The FBI on Thursday defended its inclusion of a Chicago Muslim cleric tied in the past to the terrorist groups Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood in a group that recently visited the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and FBI headquarters.
Ross Rice, FBI spokesman in Chicago, acknowledged in an interview that Kifah Mustapha, imam of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Ill., was named as an unindicted co-conspirator during a Hamas funding trial six years ago.
However, Mr. Mustapha “has never been convicted of a crime and never charged with a crime,” Mr. Rice said.
“If we thought he was a security risk, we wouldn’t have included him” in the FBI’s Citizens Academy program, Mr. Rice said.
Mr. Mustapha took part in the six-week program at the FBI’s Quantico, Va., facility, which included a three-day visit to Washington, where a group of 30 people, including the cleric, visited the NCTC and FBI headquarters, Mr. Rice said.
Mr. Mustapha is listed in court papers as one of more than 240 unindicted co-conspirators, including people and organizations, that were named in the 2004 terrorism-funding trial of the Dallas-based charity Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
The Justice Department charged the group and its top officials with illegally funding the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which has carried out bombing attacks in Israel. The NCTC website states that Hamas was behind “high-profile terrorist attacks” against civilians in Israel.
The foundation and five former leaders were found guilty in November 2008 of giving more than $12 million to Hamas. The investigation and trial also produced large numbers of documents from the group and its affiliates that disclosed a covert plan by the Muslim Brotherhood to subvert the U.S. government and create an Islamic state.
The list of co-conspirators identified Mr. Mustapha as among 53 people who were members of the U.S. branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestine Committee, a group set up to funnel funds to Hamas. Another document identified him as the Holy Land Foundation’s agent in Illinois.
Mr. Mustapha was named a Muslim chaplain for the Illinois State Police in December, but was dismissed in June after failing a background check that disclosed his past ties to the Holy Land Foundation.
State police spokesman Sgt. Isaiah D. Vega confirmed that Mr. Mustapha is no longer a chaplain.
“Due to information revealed during the background investigation, Sheik Kifah Mustapha’s appointment as a volunteer ISP chaplain was denied,” he said, declining to comment further because the matter is the subject of a lawsuit.
The Muslim advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, also identified as a co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, is suing the Illinois State Police for discrimination in Mr. Mustapha’s dismissal.
Mr. Rice said Mr. Mustapha was “an employee” of the Holy Land Foundation, but that his participation in the FBI outreach program was welcome.
“His application was reviewed and vetted by our office,” Mr. Rice said. “He is a very influential leader of the Palestinian community here and imam of the largest mosque and was a welcome addition.”
Mr. Mustapha declined to comment on the visits or whether he has any link to Hamas.
An NCTC spokesman referred questions to the FBI, and an FBI headquarters’ spokesman referred questions to Mr. Rice.
The visits were first reported by Andrew Breitbart’s website Big Peace, which included a photograph of Mr. Mustapha and 18 other people inside the NCTC.
Mr. Rice said that during the recent Washington visit, Mr. Mustapha was escorted the entire time as he visited the NCTC headquarters near Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia and the FBI headquarters building.
“He’s very sympathetic to the mission of the FBI and has pledged his support,” Mr. Rice said.
A former FBI agent said Mr. Mustapha several years ago was listed in the FBI’s database as a member of Hamas. “This is a known senior Hamas guy,” the former agent said of Mr. Mustapha.
Asked if Mr. Mustapha is listed by the FBI as a Hamas member, Mr. Rice said, “not that I’m aware of.”
Mr. Rice dismissed a question about whether Mr. Mustapha could be posing as a double agent for radical Islamists while publicly supporting the FBI. “We would hopefully detect that, and there is no indication of that,” he said.
The imam was vetted before his inclusion in the approximately 30 ethnic, religious and business leaders who took part in the Citizens Academy program, he said.
Since 2001, the FBI, along with other U.S. government agencies, has conducted a series of outreach programs designed to develop ties to Muslim communities.
Critics have said the programs have failed to identify legitimate Muslim moderates and have been exploited by some radical Muslims to limit investigations into the covert U.S. activities that support international terrorist groups, including the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood.
Steven Emerson, director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which has reported extensively on Mr. Mustapha’s support for Hamas, said the security issue of visiting sensitive U.S. buildings is only one aspect of the problem.
By making Mr. Mustapha part of the outreach program, the FBI is conferring “respectability” on a Muslim leader who has supported radical Muslims, he said.
“The fact that the FBI brought him in there is a slap in the face to all victims of terrorism and hundreds killed by Hamas,” Mr. Emerson said. “If this is U.S. counterterrorism policy, we’re doomed.”
Jim Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the Heritage Foundation, also questioned the FBI’s ties to Mr. Mustapha.
“It is difficult to see what the FBI could gain from associating so publicly with such a controversial figure, who reportedly was part of the fundraising support infrastructure for Hamas in this country,” Mr. Phillips said.