CHICAGO -- In a sweeping complaint that alleges Osama bin Laden's influence reached into middle America, officials accused a charity of lying about its ties to the al-Qaida leader and terrorists who tried to get nuclear weapons and plotted to bomb U.S. airliners.
The charge came in a complaint Tuesday that made Benevolence International Foundation, based in suburban Palos Hills, the first charitable organization to be charged criminally in the war on terrorism.
Benevolence and executive director Enaam M. Arnaout were charged with perjury for claiming in a civil lawsuit that they had no involvement in military or terrorist activities and gave only to charitable causes.
An FBI affidavit accompanying the complaint did not accuse Arnaout or the foundation of involvement in terrorist plots. Authorities said only that they lied about their ties to terrorists who were involved.
The affidavit cited alleged links between Benevolence and terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a plot to bomb U.S. airlines and a plan to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his 1995 visit to the Philippines.
The FBI also said that members of al-Qaida have held positions within the charity, and that a man who tried to obtain uranium for bin Laden even listed the charity's Illinois address as his home.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the charity was aiding such activities secretly. "The donors have done nothing wrong," he said. "This prosecution alleges that the donors were victims."
Arnaout was arrested at his home Tuesday. The 39-year-old Syrian-born naturalized American, described by authorities as a trusted acquaintance of bin Laden, was ordered held for a hearing May 7.
"I am confident that Mr. Arnaout is not engaged in terrorist activities, nor has he supported such activities knowingly or directly," said his attorney, Stephen Levy.
An attorney for the charity, Matthew Piers, did not return a call.
The foundation is one of two Chicago-area Islamic charities whose assets were frozen Dec. 14 on suspicion of supporting terrorism. The co-founder of Global Relief Foundation, the other organization, is being held on an immigration charge.
Both groups sued the government, denying they had anything to do with terrorism and asking that their assets be released. The latest charges stem from Benevolence International's insistence in that case that it didn't fund terrorism or military activity.
Brochures for Benevolence International describe it as a humanitarian organization "dedicated to helping those afflicted by wars and natural disasters" in Afghanistan and other countries. IRS reports show that it received $3.3 million in contributions for the year ending April 2000.
According to the FBI, Benevolence was founded in the 1980s by Saudi sheik Adil Abdul Galil Batargy, another bin Laden associate. It said control of the foundation was later turned over to Arnaout.
Several unnamed cooperating witnesses have said that al-Qaida members have held positions within Benevolence. The FBI's affidavit said one of bin Laden's wives was allowed in 1989 to stay in a home that Arnaout maintained in Pakistan.
The FBI said the group also moved money on behalf of bin Laden in the 1990s and as recently as April 2000 gave $685,550 to Islamic guerrillas trained by bin Laden's group and now fighting the Russians in Chechnya.
According to authorities, raids on Benevolence offices in Bosnia in March turned up firearms, a ski mask, military manuals and a fake passport as well as separate photos of bin Laden and of Arnaout "handling rifles, a shoulder-fired rocket and an anti-aircraft gun."
Federal investigators have been watching Benevolence for years. The affidavit said a search of the group's trash in 1999 turned up a clipping from a Seattle newspaper focusing on the danger of a smallpox epidemic with a section underlined about local officials being ill prepared.
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