POSTED ON JANUARY 23, 2008:
Bridge Builder, Dupe or Worse?
Former congressman indicted for activity between American charity organization and Islamic terrorists
A former congressman and diplomat who recently visited Tulsa as an advocate for improved Muslim-Christian relations might soon be taking his message of peace and tolerance with him to federal prison, if accusations of his role in funneling money to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban stick.
As reported in UTW (see "Seeking Common Ground", Nov. 29-Dec. 5, 2007 at HYPERLINK "http://www.urbantulsa.com"; www.urbantulsa.com) former Michigan Congressman and Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Mark D. Siljander addressed a standing-room-only crowd, mostly of Christians, in downtown Tulsa last November as he plugged his new book--A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide, which is due out in June.
He called on Christians to turn their focus from trying to convert Muslims to embracing similarities between Christianity and Islam. He argued that much of the disagreement between the two faiths for the past 1,400 years is the result of misunderstandings on each side about the respective teachings of their own holy books, which Siljander purports to clear up in his forthcoming book.
As it turns out, if the accusations against him are true, Siljander might be trying a bit too hard to bridge that divide. He was indicted last week by federal prosecutors on charges of money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice for his alleged role with the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA) in sending money to benefit a high-profile terrorist and Afghan warlord with ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The charges against him are part of a 42-count superseding indictment against IARA and several of its former officers for engaging in illegal financial transactions.
"This superseding indictment paints a troubling picture of an American charity organization that engaged in transactions for the benefit of terrorists and conspired with a former United States congressman to convert stolen federal funds into payment for his advocacy on behalf of the charity," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein in a written statement when the indictment was announced.
According to the indictment, Siljander was hired by Sudanese-born IARA executive director Murbarak Hamed and Libyan-born IARA board member Mohamed Bagegni (both also in hot water) in March 2004 to advocate for the organization's removal from a list of non-profit organizations suspected by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee of supporting terrorist organizations abroad.
The charity had been added to the Committee's published list of such organizations in January that year, and it was allegedly Siljander's job to get IARA reinstated as an approved government contractor by his lobbying efforts.
In exchange, IARA allegedly transferred approximately $50,000 in stolen federal funds to Siljander.
According to the indictment, the funds were from about $2 million entrusted to IARA by the U.S. Agency for International Development for relief projects in Mali, Africa.
IARA was supposed to match those funds, but allegedly failed to do so, leading USAID to terminate its agreement with the group in December 1999.
Hamed and Bagegni, according to the indictment, returned all but the $85,000, from which they allegedly paid Siljander for his alleged lobbying efforts.
Siljander, Hamed, Bagegni and IARA are charged with money laundering and conspiracy for the transaction, "knowing that the transfers were designed to conceal the nature, source and ownership of the proceeds," according to the indictment.
Also, Siljander is charged with obstruction for making false statements to federal officials in December 2005 and in April 2007, telling FBI agents and federal prosecutors that he had not been hired by the group to lobby for them, but that the money was a "charitable donation" to support him in writing his book.
"When he made these statements, he then well knew and believed that each statement was false," the indictment reads.
Last week's indictment added to earlier charges against Hamed and IARA for sending about $130,000, in various transactions between 2003 and 2004, to accounts in Pakistan "purportedly for an orphanage" housed in buildings owned and controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan mujahideen leader and founder of Hezb-E-Islami-Gulbuddin, a militia group allied with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Hekmatyar has declared "jihad" against the U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, and was named a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the U.S. government in 2003, making it illegal to support him or any of his interests.
"It is important to note that the indictment does not charge any of the defendants with material support of terrorism, nor does it allege that they knowingly financed acts of terror," reads a statement about the indictment on the U.S. Department of Justice website. Instead, it reads, the indictment alleges that some of the defendants engaged in financial transactions benefiting property controlled by a designated terrorist, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
"Mark Siljander vehemently denies the allegations in the indictment and will enter a not-guilty plea," said attorney James R. Hobbs in a written statement.
"Mr. Siljander, a former congressman, is internationally recognized for his good-faith attempts to bridge the gap between Christian and Muslim communities worldwide," he also said.
Jerry Dillon, a Tulsa resident, long-time friend of Siljander and the organizer of his downtown speaking engagement last year, told UTW, "He's innocent. No question."
"I knew there were threats that they were going to bring charges against him if he didn't testify according to what they want him to say," he continued.
Dillon explained that Siljander's years of research and bridge-building in the Muslim community have brought him into the orbits of "some influential people in the Muslim world," leading the federal investigators to believe "he knows more than he does," and have been leaning on him for quite some time to testify falsely against past and present members of the IARA.
He noted that he's currently reading an advanced copy of A Deadly Misunderstanding, which is Siljander's account of his efforts at diplomacy within Islamic nations and within the United States' Islamic community, and said, "This is wonderful stuff. You'll be delighted by what you read."
"They're trying to discredit the good work that he's done," Dillon said of the government's charges against his friend.
"If there was something he knew about that was not proper, he would have already reported it," he added.
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