WASHINGTON – Basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon (search) says his mosque's donations to groups the government later determined to be terrorist fronts were meant to help the poor, not sponsor terrorism.
A Houston mosque that Olajuwon established and supported gave more than $80,000 to groups the government has labeled fronts for Al Qaeda and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas (search), according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Olajuwon told the AP he would not have given money to the groups had he known of the alleged terrorist ties — some of which had been the subject of news reports before the contributions were made. Olajuwon's mosque gave the money before the United States designated the groups as terrorist fronts.
"There is no way you can go back in time," Olajuwon said in a recent telephone interview from Jordan, where he is studying Arabic. "After the fact, now they have the list of organizations that are banned by the government."
A Treasury Department spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, declined to discuss Olajuwon's contributions. She said that "in many cases, donors are being unwittingly misled by the charities."
Federal law enforcement officials said they were not investigating Olajuwon, a 7-foot center born in Nigeria who played 17 seasons for the Houston Rockets (search) of the National Basketball Association before retiring in 2002.
Olajuwon, 42, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, was known as "The Dream." He won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in 1994, when he led the Rockets to the first of back-to-back championships.
The Olajuwon-founded Islamic Da'Wah Center (search) in Houston gave more than $60,000 in 2000 and $20,000 in 2002 to the Islamic African Relief Agency (search), the center's tax records show. The mosque gave more than $1 million in donations during 2000 and about $291,000 in 2002, the records show.
The government shut down the relief agency in October, saying it gave money and other support to Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But the agency and its possible ties to terrorism had been in news stories years earlier, before Olajuwon's contributions:
—The U.S. Agency for International Development (search) cut off two government grants to the Islamic African Relief Agency in 1999, saying funding the group "would not be in the national interest of the United States."
—A former fund-raiser for the relief agency, Ziyad Khaleel, was named in a federal trial in 2001 as the man who bought a satellite telephone that bin Laden used to plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
—Numerous news organizations reported shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks that the relief agency was among more than two dozen Islamic charities under scrutiny for possible terrorist ties.
Olajuwon also participated in a 1999 celebrity bowling tournament for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (search), which the government shut down in 2001, accusing it of sending money to Hamas. The Islamic Da'Wah Center gave more than $2,000 to the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation in 2000, according to its tax returns.
At the time, Olajuwon was vice president of the mosque — which was named after him — and provided more than three-quarters of its money. Olajuwon heads the separate foundation that now controls the Islamic Da'Wah Center.
All the donations came before the government designated the Holy Land Foundation and the Islamic African Relief Agency as terrorist fronts. Vipul Worah, an accountant for Olajuwon's charities, said U.S. authorities have never asked about the contributions.
Olajuwon, who is married with four daughters, became a Muslim during his professional career and was known for playing in key games while observing dawn-to-dusk fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Tax returns for Olajuwon's Islamic Da'Wah Center show it gave the Islamic African Relief Agency $61,250 in 2000 and $20,000 in 2002.
Those donations accounted for 2.2 percent of the $2.8 million the Islamic African Relief Agency received during 2000 and 1.4 percent of the $1.4 million it raised in 2002, records show.
Olajuwon said the donations came after fund-raisers from the Islamic African Relief Agency visited Houston. He said the group told him donations would help the needy in Africa.
"They came and approached us and everything was legitimate. I had no knowledge of their activity," Olajuwon said.
The Treasury Department alleged in October that several top officials of the group's branches overseas are Al Qaeda members or associates and the group gave bin Laden hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1999.
The federal government says the Sudan-based Islamic African Relief Agency's U.S. branch is IARA-USA, based in Columbia, Mo. That group has challenged the terrorist designation in court, saying it is separate from the Sudanese group.
Shereef Akeel, a lawyer for IARA-USA, acknowledged the U.S. group and the Sudanese group "may be in a partnership together" and some people with links to IARA-USA have terrorist associations.
"Just because someone traveled in the same circles, just because one employee was at the same conference as someone who supported terrorism, doesn't mean the organization sponsors or condones acts of terrorism," Akeel said.
The Holy Land Foundation was shut down in December 2001. Federal authorities say it was the main U.S. fund-raiser for Hamas and sent $12.4 million to the Palestinian terrorist group from 1995 to 2001. Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel that have killed scores of people, including Americans.
The Holy Land Foundation and several leaders are awaiting trial on criminal charges of supporting terrorism, which they deny. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the group's 2002 lawsuit challenging its terrorist designation, ruling federal officials had "ample evidence" of financial support for Hamas.