The visitor was seeking humanitarian assistance for war victims in Afghanistan. So Sacramento Muslims did what they routinely do when presented with a good cause: They gave money.
They were lied to. The man touring mosques in Sacramento and elsewhere in the United States in the early 1990s, claiming to raise money for widows and orphans, was actually financing terrorism.
The man wasn't just any fund-raiser, either. He was Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, then the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and now the right-hand man of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Traveling under an alias, al Zawahiri is believed to have raised roughly $500,000 in the United States for such activities as the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan, according to terrorism expert Peter Probst. Al Zawahiri raised $3,000 to $4,000 at Sacramento's Masjid Annur mosque, said Metwalli Amer, a prominent Sacramento Muslim who unwittingly helped host al Zawahiri's trip to the city.
Al Zawahiri's U.S. fund-raising success illustrates the dilemma facing American Muslims--and the problems confronting the Bush administration as it tries to crack down on bin Laden's financial network.
Giving to charity is one of the foundations of Islam, and much of bin Laden's money comes from Islamic charities and other nonprofit groups in the United States and abroad, experts say. Although some donors knowingly support terrorists, most are in the dark, experts say. Some charities cover their ties to terrorists by funding schools, ambulance corps and the like, complicating shutdown efforts and generating confusion among donors.
"I'm trusting, and sometimes it shakes my trust," said Amer, a college professor who runs an organization called the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims. "You bring people here and you don't know if they have a hidden agenda."
Farouk Fakira, president of Masjid Annur--the Sacramento mosque that hosted al Zawahiri in the early 1990s -- said the mosque demands to see paperwork confirming a charity's federal nonprofit status before allowing any fund-raisers. Fakira said these safeguards preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Most of the people are very wary," he said. "There are a lot of scam organizations."
Fakira, who came to Sacramento in 1995, said he wasn't familiar with reports of al Zawahiri's visit to the mosque.
The Sept. 11 attacks have hurt Muslim giving. Muslims are expected to donate annually 2.5 percent of their savings to charity, but many in America have scaled back after the terrorist attacks, said Aslam Abdullah, editor of Minaret Magazine, an Islamic publication in Los Angeles. One reason is they're unsure where the money's going, he said.
Sorting out the good from the bad also raises problems for federal investigators. In its effort to cut off funding to bin Laden's network, the Bush administration has run into diplomatic difficulties by including on its list of targets some charities known for their good works. The Rabita Trust, for instance, has ties to the Saudi government and was established by the Pakistani government to resettle refugees from Pakistan's war against Bangladesh.
While there are many legitimate Islamic charities, experts say some groups are mere fund-raising fronts for terrorism. Others are legitimate organizations that have been infiltrated by terrorist sympathizers who siphon funds, said Raphael Perl, a terrorism analyst at the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service. Still others do genuine humanitarian work but deliberately funnel some of their donors' money to terrorists, Perl said.
"There is both intentional and accidental leakage" of funds, Perl said. That adds to the difficulty of cutting the flow of funds. Hezbollah and Hamas, two high-profile Mideast terrorist organizations, have plenty of U.S. donors in part because they provide essential social services in a region of the world where governments usually fail to deliver, said Probst, a former terrorism analyst at the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.
"Both Hezbollah and Hamas have schools for children and do take care of the widows and orphans," said Probst, who is now with the Institute for Terrorism and the Study of Political Violence. "They provide the social safety net...a chicken in every pot."
The Justice Department's crackdown on a suburban Chicago organization called the Quranic Literacy Institute illustrates the complexities of trying to track terrorists' funds through charities.
In 1998, the department obtained a court order freezing $1.4 million in assets belonging to the Quranic group and a man associated with it, Mohammad Salah. An FBI agent's affidavit said Salah served a five-year prison term in Israel for funneling money to Hamas.
Salah's attorney, Matthew Piers, said his client merely sent money to families of Palestinian men deported by Israel. But Piers acknowledged the money could have been diverted to illegitimate uses by a man working with Salah.
And that's the problem with cracking down on charities, Piers said. "It's very murky," he said. "It is in the nature of money that it is fungible. Therefore, you stop giving to charities?" Representatives of the Quranic institute couldn't be reached for comment.
Charitable organizations and religious leaders have often come to Northern California. Sacramento Muslims raised $38,000 in one night for Bosnia Muslims, $30,000 on another occasion for the Muslims of Kosovo, according to Amer.
Amer said some of the Kosovo funds went to the Global Relief Foundation, an Illinois charity that reportedly has been investigated by the Treasury Department for possible links to terrorism. The group has denied any wrongdoing, and it hasn't appeared on the government's list of groups whose assets are being frozen.
Amer said that twice during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he helped host a visit to Sacramento by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the infamous blind cleric from New Jersey who was later convicted of plotting to blow up bridges and tunnels in New York. Rahman is said to be the spiritual leader of the group that carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people.
During his Sacramento trip, Rahman was preaching about Islam but not fund raising, Amer said. Still, when Amer heard of Rahman's terrorist ties years later, "I was shocked," he said. "I cannot forget that."
During the Afghan-Soviet war, Islamic relief organizations were in Sacramento once or twice a month.
"There were often people coming to collect money for Afghanistan--plenty of organizations," said Dr. Atif Wardany, a Sacramento veterinarian.
So there was nothing out of the ordinary when, in the early 1990s, a prominent San Jose physician named Ali Zaki brought to Sacramento a man he said was representing the Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross. The visitor raised a relatively small sum in Sacramento--about $3,000 to $4,000--because the visit was hastily organized and took place on a weeknight, Amer said.
Amer and Wardany said they helped host Zaki and the supposed representative of the Red Crescent, not knowing he was al Zawahiri, the leader of the terror group Egyptian Islamic Jihad and future bin Laden deputy.
Al Zawahiri is bin Laden's ideological mentor and the chief organizer of bin Laden's terrorist network, al Qaeda, said terrorism expert Harvey Kushner of Long Island University. Al Zawahiri served a prison term in Egypt on weapons charges in a case stemming from the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Zaki's lawyer, former California Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Santa Clara, said no one suspected a thing until early 1999. That's when a former Bay Area resident named Khaled Abu Dahab made a confession to authorities in Egypt.
Facing prosecution in a Cairo terrorism trial, Dahab said he and Zaki helped organize al Zawahiri's visit, according to an account of his secret confession reported in the London-based Arabic newspaper al Hayat. Al Zawahiri got into the country with a phony passport, Dahab said. The Long Island newspaper Newsday, citing documents from the same trial, has reported al Zawahiri also raised money in New York and Texas.
Dahab said Zaki knowingly assisted the terrorists' activities--a charge denied by the doctor's lawyer.
McCloskey said that after the Dahab confession surfaced, Zaki was questioned by the federal grand jury that indicted bin Laden, al Zawahri and others in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Zaki has been "wounded" by the experience, McCloskey said. The lawyer declined to make his client available for an interview, saying he's still cooperating with federal investigators and has been advised by the FBI not to speak to reporters.
There is some dispute about the timing of al Zawahiri's visit. Some Arabic papers have placed it in 1995, not the early 1990s. It's possible he came twice, as another ex-Californian with ties to terrorism has testified.
That man, Ali Mohamed, is a former Sacramentan and Bay Area resident who fell in with terrorists. Last fall, in pleading guilty to conspiracy in the embassy bombings case, Mohamed disclosed his role in bringing al Zawahiri to America.
"In the early 1990s, Zawahiri made two visits to the United States, and he came to United States to help raise funds for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad," he said in U.S. District Court in New York. "I helped him to do this."