Egypt Arrests Sheikh For Fundraising To Help Muslims
Nov 12 2001 – Sheik Nashat Ibrahim was well known for the power of his Friday sermons at the Nasser City mosque, so much so that the star-shaped building was expanded to three stories to accommodate the crowds.
Egyptian authorities, however, focused on what they saw as his prowess in raising money. When investigators arrested Ibrahim in May, they alleged that he was a central figure in a network that had collected about $1 million over two years for causes ranging from Muslim rebels in Chechnya to the Islamic Resistance Movement in Gaza and the West Bank, according to a lawyer involved in the case.
With passionate speeches about the need to support fellow Muslims under attack, Ibrahim was key in collecting cash, jewelry and other donations that were spirited abroad by the bagful — with the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, suspected of receiving as much as half, authorities alleged.
“We don’t know his goal,” said a lawyer representing another defendant in the case. “But the government says this is not just for families or social aid, but was buying weapons for jihad, for Hamas and for Chechnya.”
According to a defense lawyer in the case as well as news accounts, Ibrahim is now on trial for his life, with 84 others. They include at least one other Cairo-based religious scholar, identified by Al Hayat newspaper as Fawzi Al Sayeed, and five students from the southern Russian region of Dagestan who were studying at Al-Azhar University, the Arab world’s oldest and most venerated school of Islamic studies.
The military court handling the case has not discussed it publicly. But according to information obtained elsewhere, the case demonstrates the practical limits facing investigators as they try to curb funding of militant groups around the world, as well as the diffuse nature of support for Muslim movements. Those arrested with Ibrahim are not alleged to be part of any larger endeavor, such as alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, but they are suspected of being linked less formally to a local unit of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Moreover, they did not rely on bank accounts, wire transfers or other institutional means to move money, but handled their donations as cash.
The case also shows how the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign is beginning to play out in different countries. Egypt has a long and aggressive history of fighting terrorism, which peaked in the 1990s when police and members of the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad waged gun battles in the towns and villages of Upper Egypt while militant cells attacked tourists and government officials in Cairo and elsewhere.
When the most recent arrests were made in May, the defendants were charged only with violating Egyptian financial regulations, put into place in 1992 to curb fundraising by militant groups. Employing direct appeals in mosques, person-to-person solicitations and street-side collection stations, such groups would collect funds under the guise of building mosques and furthering Islam, then use the money to support actions to weaken the Egyptian government and carry out terrorist operations. Since 1992, it has been illegal for Egyptians to collect donations unless they are licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Violations carry a sentence of seven to 15 years in prison.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, however, the case of Ibrahim and the others was transferred from the state security court to the military prosecutor, allowing the charges to be reviewed and expanded. The defendants now face the death penalty for charges that include planning terrorist attacks in Egypt, possessing weapons and explosives, and trying to smuggle fighters into the Gaza Strip and Chechnya, according to Al Hayat.
A separate case involving 170 other defendants, based on events from the early and mid-1990s, is being pushed through the courts. The defendants have been detained without due process, said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
He contended that the mood of the country and the world since Sept. 11 has become such that the government decided to “legalize” their detention with a trial and sentencing, rather than hold them informally with the prospect of eventual release.
“This is an opportunity for the Egyptian government . . . and the public will accept it, in and outside Egypt,” he said.
Abu Seada, who also represents one of the defendants in the fundraising case, said his assessment of the investigative files is that Egyptian authorities are adopting a broad interpretation of events in an effort to maximize possible sentences. His client, Magdy Idriss, is alleged to have been holding about $6,000 in illegally raised funds; Idriss contends the money was his and not destined for any outside purpose.
Under the expanded charges, however, Idriss is also alleged to have used a health club he owns in Cairo’s wealthy Heliopolis neighborhood to keep members of the outlawed Islamic Group in fighting trim, Abu Seada said.
The investigative files also indicate the degree to which fundraising schemes like the one alleged in this case rely on mobility and multiple passports to move money around the world. Some of those involved held U.S., German and Dutch passports in addition to their Egyptian ones, Abu Seada said. This likely aided their sometimes circuitous travels. One donation, according to the investigative files, was carried through the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia before it reached the Chechen border.