The picture shows Mawlawi in the snowy mountains of Bosnia in 1997, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while another man kneels nearby to load an AK-47 automatic rifle. The other man, say federal authorities, is Enaam Arnaout, head of the Benevolence International Foundation. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the foundation was identified as a terrorist front for al-Qaeda. In 2002, Arnaout was indicted in Chicago on federal charges of funding terrorists, and he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge a year later. He has admitted to having a close personal relationship with Osama bin Laden.
Last Friday, assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Godwin connected the dots from Memphis to Bosnia and from Mawlawi to Arnaout, bin Laden, and al-Qaeda. In a hearing to decide whether Mawlawi should be released from prison for medical reasons (the request was denied by U.S. Magistrate Tu Pham), Godwin said Mawlawi "is a danger to the community and his association with certain people in Bosnia goes to that issue."
The previously unreported Memphis link to Arnaout and bin Laden - outlined by Godwin in a nearly empty courtroom before Pham and four spectators - is either the shocker of the year or a case of guilt by association that shows the government's willingness to sacrifice the civil liberties of Muslims in the name of anti-terrorism.
Rafat Jamal Mawlawi, 55, is a dual citizen of Syria and the United States. He came to the attention of federal authorities in Memphis during an investigation of a marriage scam originating in the Shelby County Penal Farm, where Mawlawi led Muslim prayers for inmates. In April he was indicted, along with four Middle Eastern men and six Memphians, for recruiting and paying U.S. citizens to enter into sham marriage engagements and produce bogus applications for fiancé visas to allow foreigners to illegally enter the country. The scheme unravelled when a prisoner squealed on Mawlawi. But the same prisoner also informed Mawlawi of the investigation against him. Mawlawi was in the process of selling his house and getting ready to move to Damascus when he was arrested.
Among the Memphians indicted was Chandra Netters Lofton Taylor, daughter of the Rev. James Netters, who is a former Memphis City Council member and former president of Memphis Light Gas and Water. Also indicted were three other members of the Netters family and Martha Jane Diana, a former employee of the Shelby County Assessor's office. The women allegedly were paid thousands of dollars and travel expenses to the Middle East by Mawlawi. Rev. Netters' former daughter-in-law Janet Netters Austin, who is a professional singer, married Mhammed Kabouchi, a citizen of Morocco, on January 14, 2004, the indictment states. She has pleaded not guilty, and federal prosecutors have said she is cooperating with them.
Mawlawi is the only one of the defendants who was not released on bond, although prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to detain codefendant Karim Ramzi, a Moroccan who is awaiting trial. Mawlawi's trial date is August 1st. He has had two detention hearings where Godwin and FBI agents introduced the Bosnia picture and other evidence and described his criminal background, which is somewhat confusing. Mawlawi was charged with felony fraud in California in 1993, convicted in 1994, and got five years probation. He missed an extradition hearing in 1993, left the country, and was arrested when he reentered the U.S. at JFK International Airport in New York.
Mawlawi's attorney, Lorna McClusky, called Godwin's recitation of terrorist ties "an ugly implication with nothing to back it up." Mawlawi was born in Syria and moved to the U.S. after college and became a naturalized citizen. He served 12 years in the Navy and was honorably discharged. He was married and divorced while living in California, then remarried. His wife, who wears a head scarf, attends his court appearances, along with Nabil Mawlawi, the defendant's brother, and his mother, who came to Memphis from Syria following his arrest.
Nabil Mawlawi, who owns a gyro restaurant in Bartlett, scoffed at the government's terrorism implications. He said Rafat went to Bosnia to visit another brother who was dying and stayed to teach English. Rafat was in Syria for a month earlier this year and would not have returned if he had anything to fear or hide, his brother said.
"If he is a terrorism supporter then so am I because I am his brother," he said.
Rafat Mawlawi is not charged with terrorism. The government, however, can present evidence it believes shows that someone under arrest is a danger to the community or a flight risk, and the publicity can be tantamount to a criminal charge. Since 9/11, the government has used immigration charges as an anti-terrorism tool and a way to pressure people to provide information about Muslim groups. A story by The Washington Post in June reported that more than 200 immigration agents now work with Joint Terrorism Task Forces on counter-terrorism and that more than 500 people have been charged since 2003.
The criminal charges against Mawlawi are more serious than routine immigration cases which are handled in another division of federal court. The weapons charge, which was filed two weeks after the charges related to the marriage scam, appears to be a lay down for the government.
In March agents did a "trash pull" of containers outside Mawlawi's house at 5320 Craigmont. They found e-mails indicating Mawlawi wanted to move his wife and children to Damascus. A week later, agents noticed the house was for sale and a rummage sale was in process. On April 4th, nine agents searched the house and questioned Mawlawi and his wife. After first saying they were moving to Arizona, Mawlawi admitted they were leaving the country. Asked if he had any firearms, Mawlawi said he had a shotgun. In addition to that, however, agents found three guns and a loaded ammunition magazine in a safe, along with $30,000 in cash. They also seized the photograph of Mawlawi shouldering the grenade launcher that was introduced at his detention hearing in April.
It wasn't until last week - three months after the weapons indictment - that prosecutors for the first time linked Mawlawi to Enaam Arnaout, who was involved in one of the most highly publicized and controversial terrorism prosecutions since 9/11. Arnaout was indicted in October 2002 and charged with sending money to al-Qaeda through the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation. The prosecutor was Patrick Fitzgerald, in the news these days as the special prosecutor investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to reporters. Fitzgerald successfully prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and also won convictions in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But in the Arnaout case, the verdict was mixed. He pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering after six other charges were dropped. At his sentencing in 2003, the judge said prosecutors "failed to connect the dots" to show that Arnaout "identified with or supported" terrorism.
Godwin, a veteran prosecutor who won a conviction against football booster Logan Young Jr. earlier this year, appears to be following the Fitzgerald play book. Under Godwin's questioning, FBI agent Robert Parker testified last week that Arnaout recruited Mawlawi to come to Bosnia in 1997 and work for the Benevolence International Foundation. Parker said a search of the organization's office in Bosnia turned up a picture of Arnaout and Osama bin Laden, and that Arnaout has admitted to the FBI "that he did in fact have a relationship with bin Laden and for a time lived in his house in Pakistan."
McClusky, Mawlawi's attorney, said that "doesn't come close to showing that this man is a threat." Mawlawi himself, wearing the standard light-brown prison suit and handcuffs, took the stand for almost an hour, mainly to talk about his medical problems which were the issue at the hearing. He is a stocky man with short gray hair and a beard who spoke easily about medical terminology and prescription drugs. There were occasional moments of testiness when Godwin cross-examined him, but on the whole Mawlawi seemed healthy and in control.
That was not the case a week earlier, when the medical hearing was postponed after just a few minutes. After Magistrate Pham had pushed the hearing back a week and left the courtroom, Mawlawi angrily told his attorney that Godwin, who was standing across the room, "is the one who's fucking me over." Two marshalls quickly took him by the arms and led him out of the courtroom. n