was designed to raise money for the Qafqaz Institute.
Chechnya has no banks, so money has to come in as cash, which is broken into small amounts and carried on smuggling routes through the rugged mountains, Kohlmann said.
Barbara Cabral, a stylist from White City, testified she and her late husband adopted Islam as their religion and attended services and potlucks at the prayer house in Ashland starting in 1991. They also went on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca with the group, and at the end were given a refund for some travel expenses and asked by Seda to donate it to buy food and blankets for mujahideen in Chechnya.
After Al-Haramain took over the prayer house in 1999, things became more strict, and a man called Sheikh Hassan Zabady gave sporadic talks.
"He suggested we should all move to an Islamic country and should live there," Cabral said. "This was the devil's land, basically."
She added one woman walked out on a talk because Zabady was making anti-Semitic remarks.
Cabral testified she took part in a jewelry sale to raise money for mujahideen in Chechnya, and identified an e-mail she received from the sheikh's wife saying $1,763 had been sent to support mujahideen in Chechnya.