Case of Mo. man who gave al-Qaida money shows the struggle in stemming cash flow to terrorists

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Within two years of taking his oath of U.S. citizenship, a Moroccan-born Kansas City used auto parts dealer funneled more than $20,000 in fraudulent bank loans to al-Qaida using a bank account in the United Arab Emirates.

Investigators won't say who got the money or if it was ever used to help finance a terror attack, but the case highlights the difficulty in stemming the flow of money — especially small amounts — to terrorists, security experts say. Though the $23,500 Khalid Ouazzani admitted giving to al-Qaida might not seem like much, it's a huge amount when added to similarly moderate donations made to terrorists that fly under the intelligence radar, they say.

"It's probably widespread, more so than we'd like to think," said Dennis Lormel, a retired FBI agent who headed the government's terrorist financing investigative unit after 9/11. "You can get into semantics about amounts, but this guy is not the only guy out there doing this type of thing. You multiply $23,000 times 10, it's still not a tremendous amount of money. Multiply it again and you start seeing more significant funds."

Ouazzani, a married father of two who became a U.S. citizen in June 2006, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court to bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to support a terrorist group after admitting he gave the money to al-Qaida. He also acknowledged swearing an oath of allegiance to the terror network in 2008, according to court documents. His lawyers say he has apologized for his actions.

In a plea bargain with prosecutors, he admitted making false claims to borrow money for a business, Truman Used Auto Parts, then wiring proceeds from a line-of-credit commercial loan to a bank in Dubai. That money was used to purchase an apartment that later sold at a $17,000 profit, which was given to al-Qaida, prosecutors said.

Ouazzani also admitted sending $6,500 from the sale of his business to the terror group.

Those relatively small transactions probably wouldn't have raised any red flags with financial regulators who are on the lookout for suspicious trends and large movements of money, Lormel said.

"At what point would the government or banks recognize something unusual or suspicious about his activities?" he said. "He was not dealing with a tremendous amount of money."

Federal officials in Kansas City aren't saying how they know Ouazzani, 32, got $23,500 into the hands of al-Qaida. Nor will they account for the remainder of roughly $300,000 he is accused of wiring to four Middle East banks in 2007 and 2008, citing national security concerns.

U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips said Ouazzani was never an imminent threat to Kansas City. She gave credit to a regional joint terrorism task force for tracking him down but was tight-lipped about what led to his arrest in February.

Nathan Garrett, a former FBI agent who served as an assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in national security, said the government likely was watching Ouazzani long before he was indicted in February. He said prosecutors needed to gather enough evidence on the bank fraud and money laundering charges to keep him locked up while they made their case on the terrorism charge.

Though there might have been indications that Ouazzani was up to no good — especially when he was using false information to get large home-equity and business loans — there are plenty of reasons why he went unnoticed for so long by law enforcement, said Garrett, who in 2008 successfully prosecuted a Muslim charity and five of its organizers for illegally funneling more than $12 million to the Palestinian group Hamas.

"There's a broad support network of folks who are integrated in the fabric of our community and society," Garrett said. "But they don't tend to stand out like common criminals."

Mustafa Hussein, director of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City, said he knew of Ouazzani through brief encounters at social functions and prayers at the mosque. He described Ouazzani as a family man who never showed any signs of extremism.

"I didn't see that in him," Hussein said. "I just saw a person like myself."

But one of the schemes Ouazzani got away with three years ago — applying for fraudulent bank loans — would be more difficult to pull off now.

In the February indictment, prosecutors said Ouazzani bought several houses at foreclosure sales in Kansas City and St. Louis, then later got home equity loans by misrepresenting the value of those properties to banks. Of nearly $500,000 prosecutors allege he borrowed from banks in business and real estate deals, records show he defaulted on about $415,000.

"That was in 2007, before the mortgage meltdown," said Jeff Lanza, a former FBI agent in Kansas City. "At that point in time, it was a period where the money was flowing like an open spigot to anyone who wanted it. There was very little vigilance by banks. They were just making loans to sell in a package to Wall Street.

"Now you wouldn't be able to do that. There's much more scrutiny."

Ouazzani found that out last year, when he applied for $200,000 in loans from two banks on behalf of an aunt he falsely claimed owned homes in Kansas City. Both times he was turned down.