Metro Detroit: Probes of links to Hezbollah Grow

Focus on group concerns some local Muslims

By Niraj Warkoo, Detroit Free Press

Inside the Dearborn banquet hall, Lebanese Americans gazed at flat-screen televisions that flashed video footage of armed Hezbollah fighters battling Israelis in Lebanon.

The mostly Muslim crowd was there to celebrate Lebanon Liberation Day, the sixth anniversary of the Israeli army's departure from southern Lebanon on May 25, 2000. To those inside the hall, Hezbollah is a heroic group responsible for ending Israel's occupation of the towns where they grew up.

But to the U.S. government, Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed terrorist organization that has killed more Americans than any militant group besides Al Qaeda.

The clashing views of Muslims and U.S. authorities over Hezbollah are playing out in southeastern Michigan as federal investigators increasingly target local residents purported to have ties to the group.

Prosecutors have tried to link at least 29 metro Detroit men with Hezbollah over the past three years, according to a review of court records and interviews with attorneys. About half the men were accused of the links in criminal cases over the past three months, including the owner of the La Shish restaurants, Talal Chahine.

The FBI in Detroit says Hezbollah has a presence in Michigan, and the bureau has set up a division to investigate the Shi'ite Muslim group. In recent cases, federal agents are looking at ties to Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric in Lebanon who the U.S. government says is a Hezbollah leader. The FBI in Detroit also has divisions that investigate Hamas and Al Qaeda, but those terrorist groups are not cited as often as Hezbollah in local cases.

"We direct a fair amount of resources to investigating" Hezbollah, said Daniel Roberts, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office. "We have an entire squad of agents and police officers who are focused solely on the Hezbollah terrorist organization here in Michigan."

And with good reason, he says. The Lebanon-based group is blamed for the suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and an attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members 23 years ago. On June 22, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said Hezbollah is training terrorists inside Iraq.

All this focus on Hezbollah has made some local Muslims anxious. Some Shi'ite Muslims in metro Detroit have met Fadlallah, and others grew up with him. A few say they fondly recall a talk he gave in Southfield in 1981. In previous years, some waved Hezbollah flags in public.

They now say they are miffed that prosecutors are trying to link Chahine with Hezbollah through Fadlallah a man they say is not tied to the militant group. In August 2002, Chahine spoke at a fund-raiser in Lebanon and met with Fadlallah.

Chahine, 51, of Dearborn Heights was charged in May with tax evasion, but prosecutors later linked him to Hezbollah in court documents, partly based on that meeting.

Chahine maintains that he was at the fund-raiser for Al-Mabarrat, a charity led by Fadlallah that has an office in Dearborn and is licensed to operate by the U.S. government. Many Muslims in the region have donated to Al-Mabarrat. An employee at its Dearborn office said last week she could not comment.

The FBI's Roberts said anyone with links to Fadlallah is of interest, but he added that the bureau is not going after everyone who has met the cleric. "It goes deeper than just a casual meeting," Roberts said in May.

But to some local attorneys who often represent Arab Americans, what's happening to Chahine fits a pattern.

When Arab Americans commit a crime, terrorism charges often are alleged in later court filings, said Dearborn Heights attorney Nabih Ayad, who has had clients linked to Hezbollah. One of Ayad's former clients, Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, was sentenced in June 2005 to 4 1/2 years in prison for raising money for Hezbollah inside his Dearborn home. Kourani, 35, is one of two people the U.S. Department of Justice has convicted for financing Hezbollah, a federal crime.

Differing views

If morally supporting Hezbollah or associating with Fadlallah is a crime, "there is not going to be enough buses to haul the people out and take them to jail," said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to fight terrorism, Israelis say. Hezbollah, which means Party of God, was formed that same year, the State Department says. Israel occupied parts of Lebanon until Hezbollah forced Israeli troops out in 2000.

Siblani compares Hezbollah with America's founding fathers, such as George Washington, saying, "Your terrorist could be my freedom fighter. A terrorist to the Israelis could be a freedom fighter of mine."

Siblani helped organize the Lebanon Liberation Day event in May, but said he and others follow the U.S. law that bans financial or logistical support for Hezbollah. But he said he questions whether Hezbollah is a terrorist group.

In May, Siblani and other local Lebanese Americans visited Lebanon to meet with the country's top leaders and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. While in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has strong roots, Siblani said he noticed how peaceful the region had become since Israel left in 2000. However, Siblani said he doesn't always agree with Hezbollah, especially when some of its leaders chant at rallies "Death to America!"

"We don't want that to continue, this hatred and slogans against the American people," he said.

Ali Jawad, 50, of Dearborn said he has problems with some of Hezbollah's ideology, including what he sees as the group's mixing of religion and politics. But he wonders whether Hezbollah is a terrorist group. "If there is American blood on their hands, that is something we should look at," he said.

Jawad and other Lebanese Americans argue that Hezbollah wasn't created until the late 1980s, well after it supposedly carried out attacks against U.S. service members.

Today, Hezbollah is a political party in Lebanon with 14 elected officials. Imam Mohammad Elahi, head of the Islamic House of Wisdom, a Shi'ite mosque in Dearborn Heights, said this Hezbollah has nothing to do with the groups blamed for killing Americans in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to press Iran to end its alleged support of terror in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Scott Carpenter, a top State Department official who visited Michigan last month to talk about efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, said the department is concerned about Hezbollah's ties to Iran.

Growing push to find links

In recent months, prosecutors have tried to link a number of men to Hezbollah, including in a case unsealed in March that involves 19 men, most of whom are from Michigan or Windsor.

Local Arab Americans and attorneys who represent them say they worry that the focus on Hezbollah in metro Detroit may be because of the area's large Lebanese Shi'ite community.

"They're looking for any excuse to put an Arab guy in jail," said Dearborn attorney Michael Rataj.

Rataj represented Nemr Ali Rahal, the owner of a Dearborn grocery store who had been charged with credit card fraud. In court, prosecutors tried to deny him bond by noting that images of a Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were found in his home, along with tapes of the group.

Rahal was sentenced in April to 33 months in prison on the fraud charges, but his attorney is concerned that the government tried to link Rahal to terrorism because of the Hezbollah materials.

Stephen Murphy, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said his office does not target any particular ethnicity or religion. But when it comes to cases of financial support for Hezbollah, "we will prosecute them as aggressively as we can."