CHICAGO – The head of an Islamic charity linked to Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda terrorists was planning to fly to Saudi Arabia when the FBI arrested him this week, federal officials said Thursday.
Enaam Arnaout, a Syrian-born American, was under round-the-clock surveillance for three weeks prior to his arrest on Tuesday. Officials said he could face even more trouble as federal agents sift through evidence from phone taps, trash bins and a March 19 raid on offices of his Benevolence International Foundation in Bosnia.
A spokesman for NATO-led peacekeepers said the Bosnia raid had unearthed "evidence of direct communication between Arnaout and Usama bin Laden."
Maj. Scott Lundy said the NATO forces, deployed in Bosnia to keep the peace, are "pleased to see that evidence collected ... led to Mr Arnaout's arrest."
Arnaout, 39, is being held without bond at the government's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Federal prosecutors are asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Ian Levin to deny bond, saying Arnaout remains a flight risk.
Arnaout's attorney, Stephen Levy, says his client was not planning to flee and had merely wanted to visit his sick mother in Saudi Arabia. He denies that Arnaout has done anything to help terrorists.
FBI agents had watched Benevolence International for years before Tuesday, when they made the Palos Hills-based organization the first charity charged in the terrorism investigation.
A 35-page FBI affidavit accompanying the complaint details alleged ties between both Arnaout and the foundation to bin Laden dating back to the early 1980s. It says the group has funneled substantial sums to his Al Qaeda terror network and to Chechen rebels Al Qaeda might have trained.
"Documents ... recovered in the search in Bosnia indicates correspondence between Mr. bin Laden on the one hand and Mr. Arnaout on the other hand," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said. "It obviously indicates a relationship between the two dating back to the 1980s."
The affidavit also shed fresh light on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef. It said documents in possession of bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohamed Jamal Khalifa, when he was stopped in San Francisco in 1994 later were found to tie him to Yousef.
Khalifa was detained while traveling with Mohamed Bayazid, one of two men accused of trying to obtain nuclear weapons materials on behalf of bin Laden's Al Qaeda network in an incident in 1994 in the Sudan. The affidavit said Bayazid obtained an Illinois drivers license listing his address as that of Benevolence International in Palos Hills.
The affidavit says that following the March 19 Bosnian raid, Arnaout phoned the head of the Benevolence International chapter in Bosnia and asked him not to provide the police with information.
When Arnaout learned the man, Munib Zahiragic, was already under arrest and had told police about him, Arnaout told Zahiragic to say their ties were nothing more than a business relationship, the FBI affidavit said.
The affidavit drew a picture of Arnaout feeling increasing heat in the days before his arrest. It said that on April 15 he received a call from a Benevolence representative in Pakistan, Haroun Abed, who said that he was being hunted by "intelligence authorities" there.
According to the affidavit, Arnaout "told Haroun to relocate to Kabul, Afghanistan, without his family and with all the money."
"He warned Haroun that he could be traced by his use of e-mail, telephones and banks," the affidavit said. It said Arnaout told Haroun that he was in trouble with the authorities as well and said mysteriously that "he feared that he may not be 'alive' much longer."
So far, Arnaout has only been charged with perjury, but attorneys say that may be a stopgap measure designed to prevent his departure before additional terrorism charges are filed.
Benevolence is one of two Islamic charities based in the Chicago area whose assets were frozen by the Treasury Department on Dec. 14 as part of the terrorism investigation. Both groups have filed lawsuits against the government in an effort to have their bank accounts freed.
The perjury complaint says that Benevolence and Arnaout lied in the civil suit by signing sworn statements claiming they did nothing to provide assistance to terrorist groups, violence or military activity.
Prosecutors are tight-lipped about where their investigation will go next. But they plainly are drawing on years of evidence gathering.
As early as 1999, they said, agents searching through Benevolence International trash discovered a clipping from a Seattle newspaper saying that the community was ill-prepared for a smallpox epidemic.
Former Al Qaeda members have also furnished information, according to court papers. And a possible mother lode of materials, including guns, ski masks and military manuals, was collected in the March 19 raid in Bosnia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.