WASHINGTON - A senior Hamas leader and two other activists were indicted on charges that they ran a racketeering enterprise over 15 years that used U.S. bank accounts to finance the militant Palestinian group, the Justice Department announced yesterday.
The grand jury indictment, unsealed in Chicago, outlines an alleged conspiracy in which millions of dollars were said to have been laundered in support of the group.
The charges, the second involving a Hamas-related defendant brought by federal authorities in the past month, illustrates the Justice Department's willingness to use aggressive legal strategies to interrupt the flow of funds to suspected terrorist groups.
Justice officials said the latest indictment was the first to identify Hamas as a "criminal enterprise" under federal racketeering law. Hamas was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 for carrying out suicide bombings and other acts of violence in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The defendants weren't charged with directly participating in any terrorist attacks. Rather, the indictment alleges that they furnished money and personnel to Hamas at a time when it was engaged in violence, including "multiple acts" of murder, kidnapping and maiming.
Indeed, many of the activities complained of in the indictment occurred before Hamas was declared a terrorist group. The government's use of the racketeering law essentially allows it to reach back in time to capture those acts as part of an alleged continuing criminal conspiracy.
The racketeering conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of approximately $2.7 million held by the defendants in four bank accounts.
"Today, terrorists have lost yet another source of financing and support for their bombs and bloodshed," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference.
The defendants include Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a prominent Hamas political figure and U.S.-educated engineer, who was expelled by U.S. authorities in the mid-1990s for suspected terrorist activities. He now lives in Syria and is considered a fugitive, Ashcroft said.
Abu Marzook, speaking from Damascus, Syria, to the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, denounced the accusations as politically motivated.
"This is an issue of [the] election campaign. They want to say to the American masses, 'We are fighting terrorism,'" he said. "They think Hamas is a terrorist organization, and every week they issue something condemning Hamas and accusing them of laundering money."
Also indicted were Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in suburban Chicago who once served time in an Israeli jail, and Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, of Alexandria, Va., who entered the United States as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in the 1980s and later taught at Howard University in Washington.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.