A mosque in Potomac is one of four targeted by federal prosecutors Thursday in what could prove to be one of the largest counterterrorism seizures in U.S. history, the Associated Press is reporting.
Prosecutors took steps Thursday to seize the four mosques and a Fifth Avenue skyscraper owned by the nonprofit Alavi Foundation, long suspected of being secretly controlled by the Iranian government.
In all, prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of more than $500 million in assets, including bank accounts, Islamic centers consisting of schools and mosques in New York City, Maryland, California and Houston, more than 100 acres in Virginia, and a 36-story glass office tower in New York.
John D. Winter, the Alavi Foundation's lawyer, told the AP that it intends to litigate the case and prevail. He said the foundation has been cooperating with the government's investigation for the better part of a year.
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed concern. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said the move comes at a particularly bad time, as American Muslims are fearful of a backlash resulting from the recent shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas.
"Whatever the details of the government's case against the owners of the mosques, as a civil rights organization we are concerned that the seizure of American houses of worship could have a chilling effect on the religious freedom of citizens of all faiths and may send a negative message to Muslims worldwide," he said.The mosques and the skyscraper will remain open while the forfeiture case works its way through court in what could be a long process, the AP reports. What will happen to them if the government ultimately prevails is unclear. But the government typically sells properties it has seized through forfeiture, and the proceeds are sometimes distributed to crime victims.
"No action has been taken against any tenants or occupants of those properties," U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman Yusill Scribner said. "The tenants and occupants remain free to use the properties as they have before today's filing. There are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants."
Prosecutors said the Alavi Foundation managed the office tower on behalf of the Iranian government and, working with a front company known as Assa Corp., illegally funneled millions in rental income to Iran's state-owned Bank Melli. Bank Melli has been accused by a U.S. Treasury official of providing support for Iran's nuclear program, and it is illegal in the United States to do business with the bank.
The U.S. has long suspected the foundation was an arm of the Iranian government; a 97-page complaint details involvement in foundation business by several top Iranian officials, including the deputy prime minister and ambassadors to the United Nations.
"For two decades, the Alavi Foundation's affairs have been directed by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations, in violation of a series of American laws," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.