Federal authorities are investigating the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and its leaders for possible involvement in terror-related money laundering.
The house of worship, one of the largest Islamic centers in the Chicago area, has been under FBI surveillance for years, the Daily Southtown has learned.
A decade-old federal investigation, a landmark lawsuit filed three years ago and the government crackdown on Muslim charities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have served expose a complex web of small businesses and charitable associations accused of funneling money to Palestinian terrorist groups.
Federal agents, once discouraged from launching criminal inquiries into some terror-funding sources, now are nearing a critical stage in their probe into the heart of the Islamic community in and around Bridgeview.
One source familiar with the investigation said indictments could come by the end of the year.
Since the pale stone building with its large blue dome was built in 1981, its leaders and worshippers have known they’re being watched, targeted because of their roots in the violent Middle East.
FBI agents attended prayers at the Mosque Foundation for years before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and now find themselves the focus of surveillance by lookouts from the mosque along 93rd Street who take note of unfamiliar cars driving into the neighborhood off Harlem Avenue and parking on the narrow streets at prayer times.
Almost immediately after 9-11, federal agents arrested, indicted, deported or detained dozens of figures accused of financially supporting terrorism overseas. Three of the nation’s largest Muslim charities — all with offices in the southwest suburbs — were shut down.
In the renewed effort to cut the flow of money from the United States to groups deemed terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, federal agents in the past two years have found plenty of work within the southwest suburbs’ Islamic community. Connections have been alleged between men here and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Although the recent take-downs have not struck directly at the mosque in Bridgeview, members of its leadership have long been targets of a probe into the funding of Palestinian militant group Hamas. A federal civil lawsuit and an FBI affidavit have raised allegations of an illicit terrorist fundraising ring that includes powerful members of the local Islamic community connected to the mosque.
The Mosque Foundation’s leaders know they’re under increased examination.
“We would be naive,” said Mosque Foundation president Osama Jammal, “to think we are not being investigated or that we are not targets.”
Jammal and other mosque officials refused to discuss imam Sheikh Jamal Said or his leadership. He said many people within the mosque may be sympathetic to Palestinians but not to Hamas.
Jammal defended what he described as donations to various overseas charities through the mosque, totaling as much as $1 million.
Charities are permitted to come to the mosque and solicit during religious observances since charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, Jammal said.
“Any organization that is registered with the U.S. as a (non-profit), and it is known that they are a credible organization, they can come in and talk to our members,” he said.
Jammal denied that anyone associated with the mosque supported Hamas or any other militant organization.
“People here are Palestinians, and they feel sad about what happens in their country,” Jamal said. “That’s their right; it’s a right given to everyone by God. But you cannot have the exclusive right to be concerned about your people and everybody else can go to hell.”
Since its founding more than two decades ago, the Bridgeview mosque has been an important focal point for an immigrant Islamic community. There are about 400,000 Muslims in the Chicago area, and about 40 mosques and Islamic community centers, according to the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
“It is one of three or four major mosques in the Chicago area, along with the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, the (North Side) Muslim Community Center and the Northbrook Islamic Cultural Center,” said Mohammed Kaiseruddin, former chairman of the council. “Everybody recognizes it to be the fourth big one.”
Its past is no less fraught with controversy than its present.
Built in 1981, the $1.3 million building became the subject of a lawsuit shortly after it opened.
In 1973, the Mosque Foundation and the American-Arabian Ladies Society purchased the plot of land at 7360 W. 93rd St. for $50,000, and both groups worked to raise money for construction.
But before the mosque was completed, the Mosque Foundation transferred its title to the North American Islamic Trust, a subsidiary of the Islamic Society of North America, the country’s largest Muslim group.
The Islamic trust now owns nearly a third of all mosques and Muslim centers in the United States, many of them acquired in the 1980s through funds provided by the Saudi government.
The American-Arabian Ladies Society protested what they saw as a “takeover” of their mosque by a conservative school of thought within Islam known as Wahhabism, saying moderate Muslims were being driven out of the community.
The ladies lost, and the mosque title remains part of the Islamic trust headed by a Burr Ridge neurologist who runs an Islamic investment group and has had at least one documented run-in with the Internal Revenue Service for nearly $50,000 in unpaid federal income taxes.
The socially strict state religion of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism spread by the powerful North American Islamic Trust has likely brought increased government scrutiny wherever it is practiced. Several East Coast officials have heavily criticized the sect, noting that a majority of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudi.
“Wahhabism is an extremist, exclusionary form of Islam that not only denigrates other faiths but also marginalizes peaceful followers of Islam like the Shia and moderate Sunnis,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) told a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on terrorism earlier this month. “More importantly, they are allowed to recruit disciples who pose a tremendous threat to Americans everywhere.”
Imam a controversial figure
The Bridgeview mosque’s imam since 1985 has been Said, a Jordanian-born cleric sent to the United States to minister to a growing Islamic community here.
Said brought a conservative school of Islamic thought to the mosque, drove out moderate Muslims and divided the community with his political activities, his critics claim.
He’s a cleric who holds great influence within the community but is almost unknown outside it.
Area religious leaders praise Said and say he has tried to defuse tension within his own community. But his critics say he has turned the mosque’s focus away from local projects and toward Palestinian causes that attract unwanted government attention.
Kaiseruddin said he has known Said since he came to Chicago.
“He’s very knowledgeable about Islam, very caring, very friendly with people,” Kaiseruddin said. “I don’t have firsthand knowledge of his educational qualifications, but ultimately what counts in the community is how people trust his opinion, and people trust the sheikh. They have confidence in him.”
The Rev. Walter Turlo, pastor of St. Fabian Catholic Church in Bridgeview, described Said as a friend, one who tried to keep the peace between more radical and moderate factions at the mosque.
“He’s very wise. He’s not easily fooled by the media, by people who are trying to get a tug-of-war going over some issue,” Turlo said. “He keeps his own counsel, and he’s not going to be drawn into anything that will make him look like a fool or put the community in harm’s way.”
St. Fabian has a longstanding interfaith exchange with the 20-year-old Mosque Foundation. After the terrorist attacks — when a mob marched on the mosque chanting anti-Arab slogans and waving American flags, and Arab shopkeepers’ windows were smashed — Turlo reached out to Said in a show of support.
“That’s what the mosque stood for during that time,” Turlo said. “It articulated clearly the importance of freedom of religion and the multicultural nature of this area.”
But outside the protective circle of the Palestinian-Jordanians who make up more than 80 percent of the southwest suburban immigrant Muslim community, there is considerable animosity for Said’s leadership, said former FBI agent John Vincent, a 27-year bureau veteran who investigated terrorism ties to the south suburbs.
“There’s a lot of resentment,” Vincent said. “People grumble about the amount of money they think he has. The moderate Muslim wants to practice his religion and not interfere, and the radicals have taken over.”
Ali Alarabi, spokesman for an Arab advocacy group on Chicago’s Southwest Side, echoed Vincent’s comments about Said’s divisiveness.
Alarabi, who once worshipped at the mosque but is now estranged from many of its members, said Said was more concerned about international events and politics than he was about the local Islamic community’s needs.
“This is a long conflict within the community,” said Alarabi, leader of the United Arab American League. “The mosque leadership believes in a certain ideological school of thought, and people who are religious but not political have a conflict with them.”
Pre-Sept. 11 probes
Vincent’s familiarity with the Bridgeview mosque began in 1993, when as an FBI agent based in Chicago, he followed the case of Bridgeview resident Mohammed Salah.
Salah was arrested and spent five years in an Israeli prison, accused of using a still-operating nonprofit Islamic organization based in Oak Lawn to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hamas.
Israeli authorities said one of the men assisting Salah, Mohammed Jarad, told them Said had sent him to give money to the Palestinian militant organization. Vincent and his partner, Robert Wright, were assigned to investigate possible terrorism ties in the south suburbs, including at the mosque.
The allegations made in Wright’s 1998 affidavit about Salah’s money-running for Hamas provided the basis of a 1998 government forfeiture action to seize $1.4 million in funds and property from Salah and the nonprofit Quranic Literacy Institute. That case, still pending after more than five years, was long ago put on hold by a federal judge as a grand jury criminal investigation into the facts of the case proceeded.
Although much of the allegedly illegal activity cited in the forfeiture complaint took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those allegations are still simmering.
The federal forfeiture case against Salah inspired a groundbreaking $300 million federal civil lawsuit filed in Chicago against several local Muslim groups on behalf of an American teen killed in a 1996 Hamas attack in the West Bank. That lawsuit, also still being fought in court, claims to expose a Hamas fundraising conspiracy formed by a collection of Islamic organizations based in the suburbs of Chicago, Dallas and Washington.
A federal appellate court in that case already has ruled that for the first time in the United States, those here who finance or otherwise aid terrorist groups can be sued for terrorist killings committed by other people on the other side of the world. Targeted in the lawsuit are members of the Bridgeview Islamic community, including Sabri Samirah, a current member of the mosque’s board and a high-profile member who was recently exiled from the United States on government allegations he’s a danger to U.S. national security. Samirah is living in Jordan.
In 1998, a grand jury had been convened in Chicago and was about to begin interviewing witnesses in the case when the FBI halted the investigation for reasons still unclear, said Vincent, who retired from the bureau after 9-11.
The Mosque Foundation has been under FBI surveillance for years, Vincent said, and such surveillance has only increased after 9-11.
“The FBI has had problems going in there for years,” he said. “During the week they have people out on the corners doing counter-surveillance. It’s a very insular community.”
Under the sweeping new provisions of the USA Patriot Act, federal prosecutors can now use years of intercepted phone calls, e-mails and faxes collected by the intelligence community’s secret surveillance wiretaps of subjects suspected of being agents of a “foreign power.”
Before the 2001 legislation, intelligence gathered with the special wiretaps could not be used for criminal cases. If prosecutors wanted information on the same targets, they were supposed to get their own wiretap orders after meeting the higher legal burden of proving there was probable cause to suspect criminal activity.
The Patriot Act, passed shortly after 9-11, granted prosecutors access to years’ worth of surveillance previously unavailable to them. The change in law paid off for the government in March with the indictment of Tinley Park resident Ghassan Ballut, accused by a federal grand jury in Florida of running the Chicago cell of terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
And the secret intelligence wiretaps were also used to build a case against Khaled Abdel-Latif Dumeisi, the Arabic-language newspaper publisher from Oak Lawn accused of spying on local Baath Party dissidents for Saddam Hussein.
Following the money
Increasingly, the terrorism battle is being fought in office buildings by agencies with names like the Office of Foreign Asset Control and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, which are trying to trace the money used to pay for guns and bombs.
“When you think of an extremist group, you think about (white supremacist) Matt Hale and his followers, who went out into the community and killed people,” said Aminah McCloud, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University.
McCloud often lectures at the mosque and its two affiliated schools. She said members of the Bridgeview Islamic community “keep their own counsel.”
“They’re not out plotting to overthrow the government,” she said. “By that definition of extremist, I don’t think anyone there is one.”
The FBI hasn’t targeted the mosque directly or shut it down because the actions of a few members don’t warrant the stigmatizing of an entire religious organization, Vincent said.
“It’s an institution, and a lot of good people go there,” he said. “You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Sep. 21, 2003
Chris Hack and Allison Hantschel, Staff Writers