Have you ever given money to terrorists? Are you sure?
The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian group based in Iraq and dedicated to overthrowing Iran's rulers, is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. But the seven defendants arrested in Los Angeles last February never mentioned that. They never even mentioned MEK.
The FBI says members of the MEK cell told travelers at LAX they were collecting for a group called the Committee for Human Rights (CHR). They carried binders with photographs of starving children in Iran. The FBI estimates they raised as much as $10,000 a day, which was later used to purchase arms like mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, when President George W. Bush drafted an executive list of 27 terror organizations, the government has embarked on a mission to freeze the assets of the these organizations and their affiliates, and Muslim social service organizations are now coming under scrutiny.
Ties between humanitarian and terrorist organizations are not usually as clear-cut as the MEK/CHR case, which is pending trial. But the difficulty arises when an organization performs humanitarian work, some of which might benefit terrorists, their families or their organizations.
For example, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), a nonprofit charity organization that even its harshest critics admit does humanitarian work -- funding hospitals and schools in the West Bank and Gaza strip -- is criticized by Israeli officials, who say that some HLF money goes to provide monthly stipends to the families of Hamas suicide bombers. HLF, repeatedly denying any connection to Hamas, has been investigated by the State Department since at least 1996.
Founded in Los Angeles as the Occupied Land Fund and now based in Richardson, Texas, the HLF maintains a strong local presence in Los Angeles. "We get good support from Southern California," HLF President Shukri Baker told The Journal, though he could not say what percent of the $13 million raised last year comes from Los Angeles.
At least two other Muslim charities that collect contributions in the United States -- Benevolence International and the Global Relief Foundation -- are reportedly under investigation for ties to terrorist groups because their relief work benefits Afghanistan, thus requiring them to work with the approval of the Taliban.
The new scrutiny is late in coming, says journalist and terrorism expert Steven Emerson, who for years has warned that militant Islamic radicals had significant abilities both to raise funds and mount military attacks in the United States.
As director of the Washington, D.C., research group Investigative Project, Emerson has testified to Congress numerous times on the topic of terrorism, and his 1994 PBS documentary "Jihad in America" has been cited as an impetus for anti-terror legislation.
The most common way for terrorists to raise funds in America is by hiding behind nonprofit organizations, Emerson says.
Until 1996 -- three years after the first terrorist attempt to destroy the World Trade Center -- Americans were able to legally donate funds to terrorist groups, so long as the money went to the social service arm of the organization. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), outlawing any type of support for terrorist groups and requiring the State Department to publish an annual list of foreign terrorist organizations.
AEDPA changed law enforcement "very little," Emerson said. "There was no political will to enforce it. There was no determination made with respect to the front groups." Since very few groups openly raise funds for terrorism on U.S. soil, blocking the labyrinth of terror funding is impossible without concerted enforcement efforts.
Part of the reluctance to aggressively pursue the fundraising efforts may have been a belief that funds flowing from the United States would keep the terror far from home, Emerson says. "I think a Faustian deal was made. U.S. officials looked the other way while terrorists raised funds here, as long as the attacks were not carried out on U.S. soil," he said.
Another part of the reluctance to go after the fundraising may stem from the humanitarian relief work of some of the organizations. Muslim social service groups have long resented terrorism experts like Emerson, whom they accuse of casting a pall over the legitimate work of the vast majority of Muslims in America.
Following a government raid in early September on an Internet service provider affiliated with HLF and heightened government suspicion after the Sept. 11 attacks, HLF posted a message on its Web site denying any affiliation with terror. "The necessity in posting this statement is to respond to the false and reckless reporting and rumors regarding the Foundation that has [sic] taken place the past few weeks," it read, in part. The statement was signed "For the needy" by Baker, the HLF president, who told The Journal: "Many Jewish media outlets seek to distort the nature of our organization. We are a Muslim charity; we are not terrorists, and we do not support terrorism in any form."
The U.S. government has identified many terrorist organizations whose funds are to be frozen by U.S. banks and allies; these include not only Islamic militant groups, but groups that are Irish, Japanese -- and Jewish.
Los Angeles is the international headquarters for the Jewish Defense League (JDL), founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who went on to found Kach, a now-outlawed political party in Israel. Kach and its splinter group, Kahane Chai, are on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the JDL has not been affected by the crackdown on terrorism. "We're basically a Diaspora organization. We have no relationship with Kach or Kahane Chai," said JDL President Irv Rubin. "They're on the State Department list [of terrorist organizations]. It would not behoove us to associate with them."
But for now, Islamic charities are the only ones under scrutiny.
The focus on Islamic groups during the current battle against terrorism by no means implies that most Muslim groups or only Muslim groups support terrorism. As Emerson explains it, "Terrorism is terrorism. The difference remains in what informs or instigates it. What makes Islamic terrorism, as a phenomenon, different is its global reach, its transnational nature and the specific intent of targeting the United States."