A high-profile U.S. indictment of three men for Hamas-related activities is less about obtaining justice for victims of anti-Israel terrorism in this particular case than about drying up financing for future attacks. The recent use by U.S. authorities of racketeering laws to go after terrorist fund-raisers helps close a loophole in another common law enforcement method — designating groups as terrorist organizations and making contributions to them prosecutable.
While effective, terrorist designation helped perpetuate a “whack-a-mole” game: Terrorist groups can easily change names and leadership, buying time until the cogs of U.S. bureaucracy add the new name to the State Department’s terrorist list.
By extending the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations to terrorist activities, the Justice Department was able to leapfrog such limitations: The crimes alleged in last Friday’s announcement stretched back 15 years! , well before Hamas was officially designated as a terrorist group.
At least two of the three men named in the indictment unsealed last Friday by Attorney General John Ashcroft were exempt from other anti-terrorism laws because they had raised funds for Hamas before its 1995 designation as a terrorist group.
Ashcroft named Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, formerly of northern Virginia; Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, of Chicago; and Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, of Alexandria, Va.
Salah and Ashqar were arrested Aug. 19. Marzook — who was deported from the United States in 1997, over Israeli protestations — is in Syria.
It was the second major indictment against Hamas in the past month: In July, authorities charged the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, and seven of its officers, with 42 counts of using the group’s tax-exempt status as a legitimate charity to fund the terrorist group.
Salah pleaded innocent, while Ashqar argued that the cha! rges are related to a case he is already fighting.
Abu Marzook den ied the accusations last Friday, saying they were motivated by the U.S. presidential campaign.
“This is election campaigning,” he told The Associated Press in Damascus. U.S. officials “want to say to the American public that they are succeeding in fighting terrorism.”
“Every week they come up with a new case before the American public, but these are drawn from files that are tens of years old,” he added.
The indictments show the seriousness the Justice Department attaches to cutting off terrorist funding, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst now working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Even if it doesn’t have an impact, it does send a message that the political and social wings of Hamas are in no way distinct from the military wing,” Levitt told JTA.
The Anti-Defamation League welcomed the indictment.
“While targeting innocent Israelis in restaurants, cafes and buses, Hamas has shown great aptitude for using every available means ! to raise money, even in the United States,” the ADL said in a statement.
The charges will help prod charitable givers to examine more carefully where they send their money, Levitt said.
“We need to encourage people who want to give charitably to the Palestinians to give to other organizations,” he said.
Salah is alleged to have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States from 1989-1993. He also is alleged to have met with Hamas leaders in the West Bank in 1992, to have cut checks for arms purchases and to have agreed to raise more money from Marzook and others for terrorist activities.
Marzook currently is one of the top Hamas leaders in Syria and beyond the reach of American law. Salah and Ashqar already faced non-RICO charges.
Still, use of the RICO statutes was intended more to stem future fund-raising than to bring about justice in this particular case.
Ashcroft pledged that his department would crack down on any fund raising tha! t might find its way to terrorist groups.
“The United States makes no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations,” he said.
Until now, RICO’s primary target has been the Mafia, and the laundry list of alleged misdeeds Ashcroft pronounced sounded not far removed from a mob indictment: “Multiple solicitations of first degree murder; conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim and injure persons in a foreign country; material support of terrorism, hostage taking and money laundering.”
Ashcroft’s Justice Department has argued that anti-terrorist efforts could benefit from the tools of traditional crime-fighting, and much of the Patriot Act’s provisions on information sharing among agencies, phone tapping and search laws are borrowed from practices first used to track mobsters.
Civil libertarians have said extending such crime-fighting tools to the fight against terrorism could create a slippery slope that would criminalize some politics. But Ashcroft i! nsists the measures are necessary to stem terrorism.
“The case would have been much more difficult to bring were it not for information sharing authorized by the USA Patriot Act,” he said.