The U.S. Says Muhammad Salah Was Financing Middle East Terrorism. Salah Says He Was Bringing Money To Stricken Families. Next Month, A Jury Will Begin Deciding Who's Right.
SITTING NEXT TO MUHAMMAD SALAH on a courtroom bench, it is hard to keep him in focus. The physical presence doesn't jibe with legal papers describing him as a terrorist kingpin with blood on his hands.
The 53-year-old Palestinian-American from southwest suburban Bridgeview seems remarkably calm for someone facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars. He projects the kind of inner peace ascribed to the great Christian mystics-or, perhaps more aptly in this instance, the Sufis of the Islamic world.
He is given to speaking in aphorisms.
"People are slaves to politics," he told me during one of the pretrial skirmishes at the Dirksen Federal Building, where his criminal trial is scheduled to open in early October. He is accused of providing material support to a foreign terrorist group and lying under oath by denying that he was a member of Hamas, a group officially designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization and now the majority party in the Palestinian legislature.
When Salah was charged two years ago, then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft heralded it as a vindication of the USA Patriot Act, the controversial terrorism-fighting tool forged by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11.
"Today, terrorists have lost yet another source of financing and support for their bombs and bloodshed," Ashcroft said in announcing the indictment by a federal grand jury of Salah and two co-defendants, including Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a top leader of Hamas' political wing.
Given the White House's highly publicized strategy of maintaining a courtroom front in the war on terrorism, the government has bet a lot of chips on its prosecution of Salah and his alleged co-conspirators.
Yet there was a point in 2000 when the case appeared to have been dropped. The Justice Department shut down without fanfare its long-running investigation of Salah and Hamas.
The current reversal of that decision epitomizes the Salah case, which besides raising civil libertarians' hackles, is also a saga with more twists and turns than a John le Carre spy novel. It includes enough bureaucratic infighting to send shivers up the spines of citizens who'd like to think of their government as a shield against a repeat of the World Trade Center tragedy. It even has a cameo appearance by Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter, who went from hero to goat after refusing to testify in the White House leak investigation.
Submitted as a movie script, the story might elicit a Hollywood producer's critique: "Fascinating yarn, but needs simplifying."
MUHAMMAD SALAH WAS BORN in 1953 in Jerusalem, on the Jordanian side of a city then divided between Israel and Jordan. In 1967, the Israeli army captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank and three years later, Salah emigrated to the U.S. and became an American citizen. A high-school dropout, he got his GED in this country and some training in computers. He worked as a grocer and sometime car dealer, and also took a course in how to become a security guard, which included training in the use of firearms. He made his home in Bridgeview, which has a considerable Palestinian presence, and became a board member of the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation.
In the 1980s, the Bridgeview Mosque was the site of a theological civil war pitting more- assimilated members against fundamentalist newcomers. It was in 1987, according to a statement Salah subsequently gave while in Israeli detention, that he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant group founded in Egypt in 1928, of which Hamas is a Palestinian offshoot. In his statement, which he now disavows, Salah reputedly tied his recruitment in the militant organization to Sheik Jamal Said, a prayer leader at the Bridgeview Mosque.
For Salah, the current proceeding-case No. 03 CR 978 in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division-is only the latest in a long-running series of summonses before various bars of justice. Yet the only visual clue to his legal odyssey is a parched and lined face that echoes the desert landscapes of his homeland. Seated alongside him during a March hearing was a woman who looked 20 years his junior. When Salah momentarily left the courtroom, I asked her if she was a daughter.
"I'm his wife," replied Maryam Salah, flashing a smile indicating she was familiar with the confusion. "We're the same age," she explained. "He went into prison a young man and came out an old man."
Salah spent four years in Israeli prisons in the 1990s after purportedly confessing to serving as a courier and financial conduit between American supporters of Hamas and terrorist cells in Gaza and the West Bank. In one instance, Salah reportedly told his interrogators he met with a student at Hebron University "who asked me for the sum of $8,000 for buying weapons for the activity. I gave him the sum in cash."
He doesn't look typecast for cloak-and-dagger work. It is easier to picture him, an apron tied around his waist, behind the counter of the grocery store that, according to court documents, he once owned in a Chicago neighborhood.
Yet it could be his mild-mannered appearance that made Salah fit for the role that Israeli and American authorities ascribe to him. Underground groups need fiery orators and wild-eyed bomb throwers. But they also need innocuous- looking conspirators who can fade into a crowd.
It was that look of tranquil confidence-all too carefully crafted, in her eyes-that drove Joyce Boim to barely controllable rage when she met Salah across a table in the Dirksen Building. Six years ago, she and her husband, Stanley Boim, sued Salah and several Islamic charities under the Federal Anti-Terrorism Act of 1992. It allows victims of terrorist attacks overseas to seek financial compensation in American courts.
Their 17-year-old son, David Boim, was killed by Hamas gunmen at a Jerusalem bus stop in 1996. Because Salah allegedly helped finance Hamas, he should be held accountable, the Boims argued.
During a pretrial conference between plaintiffs and defendants, Salah claimed he was the injured party, having been imprisoned and maltreated by Israeli authorities who tricked him into making a false confession.
"I remember having to grip the arms of my chair," Joyce Boim recalls. "I wanted to reach across the table and strangle him. He was sitting there, making himself so innocent."
In late 2004, a Chicago jury found for the Boims, and the court awarded the couple $156 million in damages from Salah and the charities, including the Quranic Literacy Institute, with offices in Oak Lawn. The Boims, New Yorkers who have lived in Israel for years, aren't likely to see the money any time soon. As financial claimants, they are in line behind the U.S. government, which previously froze Salah's assets through a so-called RICO attachment.
"That's OK," says Joyce Boim. "We did it to show to show other terrorists they are not going to be able to collect money for terrorism while hiding behind a charity."
The admissions Salah made while in Israeli custody are the centerpiece of the government's case in the current criminal proceedings. Yet had that chapter of his saga been transacted on American soil, his confession might not make it past the doorway of Judge Amy St. Eve's 12th-floor courtroom.
Salah's supporters claim he was browbeaten-they stop short of calling it torture-into confessing by weeks of incessant questioning. Arguing that the confession should be disallowed, his attorney, Michael Deutsch, asked the judge earlier this year to consider his client's statement in the context of a larger narrative:
"It's about a broken man who has been through 53 days of interrogation."
The Israelis countered by flying over two intelligence officers who had questioned Salah. Testifying last March, they denied subjecting him to undue coercion, and Judge St. Eve found their testimony credible.
At one point, though, it did push the envelope. Deutsch brought into court a wooden chair with its legs largely cut off, the front ones more so than the back ones. His client, he said, had been forced to sit in a similar chair, in a painful position, while being interrogated. The Israelis reportedly countered (their testimony was behind closed doors) that the chair's design had a benevolent intent. During long interrogations, they explained, prisoners fall asleep. By being seated so low they are protected against injury should they fall to the floor.
The Israelis' testimony left Deutsch with a tough decision: whether to put his client on the stand. A criminal trial is fought much like a chess match. Before making a move, a lawyer has to carefully consider if it might leave his client vulnerable to a checkmate countermove.
The best available evidence for countering the Israelis' assertions would come from his client's mouth. Salah, and only Salah, could take the stand to attest to what the Israelis did, or did not, do to him.
But it would give the prosecution an opportunity to cross-examine Salah, and that carries risks defense attorneys don't relish, even when convinced a client is innocent. A slip of the tongue could give the other side a weapon it otherwise wouldn't have. Yet not putting Salah on the stand would leave the Israelis' version of the story unrebutted.
"If believed, they are very damaging," Deutsch subsequently said of the statements Salah made while in Israeli prisons.
Yet Deutsch decided that the time wasn't right, if indeed it ever would be, to have Salah testify. Instead, the defense relied on a written affidavit to tell Salah's version of the interrogation.
"Any time an agent observed me nodding off to sleep, he would slap my face and kick me to keep me awake," Salah wrote in the sworn statement. "It still is difficult for me to believe that any human being could do these things to another human being."
In large part, his alleged confession was allowed into evidence. It would have been hard for St. Eve to rule otherwise. A longstanding legal principle dictates that, when weighing evidence, the spoken word trumps the written one. With a live witness, a judge or jury gets to see the witness' demeanor and can evaluate his or her believability accordingly. The other side gets a chance to try to poke holes in the witness' story. But words on paper are just that-an assertion untested by the parry and thrust of cross-examination.
Still, the episode, which went on through several court sessions, left unresolved an issue of equity: It was well into his time in Israeli custody before Salah was able to meet with a lawyer.
Had the delay occurred in the U.S., it would have violated his right to have an attorney present during questioning, tainting the confession and probably causing it to be thrown out. But Judge St. Eve decided that American law allows the confession to be admitted as evidence. The October trial will be conducted in accordance with American practices, but with evidence collected by Israeli rules.
It will also be largely pre-scripted, thanks to the Boims' lawsuit. The basic outline of the government's case can be seen in the court filings, depositions, legal exhibits and judicial rulings preserved in the thick file of the civil case.
But federal prosecutors undoubtedly have fresh ammunition to throw against Salah and his legal team. Deutsch says the FBI managed to plant an informant in his client's circle of friends. When Salah was released by the Israelis in 1997, there was an unfamiliar face among those who welcomed him home.
This person "made himself Salah's best friend and business partner," Deutsch says. "They were together for six years."
According to Deutsch, Salah and the FBI plant ran a used-car business together, and the FBI was able to compile 500 pages of reports based on the undercover work of the informant, identified in court records as "Individual A."
So for courtroom buffs, and partisans on both sides, when St. Eve takes the bench on Oct. 12, it will be like watching the curtain go up on an opera, libretto in hand.
It will play in an impressive venue. The kind of court most of us are likely to experience-fighting a traffic ticket, getting divorced, testifying as a witness to a street crime-is noisy and chaotic. By contrast, the atmosphere in the Dirksen Building is so majestically serene it seems like a theatrical tableau. The front section of the courtroom is built up like a ziggurat: St. Eve's assistants sit on one level, her bench is still higher above the floor. She seems to tower above the proceedings, making her appear both larger and smaller than life.
She is a petite woman and her blond hair is stylishly clipped. Save for the black robe and high perch, she almost could be mistaken for a teenager. She runs her courtroom as if determined not to let anyone take advantage of her appearance. At one point during pretrial motions, Deutsch sensed that a hearing wasn't going his way and he broadly hinted that it was because St. Eve leans toward the prosecution. As a former federal prosecutor, she did a stint on the Whitewater investigating team.
"I know this court is going to agree with the government," Deutsch said.
"You are walking a close line of contempt," St. Eve shot back.
Deutsch's chief foe is Joseph Ferguson, lead prosecutor and deputy chief of the federal Money Laundering and
Asset Forfeiture section. Presumably, he was
assigned to the case because so much of it turns on fund transfers, mind-boggling in their complexity. He is tall, lean and walks with a crisp, purposeful gait. His receding hairline gives him look of an intellectual; he could be taken for a professor of law.
(Full disclosure: I was once his professor at Lake Forest College, though we haven't spoken in decades. The government declined to let the prosecution team be interviewed.)
Ferguson and his assistants generally enter the courtroom in single file, perhaps in order of descending seniority. To a man-and woman-the team dresses in neatly tailored suits, so uniformly dark blue you can imagine a big bolt of the fabric in the basement of the Justice Department from which they are cut when someone is appointed an assistant U.S. attorney.
Ferguson usually makes his point without verbal flourishes. But he can put the needle in, too. During a hearing on the Salah confession's admissibility, he virtually dared Salah to testify. A prosecutor or judge can't order a defendant to do that because of the constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
"Unless he takes the stand, Judge, the evidence will permit only one conclusion: Mr. Salah has lied," Ferguson told St. Eve.
For Deutsch, heavy rhetoric is a weapon of choice. In one motion, Deutsch and a co-counsel characterized the federal attorneys as lackeys of Israel, "a violent and racist government." A foreign nation, they charged, "[has taken] over control of an American courtroom."
Deutsch walks with great loping strides. He, too, could be taken for a professor, perhaps of art. He dresses in not-quite-matching jacket and pants, as if to proclaim he saves the aesthetic sensibilities for his work.
His courtroom delivery is flamboyant, and there is more than a hint of Clarence Darrow about him. Like Darrow, he forsook a conventional legal career to become a self-proclaimed champion of the underdog. He clerked for former federal appeals court Judge Otto Kerner and was scheduled to move on to a corporate law firm. But the Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial was taking place in the same Dirksen Building that housed Kerner's chambers and where the Salah trial will be held.
Antiwar activists were charged with conspiring to provoke riots in Chicago's streets during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. After dropping in on trial sessions, Deutsch was prompted to sign on with the People's Law Office. As its name suggests, it is a creature of the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s. One of his first assignments was to represent inmates at New York's Attica Penitentiary, after a bloody riot there.
Deutsch calls Salah "a pawn in a larger political game."
Others, of course, see Salah differently. To the Boims he is evil incarnate. To the federal government, he is an enemy agent who not only financed terrorism but sought and trained recruits for Hamas on U.S. soil. To some Arab-Americans, he is the victim of a McCarthyite witch hunt that presumes all Muslims guilty until proven otherwise.
"For many, he is a symbol of a larger Palestinian struggle," says Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Nobody sees Salah in a vacuum."
Yet there is one thing friend and foe agree upon: Salah was a bagman.
ON JANUARY 25, 1993, SALAH was arrested at a checkpoint in Gaza, then under Israeli occupation. He was found with $97,400 in his possession, according to the affidavit of Robert Wright, a FBI agent who worked on the U.S. government's case. The Israelis also confiscated notes Salah had kept on meetings with Hamas operatives in the 11 days since he had arrived in Israel, according to Wright's account.
What he was doing there, and why he brought the money will be batted back and forth between the prosecution and defense tables at the trial.
"The question is, what was his intent?" says Deutsch.
Deutsch's answer is that his client was on a humanitarian mission. Shortly before, Israel had deported a number of Hamas activists to Lebanon. The money Salah brought to the Holy Land was for the support of the exiles' families, Deutsch says.
By Deutsch's account, Salah had entered a Kafkaesque nightmare. At one point, the Israelis had considered Hamas to be a counterweight to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but by the time of Salah's arrest the honeymoon was over, and the Israelis were leaning on Washington to cut off Hamas' funding sources in the U.S.
So they pumped up Salah's arrest into a front-page story, Deutsch contends. Like other conspiracy theories, Deutsch's hypothesis makes use of micro-fine readings of the text that aren't necessarily convincing to those who don't buy in. Israeli officials invited New York Times Middle Eastern reporter Judith Miller to witness Salah's interrogation, presumably as part of the media blitz.
"When Miller wrote about it for the Times, she didn't say she saw Salah being questioned," Deutsch says. "But in her book 'God Has Ninety-Nine Names' she retold the incident in the first person. Why?"
Deutsch says the Israelis locked up Salah with Palestinian collaborators, jailhouse snitches who demanded Salah prove he wasn't an Israeli spy. "I was repeatedly threatened in many ways unless I wrote a statement in which I was to state that I was involved with Hamas," Salah wrote in his 2005 affidavit.
Salah pleaded guilty in 1995 on the advice of an Israeli civil-rights attorney who said the chances were slim of prevailing in an Israeli military court. While Salah was in prison, the U.S. government officially declared him a terrorist, which led to his bank accounts being frozen and a failed attempt to seize his house. All of which led to nothing, Deutsch notes. For seven years after Salah's return to Chicago, there was no indictment, no trial.
"Just before 9/11, the government was working out an agreement to return his assets," Deutsch says. "9/11 was the defining thing. The Justice Department needed to show it was fighting terrorism."
During the years the case seemed to vanish down a rabbit hole, Mark Flessner headed the Justice Department's investigating team. He reports the delay wasn't for lack of manpower: At its peak, the investigation had 13 FBI agents and two other Justice Department officials assigned to it. By the middle of the 1990s, the government realized charities in this country were laundering money to support violent groups abroad. The investigation was aptly code-named Vulgar Betrayal. The paper trail it uncovered was lengthy and convoluted.
"It quickly became obvious we had an octopus on our hands," Flessner says. "Every bank record, every deposit slip we looked at led to dozens of other transactions that had to be run down,"
He gestured around his office at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, the law firm he joined after a dozen years in federal service. "Imagine a room twice this size, maybe 30 by 40 feet, lined with boxes filled with bank records."
Those boxes got filled in the midst of more than one bureaucratic civil war. Justice Department terrorism investigations are compartmentalized. For security reasons, investigative teams and prosecutors are separated, Flessner explained. The inclination of prosecutors is to take a case to court. In department lingo, they want the file "thrown over the wall" to them. The impulse of investigators is to hesitate: Once a probe is made public, the bad guys know the feds are on to them. Sources dry up, suspects flee.
Then there are life's petty jealousies. Relations between FBI agents in Chicago and those assigned to Milwaukee became so hostile, an office had to be rented in Kenosha for a neutral meeting ground, Flessner recalled. An Arabic-speaking FBI agent, Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, refused to wear a wire while tracking a suspect in the probe.
"He said a Muslim doesn't, or couldn't, record another Muslim without him knowing it," Flessner says. "It is not an option for an agent to decide how an investigation should be conducted, because of religious or philosophical reasons. Does a Christian FBI agent have the right to refuse to tape a Christian suspect?"
The episode threatened to turn Vulgar Betrayal into a cottage industry for lawyers filing spin-off legal actions. Abdel-Hafiz sued another member of the team, Robert Wright, the agent whose affidavit records Salah's arrest in Israel. Wright had complained to their superiors about Abdel-Hafiz, eventually taking the story public. Wright, in turn, sued the Justice Department for denying him permission to publish a book about the terrorism investigation.
All the while, Flessner's bosses in Washington were constantly second-guessing the investigation. Looking into religious groups was a new tactic and politically sensitive. So, too, was evidence that money headed for terrorists was flowing in and out of Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. Despite the roadblocks, Flessner thought there was sufficient evidence to take to a grand jury.
"Had there been the will in the Justice Department," Flessner says, "we had a case."
Instead, he was told to wrap up the investigation, which was closed shortly after he left federal service in 2000.
Four years later, and with considerable fanfare, the Justice Department announced Salah's indictment. How come? Deutsch thinks it was another instance of a little man caught in a labyrinth fashioned by powerful hands.
"Nathan Lewin was flogging the feds," said Deutsch. "It was part of the civil-case strategy."
Lewin is a Washington, D.C., attorney whose high-profile clients include former President Richard Nixon and former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese. A onetime federal prosecutor, he was enlisted by the Boim family to seek redress for their son's murder. Because of the complexity of the case, Lewin brought in as co-counsel a Chicago firm, Wildman Harrold.
If there is, indeed, a causal relationship between Salah's criminal prosecution and the Boims' case it would vindicate the intent of the law under which the Boims' suit was brought.
Joseph Morris, a Chicago attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney general, drafted federal legislation designed to entice private attorneys to take terrorism cases by allowing them to collect their fees from the defendants. The usual rule in civil suits is that each side pays its own way.
"This way, private attorneys produce information for the government on a silver platter," Morris says. "The Boim case was a pioneering effort that lived up to my hopes when I drafted the statute."
Just what evidence from the civil suit wound up in the criminal case isn't immediately apparent.
"The FBI looked through our files, but they don't say what they might have found there," says Steve Landes, a partner in Wildman Harrold. "But one of the counts against Salah came from our case: Lying when he denied being with Hamas."
When the trial opens in October, opposing consul will have opposing tasks: connecting versus disconnecting the dots.
The theory of the government's case, as outlined in court filings, is this: Salah took orders from a co-defendant, Mousa Mohammed
Abu Marzook. Variously identified as the
No. 1 or No. 2 man in Hamas' political hierarchy, Marzook reportedly lives in Syria, from where he directed the organization's money-laundering operation. Salah was its point man in the U.S., receiving funds and dishing them out to terrorist cells in Israel as well as finding new recruits.
A third defendant, Abdelhaleem Hasan Abelraziq Ashqar, of suburban Washington, maintained a branch operation through bank accounts in Mississippi. Unnamed co-conspirators also helped maintain the conduit.
The challenge for Ferguson, the lead prosecutor, will be to hold the attention of jury members while walking them through a mountain of paperwork A Justice Department press release, for example, reported: "In February 1991, Abu Marzook's associate, Co-conspirator I, received a transfer of $480,000 from a bank in Saudi Arabia to his Virginia-based account, and then wired approximately $99,000 to an account in Cleveland belonging to Co-conspirator H, who, in turn wrote 16 checks totaling $100,000 to Co-conspirator F, which were cashed in Israel."
If that doesn't put jurors to sleep, Ferguson will still have to link Salah to that financial labyrinth and then prove that he kept doing terrorist work more recently, so his lawyers can't invoke a statute-of-limitations defense.
Salah told me he is confident of ultimate vindication. "I wait for the supreme judge," he said one day in court. "That's what keeps me going."
But he seemed troubled at a hearing in mid-August. His attorney was petitioning for a postponement of the trial, arguing it would be impossible to pick an impartial jury in the wake of the fierce fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and the arrests of Muslims in England alleged to have planned to blow up U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives. British and Pakistani investigators have also launched a probe of an Islamic charity that purported to help refugees of the Pakistani earthquake of 2005. The charity allegedly financed the airliner plot the way the U.S. contends Islamic-American charities were used to money-launder funds destined for terrrorists in the Salah case.
Judge St. Eve rejected the motion, noting only an oracle could predict when things would quiet down in the Middle East. With that ruling, she renewed the challenge Deutsch will face at the forthcoming trial: to show that there are alternative interpretations for evidence offered by the prosecution. But the defense will be confronted by the same dilemma as during pretrial hearings. Who besides Salah can make his story? Absent fuller explanation, several chapters are murky.
It is unclear how Salah made a living after 1989 or 1990 when he sold his business, according to the deposition of a woman who bought it.
When applying for a home mortgage, Salah showed a letter from the Quranic Literacy Institute saying he was their employee. But the Institute, itself labeled a money-laundering front, denied Salah was on its payroll. In its pleadings, the Institute argued that Salah hardly needed its financial support, since "Salah was receiving big chunks of money from a variety of sources."
Moreover, setting aside the question of how the Israelis got it out of Salah, the confession does parallel a paper trail.
In the disputed statement, Salah said that in the early '90s he was asked to go from a part-time to full-time Hamas activist.
He seems to have done what many would do when presented with a job offer: dicker over the terms: "I told him I would think about it and after some time I responded in the negative because my expenses in the U.S. were many and I could not subsist on what the movement would give me. Nevertheless, we agreed to continue discussions in order to reach a situation which would fit in with my standard of living and the situation of the movement."
In his statement, Salah said that before his fateful trip to Israel, the Hamas leader Marzook "deposited in my Chicago bank account $300,000 for distribution among Hamas activists in the
West Bank and Gaza."
Salah's bank accounts did suddenly grow by hundreds of thousand dollars on the eve his trip to Israel in 1993-$985,000 by the U.S. government's count. Once there, Salah used a money-changer to convert funds from those accounts into cash. If he was simply distributing charity, why not write checks to the recipients?
If Salah does take the stand to explain, the prosecution gets a chance to impeach his testimony. Whatever he has said and written could return to haunt him. For instance, early in a criminal case, it's common for the defense to throw up a paperwork smokescreen, citing a litany of reasons why the suit should be dismissed without trial. One reason offered in Salah's behalf was what might be called the Valley Forge defense. It argued that liberation movements historically use violence, therefore Salah shouldn't be tried for helping Palestinians fight for a homeland.
Salah's motion argued: "Delving back into the history of our own republic, the British, using the same definition of 'extortion' urged by the government in this case, could have charged our Founding Fathers with that crime when they declared independence from the Empire and threatened to accomplish that independence (and ultimately did so) by use of force."
It is not hard to imagine one of the prosecutors, clad in a dark blue suit, carrying that piece of paper slowly over to the witness stand.
"So, Mr Salah," he might ask. "Do you mean to tell these jurors there's no difference between Patrick Henry and a suicide bomber?"