WASHINGTON -- Three men who allegedly helped the Palestinian militant group Hamas raise money in the United States for terrorist attacks in Israel more than a decade ago have been indicted on racketeering charges, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced yesterday.
One of the men was arrested in Chicago and another in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington on Thursday, Ashcroft said. The third man, who formerly lived in Louisiana and northern Virginia, has not been arrested because he now lives in Damascus.
Much of the case apparently is based on surveillance tapes from the early '90s that would have been useless to prosecutors before the USA Patriot Act. Ashcroft, the prime backer of the act, touted the new tool as a way of aggressively going after supporters of terrorism.
"This cell allegedly financed the activities of a terrorist organization that was murdering innocent victims abroad, including American citizens," Ashcroft said. "The racketeering acts that Hamas enterprise allegedly agreed to commit include multiple solicitations of first-degree murder . . . material support of terrorism, hostage taking, and money laundering."
Hamas is a paramilitary group based in the Gaza Strip that is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state. It performs social work among Palestinians, but also attacks Israeli soldiers, police officers, and civilians through suicide bombings and other extremist tactics.
The US government first designated Hamas as a terrorist organization in January 1995, after which it became illegal in the United States to provide support for the group. Many of the actions cited in the indictment allegedly occurred before then, which is why prosecutors took the novel approach of using racketeering laws to treat Hamas as a Mafia-like criminal enterprise.
Ashcroft suggested that much of the information contained in the indictment was gathered years ago using counterintelligence wiretaps. Information from that type of surveillance was off-limits to criminal prosecutors until after the passage of the Patriot Act, a basket of enhanced law enforcement powers that took effect after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"After the enactment of the Patriot Act, I asked all of our prosecutors across the country to look carefully at files where they had inadequate levels of information under the prior regime . . . to look at those cases again with the access that's provided by the Patriot Act," said Ashcroft, who has been an outspoken supporter of the controversial act.
"And so whenever that additional capacity results in the reaching of a critical mass of evidence that would support an indictment, you can expect to see us moving forward."
The Justice Department identified the men as Muhammed Hamid Khalil Salah, who was arrested in Chicago, and Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, who was arrested in northern Virginia. The former US resident who lives in Syria is Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook.
Ashcroft said Marzook will be considered a "fugitive from justice" but did not specify whether or how the United States planned to take him into custody.
According to the indictment unsealed yesterday, Salah traveled to the Middle East numerous times from 1988 to 1993, meeting with Hamas leaders and distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to help them buy weapons that were then used to kill Israelis.
The indictment accuses Ashqar of opening bank accounts in Mississippi to use as a clearinghouse for Hamas funds from Marzook and other Hamas members, maintaining records for Hamas in the United States and attending a Hamas meeting in Philadelphia in 1993.
And it accuses Marzook of being the deputy chief of Hamas' political bureau, a leadership body that allegedly coordinates terrorist attacks by the group. While he was living in the United States from 1988 until February 1993, it says, he allegedly financed the activities of Hamas in this country and abroad, transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars used for crimes.
Although the alleged acts all occurred more than a decade ago, which could raise statute of limitations issues, the indictment uses more recent alleged actions by two of them that putatively carried on their support for Hamas as evidence that the racketeering conspiracy was ongoing.
The indictment accuses Ashqar of refusing to testify before a grand jury about Hamas activities despite a grant of immunity in February 1998 and June 2003, which also led to a charge of obstruction of justice.
The indictment also says Salah arranged for a Chicago-based associate to travel to Israel and the West Bank in 1999 to convey messages and money and to scout locations in Jerusalem suitable for attack, which led to a charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Under racketeering laws, each could receive a sentence of up to life in prison if convicted. The indictment also cites 20 named and unnamed coconspirators, and says the Justice Department will seize $2.7 million from Salah's bank accounts.