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Middle East dispatch |
US pulls the plug on Muslim websites
Islamic groups have condemned a government crackdown on a Texan telecoms company as part of a "witch-hunt", writes Brian Whitaker
Monday September 10, 2001
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 article said.
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 is constitutional.
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 domain.
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 worth $4.2m.
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."