- Attorney General John Ashcroft, left, joined Tom Ridge, Homeland Security secretary, and Robert Mueller, F.B.I. director, at a hearing yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Ridge said millions of dollars were sent from the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn to al Qaeda.
ASHINGTON, March 4 - A prominent Yemeni cleric apprehended in Germany on charges of financing terrorism used a Brooklyn mosque to help funnel millions of dollars to Al Qaeda and boasted that he had personally delivered $20 million to Osama bin Laden, federal officials said today.
The cleric, Sheik Muhammad Ali Hassan al-Mouyad, told an F.B.I. informant that he was a spiritual adviser to Mr. bin Laden and had worked for years to provide money and weapons for a terrorist "jihad," according to two affidavits that were unsealed today in Brooklyn and that charge him and a Yemeni assistant with financing terrorism.
Sheik Mouyad "boasted jihad was his field and trumpeted his involvement in providing money, recruits and supplies to Al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups and said he received money for jihad from collections at the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
In New York, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Qaeda operatives "did their fund-raising right here in our own backyard in Brooklyn."
The name of the mosque is spelled "Al Farouq" in the court papers.
The charges, announced by Mr. Ashcroft in the midst of a Congressional hearing on fighting terrorism, served to deflect tough questioning from members of Congress who have been critical of his performance. While Democrats sought to challenge his record on civil liberties, border security and terrorism, Mr. Ashcroft pointed to the charges against the Yemenis and last weekend's apprehension of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as evidence that "we are winning the war on terrorism."
The case has threatened to create an international rift because officials in Yemen, which has been increasingly helpful in fighting terrorism, say they are skeptical of the charges against Sheik Mouyad, the imam at a prominent mosque in the capital, Sana. He runs a large charity that provides food and clothing to the poor, works in the government ministry that oversees mosques and is active in the Isla political party.
"He is well known in one of our political parties, and we have great doubt that he was at work in such matters" as the Justice Department has charged, Yahya Alshawkani, deputy chief of the Yemeni mission in Washington, said in an interview.
The arrests in Frankfurt, after a yearlong undercover operation that took federal agents from Brooklyn to Frankfurt, represent one of the most important terrorist financing cases that authorities have built since the Sept. 11 attacks in terms of both the amount of money involved and the direct connection to Mr. bin Laden himself, officials said.
"This is a really significant case," said Rita Katz, a terrorism financing specialist with a private research group in Washington. She said she could not remember having seen court papers "where you have an Islamic scholar saying directly `I donated $20 million to Osama bin Laden.' It shows that Islamic clerics are having a lot to do with funding and assisting Al Qaeda."
Mohammed Nagi, spokesman for the imam, Abdul Rahman, of Al Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, said officials there were "very, very, very surprised to hear of the allegations" that money collected at the mosque went to Al Qaeda. He said the mosque had always sought to comply with all American financial regulations governing tax-exempt organizations. "This is just a place of worship," he said.
Al Farooq Mosque is where Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman - convicted in the bombing in 1993 of the World Trade Center - served as imam for two months in 1990.
While the Germans disclosed in January that they had arrested Sheik Mouyad and his assistant, Muhammad Moshen Yahya Zayed, on suspicion of providing terrorist financing, American officials had refused to discuss the case against them or unseal relevant court documents until today.
Officials in Germany are considering a request from the United States to extradite the two men, which Yemen has opposed. If tried and convicted in the United States, Sheik Mouyad, 54, would face up to 60 years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda and Hamas, and Mr. Zayed, 29, would face up to 30 years. American officials, however, held out the possibility of bringing charges that could result in life sentences against the two men if they are connected "to terrorist acts resulting in death."
Affidavits filed by the F.B.I. in the case seek to link Sheik Mouyad to one specific terrorist attack. In September 2002, officials said, he was the host of a wedding reception in Yemen at which a leader of Hamas, Mohammed Siam, gave a speech that praised a "Hamas operation" that had just taken place in Israel, killing five people.
While federal prosecutors have brought several dozen terrorist financing cases since the Sept. 11 attacks, they have sometimes run into trouble proving such cases in court. Last month, a Muslim fund-raiser in Chicago - also accused of funneling millions of dollars to Al Qaeda - was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges without admitting any connections to terrorism.
But authorities said they believed that the evidence accumulated through secret wiretaps and the use of confidential informants constitutes a strong case against Sheik Mouyad and Mr. Zayed. Sheik Mouyad's claims to an informant that he gave Al Qaeda millions of dollars to support jihad attacks were backed up by documents recovered in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks that listed him by name as a Yemeni recruiter for mujahadeen fighters, the F.B.I. said.
"Prosecutions like this target the very lifeline of terrorist organizations," Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, said in New York. "There's nowhere in the world that we won't go to track down terrorists and those who support terrorists."
In court filings, prosecutors said they relied heavily on a confidential informant who knew Sheik Mouyad for more than six years and lived in Sana. Prosecutors said the informant told the F.B.I. in December 2001 that Sheik Mouyad was supplying money and arms to mujahadeen fighters and Muslim extremists worldwide, and the F.B.I. then set up a sting operation.
The informant, in a series of meetings with Sheik Mouyad, told him that he had a friend who wanted to donate "a large sum of money to the jihad," prosecutors said. Sheik Mouyad detailed his past meetings with Mr. bin Laden and his recruitment for the informant, and he also identified five individuals in New York who he said were sending him money, prosecutors said. Sheik Mouyad told the informant "that he received money for the jihad that was collected at the Al Farooq Mosque," the F.B.I. said.
Officials said Sheik Mouyad also provided the informant with telephone numbers for the five associates whom the F.B.I. was able to track back to Brooklyn, officials said.
The informant then contacted the unidentified Brooklyn associates, producing taped conversations that officials said yielded incriminating evidence about the methods and codes used to funnel money to Yemen for support of attacks.
Officials said they traced several million dollars in suspicious bank deposits in Brooklyn to Sheik Mouyad and his associates. One associate made more than $300,000 in cash deposits during a four-month period in 2001, using different banks on the same days and amounts that fell under federal reporting limits. Justice Department officials said they believed that the pattern showed an attempt to launder the money.
The investigation of five New York associates of the two men continues.