Hamas's Rock Star
By day he was an engineer working for the city of Dallas. On weekends he entertained at fundraisers for a terrorist group.
By Todd Bensman
02/13/2006, Volume 011, Issue 21
Khaled's newfound top billing is all the more striking since his name recognition had long been confined to the smallish geography of the Arab-Israeli conflict and an even smaller circle of Western intelligence experts. Now, the reviled terrorist leader, outlawed by the Americans and hunted by the Israelis, has pulled up a seat at the international table.
If, by the end of last week, Americans were unsure how exactly to react to the Hamas leader, there's been no such ambivalence about Khaled's kid brother, who lives in President George W. Bush's home state of Texas. The feds have corraled Khaled's half-brother Mufid in Dallas, in what is currently the administration's signature domestic terrorism case. He is expected to go on trial later this year.
It was a big surprise in Dallas when Mufid Abdulqader, a publicly mild-mannered civil engineer employed by the city, was named on July 26, 2004, with six other men, in a 42-count indictment of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The feds say the Holy Land Foundation was a bogus North Texas Muslim "charity" that had actually served since 1989 as Hamas's largest clandestine source of funding in the United States--collecting "over $57 million" in donations between 1992 and 2001. So important did the administration consider the Holy Land Foundation's role in the financial infrastructure of international terror that President Bush himself announced its closing in a December 2001 Rose Garden event.
But there were bigger surprises about Mufid, beyond the striking fact that his older brother served as the supreme political leader of Hamas. Since coming to America in 1980 and gaining citizenship, he has lived a double life that at once defines the differences between the brothers and underscores a chilling ideological sameness--mainly their shared fondness for the idea of murdering Jews.
While the government says Khaled is a stone-cold deployer of suicide bombers, Mufid was a singer in a troupe that toured the country. It wasn't exactly feel-good music in the conventional sense. Mufid's Al Sakhra ("The Rock") band crooned a gospel of death and hatred toward the Jews at Hamas fundraisers, while the collection plates moved through wildly enthusiastic Arab-American audiences.
The stern Khaled Meshal may have been known for his angry praise of martyrs who'd blown themselves up amid Israeli civilians. But Mufid the engineer could liven up a roomful of fellow technocrats with backslapping, disarming goofiness. Thickening a bit at the age of 46, Mufid wore his graying black beard heavy on his cheeks, as is customary for many pious Middle Eastern men. The full head of bristly black hair and limber eyebrows, which he often flexed sharply upward for comic effect, made him come off as a big, smiling teddy bear of a man to his former city colleagues. Mufid was a toastmaster, and he loved the spotlight, relishing any excuse to get up in front of a crowd.
With all the fist-shaking angst of a rock star, Mufid would urge violent holy war and glorify the martyrdom of suicide bombers. Sources close to the upcoming trial say the FBI will likely play video of Mufid's Al Sakhra performances for the jurors. The federal government, in its July 2004 indictment, made only brief reference to his show-business side, noting that Mufid "performed skits and songs which advocated the destruction of the State of Israel and glorified the killing of Jewish people."
"Our people in Al Aqsa are out to revenge, to destroy the enemy; our revolution is spread throughout the land!" Mufid cheerfully sang in one number. "With Koran and Jihad, we will gain our homes back, hey, hey, hey! My precious eyes are for Palestine, the agony of death is precious, killing Jews . . . Death to Jews, is precious. Jews will not fear threats, only action. So Hamas, hit them with the shoe bottoms of Islam and Hamas!"
In the videos, masked jihadists in camouflage uniforms march menacingly to the band's drumbeats. Children take the stage to perform pantomime stabbing and shooting motions to the beat. One child points a toy gun at the sky, marching in place on stage. During brief intermissions, speakers take the stage to recite old Jewish-conspiracy canards.
Collection baskets circulate among audience members at the conferences. At various times, in the style of a public television fundraiser, large donations are announced publicly from the podium, amid signs and banners.
"If they cut off your water supply," reads one banner, "then Hamas will satisfy your thirst with blood."
All of this was legal until 1995, when President Clinton designated Hamas a terrorist organization. But an examination of amateur videotapes of Mufid's performances shows Al Sakhra's lyrics were no less inflammatory after that date. In 1996, for instance, Mufid and Al Sakhra performed at a crowded New Jersey conference. Among their lyrics: "With holy war, we regain the land. No to giving in. The blood of martyrs will fall like the water of rain. . . . To Jerusalem let's go. The sacrifice is calling."
Concert performances aside, Mufid's legal problems have to do with the Holy Land Foundation's main mission, the collection of money. Until President Bush shut them down soon after 9/11, Holy Land Foundation officials fiercely defended the claim that they served only orphans and widows in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Successive courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, however, agreed with the Bush administration's assertion that the foundation was never more than a money-laundering front for Hamas, and a poorly disguised one at that. And it's his talent for raising money that may implicate Mufid, more than any singing and dancing.
A recently unsealed arrest warrant affidavit states that Holy Land Foundation insiders considered Mufid one of the outfit's top fundraisers. The foundation sent him all over the world. He returned to high praise from one trip to Colombia with $85,000 in hand. Photos in Holy Land Foundation literature show Mufid at a table crowded with other volunteers, tabulating what appear to be donations to the cause.
Mufid no longer works for the city of Dallas. He was fired after FBI agents arrested him and the indictment was unsealed in the summer of 2004. A magistrate ruled him harmless enough to remain out on bond until the trial. But at one point during the investigation, the discovery of Mufid's family connection to Hamas royalty, along with his Holy Land Foundation ties and his performances with Al Sakhra, so alarmed the FBI that agents penetrated city offices on cloak-and-dagger surveillance missions.
Mufid's family hails from the West Bank farming village of Silwad. His half brother Khaled was born in 1956; Mufid was born four years later to a different mother. In 1967, Israel occupied the area after beating back a five-army Arab attack, and the family retreated to the burgeoning oil kingdom of Kuwait. There, the brothers lived among thousands of resentful former Silwad residents who would stew over the failure of yet another Arab attack on Israel in 1973.
Mufid and Khaled both graduated from a Kuwaiti high school. Khaled became an anti-Israel student activist at Kuwait University while earning a degree in physics. But Mufid was bound for America. In August 1981, the 21-year-old made his way to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to study engineering, earning a bachelor's and a master's degree. By 1988, he had married a native Oklahoman. He became a naturalized citizen, and went to work for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation as an engineer.
As he would later do in Dallas, Mufid won over his colleagues with his talent and, as one letter of recommendation put it, his "super personality." By this time, he had already discovered that he liked the spotlight. "Mufid is a fellow member of Toastmasters International where he has worked to improve his public speaking," one former coworker wrote in 1992. The recommendation went on to describe him as "civic-minded, honest, and an asset to the community."
But nothing in the public record alludes to his singing career, which was already taking off. A 1992 video places him and Khaled at a major Hamas fundraising conference in Oklahoma City. To a single droning drumbeat, Mufid and the members of Al Sakhra, all wearing traditional kaffiyeh headscarves and desert robes, sang: "I have nerves of steel, and no threats scare me. Only the one who is proud of carrying the rifle will succeed. No to the peace conference! Yes to jihad!"
Khaled, who was still climbing the ranks of Hamas's political bureau back in the Middle East, praised what he called the brave acts of martyrdom that had characterized "the blessed uprising" since the Persian Gulf war. He promised that the jihad would continue unabated "with the power of Allah."
In 1996, Khaled was elected chairman of Hamas's political bureau, which directly controls its "military" operations. That year, Mufid and Al Sakhra performed at a crowded New Jersey fundraising conference to benefit Hamas, by which time Clinton's classification of the group as terrorist had made fundraising for it a federal crime. Mufid sang: "Mother, when they bring you the good news of my martyrdom, remember how I sacrificed my head and heart. With my blood I mark the way for my children, and under the ash, Mother, there is still fire."
Later that same year, the city of Dallas hired Mufid. He departed Oklahoma City on exceptional terms with his employers. One lamented in a recommendation letter that Mufid "will be greatly missed" and "hard to replace." But by then he was already on the FBI's radar. In 1993, not long after the Holy Land Foundation set up its headquarters in the suburb of Richardson just north of Dallas, the organization's officers had been swept up in an FBI bugging operation. Mufid was identified as one of 25 individuals attending an invitation-only "Hamas conference" in Philadelphia. The FBI bugged a conference room there, as attendees discussed ways to cover up their ties to Hamas. "Participants . . . resolved the 'Movement' should not publicly acknowledge receiving instruction from a foreign power," the FBI surveillance report reads. The members also vowed to support jihad and raise funds at 15 festivals across the country.
Those who have investigated the Holy Land Foundation-Hamas nexus say this meeting in Philadelphia represents a watershed moment in the government's understanding of how Hamas had opened support bases throughout the United States. The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, was created in 1987 by the international network of Islamic fundamentalists known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood created Hamas to add more punch and organization to the Palestinian uprising against Israel. According to the federal government, as the Hamas organizational chart developed, the Brotherhood began spinning out a variety of other organizations on U.S. soil designed to support Hamas's goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic theocracy.
According to the government, the Occupied Land Fund, which in 1992 changed its name to the Holy Land Foundation, was to pose as a charity while serving as Hamas's primary source of income. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Justice stepped up its investigation to prove that foundation funds had been used, in part, to support the families of Hamas suicide bombers.
Tino Pérez, a retired supervisor of the FBI squad that investigated the foundation, said the bureau was drawn to Mufid's performances at the movement's political festivals, where tens of thousands of dollars were raised. Pérez says the FBI realized that the popularity of Mufid's band roused audience members to give to jihad operations, and investigated whether the performances violated antiterrorism statutes. "They were like a top 10 group," Pérez says. "People loved to hear them. If it fired up the troops to give more money, then all the better."
Mufid, who maintains his innocence, declined requests to be interviewed. Mufid's attorney, Marlo P. Cadeddu, has also declined to be interviewed but emailed a statement. "I will say," Cadeddu wrote, referencing Mufid's performances, "that in the United States, the right to express your political beliefs is protected by the Constitution."
But Pérez says free speech is not at issue. "We were not looking at this guy because he was expressing his First Amendment rights," he says. "It was his support for financial gain for Hamas. There's no First Amendment right if it's in support of terrorism."
Nonsense, say some members of the North Texas Muslim community who know Mufid. "What I heard from him," says Iyas Maleh, president of the Dallas/Fort Worth branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, "is that he has a band and they play music and sing songs and [the Holy Land Foundation] used to invite them to their fundraisers to sing. To be indicted for such activity is ridiculous."
MUCH LESS IS KNOWN about how authorities view Mufid's relationship with his half brother. Was Khaled, through his younger brother in Dallas, pulling the strings that kept Hamas flush with U.S. donations? The July 2004 indictment, the first public disclosure of the relationship, offers no clues.
It wouldn't have been easy for the two to express much brotherly love. Until this year's election victory, Khaled was a hunted man. He survived a botched Israeli assassination attempt in 1997 in Jordan, when his bodyguards caught two Israeli intelligence agents who tried to poison him. To its great embarrassment, Israel was forced to exchange for them Hamas's imprisoned founding spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. (The Israelis later assassinated Yassin as part of a program of "targeted killing" of terrorist leaders.)
Two government sources closely involved in trial preparation say that prosecutors plan to fully explore family relationships at trial, including much more than is now known about the brothers. The two have maintained contact by telephone, and Mufid has visited his brother overseas from time to time, one knowledgeable source said. An August 2003 Treasury Department "fact sheet" on Khaled accuses him of accepting diverted charitable donations of the kind that the Holy Land Foundation is uniquely suspected of distributing. "Funds transferred from charitable donations to Hamas for distribution to the families of Palestinian martyrs have been transferred to the bank account of [Khaled Meshal] and used to support Hamas military operations in Israel," the fact sheet states. Sources close to the trial say the recent political success of Hamas is not expected to play any role in the upcoming proceedings.
While the familial tie must certainly have imbued Mufid with some stature among stateside Hamas activists, his attorney questions the relevance of the relationship. "We . . . do not hold people legally responsible for things their relatives do," Cadeddu wrote. Steven Emerson, founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a private research institute in Washington, says, to the contrary, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations have been built on strong family ties. "It wouldn't surprise me if investigators would be interested in exploring aspects of Abdulqader and Meshal's relationship. The fact that the half brother of the leader of Hamas was working for one of the most prominent Muslim charities may have raised a red flag for law enforcement officials."
Incontestably, the Dallas FBI's discovery of the sibling relationship in late 2001 or early 2002 caused real alarm at the time. Agents realized then that thanks to his engineer's job, Mufid Abdulqader had access to Dallas's most important infrastructure--gas lines, water plants, electrical grids, and maintenance tunnels under the commuter rail system. The building where Mufid worked contained a special room known as "The Vault," where detailed blueprints are made available to the civil engineers. With Hamas having reason to be furious over Bush's shutdown of the Holy Land Foundation, FBI officials had to assume the worst: Dallas could be in grave danger.
But the FBI had no evidence to arrest Mufid, so agents in the spring of 2002 turned their attention to neutralizing the threat they believed he might pose. That's when the FBI crept into Mufid's offices after hours, armed with a FISA warrant.
The surveillance operation, however, did not yield anything damning. So on April 2, 2002, agents approached Mufid away from work and requested an interview. He turned them down cold, further worrying the government. (Mufid later did submit to an interview with the FBI, in the company of his defense attorney.) The next day, in a highly unusual move, Dallas FBI Special Agent in Charge Danny Defenbaugh had a letter delivered to Dallas Mayor Laura Miller pressing for an administrative solution. Just what solution wasn't made clear, and Defenbaugh refuses to speak about it today. The letter offered this warning: "[Mufid] is believed to have access to detailed technical plans pertaining to the city's infrastructure. . . . In light of the events of September 11, 2001, this letter is being brought to your attention for whatever action you deem legal and necessary."
Astonishingly, Miller never read the letter. The official letter warning of a possible terrorist mole at City Hall got lost in the paperwork shuffle during her recent election, she later said, and Miller never saw it until a reporter drew her attention to it in 2005. As mayor, however, she worked closely with Mufid on an important downtown redevelopment project called the Bishop Arts District, and has expressed high praise for his work in interviews.
To this day, no evidence has surfaced that Mufid posed a serious public safety threat. The judge who set him free on bond certainly doesn't think he did.
It is unclear when Mufid last performed. His band, now known as Al Nojoum ("The Stars"), runs a website offering tamer fare on its CDs. Even if he is no longer singing publicly, Mufid Abdulqader has still found his way to a center stage, of sorts. As he awaits his trial, he has lately been spotted giving religious lectures at a Dallas-area mosque.
Todd Bensman, a reporter in Dallas, works as an investigative producer for CBS-11 News.
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