In convicting five leaders of the Holy Land Foundation Monday for financing the Hamas terrorist organization under the cover of a charity, a federal jury disregarded defense claims that the case was contrived by Israel.
“All of these folks had charged that this was a politically motivated trial and that Jews and Israel were behind it,” said Mark Briskman, regional director of the North Texas office of the Anti-Defamation League.
He said an organization, Hungry for Justice, had held protest vigils outside the Dallas courthouse during the two-month trial and that its spokesmen claimed the charges “were not from Washington but from Tel Aviv.”
“They were saying the U.S. is doing this because this is what the Jews and Israel want,” Briskman recalled.
The jury deliberated eight days before finding the defendants and the foundation itself guilty on all 108 counts. The government charged that the Holy Land Foundation sent more than $12 million to Hamas — an Iranian-funded Islamic organization that has vowed to destroy Israel — since it was declared an illegal terrorist organization by the United States in 1995. Judge Jorge Solis remanded the defendants, several of whom are related to senior Hamas leaders. Some face up to life in prison; a sentencing date was not set.
The Holy Land Foundation, which was convicted on all 32 counts, must forfeit $12.4 million.
“This is a great day for the United States,” U.S. Attorney Richard Roper told reporters after the verdict. “U.S. citizens have spoken in this case and said with a resounding verdict of guilty that we will not tolerate those who choose to finance terrorism. … Money is the lifeblood of terrorists, plain and simple. The jury’s decision attacks terrorism at its core.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Jacks, who prosecuted the case, pointed out that his team of prosecutors “had the benefit of being able to talk to the jurors” after an earlier prosecution of the foundation and its leaders ended in a mistrial in October 2007.
“With the information we got from them, we tweaked the case a little bit,” he explained. “But when we were preparing for the second trial, we were also telling ourselves that we don’t need to go overboard and change the case a whole lot.”
In response to what critics called a bloated and often confusing case, prosecutors dropped nearly 60 charges and streamlined the case.
“The government did a much better job in organizing its presentation,” Briskman said. “It got rid of a lot of stuff that was not necessary and made extensive use of charts that had not been used in the first trial. Most of the names mentioned in the trial were Arabic and one can struggle with remembering them and keeping straight who went with what organization. So they put all of this on charts and held them up when FBI agents testified.”
The conviction was critical in the Justice Department’s war on terrorism, according to Dennis Lormel, the creator of the FBI’s Terrorist Financing Operations Section after Sept. 11.
Despite the conviction, he said, “the government is still getting criticized in certain circles for even bringing the case, and had it lost it would have gotten more conservative in bringing these cases, which would have been a mistake.”
In assessing whether to go to trial with a case, the Justice Department weighs what would happen should it lose and Lormel conceded that these are very difficult cases to win.
“It’s difficult in the sense that what is needed prove was criminal intent on the part of the subjects,” he explained.
In this case, the defense claimed the money went to buy humanitarian aid but failed to say that the beneficiaries of the aid, called zakat committees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that perform social services and run hospitals and schools, were arms of Hamas.
“Hamas’ whole organization is a terrorist organization and their charitable wing serves as the logistics tool for their military wing,” Lormel said. “There are anecdotes of where the charitable wing served as a front to support military operations, like using ambulances” to carry terrorists and weapons.
Prosecutors labeled the zakat committees terrorist recruiting pools that spread Hamas’ violent ideology and generated loyalty and support among Palestinians. It was, they argued, a “womb to the tomb” cycle.
The defense insisted that the Holy Land Foundation did nothing more than raises philanthropic money to provide much-needed assistance to hungry Palestinians in Israeli-occupied areas.
“They didn’t mention that the Palestinian children they were feeding were the families of suicide bombers,” Briskman said. “They conveniently left that out.”
But Mustafaa Carroll, a co-founder of Hungry for Justice, told reporters outside the courthouse that none of the zakat committees the foundation funded were “on the government’s terror list. These charities are still open.”
The defense in the case also claimed that government assertions about the committees could not be trusted because the information came from two Israeli agents who testified only after the courtroom was cleared of all spectators and whose real names were not given.
But Briskman said the government at the second trial introduced into evidence an internal memo from the Palestinian Authority that identified several of the committees as being controlled by Hamas and saying that the authority had closed them down.
Briskman also pointed out that Hungry for Justice was created by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stage the protests at the courthouse.
“They are a propaganda tool,” he said. “Hungry for Justice said last year that during the jury selection the ADL sat behind the prosecution when in fact I was not there. So facts are irrelevant to them.”
CAIR was one of some 300 unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land case. Carroll is also a former board president of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of CAIR.
The Holy Land Foundation had been the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. at the time the U.S. in December 2001 raided its office in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. President George W. Bush personally announced that the group’s assets had been frozen after the raid, terming the action as another step in the war on terror.
The Holy Land Foundation was established in the late 1980s at the same time as Hamas. It was originally called the Occupied Land Fund and changed its name in the early 1990s and moved to Richardson in 1992. That same year, the FBI bugged a hotel meeting in Philadelphia in which defendants were heard to use the word Samah — Hamas spelled backwards.
Authorities made extensive use of wiretaps to piece together their case. In one recording, defendant Abdulrahman Odeh, Holy Land’s New Jersey representative, was heard to declare suicide bombings “beautiful operations.”
Odeh and defendant Mufid Abdulqader were convicted of three counts of conspiracy and face up to 55 years in prison. The latter is the brother of Khaled Meshaal, chairman of Hamas’ political bureau. Meshaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, is a cousin of defendant Mohammad Mezain, a foundation co-founder who was convicted of one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization and who is married to the cousin of defendant Ghassan Elashi, a former Holy Land chairman who faces up to life in prison.
The fifth defendant, Shukri Abu Baker, the foundation’s former chief executive officer, is the brother of Jamal Issa, Hamas’ former leader in Sudan and its current leader in Yemen. Baker, who was convicted of supporting a specially designated terrorist, money laundering and tax fraud, faces up to life in prison.