A recent spate of arrests, indictments and convictions of Hamas operatives is shining fresh light on the terrorist organization’s presence in the United States, experts said.
The legal moves against the Palestinian group are also the latest indication that the aggressive anti-terrorism policies put in place to track down Al Qaeda are also being applied to anti-Israel terrorist groups. By using a wide array of charges and new methods, law-enforcement officials have been able to revive old cases against suspected members of Hamas, as well as Hezbollah.
“Those cases show that Hamas had a holistic approach,” said Yehudit Barksy, a terrorism expert with the American Jewish Committee. “They were not only raising money, they were indoctrinating people, offering training.”
Barsky said that for years a mixture of tepid political focus on the issue of a Mideast terrorist presence in the United States and a limited legal arsenal prevented more aggressive action. But, she and other experts added, the situation has changed since a major 1996 antiterrorism law was enacted and even more so since the Patriot Act was passed in late 2001.
Earlier this month, federal authorities in Chicago indicted three senior Hamas members on charges of racketeering dating back to 1988. Two, Abdulhalim Ashqar and Muhammad Salah, were arrested in the United States. The third suspect, Musa Abu Marzook, is at large in Syria.
According to a 1998 FBI affidavit, Salah, who came to the United States after serving time in Israel, facilitated Hamas terrorist training in America, including instruction in “mixing poisons, development of chemical weapons, and preparing remote control explosive devices.”
On the same day that the Chicago charges were unsealed, an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, Ismael Salim Elbarasse, was arrested in Maryland on a material-witness warrant. The arrest, related to the Chicago case, came after police witnessed Elbarasse’s wife videotaping the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from his vehicle. The tape featured close-up footage of the bridge’s cables, upper supports, and joints. The Chicago indictment also identifies Elbarasse, who was recently released on bail, as a “high-ranking” Hamas operative. He worked as an assistant to Marzook and shared a bank account with him that was “used to transfer substantial sums of money to Hamas members,” according to the Chicago indictment.
Marzook, who is now thought to be in Syria, was also one of the seven suspected Hamas operatives convicted last month of illegally selling computers to Syria and Libya, both of which are designated as state sponsors of terrorism.
The alleged sale of computers was conducted through a Dallas-based company called Infocom that was founded by Marzook.
Marzook was initially arrested in New York in 1995, after which Israel requested his extradition on terrorism charges. Although the request was granted several years later, the government of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided against brining him to Israel and Marzook eventually ended up in Jordan, before moving to Syria.
By charging Marzook and the two other defendants with racketeering for Hamas and branding the group “a criminal entrerprise,” federal prosecutors in Chicago are hoping to hold the trio accountable for illegal activities even if they predate the formal labeling of Hamas as a terrorist organization in the mid 1990s. Prosecutors successfully used this legal tool to win material-support and racketeering convictions against Hezbollah operatives in Charlotte, N.C. in 2002.
Also in July, seven Hamas members were indicted in Dallas for providing material support to Hamas through the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
The Chicago indictment outlines a 15-year conspiracy involving Hamas supporters in Louisiana, Illinois and Virginia raising funds for Hamas, as well as playing active roles in all facets of the group’s decision-making and preparation for actual terrorist attacks, according to Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst who is now a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East policy.
“Together, the Dallas and Chicago indictments highlight the frightening fact that members of Hamas’s logistical and financial support network in the United States have actively supported and facilitated the group’s acts of terrorism abroad, whether through front organizations, personal relationships, or both,” said Levitt, who is the author of the forthcoming book, “Exposing Hamas: Funding Terror under the Cover of Charity” (Yale University Press). “This network includes both political and charitable activities.”
Levitt contends that the new developments raise the possibility that Hamas, despite its repeated vows to operate only in Israel and the Palestinian territories, might be willing to strike in the United States, potentially by allying itself with groups such as Al Qaeda.
He pointed to an FBI affidavit for a warrant to search the car of Elbarasse, the alleged Hamas operative arrested in Maryland, which noted that the post-9/11 crackdown on Al Qaeda had prompted the organization to place “renewed emphasis” on finding “confirmed jihadist supporters in the United States by trying to enlist proven members of other groups such as Hamas to make up for the vacuum on the field level.”