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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12/12/03 ]

Targets of terror financing probe had political clout

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON -- Nine days after the federal government raided their homes and businesses, leaders of an alleged terror financing operation were given the opportunity to question the agency investigating them.

The meeting on March 29, 2002, in the office of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is an example of the political clout of what the government calls the "Safa Group," a web of companies and nonprofits based in northern Virginia.

One week later, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill met with Muslim leaders with connections to the Safa Group to hear complaints about the raids.

The leaders are suspected of running more than 100 businesses and charities that have allegedly supported the Palestinian Islamic Jihad-Shikaki Faction and Hamas, two organizations the government has designated as terrorist groups, according to a 132-page affidavit written by David Kane, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Warrant sought

He filed the document to support a government request for a warrant to search 29 properties in Virginia, a Georgia poultry business and other undisclosed locations on March 20, 2002.

The men who run the companies haven't been charged with any crime and, through their lawyer, have denied any connections to terrorism.

Several men suspected of connections to the Safa Group have donated to political campaigns on both sides of the aisle.

The men have given more than $84,000 since 1990 to a variety of federal candidates and political groups, including $5,500 to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican, and $4,000 to former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group.

The campaign contributions included more than $15,000 to Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat.

"I had no reason not to accept it," Moran said. "I was happy to have anyone's support."

Returned funds

But Moran returned the money after reading press accounts about the federal investigation. "I didn't want to be associated in any way with a group that condoned or supported any form of terrorism," he said.

Other donations include $10,600 to former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat with long-standing support from Arab-Americans because of her call for more attention to the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict. McKinney could not be reached for comment.

Kane's affidavit alleges that the main leaders of the Safa Group of companies include Yacub Mirza, Jamal Barzinji, Ahmad Totonji, Muhammad Ashraf, Hisham Altalib, Cherif Sedky, Mohammed Jaghlit and Taha Alalwani, a naturalized American citizen who runs an Islamic graduate school where nine of the 12 Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military have been trained.

When asked about the March 29 meeting, Wolf's press secretary would only say the meeting took place, the raids were discussed and the individuals the government calls the Safa Group are Wolf's constituents.

"We don't talk about private meetings," said Dan Scandling, Wolf's press secretary.

Khaled Saffuri, head of the Washington-based Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation, was at the April 4 luncheon with the former treasury secretary.

GOP heavyweight Grover Norquist, a former board member of the foundation, said the group is not political; rather it is focused on educational issues such as promoting the belief that the Quran's teachings do not conflict with a free society.

Norquist has urged the Republican Party to open its doors to Muslims as well as other minority groups.

"People think that George Bush and Texas are hicksville and they don't have Muslims there," Norquist said. "They are wrong."

Saffuri, who has met with many top-level administration officials in recent years, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and FBI Director Robert Mueller, is also listed in Federal Election Committee reports as the treasurer of National Muslims for a Greater America, a defunct political action committee that received $5,200 from people connected to the Safa Group investigation.

In an interview, Saffuri said the institute received a total of $20,000 from the Safa Trust, one of the nonprofit organizations under investigation. The money went to pay for educational lectures on Islam, he said.

Saffuri said he has known members of the so-called Safa Group since the late 1980s. He said they have been caught up in a government fishing expedition, and the meeting with O'Neill was held to dispute the methods of the raids.

"No one in the meeting asked why did you raid the Safa Group?" Saffuri said. "We weren't there to question the raids, but the methods by which they were conducted."

In addition, the affidavit ties the Safa Group to Abdurahman M. Alamoudi, a politically connected Muslim activist, who was welcomed at the White House by former President Bill Clinton and President Bush for his work on behalf of Muslim causes. Alamoudi recently pleaded not guilty to an 18-count federal indictment alleging that he laundered money and violated immigration and customs laws by accepting $340,000 from the Libyan government, which the government considers a state sponsor of terrorism.

The $84,000 in contributions came from several of the alleged principals of the Safa Group and Alamoudi.

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