FBI Investigation of Islamic Charity Has Muslims Hesitant About Giving
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DETROIT — Before last week, AbuSayed Mahfuz gladly donated to Life for Relief and Development, an international Muslim humanitarian organization that is active in Iraq and Afghanistan and has partnered with the American government.
But an FBI search of the organization’s Southfield headquarters is making the Hamtramck resident think twice about future contributions.
Just as the holy month Ramadan, which began Saturday, has many Muslims thinking about their religious obligation to give alms, the investigation of the prominent Islamic aid group has prompted fears that giving to charity could bring scrutiny from the government.
FBI agents assigned to a terrorism task force last Monday searched Life’s offices, taking computer servers, donor records, and other financial documents. They have also searched the homes of the charity’s chief executive, an ex-employee, and two board members.
“After hearing this, I don’t feel secure at all,” Mr. Mahfuz, a computer consultant and editor of a Bangladeshi community newspaper, said. He said he would still consider supporting the organization, but the investigation would force him to weigh that decision carefully.
No charges have been brought in the case, and Life has sought to reassure the community that it is perfectly legal to donate money to the organization, which was founded in 1992 by Iraqi immigrants.
Life’s legal director, Ihsan Alkhatib, said the FBI has told the charity it can continue operating, at least for now. He said investigators returned two computer servers and promised to return the remaining four in the coming days.
Mr. Alkhatib said the government scrutiny is ironical given that some Muslims criticize Life for perceived coziness with the American and Israeli governments.
Life partnered with the Pentagon to distribute wheelchairs in Afghanistan in 2004 and opened an office in Israel to coordinate its efforts in the Palestinian Arab territories, an unusual step for an Islamic group. But those actions don’t indicate support for any particular government and were simply efficient ways to help those in need, Mr. Alkhatib said.
It is not the first time an Islamic charity has come under investigation. In the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the government froze the assets of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation and Illinois-based Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International, effectively shutting them down. The government accused those groups of funding terrorists.
The search at Life’s offices five days before the start of Ramadan, the month when Life gets about half of its donations, prompted disagreement from Islamic activists in the Detroit area. They questioned the timing and the involvement of the terrorism task force, which they said led journalists to draw unfair conclusions.
On Wednesday, Arab-American and Islamic leaders vented their feelings at a previously scheduled meeting with federal and local law enforcement officials in Dearborn — home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans, many of whom are Muslim — as part of a dialogue that began after the September 11 attacks.
A special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit field office, Daniel Roberts, said he could not comment on the case because the matter is sealed. But he said agents were acutely aware of the approaching holy month and would have preferred to conduct the search earlier.
“I would just ask that you give the government the benefit of the doubt,” he said at the meeting.
Mr. Roberts declined a request by some in attendance to issue a statement reassuring Muslims that they could still donate to the organization.
The charity’s chief executive, Khalil Jassemm, said FBI agents focused on three things: possible sanctions violations stemming from the group’s work in Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, improper involvement in Iraqi politics, and use of funds for purposes other than those designated by donors.
Though he would not comment on the case directly, Mr. Roberts said cases that the terrorism task force gets involved in do not always end with terrorism-related charges being filed.