April 23, 2013

USA: Boston's Jihadist Past - Long Before The Marathon Bombing, Islamists In Massachusetts Were Helping Islamist Militants In Chechnya.

Foreign Policy
written by J.M. Berger
Monday April 22, 2013

When Boston Marathon runners rounded the bend from Beacon Street last week, they were in the home stretch of the race. As they poured through the closed intersection, they ran past a nondescript address: 510 Commonwealth Avenue.

The location was once home to an international support network that raised funds and recruited fighters for a jihadist insurgency against Russian rule over Chechnya, a region and a conflict that few of the runners had likely ever given any serious thought.

One mile farther, life in Boston was transformed in an act of horror that killed three and injured scores. And one week later, everyone in Boston and around the United States is thinking and talking and asking about Chechnya.

The investigation into alleged marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is still in its infancy, but a press release issued by the FBI late Friday suggested that at least one of the brothers may have had some kind of connection to Chechen Islamist militant networks, a suspicion heightened by the fact that elder brother Tamerlan spent about six months in Russia in 2012. (The most important Chechen jihadist group has disavowed the attack, but has not unequivocally ruled out the possibility of some kind of contact with Tamerlan.)

It will take time to discover whether there was a militant connection and, if there was, to what extent it is pertinent to the Tsarnaevs' decision to bomb the marathon.

But if the lead pans out, it won't be Boston's first brush with that faraway war. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Islamist foreign fighters operated robust recruiting and financing networks that supported Chechen jihadists from the United States, and Boston was home to one of the most significant centers: a branch of the Al Kifah Center based in Brooklyn, which would later be rechristened CARE International.

Al Kifah sprang from the military jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Through the end of the occupation, a network of centers in the United States helped support the efforts of Afghan and Arab mujahedeen, soliciting donations and recruiting fighters, including at least four from Boston who died in action (one of them a former Dunkin Donuts employee). When the war ended, those networks did not disappear; they refocused on other activities.

In Brooklyn, that network turned against the United States. The center's leaders and many of its members helped facilitate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and they actively planned and attempted to execute a subsequent plot that summer to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels in New York, which would have killed thousands.

When the FBI thwarted the tunnels plot, the Brooklyn Al Kifah office and most of the other satellite locations were shuttered. But in Boston, the work continued under a new name and with a new focus: supporting foreign-fighter efforts in Bosnia and Chechnya.

The following narrative is derived from interviews and thousands of pages of court exhibits, including correspondence, Al Kifah and CARE International publications, and telephone intercepts developed over a years-long series of FBI investigations into the charity that were made public as part of multiple terrorism-related prosecutions.

Established in the early 1990s, the Boston branch had emerged from the World Trade Center investigation relatively unscathed. Little more than two weeks after the bombing, the head of the Boston office, Emad Muntasser, changed his operation's name from Al Kifah to CARE International (not to be confused with the legitimate charity of the same name).

Telling the IRS it was a non-political charity, CARE applied for and received a tax exemption, but its operations continued as before -- supporting jihad overseas with money and men. Although it was heavily focused on the ongoing conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya, its interests reached around the globe to anywhere mujahideen were fighting. As one associate of the group put it in a phone call recorded by the FBI, "As long as there is slaughtering, we're with them. If there's no slaughtering, there's none, that's it. Buzz off."

The name change deflected public scrutiny, and while law enforcement monitored the Boston operation for many years, the Justice Department made no attempt to prosecute the organization's principal leaders until after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Jihadist propaganda and recruiting didn't begin with the Internet, as it sometimes seems today. CARE's tactics included dinner speeches and events at local mosques and universities, among them MIT, Boston College, and Boston University, usually slipping them in under the auspices of the local Muslim Students Association, sometimes as part of Friday services. They ran "phonathons" to contact potential donors at home with urgent appeals for generosity.

The charity also arranged public screenings of jihadist videos, long before the advent of YouTube. One letter to CARE supporters promised to "bring to your [mosque] the latest video tape from CHECHNYA showing how Grouznyy [sic] was recaptured by Muslims and how the CHECHENS are struggling to implement the Islamic rule in their land by help of Allah (S.W.T). It will be a fund raising event. For the Donations we have our direct contact to CHECHNYA."

When the Internet did come along, CARE was an early adopter, using email blasts and websites to further spread its message.

Although CARE was based in Boston, the radical fundamentalists who ran the charity (a mix of American citizens and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa) were often disappointed with local Muslims, who were not particularly interested in their cause.

"I hate Boston," said Mohammed Chehade, a director of the Global Relief Foundation, one of the charities through which CARE laundered its money, in a phone conversation with CARE's directors that was recorded by the FBI in 2000. "Do you know why I hate it? The men are far from each other, far away, it is a trip between one and another. They are busy. I mean, Boston... if someone wants to stay in America temporarily, it is not a place to be."

In other conversations, CARE's leaders bemoaned the fact that area Muslims refused to cough up money for the network's radical speakers, suggesting that they avoid bringing prominent speakers to the city, or at least characterize the trips as something other than fundraising, for fear of an embarrassingly low result.

Nevertheless, one of those jihadist celebrities traveled to Boston on a number of occasions to raise money and the ire of audiences regarding Islamist conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia. An American-born citizen of Egyptian descent, Mohammed Zaki sported a long red beard and a broad, engaging smile. He inspired fierce loyalty in those he met. One of his comrades described him as "a man whose like is rare nowadays," telling a comrade, "You will be amazed by him."

Zaki was involved in several so-called charities that actually helped finance and supply the mujahideen in Bosnia and Chechnya, while creating and distributing a steady stream of propaganda to support these efforts.

Based in San Diego, Zaki frequently traveled to Boston to take part in Al Kifah events and fire up crowds with his charisma and tough talk. At one point, a government wiretap overheard Muntasser, CARE's leader, asking him to fly to Boston "because we are looking for a brother who knows about matters [in Bosnia] to give an inciting speech."

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