SJ Mercury on Arrests
Humanitarian ruse at L.A. airport raised funds for terrorists, FBI says
SEVEN ARRESTED IN GROUP OPPOSING IRAN GOVERNMENT
BY CHERYL DEVALL
Mercury News Los Angeles Bureau
LOS ANGELES — They stopped travelers in the airport with a humanitarian plea: Help these suffering Iranian children.
But the fundraisers, whose appeals generated at least $1 million, were actually raising cash for an Iranian terrorist organization, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday.
FBI investigators said they had arrested seven members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a group dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian government. The organization is included on the U.S. State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. In recent years, its National Liberation Army has taken credit for armed raids on Iran from bases in neighboring Iraq.
But as they stopped people at Los Angeles International Airport with heart-rending photos of orphaned children, members of the group identified themselves as the Committee for Human Rights in Iran, the FBI said.
And their main fundraising targets, the FBI said, were Asian travelers in the international terminal.
The fundraisers, dressed in business attire and carrying binders filled with photos of alleged atrocities against Iranian children, asked for donations of up to $500.
“Their belief was that Asian travelers would be more likely to make donations than people of other ethnic backgrounds,” said FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin.
The Committee for Human Rights in Iran was making $5,000 to $10,000 a day from these airport solicitations, according to FBI affidavits filed with a federal magistrate. The group also aggressively solicited members of Los Angeles’ large Iranian-American community, FBI representatives said.
“This money was used to buy arms, such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades,” said James DeSarno of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.
“There is no evidence in our investigation that anyone who was solicited was knowledgeable of where the funds were going.”
The Mujahedin-e Khalq has opposed Iranian governments from that of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi to the present regime of the Ayatollah Khamenei. It has been involved, the FBI said, in several actions against American targets, including the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran and a 1992 occupation of the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York.
Germany’s federal criminal police tipped off U.S. law enforcement to the organization’s alleged money laundering in 1997, according to the affidavit.
“None of the money they raised went to humanitarian purposes,” FBI spokesman McLaughlin said.
But so far, the FBI has not been able to connect the money raised in this country to specific terrorist acts. They have traced $1 million to two accounts in Turkish banks. Of that, $400,000 was sent to a used auto parts store in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Beyond that, the money trail “may be rather difficult to discern, given the cultural and geographical barriers we’d have to overcome,” McLaughlin said.
He added that the investigation is continuing beyond the arrests of seven people believed to be leaders of the Mujahedin-e Khalq in Los Angeles.
The arrests were made Tuesday in locations throughout the city’s West side; the group’s alleged ringleader, Tahmineh Tahamtan, was picked up at a Starbucks coffee shop.
The Committee for Human Rights in Iran had the appropriate permits to solicit funds in public places. Those permits required proof of state and federal tax-exempt status, said Tammy Catania, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Commission, which issues the permits. Those permits do not require police background checks, Catania said.
It is not clear why the solicitors singled out Asian tourists. Officials at several tour companies catering to Asians said Tuesday they’d never heard complaints about airport fundraisers.
Neither had the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles. Spokesman Yasushi Fujii, who spent eight years in Iran, could only speculate that perhaps “Iran had a kind of sympathy for the Japanese because they fought a war with America.”
The Mujahedin-e Khalq, which mixes Islam with socialism, has never had a large following in the United States, said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a lobbying organization with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The group splintered from the Islamic opposition to the Shah in the late 1970s, he said. “It’s always puzzled people as to exactly what their ideology is.”
The group has been raising money in airports for about 20 years, said Al-Marayati, who said he has been approached by the fundraisers more than once while at domestic terminals in Washington and Los Angeles. Before the group’s appearance on the State Department terrorist list, the solicitors identified themselves as representatives of Mujahedin-e Khalq, not as the Committee for Human Rights in Iran, he said.
“They have these notebooks of pictures and you don’t know where the pictures are from. They just tell you these are pictures of dying children,” he said. “I oppose giving people money based on pictures.”
Because he’s of Iraqi descent, he said, the solicitors thought he might be sympathetic to them. But when he asked where the money would go, they offered no answer, Al-Marayati said.
Whether their fundraising benefited terrorist activities, he added, “will be up to the courts to decide.”