A key Al Qaeda operative who tried to help Osama bin Laden develop a nuclear weapon was once a leader of an Islamic charity based in Palos Hills, federal prosecutors alleged in a court filing made public Wednesday.
Mohamed Loay Bayazid was president of Benevolence International Foundation in 1994, the government alleged. Around the same time, Bayazid sought to get uranium for Al Qaeda, prosecutors said.
The new allegation came in a 101-page filing in which the government details its evidence against Enaam Arnaout, the foundation's executive director.
Arnaout is scheduled to go on trial Feb. 10 on charges that he helped orchestrate a conspiracy to defraud donors by funneling money to militant groups, including Al Qaeda, rather than to humanitarian causes. Some of the donations came from corporations like Microsoft through matching gift programs.
The government filing portrays Benevolence as a group with a "core mission" of supporting Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia and Chechnya. It relies heavily on documents, including e-mails, memos and photographs, found in government raids on Benevolence's offices.
The charity publicly said it raised money for relief items but instead sent anti-mine boots to Chechnyan fighters, prosecutors alleged. The charity said it raised money for orphans, but far less than the amount intended actually went to orphans, the government said. The charity said its mission was humanitarian relief, but an internal mission statement said it aimed "to make Islam supreme on this Earth," according to the document.
A Benevolence memo warned employees to "NEVER VOLUNTEER ANY INFORMATION" to callers.
Attorneys for Arnaout and Benevolence criticized the government filing as an attempt to try the case in the press.
"The picture presented by the [filing] is inaccurate and totally misleading, and that's why we have a trial," said Joseph Duffy, an attorney for Arnaout. The filing "is nothing more than the government's version of what they would like the facts to be, and Mr. Arnaout is looking forward to his day in court."
Matthew Piers, an attorney for Benevolence, denied Bayazid was a leader of the charity. "That's absurd, ridiculous and false, and the government knows it," Piers said.
Although Benevolence isn't a defendant in the case, the filing focuses on the charity because the government is trying to establish the existence of a conspiracy so it can introduce certain evidence at Arnaout's trial.
The government originally submitted the filing on Jan. 6, but U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon agreed to seal it at the request of Arnaout's lawyers, who raised concerns that media coverage might prejudice the public and hinder jury selection. Arnaout's lawyers are trying to persuade the judge to exclude the alleged ties between Arnaout and bin Laden from the government's case.
Late Tuesday, Conlon ordered the document be unsealed in response to a request by the Chicago Tribune, which argued the 1st Amendment requires public access to criminal court records. The Tribune also argued that allegations about Arnaout's connections to terrorist groups have come to light in previous government filings.
Bayazid's name had previously come up because he used Benevolence's street address in Palos Hills on his Illinois driver's license. Bayazid allegedly was carrying the license in December 1994 when he was stopped--along with bin Laden's brother and brother-in-law--by authorities in San Francisco.
In the new filing, prosecutors cite internal Benevolence documents that allegedly show Bayazid was a leader at the charity. For example, the document quotes minutes of a Benevolence meeting on Sept. 15, 1994, stating that Bayazid as president ran the meeting. Arnaout also attended the meeting, prosecutors said.
Public filings with Illinois authorities don't list Bayazid as a charity official, and Piers said Bayazid never held such a post with Benevolence. He was in the Chicago area briefly in the mid-1990s and met with charity staffers about "the possibility of working there," Piers said.
Bayazid, also known as Abu Rida al Suri, allegedly tried to obtain uranium for a nuclear weapon for bin Laden in 1993 or 1994 in Sudan, according to testimony at the trial relating to the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Prosecutors said Bayazid was also present at the founding of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 1988, along with Mamdouh Salim, who allegedly traveled to Bosnia 10 years later with Arnaout's help. Salim is now in a New York jail awaiting trial on charges that he was a high-ranking participant in bin Laden's conspiracy to kill Americans.
Bayazid is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Syria, lived in Kansas City, Mo., in the early 1990s, and his current whereabouts are unknown, said Rita Katz, a terrorism expert at the SITE Institute. Arnaout, 40, was also born in Syria and is a U.S. citizen.
Other alleged militants were connected to Benevolence, the government said in the filing. The charity's officer in Chechnya was an Al Qaeda military commander, prosecutors said, and the Benevolence office in Azerbaijan was staffed by the local representative of Hezb e Islami, a military group based in Afghanistan.
Arnaout is also alleged to have his own ties with Al Qaeda, though there's no evidence he signed an oath of allegiance to the group, the government said. A computer file found in Benevolence's office in Bosnia-Herzegovina, labeled "Osama's history," allegedly contained newspaper articles and photographs showing Arnaout at bin Laden's first military camp in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. The document also said he occasionally drove bin Laden during the war against the Soviets.
While agreeing to unseal the document, Conlon wrote that she still worries "media coverage will make selection of a far and impartial jury a daunting task." Conlon said that task will be more difficult in the Arnaout case than in recent local cases involving allegedly corrupt public officials, including the ongoing trial of Scott Fawell, the former top aide to George Ryan.
"Those cases do not implicate the public trauma this country has suffered because of terrorism, deeply affecting our national and individual lives like no other event in recent history," Conlon wrote.
The judge also took prosecutors to task for filing 248 exhibits along with the document. At a hearing Tuesday, Conlon said she would return the documents to prosecutors. Filing them before they were admitted into evidence was a "curious and disturbing procedure," she said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. John Kocoras, who is prosecuting the case along with U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, told Conlon at the hearing that the government filed the exhibits to aid in her decisions. According to Conlon's order, the government has decided not to use 206 of the 248 exhibits in its case.