Insight on the News - National
Saffuri's Ties to Terror Suspects
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
The rise of Khaled Saffuri to political prominence within the U.S. Muslim community has all the ingredients of a Horatio Alger success story. Brought up as a stateless exile in Kuwait, Saffuri came to America as a student in 1982, went to college in San Diego, and soon gravitated into the world of Muslim activism.
A talented fund-raiser and behind-the-scenes power broker, Saffuri built bridges to politicians in both parties by generously contributing to their election campaigns, from California libertarian Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the GOP to Rep. Cynthia McKinney, the hard-left Georgia Democrat. He has worked to get President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia. He has taken members of Congress on trips to Arab countries. He has lobbied hard but quietly against pro-Israel legislation. In 1998, along with Republican activist Grover Norquist, Saffuri established the Islamic Institute in Washington with the stated purpose of promoting free-market ideals in the Muslim world and of bringing American Muslims into the Republican Party.
Recognition of his role came with a thunderclap during the 2000 presidential campaign, when Karl Rove named him the Bush campaign's point man for Muslim outreach. With George W. Bush in the White House, Khaled Saffuri had arrived.
By all accounts, Saffuri put his new prominence to use, promoting the friends who had helped him achieve his newfound status and advocating for the issues about which they cared. One by one, he introduced them to President Bush and his entourage. With Saffuri frequently smiling in the background, they proudly posed for campaign photographs and, later, attended White House events.
Now, however, some of the very people Saffuri introduced to Bush and Rove are in federal prison on terrorism-related charges. Others have been expelled from the country. Still other former colleagues and donors have become subjects of a massive federal probe into U.S. funding of terrorist organizations that is code-named Operation Greenquest.
In a series of interviews with Insight over the course of more than two years, Saffuri and his supporters claim he has been given a bum rap by critics who point to the alleged terrorist ties as a reason why the White House should distance itself from Saffuri and his friends.
Norquist, the conservative fund-raiser and antipork president of Americans for Tax Reform, insists that any attempt to tie Saffuri to terrorist supporters is "guilt by association." Those who make such accusations, Norquist tells reporters, are "racists and bigots."
But Saffuri's ties to radical Islamists and apologists for terror are neither superficial nor coincidental. An Insight investigation has uncovered a consistent pattern of fund-raising and influence operations in which Saffuri played a prominent role side by side with Abdurahman Alamoudi, a well-known Muslim activist who was Saffuri's employer at the American Muslim Council (AMC). Alamoudi was arrested last September on charges of illegally taking cash payments from the government of Libya in exchange for lobbying the Bush administration to lift sanctions against the Qaddafi regime.
Alamoudi also was one of the leaders of a vast network of Hamas supporters operating across the United States under the guise of American Muslim activist groups.
At a rally in front of the White House on Oct. 28, 2000, Alamoudi told the audience that reports he was a supporter of Hamas were accurate. "Anybody support this Hamas here? Anybody's [sic] is a supporter of Hamas here? Anybody's [sic] is a supporter of Hamas here? Hear that Bill Clinton? We are all supporters of Hamas! Allah akbar [God is great]! I wish to add here I am also a supporter of Hezbollah!"
On June 2, 2000, the U.S.-based al-Zaitounah newspaper interviewed Alamoudi in English on his pro-Hamas activities at the AMC. "Our position with regard to the peace process is well-known," he said. "We are the ones who went to the White House and defended what is called Hamas." According to the Jerusalem Post, Alamoudi attended a leadership conference in Beirut in January 2001 along with top leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. These and other Alamoudi actions and statements were cited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Brett Gentrup in a September 2003 affidavit in support of Alamoudi's arrest.
Saffuri tells Insight that Alamoudi won praise from American Jewish leaders for his work on Bosnia in the 1990s. "I have a letter from 1997 from the AJC [American Jewish Committee] to Alamoudi and cc'd [copied] to me," he says. Saffuri promised to send Insight a copy of the letter, but an aide later reported he was unable to locate it. Officials at the AJC could find no trace of such a letter either. Saffuri also told Insight that the AJC "joined" the American Task Force on Bosnia, which AJC officials say is untrue.
"The only time Jewish organizations did something - not really together - but in coordination with Muslim groups were demonstrations against the genocide in Bosnia," says Yehudit Bartsky, an aide to AJC President David Harris. But that cooperation evaporated in 1994, once statements by Alamoudi and other Muslim leaders condemning the Oslo agreements became public. "Everybody was shocked to see they were opposed to Oslo, which all the Jewish organizations supported at the time," she says. After the horrific spate of suicide bombings in 1996, which the AMC and other Muslim organizations refused to condemn, those ties - such as they were - evaporated. "So 1997 would be really late," Bartsky adds.
Saffuri tells Insight that the suicide bombings used by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others is "a condemned tactic. It's horrible, it's wrong, it's un-Islamic, it's unethical, because you're targeting innocent civilians."
Saffuri claims he broke with Alamoudi "after a year-and-a-half of bickering and arguing." But the arguments weren't over Alamoudi's support for suicide bombing, but over the latter's demand for a strict Islamic lifestyle in the office. "When I came, I was the first one to hire women without cover," Saffuri says. "Most people would hire from the mosque. I told him this was wrong. I hired peoples with skills. I ended up leaving because I couldn't work with that style of work."
Another key Saffuri ally, Sami Amin al-Arian, was arrested on Feb. 20, 2003, by federal agents in Tampa, Fla., because of his alleged ties to Palestinian terrorists. Like Saffuri, al-Arian is a Palestinian who came to this country from Kuwait. He was the subject of a long-standing criminal investigation because of the leadership role he allegedly played in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that has claimed responsibility for the murder of hundreds of Israelis and more than a dozen Americans, and that raises money for terror in the United States [see "Controversial Professor Arrested in Florida on Terrorism Charges," posted March 4, 2003, at Insight Online].
Al-Arian was one of a group of Muslim leaders who met with President Bush in the White House in May 2001 as part of White House outreach to the Muslim community. The person who helped set up that meeting and who chose the participants was Khaled Saffuri, White House officials tell Insight.
Federal prosecutors now believe al-Arian was a founder of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that the organization actually was created in the United States by Muslim immigrants in the 1980s who used America's lax immigration laws and strong civil-liberties protections to shield them from federal law-enforcement investigations.
The federal indictment against al-Arian alleges that he used his position as a professor at the University of South Florida to gain visas for terrorists to enter the United States. It also alleges that he transferred cash into overseas accounts that were used for the planning or support of terrorist operations that killed Americans. All through the 1990s, Saffuri worked together with al-Arian and Alamoudi to prevent the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from using secret evidence in deportation hearings, as the INS was seeking to deport top leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. During the 2000 election campaign, Saffuri's chief effort was to get the Bush campaign to support the repeal of secret evidence, a position Bush publicly adopted in his final debate with Al Gore.
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the use of secret evidence was expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act. Saffuri and his friends lobbied heavily against the new law and now are trying to get it repealed. They have won support from key conservatives such as Norquist and former congressman Bob Barr of Georgia. Many conservatives and libertarians are made nervous by what they regard as a slippery slope.
Far more disturbing to national-security analysts are Saffuri's long-standing ties to Jamal Barzinji, an Iraqi who heads a network of investment companies and nonprofit groups that have been targeted by the Greenquest task force investigating terrorist-related fund raising. Barzinji's Marjac group of investment companies and the various charities he heads share office space, accountants and interlocking boards. They sometimes are referred to by federal prosecutors as "555 Grove Street," an address they used in suburban Herndon, Va. Money financing the 555 Grove Street network has been traced back to big-name Saudi investors.
Organizations operating out of Barzinji's offices included the International Islamic Relief Organization, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and al-Haramain, all of which have been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department because of their ties to al-Qaeda. Until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the head of the WAMY office in Herndon was Abdullah bin Laden, younger brother of the Saudi terrorist who heads al-Qaeda. All of these groups were raided and their files seized by the Greenquest task force on March 20, 2002. Alamoudi's residence also was searched during that raid.
A lawyer representing Barzinji and his corporate network, Nancy Luqu, insists that her clients have not been charged with any crime. But a previously sealed affidavit that lays out the government's motives for the massive raid alleges that Barzinji and his Safa Group companies were "suspected of providing material support to terrorists, money laundering, and tax evasion through the use of a variety of for-profit companies and ostensible charitable entities under their control, most of which are located at 555 Grove Street, Herndon, Virginia."
Saffuri acknowledged to Insight that both Barzinji and Alamoudi provided $20,000 checks to help him and Norquist establish the Islamic Institute in 1998.
While not denying his friendship and business relationships with Alamoudi, al-Arian or Barzinji, Saffuri tells Insight he was unaware of their alleged terror ties. "What do I have to do with that?" Saffuri exclaims. "I guarantee you, there are people you worked for in your lifetime who later did something wrong. I didn't know they were involved in [activities] that were under investigation." However, none of the three ever sought to disguise their support for Palestinian terror groups, speaking often at public rallies and private conferences in praise of the terrorists.
Saffuri says he first met Barzinji in 1988 but only met Alamoudi three years later, even though Alamoudi was Barzinji's top aide at the time. "In 1990 and 1991, George Bush Senior was meeting with them, and he was taking advice from them on how to deal with Iraq. You know, when I looked from the outside, I saw them meeting with the president and said, 'Wow, that's impressive.' Seeing those people going inside and outside the White House, that gave them legitimacy. So for me to come and work with them five years later, I should not be suspicious of anything they do," Saffuri says.
In his efforts to distance himself from Alamoudi, Saffuri claims he went to work for him at the AMC in 1995 but left some 18 months later after the two had a falling out. But documents uncovered during Insight's investigation show that Saffuri had been working for Alamoudi since at least 1993 and stayed with him until May 1998.
In April 1993, Saffuri was employed as executive director of the American Task Force for Bosnia, a registered charitable organization that was lobbying Congress and the Clinton White House to get the United States to intervene militarily on behalf of the Bosnian Muslim population, then under siege by Bosnian Serbs. The organization listed its headquarters as 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 400, in Washington - the headquarters of the American Muslim Council, then headed by Alamoudi.
At the time, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization actively was recruiting and training Arab fighters to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims. Bosnia had become the focus of the worldwide "jihad" after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Saffuri says he frequently went to Bosnia for trips lasting four to five weeks at a time during this period. After returning to Washington from Bosnia in April 1993, he says, he was asked by Alamoudi to serve as the treasurer of a newly formed political-action committee (PAC), National Muslims for a Better America (NMBA).
In filings with the Federal Election Commission, which Insight reviewed, the new group listed its address as 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 400 - the headquarters of the AMC. Saffuri did not explain why he would "take orders" from Alamoudi in 1993 to become treasurer of the new PAC if he didn't start working for Alamoudi until 1995.
While it was never a major lobbying force, NMBA is significant because its donor list includes a stunningly high proportion of individuals who have been publicly identified as leaders of terrorist groups, or have been arrested, expelled or currently are under investigation for allegedly raising funds for terrorist organizations. Among the contributors to Saffuri's AMC-sponsored PAC:
- Hisham al-Talib, who lists his employer alternately as the SAAR Foundation and Marjac Investment Group, both controlled by Barzinji and raided by Greenquest on March 20, 2002.
- Muhammad Ashraf, "an officer and/or director of Safa Group companies including Sterling Investment Group, Sterling Charitable Gift Fund and York Foundation," according to the government's affidavit in support of the raid. Ashraf's residence at 12528 Rock Ridge Road in Herndon also was searched during the March 2002 raid.
- Mohammad Jaglit, a SAAR Foundation director considered by federal investigators to be a key figure in the terror-support networks. The affidavit cites Jaglit as "an active supporter of [Sami] al-Arian and [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], both ideologically and financially" and notes that letters accompanying checks he sent to al-Arian from the SAAR Foundation instructed al-Arian "not to disclose the contribution publicly or to the media." Jaglit's residence also was raided.
- Yaquib Mirza, a Pakistani national considered by authorities to be the financial wizard of the Safa/SAAR network, who appears as the accountant for scores of Barzinji companies.
- Basheer Nafi, identified in the affidavit as the "U.S. agent of PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad]." Nafi, a 50-year-old Ph.D., was deported from the United States in 1996 for visa violations, according to government sources. According to a government indictment, he "was a member and founder of PIJ" while he was working with al-Arian and PIJ leader Ramadan Abdallah Shallah at the World Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE) in Florida, now identified by federal prosecutors as a front for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- Iqbal Unus, a director of Safa Group companies "including Child Development Foundation," whose Herndon residence was raided.
Other donors to Saffuri's PAC whose houses or offices were raided by Greenquest, say federal authorities, include Wael al-Khairo, Ahmad al-Shaer, Ahmad Khatib and Ali Abuzakook - all Barzinji employees - as well as Mohammad Salim Attia, Hibba Abugideiri and Hussam Osman, who worked for the Saudi-funded International Institute of Islamic Thought, and Fakri Barzinji, Altogether, say federal authorities, Saffuri raised slightly more than $28,000 for the AMC-sponsored PAC and distributed it to members of Congress including Rohrabacher and Democrats McKinney, David Bonior and John Conyers of Michigan, James Traficant of Ohio, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
What united all the recipients, who ranged from far-left Democrats to libertarians, was their support for Palestinian causes and their hostility to the state of Israel.
During the entire period that the AMC's PAC operated, from 1993-98, Saffuri was listed as its treasurer. He signed all the papers, say authorities, and made all the reports to the FEC. And yet, Saffuri insists he had nothing to do with the PAC. "If these guys gave checks to Alamoudi [for NMBA], it doesn't mean much," Saffuri says now. "I was an employee of his. He asked me to do it. I did what he asked me to do. In the end, he was paying the check."
Of the 40 donors to the PAC, the documents show, nearly half have been arrested or are under investigation for terrorist ties.
"Look, I work with people who also do wonderful things," Saffuri says when asked about the terrorist ties of NMBA donors. "Look at Abduwahab [al-Kebsi]," Saffuri's assistant at the Islamic Institute. "Abdu is doing a project to promote democracy for the National Endowment for Democracy in Iraq. Another staff member of the institute is working for the Department of Homeland Security. Another staffer is working for USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development]. If there was one shred of evidence that we were a security risk, they would be talking to me, not you. I am invited to meet with [FBI Director Robert] Mueller at the FBI, on average, every six months. I think if there is a problem with me, I wouldn't be at these meetings."
When asked by Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson if he thought radical Muslim groups such as the friends and associates of Khaled Saffuri were exercising "undue influence" at the White House, Karl Rove simply shrugged and replied, "No."
As evidence of Saffuri's ties to three prominent terrorist suspects deepens, say alarmed conservatives, those blanket denials may look to be increasingly hollow.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.