A man charged last week on immigration infractions and suspected by prosecutors of financial links to terrorism is seen by government investigators as a possible key to unraveling an alleged terrorism-financing network spanning from Virginia to the secretive kingdom of Liechtenstein.
Soliman Biheiri, a native of Egypt, was convicted in a federal court in Virginia on charges of lying on his citizenship application. It is the first conviction to be handed down in a major terrorism investigation involving a cluster of Islamic charities and companies in Virginia.
While such immigration charges typically carry prison sentences of less than six months, prosecutors have asked the court to deviate from its guidelines and jail Biheiri for up to 10 years because of his potential terrorist links.
Sources close to the investigation said prosecutors asked for the unusual sentencing because they think Biheiri, who was held as a material witness before his trial, has deep knowledge of the so-called SAAR network. The network, a group of Muslim charities and companies based in Virginia, is believed to have ties in two European tax havens, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
In an affidavit filed in support of Biheiri’s detention, special agent David Kane accused him of possibly funneling $3.7 million from the Virginia charities to terrorists through his New Jersey-based real estate investment company, BMI.
Kane also alleged that he had business and personal relationships with Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzook, suspected Al Qaeda and Hamas backer Yassin Qadi and Sami Al-Arian, a Florida university professor indicted for his alleged leadership position in Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
At the hearing, Biheiri’s lawyer James Clark acknowledged those connections but insisted there was no evidence his client was involved in terrorism.
Clark declined to comment on the case on the record with the Forward, other than confirming that the prosecution had asked the judge to deviate from standard sentencing guidelines. The judge is scheduled to hand down his decision on January 9.
The prosecution also alleged that Biheiri is linked to a secretive financial network in Switzerland and Liechtenstein called Al Taqwa, which American and European investigators say is a financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, often depicted as the ideological parent of most radical Islamic groups, recently has come under government scrutiny for its possible direct role in supporting terrorism, most prominently because of Al Taqwa.
The Bush administration and the United Nations have designated the Al Taqwa network and its main officials — two self-avowed Muslim Brothers and an admitted Nazi sympathizer — as supporters of Al Qaeda. As a result, their assets have been frozen and they are the focus of a Swiss investigation.
The Al Taqwa officials have repeatedly rejected the charges.
At the Biheiri detention hearing last month, prosecutor Steven Ward described Biheiri as the Muslim Brotherhood’s “financial toehold in the U.S.”
The prosecution said it had established links between Biheiri and the two principals of Al Taqwa, Youssef Nada and Ghaleb Himmat.
According to testimony from special agent Kane of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the addresses of Nada and Himmat were found in Biheiri’s laptop computer. Kane told the court that there were “other indications” of connections between al Taqwa and Biheiri’s company BMI, including financial transactions.
At that point, the prosecutor prevented Kane from elaborating further, saying he was entering the realm of classified foreign intelligence, according to an account by the Wall Street Journal that was confirmed to the Forward by a source who requested anonymity.
One company in the Al Taqwa galaxy that was designated by the United States and the U.N. as a terrorist-related entity is a Liechtenstein entity called Asat Trust.
Its director, Martin Wachter, told the Forward this year that Asat Trust operates merely as a registry for businesses and is not involved in the operation of any company. He added that the American government had wrongfully designated Asat Trust as a terrorist-related entity because it had once represented Al Taqwa in a small real estate deal in Switzerland.
Still, copies of business registration documents on file with authorities in Liechtenstein show that Asat Trust has been intimately involved with the Al Taqwa network during the last 30 years, registering changes in company names, personnel and financial structure, which may explain why Asat Trust landed on the American and U.N. terrorist lists.
The records also shed light on the involvement of one member of the royal family of Liechtenstein in Asat Trust. According to the documents, deceased Prince Emanuel von und zu Liechtenstein became a board member of Asat Trust in May 1970 and stayed until November 1990, when he was replaced by Wachter, the trust’s current director.
Florian Krenkel, a spokesman for the royal family, said Prince Emanuel had died in 1987 and that he was a distant cousin from ruling prince Hans Adam II.
“There are hundreds of family members and we don’t know what they are all doing,” he told the Forward in a phone interview from Vaduz, the capital of the tiny European kingdom. “But I can assure you that the royal family has no links to terrorism.”
There also appears to be some links between Asat Trust and a bank owned by the Liechtenstein royal family. Several Asat Trust documents feature on their letterheads “Bank in Liechtenstein AG” beneath “Asat Trust.”
The royal family bank has changed its name and is now called LGT bank.
A telephone and an e-mail query to the bank’s spokesman Hans-Martin Uehringer went unreturned.
Biheiri’s wife told federal agents in May 2002 that her husband had left the United States in mid-2002 to work for the “Liechtenstein bank” in Switzerland, according to the sworn testimony of special agent Kane.
Biheiri himself told Kane that his job at the bank consisted of “investment banking with high net worth clients and included significant travel between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” according to the affidavit.
Biheiri was familiar with Switzerland before moving to the United States in 1985. He earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Freiburg in Switzerland and worked for a Swiss bank, according to a transcript of a deposition he made at a separate trial.
Furthermore, in 1984 he set up and presided over an Islamic and Arab student group in Zurich, according to Swiss records obtained by the Forward. Biheiri dissolved the association in July 2002, the records show.
In March 1986, he founded BMI, a Secaucus, N.J.-based investment bank specializing in real estate investments, according to copies of New Jersey corporate records provided to the Forward by the Investigative project, a Washington-based terrorist watchdog specialized in Muslim groups.
Prosecutors contend that BMI and its affiliates received $3.7 million between 1992 and 1998 from the American branch of the International Islamic Relief Organization, or IIRO, which is located in the Virginia area where the SAAR network buildings were raided by federal agents in March 2002.
The IIRO is a major Saudi charity that has been suspected by the United States of links to Hamas, Gamaa Islamiya and Osama bin Laden at least since 1996, according to a copy of a CIA report from that year obtained by the Forward.
IIRO officials have consistently denied terrorist links.
Al Taqwa also appears to have some links to the SAAR network. Two operatives from SAAR-related companies and charities, Jamal Barzinji and Hisham al Talib, were board members of one of the network’s companies in Liechtenstein during the mid-1970s, according to incorporation records.
Neither man has been indicted. They have rejected allegations, in the press and elsewhere, that they have supported terrorism, according to published news reports.
There are also indications that both Nada and Himmat, the Al Taqwa principals who today live in an Italian enclave bordering Switzerland and have acquired Italian citizenship, spent time in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
According to a translated copy of a 1996 Italian intelligence report, they each had three children born in the United States -—five of them born in Silver Spring, Md., between 1979 and 1984.
According to the Kane affidavit, Biheiri also had relations with a prominent Egyptian religious leader from the Muslim Brotherhood called Sheikh Youssouf Qaradawi. He acknowledged hosting him during when the sheikh visited America several years ago, according to the affidavit.
Now living in Qatar, Qaradawi has been barred from entering America since November 1999 because of his alleged support for terrorism. He has issued fatwas supporting suicide bombings in Israel and attacks on American troops in Iraq, according to documents produced by the prosecution at the Biheiri trial.
Qaradawi is listed as one of the shareholders of the Bahamas branch of Al Taqwa bank, according to a copy of a 1999 list of shareholders in possession of the Forward.
This branch shut down in April 2001. Press reports said the closure was the result of Jordanian, French and American intelligence reports which affirmed that Al Qaeda money coming from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had been channeled through Al Taqwa.
According to Swiss business records, the Al Taqwa network’s main company in Switzerland followed suit and shut down at the end of 2001 following its designation as a terrorist-supporting entity by the United States and the U.N.
A 1995 Italian intelligence report contends that the Al Taqwa network funded radical groups in Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan and was a major backer of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1970s and, later on, Hamas.
American officials have charged that Al Taqwa also funneled money to Al Qaeda before and after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The two-year-old Swiss investigation has yet to produce to any indictments.