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Cell Mates?

While investigating a Memphis-Morocco marriage scam, FBI agents find hidden weapons, $34,000 in cash, passports, and a gruesome Arabic videotape.


O n April 4th, nine FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Raleigh home of a convicted felon named Rafat Jamal Mawlawi, a Syrian with dual citizenship in the United States. Mawlawi is suspected of organizing a scam to illegally bring Moroccan men into the United States by arranging sham marriages and engagements to women from Memphis.

What the FBI found was much more troubling: a hidden stash of loaded weapons and ammunition clips, $34,000 in cash, two pictures of Mawlawi shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a gruesome videotape of war casualties with Arabic text and voiceover, and more than 20 passports to Morocco, Syria, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries.

The agents were members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. As outlined by prosecutors and agents in a federal courtroom last week, what they found could be evidence of a possible terrorist link in Memphis or something less sinister, as has proven to be the case in other investigations of Middle Easterners caught up in our legal system. The FBI investigation is ongoing.

"Mr. Mawlawi was a danger to the community," assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin told U.S. magistrate Tu Pham during the hearing last week to decide whether Mawlawi should be jailed or released on bond.

"He was planning to leave the country, and there is further indication that he was informed of an investigation against him," Godwin said. "If he gets to his home nation of Syria, our chance of ever getting him back is slim and none."

Mawlawi was detained pending trial, as was codefendant Karim Ramzi, a citizen of Morocco. In all, four Middle Eastern men and six Memphians were indicted last week on federal charges of conspiracy and violation of immigration laws. The Memphians accused of involvement in the sham marriages and engagements include the daughter, grandson, and former daughter-in-law of the Rev. James Netters, a founding member of the Memphis City Council and interim president of Memphis Light Gas and Water in 2004.

What has not previously been reported is the background of Mawlawi, which was outlined in the detention hearing before Pham, a handful of Justice Department employees, and four spectators on April 7th in a third-floor courtroom in the federal building.

Most Memphians are apt to think of Homeland Security in Memphis as airport security, a solitary Coast Guard boat cruising up and down the Mississippi River between the bridges, a police car parked on the shoulder of the interstate, or inspectors and dogs checking packages at the FedEx Super Hub. The Mawlawi case puts a different light on things.

Mawlawi, 54, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who served in the Navy for 12 years. He is also a citizen of his native Syria. He had a criminal record before being indicted last week. According to Memphis FBI spokesman George Bolds, in 1994, he was convicted on a felony count of fraud in California and did jail time. In 1993, records show he was arrested in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but the charges were dismissed. Mawlawi failed to show up for an extradition hearing following one of his arrests and was picked up by authorities when he reentered the United States at JFK International Airport in New York. Records show that occurred in 1993.

It is not clear how long he has been living in Memphis. His one-story, brown brick house is on a corner lot three blocks from Craigmont High School. Since moving to Memphis Mawlawi had preached and conducted Muslim prayers with inmates at the Shelby County Penal Farm. He apparently came to the attention of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force because of an inmate named Andre Dotson, serving time on a charge of aggravated robbery. Dotson wrote the FBI that he had evidence of a marriage scam and said Mawlawi had tried to recruit him.

As explained by FBI agent Robert Parker at the detention hearing, Dotson's information about the marriage scam was good but his trustworthiness was shaky. After contacting the FBI, Dotson told Mawlawi that he was being investigated. Then he wrote another letter to the FBI telling them that he had warned Mawlawi about the investigation.

As a result of all this, the investigation took on new urgency. On March 18th, agents did a "trash pull" of a garbage can outside Mawlawi's home and found printed copies of e-mails indicating he was corresponding with a school in Damascus and preparing to move his wife and family to Syria. During subsequent surveillance of the house, agents observed yard sales and a "For Sale" sign in the front yard. The sign was on the porch of the house last week.

When agents went to the house last week, Mawlawi and his wife were home, and boxes packed with clothing, toys, and other items were scattered around the living room. Mrs. Mawlawi said they were moving and leaving the country, but Mawlawi said they were moving to Arizona. He later changed his story and admitted they were moving to Syria.

Agents asked Mawlawi if he had any firearms in the house. He told them he had only a shotgun. He did have a shotgun, but that was not all. Inside a locked safe, agents also found a .9-millimeter Glock handgun, a .32-caliber pistol, and a .38-caliber revolver. The guns were loaded, and there were extra loaded ammunition magazines next to them in the safe.

Also in the safe was $30,000 in cash, although Mawlawi had previously told agents he did not make any money on the marriage scam. Agents found another $4,000 in cash in a bedroom, along with Moroccan and Bosnian passports and a Syrian passport for Mrs. Mawlawi. In all, agents found 20 to 30 passports -- some current and some expired -- in the names of the Mawlawis and their children. Passport stamps indicated Mawlawi had been to Iran and Pakistan, although he had told agents that he did not visit other countries near Bosnia.

Agents also found two pictures of Mawlawi shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. In one of them, the end-cap is removed so that the weapon is ready to fire. Mawlawi said the pictures were taken when he was in Bosnia in 1996 and 1997 working as an English teacher.

Also found was a videotape which starts with the words "al Mujahadeen" and pictures of a firearm. The voiceover is in Arabic, Parker said. The word "mujahadeen" has come into common use in news reports since the onset of the war in Iraq. It is variously translated as "those engaged in jihad," "holy warriors," "Islamic warriors," and "soldiers of God." The video shows graphic images of dead people with injuries "that appear to be from combat wounds," Parker said. Mawlawi does not appear on the tape. Videotapes of war casualties, beheadings, and other gruesome scenes are readily available via the Internet.

Mawlawi, a stocky man with black glasses, grey hair, and a salt-and-pepper beard, appeared in court last Thursday wearing a light-brown prison jumpsuit. A Middle Eastern woman with a scarf over her head sat in the back of the courtoom, shaking her head back and forth as the FBI agent testified. Mawlawi was represented by attorney Randy Alden of the U.S. public defender's office.

"The government is trying to paint Mr. Mawlawi as a very dangerous person," Alden told Magistrate Pham.

Alden said the government is overstating the danger. He said Mawlawi was honorably discharged from the United States Navy after serving 12 years. The passports to Iran and Pakistan had expired prior to the 9/11 terror attacks. Mawlawi might not have been in Pakistan since the 1980s, Alden said, and he was in Bosnia after the United Nations conflict. Alden did not explain why Mawlawi was photographed with the grenade launcher on his shoulder against a background that appears to be a snowy hillside.

Charged along with Mawlawi and Ramzi in the four indictments that were unsealed Monday were Omran Omer, a U.S. citizen, and Mhammed Kabouchi, a citizen of Morocco. Arraignments for Mawlawi and Ramzi were set for April 13th.

Morocco is home to several of the suspects in the March 11, 2004, terrorist train bombing in Madrid which killed 191 people. On April 1st, Moroccan Youssef Belhadj was extradited to Spain and arrested in connection with the train bombings. Another Moroccan, Farid Hilali, was arrested last year in London as a suspected accomplice of the Madrid bombers and possible plotter of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

Authorities in Memphis were not characterizing the Middle Easterners in the alleged marriage scam as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. The indictment makes no mention of terrorism, and the strongest word used in the detention hearings was "dangerous," and that was by Mawlawi's own attorney. However, the grainy copies of the photographs of Mawlawi holding a grenade launcher (from which the illustrations for this story were taken) were entered as exhibits in his court file.

"Our handling of the hearing will speak for itself," said U.S. attorney Terry Harris.

The indictment says that between November 2001 and September 2004, the defendants operated a marriage-for-profit scheme to get foreign nationals into the U.S. in violation of immigration laws.

"Rafat Jamal Mawlawi, assisted by Omran Omer, would recruit and pay United States citizens to travel out of the United States, arrange sham marriage engagements, and produce fraudulent applications for fiancee visas," the indictment says.

The indictment details several payments ranging from $110 to $2,300 in checks and cash to co-defendants and numerous trips between Memphis and Morocco by the alleged conspirators. The payments total $25,730.

On November 18, 2003, Chandra Netters married Karim Ramzi, who had filed an application for a non-immigrant fiancee visa four months earlier.

On January 14, 2004, Janet Netters Austin married Mhammed Kabouchi.

Kimberly Netters was recruited by Mawlawi to enter into a sham engagement with Abdelkada Kabouchi, the indictment says.

Chandra Netters Lofton Taylor, 47, is the daughter of the Rev. James Netters, and Janet Netters Austin, 50, is his former daughter-in-law. Rev. Netters could not be reached for comment. His wife told the Flyer he would have no comment.

Janet Netters Austin sings professionally using the name J.P. Netters, sometimes appearing with her husband James Austin, who is also a professional singer and former member of the singing group the Platters. She was released without bail following a court appearance last week. She declined to comment to a reporter.

Omran Omer was released on a $10,000 bond. His attorney, Bernie Weinman, declined to comment.

The defendants face a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Marriages -- real and fake -- between American soldiers and foreign women were common during and after World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The 1945 War Brides Act and Fiance Act of 1946 allowed foreign spouses and would-be spouses (as well as their children) of U.S. soldiers to become citizens. The Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendment became law in 1986. Since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., sham marriages to foreign nationals have begun to attract greater attention from immigration officials and the FBI. Last December, six people were indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle in an alleged scheme to bring Vietnamese nationals into the U.S.

This is not the first federal immigration case in Memphis with Middle Eastern connections and overtones of violence. In 2002, five Middle Eastern men who came to Memphis from New York were arrested in a scheme to get fake driver's licenses. Katherine Smith, an employee at the driver's license testing station who was also arrested, died five days later in a burning car which was apparently deliberately set on fire. The case was investigated for possible terrorist connections but none were found. The men were held several weeks but eventually released and deported.

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