String of alleged terror cases in Northwest
Muslim fundraising efforts in the region draw federal indictments, and a national guardsman is in prison.
To his friends, neighbors, and customers, Pete Seda was known for two things: his professional work as an arborist, especially his efforts to save trees that otherwise would be cut down for development, and his dedication to showing the gentle face of Islam. He was active in interfaith groups, visited grade schools, and paraded his camel on the Fourth of July in this quintessential small town.
Now the man known as Pirouz Sedaghaty when he emigrated from Iran some 30 years ago is suspected of helping a Saudi Arabia-based charity raise and launder thousands of dollars used to fund jihad (holy war).
It's part of a recent confluence of terrorism-related events in the Pacific Northwest:
• The arrest of National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, accused of offering to help Al Qaeda by providing information about US weapons and military tactics.
• The conviction of several of the so-called "Portland Seven," Muslims who tried to get to Afghanistan, where they wanted to help fight Americans.
• The investigation of members of the Muslim community associated with the University of Idaho and Washington State University, where Mr. Anderson had been a student and converted to Islam.
• The sentencing of Earnest James Ujaama, a Seattle man charged with conspiring to aid the Taliban, including plans to set up a remote terrorist training camp in the desert of Oregon.
This region has a significant number of potential terrorist targets, including aircraft carriers and ballistic-missile submarines based in Puget Sound, plus 19 major hydropower dams.
But despite occasional concerns about explosives and weapons slipped across the border from Canada, there's nothing in particular that makes the Northwest interesting to federal officials urgently hunting for terrorists and their supporters. If anything, the most radical antigovernment types here tend to be otherwise engaged: white supremacists opposed to anything having to do with other races or religions, and their politically polar opposites - anarchists concerned with economic globalization and the evils of SUVs.
But federal officials, armed with the controversial USA-Patriot Act and other statutes, have brought the antiterrorism aspects of homeland defense to the region nonetheless. Today, Ryan Anderson - who also uses the name Amir Abdul Rashid - is in a military prison at Fort Lewis in Washington State. He was arrested last month shortly before his Army unit was to leave for Iraq, charged with seeking links to Al Qaeda on the Internet, where he told his contacts, "I share your cause." Those contacts turned out to be FBI and military intelligence agents in an online sting operation. He was quickly arrested.
One thing investigators want to know is if Anderson was recruited and trained while he was a student studying Middle Eastern history at Washington State University in Pullman. Washington State and the University of Idaho are less than 10 miles apart, and they share an active Muslim community of about 200 people.
The investigation of possibly illicit fundraising with connections to terrorism began there in 2002, the year Anderson graduated. There have been several arrests since then, and in January the first of those being investigated was indicted on federal charges of fundraising and recruiting on behalf of Saudi clerics and charities allegedly supporting terrorism.
Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a doctoral student from Saudi Arabia, is charged with providing $300,000 to Islamic charities to support "murder, maiming, kidnapping and the destruction of property." Mr. Al-Hussayen also is alleged to have connections to a member of the "Portland Seven" as well as to a branch of the Al-Haramain charity in Ashland, Ore., started and run by Mr. Seda.
"The indictment alleges that Al-Hussayen operated more than a dozen websites, including some for the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two radical Saudi sheikhs," US Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week. "It further alleges that Al-Hussayen knew and intended that his computer services and expertise would be used to recruit and raise funds for violent jihad around the world and that he conspired to conceal the nature of his support for terrorists." Members of the Portland group - who tried but failed to get into Afghanistan through China - reportedly were influenced by a website managed by Al-Hussayen.
In some of these varied cases, those charged appear to have been amateurs.
Many of those donating to charities now considered to have terrorist links thought they were helping fellow Muslims such as Palestinian or Chechnyan refugees. But in the post-9/11 era, that does not lift them above the cloud of suspicion.
"We continue to pursue financiers of terrorist barbarism as aggressively as those that actually perpetrate such horrible crimes," Attorney General Ashcroft has testified before Congress.
Mr. Seda, the Ashland, Ore., arborist, has yet to be charged, although he was placed on an FBI watch list. The IRS alleges that he tried to conceal the transfer of funds, and federal officials recently took computers and video tapes from his home. For the past year, he and his family have been living in the United Arab Emirates. Through his American lawyer he says, "I am certain that once all the facts come out, it will be clear that neither [the charity he represented] nor I have engaged in any criminal activities."
The whole episode has left many here in disbelief, including Rabbi David Zaslow, who told the local newspaper that "Pete is the kind of Muslim we Americans should be standing up applauding."
"The sad irony is that Pete Seda came to the United States as a refugee from Iran in the 1970s and has been promoting peace and understanding of the Islamic faith for many years," says Paul Copeland, co-chair of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a long-time friend of Seda.