Catching Up with Enaam Arnaout of Benevolence International Foundation
By Karin Friedemann, TMO
There are many sad stories about Muslims who were sent to prison. Not all of them were misguided romantics framed by the FBI. Some earlier victims of the â€œWar on Terrorâ€ were sincere followers of Islam, who went out of their way to serve the poor and hungry in war torn areas around the globe. Many of these people like Iraqi Dr. Rafil Dhafir, of Help the Needy and Palestinian Shukri Abu Baker of Holy Land Foundation, will likely die in prison due to their long sentences, for no crime besides raising money to feed Muslims living under US and Israeli military occupation.
Dr. Aafia Siddique, a child development researcher who became passionately obsessed with helping the Bosnians, started a collection of used boots while studying at at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She made a purchase in a military surplus outlet, possibly steel toed boots, sparking FBI interest. Dr. Siddique and her three children were kidnapped while awaiting a train in Pakistan in 2003. She and at least one son spent years being tortured in Bagram prison in Afghanistan until news of her existence was spread by prisoners who were released as a result of a bombing by the Taliban. Siddique was released to the US after inquiries from the UK as to her whereabouts following these reports. She remains imprisoned in a mental hospital in New York State despite repeated requests from the Pakistani government to have her repatriated.
Therefore, it is on a bright note that TMO reports that our dear Syrian brother Enaam Arnaout was released in July 2010. He is alive in Chicago and doing reasonably well after serving nine years in a CMU prison in Terre Haute, largely for his involvement in supplying the Bosnian army with steel toed boots in an effort to help prevent injuries from land mines. Prosecutors accused him of defrauding donors to Benevolence International Foundation, which was collecting money for humanitarian relief, in providing â€œmilitary equipment.â€ However, this author clearly remembers that BIF fundraisers focused on the need for protective footwear. There was no fraud involved.
The whole case made very little sense to the public, since we thought the US was supposedly on Bosniaâ€™s side in the war. Court documents imply that the charity was targeted by neocons in the Bush administration because international money exchanges made by Islamic charity organizations often use mechanisms outside of the western banking system.
Muslims sponsoring orphans in foreign lands were not considered the threat, per se, but the ability of Muslim organizations to move money around in order to perhaps influence the outcome of world events – keeping people alive to fight another day – was seen as a threat to the world order.
Arnaoutâ€™s drama unfolded in 2002, when he was taken away from us, shortly after his charity office in Palos Hills, IL was raided by the FBI. Bush closed all the orphanages and clinics that American Muslims sponsored in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and China; upon which thousands of children, including polio victims, were depending on for their survival.
The Chicago Tribune reports: â€œAbout a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration highlighted the charges against Arnaout, saying he had provided material support to al-Qaida. But on the day of his trial in 2003, the Syrian native pleaded guilty to diverting charity money to pay for boots, uniforms and other equipment for Islamic fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya. The government dropped charges that he aided a terrorist group.
â€œAccording to his lawyers, Arnaout was released in July 2010 from federal prison to a halfway house, then placed on home detention so he could work as a used-car salesman. By February 2011, he began his three-year supervised release.â€
That he received so light a sentence (nine years) is remarkable, especially after the publicizing of his old photos from LIFE magazine in the 80â€™s showing him walking next to Osama bin Laden, testifying to Arab News on Soviet napalm bombing, and US news reports that he had driven bin Ladenâ€™s wife to the airport.
While he was working on his masters degree in Pakistan, he met many public figures including Abdullah Azzam. Arnaout fought in the Battle of Jaji in 1987 against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and is regarded by many as a war hero.
Now 50 years old, Arnaout lives alone in Chicago and works long hours at a used car lot in order to support his six children, who live abroad. He has not seen them, nor their mothers, since his release from prison due to fears that he might be subject to arrest if he travels to those countries because of his history. Arnaout communicates by Skype with his family regularly.
Arnaout gained permission from a judge to travel to Saudi Arabia twice during his probation period in order to see his elderly mother, brother, and other family members. He was greeted with rose petals and great festivities, as he kissed his motherâ€™s feet. His travel was delayed due to harassment by Turkish and Jordanian authorities at airports, despite being cleared for travel by US authorities. His probation period will end in February 2014.
Arnaout is the eighth of ten children, three of whom were murdered in their home in Hamah by a special force of the Syrian army in 1980, due to his brother Bassam Arnaout, a famous leader of an Islamic Brotherhood splinter group of front fighters in militant opposition to Hafez al Assadâ€™s government.