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A face of terror or benevolence?; Enaam Arnaout calls his work honorable, but the U.S. says it's a cover for his support of terrorism
By Stephen Franklin, Laurie Cohen and Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune staff reporters.
Published in: Chicago Tribune
October 15, 2002

To supporters in the United States, Enaam Arnaout is a soft-spoken, pious man devoted to the low-paying and often dangerous work of caring for Muslims entrapped in war zones.

But interviews with people who have known him abroad, FBI records and intelligence documents from Bosnia-Herzegovina paint a very different picture of the 40-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Syria.

Arnaout, indicted last week on terrorism-related charges, is executive director of Benevolence International Foundation based in Palos Hills. His attorneys have portrayed him as a man whose only contact with jihad, or Islamic holy war, was to provide humanitarian aid for its victims. Yet he comes from a family with deep roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, an underground group in the Arab world that helped fuel the rise of militant Islam, according to Bosnian authorities.

Arnaout has insisted he had no personal relationship with Osama bin Laden and is being persecuted for alleged associations 15 years ago. But interviews and records show he was a member of bin Laden's inner circle during the war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the late 1980s at a time when the U.S. government was supporting bin Laden's efforts.

U.S. and Bosnian officials have alleged that even after the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, Arnaout provided weapons for Islamic militant groups, including bin Laden's Al Qaeda. To the Muslim community, Arnaout presented himself as a family man, supporting his Syrian wife and raising his three young children in a modest
apartment in suburban Justice. But Arnaout has another family in Sarajevo with a
younger wife and fathered a child in Chicago last February by a Bosnian woman,
according to records.

While Islam allows a man to have more than one wife, the practice has become less common in the West. Arnaout had not revealed his multiple marriages to many in the Chicago area, and his Muslim associates have said they are troubled by news reports about his family situation.

Arnaout described the Bosnian woman as his "lover" in a February phone conversation intercepted by the FBI, according to court documents. He talked of plans to divorce his Syrian wife, because of her "unbearable jealousy," and his intention not to pay the hospital bill for his new child. His lawyers contend the translation of the conversation was inaccurate.

Arnaout's life is a puzzle of details that often do not fit together. His story has come under intense scrutiny since Wednesday, when he became the first head of an Islamic charity in the U.S. to face terrorism-related charges in the wake of Sept. 11.

Federal prosecutors last week drew their own portrait of Arnaout, charging him with conspiring to defraud donors to his organization by funneling money and help to bin Laden's terror network and other violent groups. Benevolence, which raised $3.6 million last year, wasn't named in the indictment.

Arnaout has been in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago since April, when he was charged with making false statements in a civil lawsuit against the government. Benevolence filed the lawsuit after federal officials froze the charity's assets in December because of suspected links to Al Qaeda. Lawyers for Arnaout and Benevolence have denied the charity funded terrorism and have blasted the indictment for relying on evidence dating to the late 1980s, when the U.S. was also allied with bin Laden.

Federal prosecutors contend Arnaout's early ties to bin Laden are crucial because they paved the way for later dealings. Benevolence hosted one of bin Laden's key associates, Mamdouh Salim, in Bosnia in 1998 and allegedly installed a member of Al Qaeda's ruling council as an officer of the charity in Chechnya in the late 1990s. Salim is awaiting trial in New York on charges that he participated in bin Laden's worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans.

"A lot of other activists stopped being members of the jihad network," said terrorism researcher Rita Katz of the Washington, D.C.-based SITE Institute. "The fact is [Arnaout] didn't stop."

In a letter to the Tribune last month, Arnaout wrote from the federal jail that he was innocent and a "victim of a political game," a theme echoed by supporters within Chicago's Muslim community. "Twelve years ago I came to this country with all my love to build a nice life, to have a nice family, which I got--thanks God," he wrote. "I ran away from the third world horrible countries to enjoy the freedom, justice and liberties," he said, adding that he should not be blamed "about some relationships with people that I met 15 years ago."

Arnaout has spent much of his life working in countries where Islamic struggles are being waged. His introduction to radical Islam began in his native Syria, where Islamists in the early 1980s were fighting deadly battles against Syrian dictator Hafez Assad's regime.

Arnaout's brother, Bassam, was a legendary hero of "the Fighting Vanguard," a breakaway militant faction within the Muslim Brotherhood, according to two of Arnaout's associates in Chicago. Bassam was shot to death by Syrian police in
1980, said Reuven Paz, an Israeli counter-terrorism expert. Enaam Arnaout was
only 17.

Benevolence's attorney, Matthew Piers, initially denied any links between Arnaout's family and the Muslim Brotherhood. Later, Piers acknowledged a connection and said he had been trying to protect Arnaout's family, which fled Syria after Bassam's death and hopes to return someday. Another of Arnaout's brothers and a sister were also killed in conflicts with Syrian police, according to a Bosnian intelligence report. In 1982, Assad's
troops crushed the Brotherhood's roots in Hama, the town where the Arnaouts lived. The family by then was in Saudi Arabia, where Arnaout lived before finding his way to the jihad in Afghanistan.

In a January interview with the Tribune, Arnaout said he first entered the region in 1987 to get a degree in Islamic studies in Pakistan, and he soon found work with a Saudi-based relief agency. He said he saw bin Laden on the streets of Peshawar, a border city that was the entry point for mujahideen, or holy fighters, into Afghanistan, but did not know him personally.

But Arnaout's account of those years has been contradicted by three people who knew him there and by published reports at the time. According to these sources, Arnaout in the mid-1980s helped bin Laden set up his first military camp in Afghanistan, called al Masada.

For example, Arnaout, then known as Abu Mahmoud, appeared in May 1987 in Al Jihad, an Arabic-language magazine put out by Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual mentor of bin Laden. The article described him as a communications expert in the camp who took in radio reports of battlefront casualties.Federal prosecutors said they also found photos of Arnaout in a computer in Benevolence's Bosnian offices, showing him holding weapons and walking with bin Laden.

Attorneys for Benevolence and Arnaout have given varying accounts of Arnaout's activities during the mid-1980s. When first questioned about his role at al Masada, they said he couldn't have been there because he was working at a restaurant in a Persian Gulf state. More recently they have said he was working at a construction site in the region operated by the bin Laden family.

On Friday, Piers, Benevolence's lawyer, wouldn't comment on the precise nature of Arnaout's ties with bin Laden but acknowledged Arnaout "may have understated" the relationship in the January interview. After Sept. 11, Piers said he could understand why somebody "would be hesitant to talk about their past relationship with bin Laden. "

Arnaout said he began working for Benevolence's Saudi founder, Adel Abdul Jaleel Batterjee in 1988, overseeing another relief operation in Peshawar. Benevolence wasn't incorporated in Illinois until four years later, but federal prosecutors alleged Wednesday the two groups were really one operation designed to aid Islamic fighters. An old Web site for Benevolence gives the group's starting date as 1987.

In Peshawar, Arnaout met a nurse from Texas, whom he married. The couple settled in Florida in 1990, and he said he earned a living by shipping used cars to a brother in Saudi Arabia.

Federal prosecutors said Arnaout was still active in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the early 1990s, providing weapons to Al Qaeda and to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most militant and anti-Western Afghan warlords.

In the January interview, Arnaout said Batterjee sent him to Bosnia in 1992 to open a new branch. Benevolence established a sewing center for women and centers to teach courses in English and computers. During the next four years, Arnaout also allegedly set up military training camps for Muslims fighting against the Serbs. He brought in fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan and donations from members of the Muslim Brotherhood outside the country, according to Bosnian intelligence.

In 1994, Arnaout divorced his American-born wife, Nancy Noyes, and married a Syrian woman in Saudi Arabia.In 1996, Arnaout married Aida Bajraktarevic in Bosnia. Last fall, he brought Sadzida Solak to Chicago to give birth to his son Adnan.Fatin al Makri, Arnaout's Syrian-born wife, said she knew about the Bosnian wife and the new child, but still has faith in her husband. "I believe he's a good man," she said. "I need a father for my children."

Tribune staff reporter Todd Lighty and special correspondent ViolaGienger reporting from Bosnia contributed.

Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune Company

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