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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Links Charity to Chechen Rebels

The head of a U.S.-based Islamic charity who is suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden is in jail facing a grand jury investigation after the FBI showed he had lied about his support for Chechen rebels.

Federal officials accused Enaam Arnaout, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen, and his Benevolence International Foundation of perjury last month for claiming they did not provide support to "people or organizations known to engage in violence, terrorist activities or military operations of any nature."

Arnaout, 39, was arrested April 30. He had been under surveillance for three weeks and was picked up just days before he planned to fly to Saudi Arabia, The Associated Press reported.

The case against the charity, located in the Chicago area, has focused on its ties to bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist group. But ruling Monday that there was probable cause to take the case to a federal grand jury, Magistrate Judge Ian Levin said evidence that Arnaout's charity had aided Chechen rebels was enough to warrant the perjury charges, the AP reported.

Federal prosecutors cautioned that this does not imply the government considers Chechen rebels also to be terrorists. "The Chechens fall under the role of military, not terrorists," Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, said Wednesday by telephone.

Benevolence International's assets were frozen in December as part of the terrorist investigations in the United States. The charity sued the government for the release of its assets, and the perjury charges stem from its sworn statement in that civil case that it did not fund terrorism or "military operations of any nature."

An FBI affidavit in support of the federal complaint, which was provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office, said financial records obtained from Citibank show that during the first four months of 2000, the charity wired $685,000 to its bank accounts in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia and Russia. It is unclear how much if any of this money went to Chechen rebels.

That same year, however, rebel web site Qoqaz.net designated Benevolence International a "trustworthy charity with experience of working in the Caucasus," through which those wishing to donate money to Chechen fighters should act, according to the affidavit signed by FBI officer Robert Walker.

In 1995, in the middle of the first war in Chechnya, the charity opened an office in Baku and delivered an X-ray machine there. It was handed to the rebels' representative, who acknowledged in writing that "as arranged this unit will be transported to Chechnya for the use of the Chechen mujahedin," the affidavit said.

Documents recovered in the charity's offices in Palos Hills, Illinois, which were raided by the FBI in December, indicated that the rebel representative, who also asked the charity for anti-mine, steel-soled boots, was additionally provided with $3,200.

In March of this year, the affidavit said, the FBI met with a senior Georgian law enforcement official, who said the brother of the head of the charity's Tbilisi office was affiliated with Chechen rebels in Georgia.

In his ruling, Levin said the charity "did in fact send support to the Chechen mujahedin who were engaged in fighting," the AP reported.

Benevolence International lawyers could not be reached Wednesday or Thursday. Before the judge, they argued there was no evidence showing where the money wired to the Caucasus went, the AP said.

Murad Yakhyayev, spokesman for the charity's office in Baku, said the money went directly to relief groups in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

"They always provided us with detailed accounts of their expenditures, and our representatives regularly traveled there to examine their activities," he said Thursday. "The money was always spent on relief needs, and we never had any problems with Azeri or Russian authorities."

However, a Dagestani court last year shut down a field office that Benevolence had opened there in 1996, accusing it of terrorist links.

The FBI affidavit details alleged ties of Arnaout and the foundation to bin Laden dating back to the early 1980s, a time when bin Laden was fighting with U.S.-backed rebels in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The charity has been located in the Chicago area since 1992.