Relief agency found to have terrorist ties

WASHINGTON -- Retired basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon says his
mosque's donations to groups the government later determined to be
terrorist fronts were meant to help the poor, not sponsor

A Houston mosque that Olajuwon established and supported gave
more than $80,000 to groups the government has labeled fronts for
al-Qaida and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, 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 were 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, "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 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 mosque, called the Islamic Da'Wah Center in
Houston, gave more than $60,000 in 2000 and $20,000 in 2002 to the
Islamic African Relief Agency, the center's tax records show. The
mosque gave a total of more than $1 million in donations to other
groups 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 Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

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 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 2001 federal trial 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,
    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

    At the time, Olajuwon was vice president of the mosque -- which
    was named after him -- and provided more than three-quarters of its
    money. He 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

    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-Qaida 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.

    Akeel reversed himself on Wednesday, saying IARA-USA never had
    any partnerships with the Sudanese IARA. Akeel said IARA-USA never
    had any connection with any illegal activity. Akeel said he did not
    know why pictures and text on IARA-USA's Web site showed ties
    between IARA-USA and both IARA in Africa and the Islamic Relief
    Agency, another of IARA's aliases.

    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.