Mid-America Jihad?

Leaders of a now-defunct international aid charity face charges of funneling money to Iraq.

"They stole public funds from a federal program. They were supposed to return that money to USAID, but instead they spent it — and they spent it in ways that were illegal," says Don Ledford, a spokesman for the United States Attorney's Office in Kansas City.

"They also misled the IRS and federal investigators because they did not report the money they sent to Iraq on their tax forms," Ledford continues. "It's sort of a general fraud — not only against the IRS and the government, but the general public in that they presented themselves as a humanitarian organization and when they were asked about their activities, they lied."

The indictment also alleges that between 1990 and 2003, IARA-USA used its nonprofit status to raise money in the U.S., which it then funneled to Iraq — a violation of the Iraqi Sanctions Regulation.

The indictment does not allege that IARA-USA or its board members supported terrorism. And although the indictment does state that one of the named individuals, Khalid Al-Sudanee, "met with Iraqi military and other government officials," the word "terrorism" occurs only once in the indictment, when it notes the Treasury Department's allegation.

"The indictment doesn't make any claims about who the money went to in Iraq or how it was spent," says Ledford. "But they never received permission to send anything to Iraq. Those organizations that did have permission to send humanitarian aid were granted permission to send things like food, medical supplies and clothing — not cash. The problem when you send cash is that you don't know whether it's going for humanitarian purposes or not."

IARA-USA board members declined several interview requests through their lawyer, Shereef Akeel, who says the recent indictment is evidence that the Treasury Department was unable to build a terrorism case against his clients.

"When it all comes down — when the actual indictments came down, there was not a single charge related to terrorism," says Akeel. "Don't get me wrong, these are very serious allegations, but they are significantly and materially different in character. These are tax-code and sanctions violations. We're not talking about sending bombs and missiles to Iraq. We're talking about sending food, humanitarian aid and medicine."

IARA-USA has found an ally in the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that argues that the government's prosecution of IARA-USA fits a broader pattern.

"This is a fairly common occurrence," says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR. "When allegations are first made against an organization, all kinds of wild charges are laid, but then the actual indictments have very little resemblance to the original allegations. We've seen this in a number of cases."

But other close observers of the IARA-USA case caution that the recent indictment likely represents only a portion of the government's case against the charity.

Akeel says the charity's leaders plan to mount a vigorous defense. Still, with its assets in deep freeze, IARA-USA had its status as a Missouri corporation dissolved in January 2006, and Akeel says the nonprofit's board members despair that IARA-USA will ever re-form.

"The irony of this whole thing is, as we sit here today, the IARA in Sudan is still open. The one in England was exonerated by its own government and is open. The one in the Netherlands was exonerated by its own government and is open," says Akeel, who insists that the whole episode is merely a case of mistaken identity.

"The only one that's still shut down is the one in Columbia, Missouri, and that's the one that's run by Americans."

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