CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A man charged with providing material support to a known terrorist organization has pleaded guilty, a federal prosecutor said Monday, two weeks before trial in the case was to begin.
Said Mohamad Harb pleaded guilty Feb. 25 in a closed hearing to a charge of conspiring to provide material support to a known terrorist organization, U.S. Attorney Robert Conrad said Monday.
Two more men now face charges of supporting a terrorist group, Conrad said. One, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, was already scheduled to go on trial with Harb on April 15 on racketeering and money laundering charges.
Conrad said the announcement was delayed because Harb agreed to testify against other defendants if some of his relatives were moved from Lebanon to the United States. They arrived Monday, Conrad said. The agreement, which must be approved by a judge, also calls for Harb to be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The charges stem from an investigation into a group that was accused of smuggling cigarettes from North Carolina to other states for resale, then funneling the profits to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Mohamad Hammoud, originally accused of being the group's ringleader, is charged in the new indictment with providing material support to a terrorist group, Conrad said.
The charge was also levied against a new defendant, Sheik Abbas Harake, identified as a military commander who lives outside Beirut. He is not in custody.
Harb, 31, a Lebanon-born naturalized U.S. citizen, and three other Middle Eastern men were charged last year with planning to provide Hezbollah with cash and supplies, including stun guns, blasting equipment, night vision goggles and mine detection equipment.
Harb was charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to do so; the other three were charged only with conspiracy. Two of the other three have not been arrested and the third was arrested in Canada but never extradited.
"The allegations are only charges at this point," Conrad said. "But the significance of this investigation and the charges cannot be understated.
"There's only been eight people nationwide who have been charged with providing material support to a militant organization and six of them were part of this investigation."
Harb's lawyer, Chris Fialko, declined comment. A message left for Mohamad Hammoud's lawyer, R. Deke Falls, was not immediately returned.
Harb's trial, had it occurred as planned, would be one of the first prosecuted under a 1996 law that forbids providing material support to known terrorist organizations. A conviction brings up to 60 years in prison.
Conrad did not say whether Mohamad Hammoud and a third co-defendant, Chawki Youssef Hammoud, would still be tried as scheduled on April 15. Chawki Hammoud is charged with racketeering conspiracy. He and Mohamad Hammoud also face immigration charges.
Eighteen people were arrested in the summer of 2000, with some defendants charged with smuggling millions of dollars worth of cheap cigarettes out of North Carolina to resell in states where higher taxes push the price up.
A superseding indictment in March 2001 levied more serious accusations, with prosecutors calling the co-defendants members of a Charlotte-based cell of Hezbollah.
Four people named in the first indictment pleaded guilty March 11 in federal court to a charge of racketeering conspiracy; two of them pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Prosecutors said last month that three more defendants would plead guilty to racketeering.