Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A U.S. Air Force enlisted man has become the second service member to be accused of espionage at the U.S. naval base prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he translated interrogations of Arabic-speaking Taliban and al Qaeda terror suspects.

Also yesterday, a Pentagon policy document revealed that the military appointed its Muslim chaplains based on suggestions or training from three U.S. Muslim groups, each of which was linked to radical elements of Islam.

The Pentagon announced the charges against Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi, while it also investigated whether the prison’s lone Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. James J. Yee, committed espionage and aided the enemy. Officials say they also are investigating whether any link exists between Senior Airman Halabi and Capt. Yee.

Officials said Senior Airman Halabi was arrested July 23, nearly two months before Capt. Yee’s Sept. 10 apprehension. The Air Force imprisoned the airman at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. He had been assigned to Travis Air Force Base in the same state.

The Air Force charged him with five counts of espionage, three counts of aiding the enemy, nine counts of giving false statements to interrogators, 11 counts of failing to obey a lawful order and one count of bank fraud.

Normal military judicial procedure would be for Senior Airman Halabi to get a pretrial Article 32 hearing. An Air Force convening authority would decide afterward whether to court-martial him, administer nonjudicial punishment or dismiss the case.

One of the three Muslim groups involved in training or approving chaplains is the Graduate School of Islamic Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. U.S. government agents raided that group last year as part of a sweep of organizations suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network. The graduate school trains would-be military chaplains. The other two groups endorse the candidates.

The American Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Council in Arlington sponsored Capt. Yee’s chaplaincy.

Capt. Yee, a West Point graduate, resigned from the Army in the early 1990s and traveled to Damascus, Syria, to receive training in Arabic and traditional Islamic beliefs. He returned to the United States, rejoined the Army and was posted to Guantanamo in November.

His main job was to advise the Task Force Guantanamo commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, on Muslim customs. Capt. Yee received unlimited access to prisoners who sought his counsel and led Friday prayers.

The defense department documents showed that the Veteran Affairs Council was a designee of the American Muslim Foundation (AMF), which also was included in the Justice Department sweep.

The AMF was co-founded by Abdurahman Alamoudi, an acknowledged supporter of the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Mr. Alamoudi in 2000 contributed money to the Senate campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She returned it after Mr. Alamoudi’s anti-Jewish sentiments were made public.

The second Pentagon-approved endorser is the Islamic Society of North America. One of its board members, Siraj Wahhaj, was named in 1995 by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White as one of more than 100 “unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators” in the attempt to blow up New York monuments.

Mr. Wahhaj also served as a character witness for Sheik Omar Abel Rahman, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Wahhaj was never convicted of a crime.

The disconnect between the Justice Department and the Pentagon was similar to the breakdown that led to the September 11 attacks, said Rita Katz, author of “Terrorist Hunter” and director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute.

“This is not intentional, but the things, the lack of sharing information, is still happening,” Miss Katz said. “In this case, the Pentagon is relying on groups that the Justice Department is raiding. And neither agency was aware of what the other was doing. The system has to be re-examined and these agencies have to share more information.”

Pentagon spokesmen said this week there are no plans to review the chaplain accreditation process. Of more than 5,000 chaplains in the military, 12 are Muslims. About 4,200 Muslims serve on active military duty.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has called for an expedited investigation into these groups, which he says are “financed by Saudi Arabia and follow the radical Wahhabi sect of Islam.”

He said the Defense Department told him in March that it would look into the selection process for Muslim chaplains and whether radical forms of Islam were preached to servicemen.

“It’s shocking that the Defense Department has been silent on this issue and is now issuing public comments that no such examination is under way,” Mr. Schumer said yesterday at a press conference. “The fact that a chaplain who was detained for supposedly stealing classified documents was trained by a group under investigation for terrorism should set off alarms at the highest levels.”

Mr. Schumer said that the “only ministers you can get” for Muslims in the armed forces are those trained in Wahhabism, an antimodern group founded in the 18th century whose adherents include bin Laden and other anti-West zealots.

“There ought to be other groups let in as well,” Mr. Schumer said, citing the more moderate Shi’ite and Sunni sects of Islam.

For months, the Universal Muslim Association of America, which is aligned with Shi’ite Islam, has tried to become an endorser of Muslim clerics in the military and federal prisons. But the group says it has been ignored, despite its warnings that the Wahhabi form of Islam is being propagated to troops and prisoners.

“We would like to become an endorser before any more damage is done,” said spokesman Agha Jafri. “The Defense Department should have been aware that there are two main forms of Islam and that it was only Wahhabism that is being represented.”

The Army had not filed formal charges against Capt. Yee, who was arrested in Jacksonville, Fla., as he got off a military charter flight from Guantanamo Bay. The FBI and military authorities questioned him over several days. He was committed to the Naval Consolidated Brig at Charleston, S.C.

A military magistrate agreed Sept. 15 to prosecution demands to incarcerate Capt. Yee while an investigation continued. A government document reviewed by The Washington Times lists six accusations against Capt. Yee, including espionage, spying, sedition and aiding the enemy. Legal analysts say that to hold Capt. Yee the government had to convince the magistrate that the officer was likely to continue committing the crimes.

When the FBI arrested Capt. Yee, agents found classified documents, including a list of detainees. Some law-enforcement officials feared that if the list fell into enemy hands it would tell al Qaeda which operatives might be talking to the United States and which terror plans needed to be changed.

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