Wielding new powers granted by a six-month-old federal court decision, the FBI has greatly intensified decade-old investigations of alleged U.S. supporters of the Islamic Resistance Movement and Hezbollah terrorist groups, according to government officials.
Confident that its efforts to track the al Qaeda terrorist network in this country are beginning to pay off, the FBI is devoting more resources to the two Middle Eastern groups, which command more widespread support in Arab and Muslim communities here. Officials say that there are active Hezbollah cells in this country but that most of their renewed efforts are aimed at alleged financial supporters of both groups -- including Islamic centers, charities and criminal rings from Washington to Detroit to Los Angeles.
The stepped-up investigations in at least two dozen U.S. cities were triggered by a November 2002 ruling from a secretive three-judge appeals panel. The renewed efforts are another example of the more aggressive tactics the FBI has been freed to use in the war on terror since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The court ruling authorized federal agents who pursue criminal prosecution of terrorism suspects to use decades worth of classified wiretaps and intelligence reports from foreign security agencies that previously had been off-limits.
"It's a trove of information that's created enormous possibilities, a whole new world for us," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official who works on criminal cases. "Before, we were playing with one hand tied behind our backs."
Before the ruling, wiretap and search information from intelligence probes was not usable in criminal cases because the standards for securing an intelligence warrant are lower. Traditionally, intelligence agents kept track of people believed to be engaged in terrorism and espionage, but did not develop criminal cases.
Because of the ruling, federal prosecutors and FBI counterterrorism agents who work on criminal cases are now getting their first chance to examine tens of thousands of pages of wiretap transcripts and reports compiled over many years by fellow FBI agents who pursued intelligence cases. The ruling was issued by an appellate panel that adjudicates investigations begun under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Stanley Cohen, a New York attorney who represents several men in this country who the U.S. government contends are officials of the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, said he has detected reinvigorated investigations of his clients after the ruling.
Prosecutors "haven't figured out how many pieces of candy they can eat," he said. "It's been quite a topic of discussion [among defense lawyers] on how and when the next shoe will drop."
The first shoe to drop was the indictment in February of Florida college professor Sami Al-Arian on charges of conspiracy to commit murder via suicide attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories. For years, Al-Arian had denied that he was an operative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist group because of its suicide bombings of Israelis.
No charges were filed against Al-Arian until the 50-count indictment, the first to exploit FISA information. It contains scores of transcribed pages from secretly intercepted telephone conversations, e-mails and faxes made available to FBI criminal investigators only months ago. Authorities said they prove that Al-Arian helped direct Palestinian Islamic Jihad's worldwide operations. Al-Arian's lawyers deny the charges, saying he is a victim of anti-Muslim conspiracies.
U.S. officials said the investigation into alleged supporters of Hamas focuses in part on the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the nation's largest Muslim charity until agents shut it down in 2001. Last year, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the charity supports the families of Hamas suicide bombers, paid for many trips by Hamas officials to this country, and "has had financial connections to Hamas since its creation in 1989." Holy Land officials deny terrorist ties.
Hamas is a militant group, founded in 1987 and based in the Palestinian territories, that seeks the establishment of an Islamic state there and in Israel, and works to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It runs an extensive network of social service agencies in the territories and has not targeted U.S. interests.
The probe of suspected backers of Hezbollah largely focuses on networks of Islamic centers that allegedly raise money for the group, officials said. In addition, investigators are looking into rings that commit crimes such as credit card fraud and send the profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the officials said.
A radical Lebanese political party that was formed in 1982 to represent Shiite Muslims, Hezbollah, or Party of God, is funded by Iran and is dedicated to destroying Israel and establishing Islamic rule in the area. Its militias forced Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000.
Prosecutors' goal is to shut down Hamas and Hezbollah support networks through a variety of tactics, from filing criminal charges or lawsuits to deporting individuals. One likely tactic is the filing of racketeering charges, which would allow agents to investigate activities that go back decades. By contrast, a criminal charge of providing material support to terrorists could encompass only activities since 1995, when U.S. officials deemed Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups.
Many Arab and Muslim activists denounce the probes, saying they admire Hamas and Hezbollah for their armed resistance to Israel.
"Mr. Bush believes Hezbollah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions are terrorists, but we believe they are freedom fighters," said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, a newspaper in Dearborn, Mich. "Hezbollah liberated south Lebanon from Israel after 22 years. Why wouldn't the Lebanese be appreciative to the people who liberated them" by sending them money?
"By criminalizing attempts to send money to Hezbollah or to support it, the FBI is confusing and alienating people here who could be allies in the war on terrorism," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington nonprofit group.
U.S. officials believe Hamas and Hezbollah are unlikely to mount an attack on U.S. soil, but say attacks are more conceivable overseas. If Iran decides it is the next target of U.S. military action, "then we've got a real problem," a senior FBI official said.
Hezbollah has "a worldwide presence, and we see them actively casing and surveilling American facilities," CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress in February.
In recent weeks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said that the government is concerned about attacks by "regional extremist organizations" against U.S. interests -- a reference, sources said, to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Some officials from both terrorist groups have said the U.S. assault in Iraq obligates Muslims to attack Americans, even as others indicated they would not attack U.S. targets. "The [U.S.] strike on Iraq would be the continuation of the Crusaders' war, so Muslims should threaten and strike Western interests, and hit them everywhere," Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said in February.
Knowledgeable sources said one person under investigation is Howard University professor Abdelhaleem Ashqar, who U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in 2002 was "a senior Hamas activist."
Ashqar was jailed for six months in 1998 for refusing to testify before a New York grand jury looking into Hamas finances. Now agents are using hundreds of pages of formerly unexploitable documents -- including bugs of his Mississippi apartment in the mid-1990s -- in a possible attempt to bring immigration charges against him, sources said. Cohen, his attorney, said that while Ashqar once may have associated with Hamas, "there's no allegation [he] did anything with Hamas after it was declared a terrorist group" in 1995.
A Howard University spokesman declined to comment on the case.
U.S. officials say they similarly have tracked Hezbollah in this country since the early 1980s. That is when the group kidnapped a number of Americans in Beirut, and was involved in bombings of U.S. embassy buildings and a Marine barracks there. U.S. officials say Hezbollah helped train al Qaeda members in explosives before they bombed U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
"Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said last year. "They have a blood debt to us. . . . We're not going to forget it."
Abu Nahidian, the director of the Manassas Mosque in Virginia, said recently that area Muslims who dispatch money to clerics close to Hezbollah in Lebanon have come under scrutiny by the FBI. He added that agents don't understand it is a religious obligation to give alms to religious charities requesting help.
"They're listening and asking questions," Nahidian said, and "people have been badly harassed" by the FBI.
He also said U.S. agents should have understood that a man named Mohamad Hammoud was acting on religious impulses when he sent money to Hezbollah-linked charities in the 1990s. But a federal jury in Charlotte disagreed, and last June it convicted Hammoud of funneling profits to Hezbollah from a huge cigarette smuggling operation he ran. U.S. officials say compatriots also arranged delivery of military equipment, such as stun guns and night-vision goggles, to Hezbollah.
Agents are also looking into the possible Hezbollah ties of Detroit resident Ali Nasrallah, who was convicted in 1999 of helping to run one of the nation's biggest credit card scams.
After Sept. 11, 2001, federal agents reopened the case. It could not be learned whether officials are relying on FISA files in the new probe, but Tom Matuszak, the local prosecutor who put Nasrallah in prison four years ago, said, "This is no longer a credit card case; it's a terrorism case."
David Steingold, Nasrallah's attorney, said his client "has absolutely no knowledge of Hezbollah."