A Response to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: Syracuse University Enlists in the Global War on Terror

Thank you for publishing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: Syracuse University Enlists in the Global War on Terror” by Linda Ford and Ira Glunts. The concern expressed in this article is well founded.

In the summer of 2005, I contacted the Syracuse University Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) about a local “terrorism” case; that of Dr. Rafil Dhafir and his charity Help the Needy (HTN). Two defendants in the HTN case graduated from Syracuse University with doctoral degrees and Dr. Dhafir served as imam at the university for several years until a full time imam was hired.

I met with the INSCT Director, William Banks, and Executive Director, Melissa Kim, to see if there was some way in which the law school might provide a platform for information about Dhafir’s case that was not receiving coverage in the local media. Banks told me that INSCT couldn’t do
anything about Dr. Dhafir’s case but that, possibly, it might arrange an event to coincide with the renewal of the Patriot Act, in the fall of 2005. I left with the understanding that we would be in touch about a possible event related to civil liberties; I subsequently wrote three times to both Banks and Kim and received no reply.

As a direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Gulf War and U.S. and U.K. sponsored UN sanctions on Iraq, Dhafir had founded the charity Help The Needy (HTN). For 13 years he worked tirelessly to help publicize the plight of the Iraqi people and to raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dhafir donated $1.25 million of his own money over the years. As an oncologist, he was also concerned about the effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi population which was experiencing skyrocketing cancer rates.

On the morning of Dhafir’s arrest, February 26, 2003, 150 local Muslim families were interrogated in their homes because they had donated to HTN. Different government agents were sent to individuals according to their immigration status: American citizens were interrogated by FBI agents; INS agents interrogated Muslims who were non-citizens; and Muslims who had their own businesses were interrogated by IRS agents as well as FBI. Many of those interrogated have ties to Syracuse University, as faculty, staff, students or alumni. Magda Bayoumi, an S.U. alumna, and one of the few people willing to speak out about her experience on that morning said, “They had come, not to arrest me, but to intimidate me, and put fear into my heart.”

From the outset of Dhafir’s case the government was duplicitous. Using unfair tactics and innuendo, with the aid of a complicit media, the government transformed Dhafir from a compassionate humanitarian into a crook and supporter of terrorists.

On the day of Dhafir’s arrest, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that “funders of terrorism” had been arrested. Just before Dhafir’s trial began in October 2004, then-New York Governor Pataki described the case as a “money laundering case to help terrorist organizations conduct horrible acts,” an announcement perfectly timed to reach potential jurors. Yet prosecutors successfully petitioned the presiding judge, who denied Dhafir bail on four occasions, to prevent the charge of terrorism from being part of the proceedings. No charges of terrorism were ever brought.

Despite being convicted of only International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA) violation and white-collar crime, in October 2005, Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a crime he was never charged with in a court of law‹money laundering to help terrorist organizations.

INSCT AND THE HTN CASE

Within weeks of Dhafir’s sentencing, INSCT sponsored a lecture at Syracuse University Law School entitled, “A Law Enforcement Approach to Terrorist Financing,” in which Dhafir and the HTN case was highlighted. Jeff Breinholt, then-Deputy Chief of the Counterterrorism Section at the U.S. Department of Justice (currently a Senior Fellow and Director of National Security Law at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, IASC) and Greg West, one of the Dhafir prosecutors, presented the lecture. The other two Dhafir prosecutors, Michael Olmstead and Steve Green were also present, along with students and law school faculty.

Breinholt told the students at the lecture that Dhafir’s case had been under-prosecuted. In the context of the lecture title — “A Law Enforcement Approach to Terrorist Financing” — the implication was clear. He told students about the statutes being used as powerful tools for prosecution of terrorist financing and explained that these tools were not widely known even among prosecutors. And he voiced a hope that law schools could serve as a kind of farm system educating students in this new field of law and that this in turn would create lawyers who would be familiar with and who could use these new prosecution tools.

He explained that because the “American public won’t tolerate anything less than the rule of law,” creative ways had to be figured out to draft laws that can be used to prosecute what they are trying to prevent. According to Breinholt, this task was addressed by a Department of Justice Terrorist Financing Task Force that came together to craft ways to apply white-collar
expertise to the problem of terrorism. At the lecture and in an article on “Terrorist Financing,” Breinholt explained,

Persons cannot be convicted of the federal crime of terrorism because there is no such crime. Instead, terrorism crimes have developed in the same manner as other crimes, policymakers determine what evil (or ‘mischief’) should be prevented, and then craft criminal laws that take into account how such mischief is generally achieved. On occasion, acts that are criminalized are not ones that should necessarily be discouraged, if committed by persons not otherwise involved in the targeted conduct. In such cases, laws are crafted to criminalize such conduct only when in particular circumstances.1

A major tool that emerged from the work of this task force, Breinholt told students, is the use of IEEPA violations to gain convictions in terrorist financing cases. Breinholt said that to convict under IEEPA all that was necessary was to build a chain of inferences from available circumstantial evidence. Mr. West, one of the Dhafir prosecutors, explained to the class that one of the biggest frustrations of his career was having access to intelligence and not being able to share it.

Neither Breinholt nor West told the class that these “powerful prosecution tools” are being used mostly against Muslim charities and individuals associated with those charities, while violations by large corporations like Halliburton, which did billions of dollars worth of business in defiance of
IEEPA, go largely unpunished. At the most these corporations have gotten a slap on the wrist and a fine, but no individual board member or officer has ever faced prosecution. And although many non-Muslim charities work in the same troubled regions of the world as Muslim charities, not a single non-Muslim charity has been closed. None of this was mentioned at the lecture.

By hosting this lecture on Dhafir and HTN, Syracuse University Law School gave credence to a charge never brought against Dhafir, and in doing so they became an accomplice in the government’s subterfuge. After the lecture a request was made that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) court watchers who attended the trial be provided with “equal time” to speak to
the students. Syracuse Law School Dean Hannah Arterian denied this request. A copy of the email sent to Dean Arterian at that time is available here.

Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. are currently being subjected to an ad hoc redefinition and contraction of their basic freedoms; the consequences for Muslim charity and Muslims are enormous and unjust. Whether we are a society willing to struggle to regain the protection of freedom for all and equitable application of the law remains to be seen.

  1. U.S. Attorney Bulletin, July 2003, Volume 51, number 4 []
Katherine Hughes is a student at Syracuse University. She attended almost every day of the seventeen-week Dhafir trial, taking notes for five hours each day. Read other articles by Katherine, or visit Katherine's website.