Ill. Islamic Charity Leader Pleads Guilty
CHICAGO (AP) _ The head of an Islamic charity linked to Osama bin Laden pleaded guilty Monday to illegally paying for supplies for Muslim rebels in Chechnya and troops in Bosnia in exchange for the government dropping a charge accusing him of supporting al-Qaida.
Under a plea deal, Enaam Arnaout, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to a single racketeering conspiracy count as jury selection was about to begin.
Arnaout, 41, admitted in court papers that his Benevolence International Foundation had furnished funds to buy boots and uniforms for the Muslim fighting forces while claiming to aid only widows, orphans and the poor.
He did not acknowledge any relationship with bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network. But federal prosecutors said ample evidence remains that Arnaout helped al-Qaida in several ways _ including transferring funds around the world to finance its operations.
He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and federal prosecutors said they might ask the judge to give Arnaout a break if he follows through on his promise to cooperate.
The case has been considered a major part of the government’s efforts to shut off the flow of U.S. dollars to terrorists in the Mideast.
Following the guilty plea, Arnaout attorney Joseph Duffy told reporters that the government’s decision to drop a charge of providing support to al-Qaida cleared his client of links to terrorism.
Federal prosecutors immediately denied that and said Arnaout remains suspected of illegally helping al-Qaida. ``I stand by that,″ U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald told reporters.
``Benevolence International Foundation, we were prepared to prove and still are prepared to prove, was working with al-Qaida,″ Fitzgerald said.
``We have a witness who will say that Osama bin Laden told him he was working with Benevolence,″ Fitzgerald said. He said that witness could end up testifying at sentencing if Arnaout denies having ties to bin Laden.
Fitzgerald says the government has a number of photos of Arnaout and bin Laden together at a terrorist camp where al-Qaida was founded.
In his 12-page plea agreement, Arnaout said he began soliciting funds through his foundation out of his office in suburban Palos Hills in May 1993. But he acknowledged that ``a material portion″ of the funds went to ``support fighters overseas.″
He acknowledged that he and others agreed to provide boots for rebels fighting Russian troops in Chechnya and boots, tents and an ambulance ``intended for ultimate use by soldiers in Bosnia-Herzevogina.″
Arnaout admitted doing so while telling donors, many of them American Muslims who thought they were doing their religious duty by contributing, that their money was helping only widows, orphans, refugees and the poor.
``In entering a plea today, Mr. Arnaout made a decision that he believes is in the best interest of his family, the charity and the American Muslim community,″ Duffy said. ``One has to question whether a fair and impartial jury could be found anywhere in America today that could sit in judgment of an Arab-American in a case involving allegations of terrorism.″