- Five hundred websites - many of them with an Arab or
Muslim connection - crashed last Wednesday when an anti-terrorism taskforce
raided InfoCom Corporation in Texas.
- The 80-strong taskforce that descended upon the IT company
included FBI agents, Secret Service agents, Diplomatic Security agents,
tax inspectors, immigration officials, customs officials, department of
commerce officials and computer experts.
- Three days later, they were still busy inside the building,
reportedly copying every hard disc they could find. InfoCom hosts websites
for numerous clients in the Middle East, including al-Jazeera (the satellite
TV station), al-Sharq (a daily newspaper in Qatar), and Birzeit (the Palestinian
university on the West Bank).
- It also hosts sites for several Muslim organisations
in the United States, among them the Islamic Society of North America,
the Muslim Students Association, the Islamic Association for Palestine,
and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
- In addition, InfoCom is the registered owner of ".iq"
- the internet country code for Iraq.
- A coalition of American Muslim groups immediately denounced
the raid as part of an "anti-Muslim witch-hunt" promoted by the
Israeli lobby in the United States.
- Mahdi Bray, political adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs
Council, said: "We have deep concerns that this once again is an attempt
to rush to judgment and to marginalise the American Muslim community. There
is a pattern of bias that often permeates all of these types of investigations."
- The FBI, meanwhile, insisted the search had nothing to
do with religion or Middle East politics. "This is a criminal investigation,
not a political investigation," a spokeswoman said. "We're hoping
to find evidence of criminal activity."
- Several Muslim groups have linked the raid to an article
which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 13. Written by Daniel
Pipes, director of the foreign policy research institute in Philadelphia,
it called on the US to "support Israel in rolling back the forces
of terror" by shutting down websites belonging to the Islamic Association
for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation.
- "The federal authorities should use the tools it
already has in closing down these websites and organisations," the
- Daniel Pipes appears regularly in the US media, where
he is regarded as an authority on the Middle East. Arab-Americans, on the
other hand, regard him as a Muslim-basher and a staunch supporter of Israel.
- In one magazine article Pipes wrote: "Western European
societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples
cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene...
All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are
more troublesome than most."
- In 1995, after the Oklahoma bombing (for which former
war hero Timothy McVeigh was eventually executed) Pipes wasted no time
in pinning the blame on Muslim extremists. He told USA Today: "People
need to understand that this is just the beginning. The fundamentalists
are on the upsurge, and they make it very clear that they are targeting
us. They are absolutely obsessed with us."
- It is unlikely, however, that the FBI could have obtained
a warrant to search InfoCom on the basis of Daniel Pipes's remarks in the
Wall Street Journal. They would have to demonstrate "probable cause"
to a judge, but in this case the reasons may never be known because the
judge ordered the warrant to be sealed.
- InfoCom's lawyer, Mark Enoch, said that whatever the
company was suspected of, the FBI had "bad information"; InfoCom
was innocent of any wrongdoing.
- According to the New York Times, citing unnamed government
officials, the purpose of the search was to discover whether InfoCom has
any links to the militant Palestinian organisation, Hamas.
- Under an anti-terrorism law introduced in 1996, it is
illegal in the US to provide "material support" for Hamas or
other organisations on the state department's banned list. Although Israeli
sympathisers in the US have been clamouring for prosecutions, there have
been no major cases so far and some lawyers question whether the 1996 law
- Just across the road from InfoCom's offices, in Richardson
on the outskirts of Dallas, is the headquarters of the Holy Land Foundation
(HLF). Apart from their physical proximity, InfoCom and HLF are intimately
connected through two brothers: Ghassan and Bayan Elashi. The Elashis are
of Palestinian origin and of a religious disposition. Ghassan is chairman
of HLF and vice-president (marketing) of InfoCom.
- InfoCom is a small but apparently successful company
with a global business in computers, networking, telecommunications and
internet services. Established in 1982, it moved to the area of Texas known
as "Telecom Corridor" nine years ago. Its business in the Middle
East has been expanding largely because of its expertise in Arabic-language
databases. It recently won a contract in Jordan for a website where people
can buy and sell cars.
- Asked about the company's ownership of ".iq",
the Iraqi national internet address, Ghassan Elashi said: "We were
one of the pioneers of the internet at a time when all the upper domain
names were available for everyone. We searched the lists and found Iraq
was available for registration."
- To avoid any trouble over sanctions, InfoCom informed
the state department that it had registered ".iq", Elashi said.
The state department replied with a "ridiculous" list of restrictions
which mean that the company has never been able to make use of the Iraqi
- He said he had no idea what the task force was looking
for in raiding InfoCom's offices, though the staff were giving them full
cooperation. He added: "Over the last four to five weeks we have experienced
some unusual hacking - mostly by pro-Israeli hackers."
- The HLF, on the other side of the street, is a tax-exempt
charity established in 1989. Most of its efforts are focused on helping
Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and the occupied territories, but it has
also sent humanitarian aid to Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, as well as earthquake
relief to Turkey and flood relief to Mozambique.
- According to its website, the HLF has provided sponsorship
for more than 1,800 Palestinian orphans and 450 families living in refugee
camps. It has funded several medical projects, including Dar al-Salam hospital
in Gaza, al-Razi hospital in Jenin, al-Ahli hospital in Hebron and a rehabilitation
center for the handicapped located in Amman, Jordan. In Lebanon, it provided
safe water supplies for 72,000 refugees in the Palestinian camps.
- For several years the HLF has been the target of attacks
by Israeli sympathisers. A letter sent to news organisations by New York
senator Charles Schumer accused it of "raising millions of dollars
for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East, some of which has been knowingly
channelled to support the families of Hamas terrorists."
- A more specific claim, mentioned on the website of a
Jewish organisation, the Anti-Defamation League, is that it has provided
"monthly stipends to the families of terrorist suicide bombers in
Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza".
- The evidence against the HLF presented by the League
in a 1998 press release was somewhat tenuous. It said that Israel had banned
a Jerusalem-based organisation called the Holy Land Foundation (which it
described as the "apparent counterpart" of the Texas charity)
on the grounds that it was a front for Hamas.
- Also, the League said, the Texas-based Islamic Association
for Palestine (IAP) had urged its members to send donations to the HLF.
The League noted that the IAP had also "distributed official Hamas
literature in the United States" and that its fundraising letter described
the Palestinian struggle as "jihad" - "a term regularly
used by Hamas".
- More recently, HLF and several other Muslim charities
have become the target of a $600m (£409m) lawsuit by the parents
of David Boim, an Israeli-American student who was shot dead in the West
Bank in 1996. Using the 1996 anti-terrorism law, the family are claiming
compensation from the charities, alleging that they provided "material
support" to Hamas and were therefore responsible for David's death.
- Ghassan Elashi dismisses all these allegations. "The
Holy Land Foundation is as clean as crystal water," he says. "We
have never been bothered by any government agencies."
- But to the alarm of America's Arab and Muslim minorities,
there are signs that the climate may be changing. Assistant New York state
attorney general Karen Goldman has recently been pressing for a tax audit
of HLF to "enforce the laws applicable to exempt organisations".
Another Muslim charity, the Islamic African Relief Agency, is engaged in
a legal dispute with the state department after it revoked US aid grants
- It is, of course, a duty of governments to ensure that
charities maintain financial probity. The concern is that some charities
may be getting singled out for discriminatory reasons.
- The catch-all nature of the 1996 law against providing
"material support" to banned organisations is also arousing controversy.
"It makes any support whatever a crime," one Arab-American said
last week. "Simply giving blankets to the wrong kind of hospital could
be a violation of the law."
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