Prosecutor: Fla. cleric dedicated to Taliban

May 23, 2011 - 2:58 PM

MIAMI (AP) — Despite a frail and pious appearance, a South Florida Muslim cleric was a dedicated financier of the violent Pakistani Taliban who disliked the "wretched" U.S. and sought the overthrow of Pakistan's government, a federal prosecutor said in court Monday.

Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, directed how thousands of dollars were to be distributed to militant fighters "down to the dollar" and maintained at least three bank accounts in Pakistan to accept the funds, said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley. More than $200,000 has been deposited in those accounts since 2005, he added, although not all the money is linked to terrorism.

"All it takes to provide the support he provided is a telephone," Shipley said. "It doesn't just take somebody to go and blow themselves up."

Shipley laid out more details of the case against Khan, his sons Izhar Khan, 24, and 37-year-old Irfan Khan, and three other suspects at a bail hearing. U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ordered Hafiz Khan and Izhar Khan held without bail, agreeing with prosecutors that both present a danger to the community and are at risk of fleeing the country.

"He is extremely active and has been extremely active in Taliban matters," Garber said of the elder Khan. The government's evidence, Garber added, shows that "his goal was to kill Americans."

Irfan Khan was arrested in Los Angeles and also is being held without bail pending his return to Miami. The other three people named in the four-count terrorism support indictment, including two more Khan family members, are in Pakistan. Each charge carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

The hearing was packed with supporters of the Khans, with about a dozen security personnel keeping watch. Hafiz Khan is the imam at South Florida's oldest mosque, known as both the Miami Mosque and the Flagler Mosque, while Izhar Khan is imam at a mosque in suburban Margate.

Attorneys for Hafiz and Izhar Khan argued that both deserved release on bail, contending that conversations recorded by the FBI could amount to little more than political ranting and that they sent the money to relatives in Pakistan as millions of other immigrants do every day.

"What we have here is a 76-year-old man who said a lot of angry stuff on the telephone and sent money to family members," said Khurrum Wahid, Hafiz Khan's attorney. "We don't know exactly what these funds were for."

Izhar Khan's attorney, Joe Rosenbaum, said his client is barely mentioned in the indictment and that he spent all his time focused on religious studies and his mosque. Rosenbaum described Izhar Khan — who spent most of the hearing with his head bowed and rocking slightly in prayer — as intensely religious but also fully Americanized, noting his love of the NBA's Miami Heat.

"Izhar is a man of peace. He's not a political person. He's been here a long time and loves his country," Rosenbaum said.

Shipley, however, said the FBI recordings of telephone calls and face-to-face conversations involving a confidential source portray Hafiz Khan in particular as deeply involved in the international effort to funnel cash to the Pakistani Taliban for weapons and supplies necessary to attack Pakistani and U.S. targets.

On one call, Shipley said, Hafiz Khan said "he is not happy in 'wretched America'" and that he intended to return to Pakistan. Hafiz Khan owns a religious school, or madrassa, in Pakistan that has been closed because of alleged ties to militants and has a vast network in that country of contacts and supporters, Shipley added.

As for the white-bearded imam's age and health concerns, Shipley said: "His kind of support can be carried out at any age."

Hafiz Khan formally pleaded not guilty Monday to the charges, which include conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism and material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The Pakistani Taliban were designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department on Aug. 12, 2010, and have been linked to a number of deadly attacks, including Monday's assault on a naval base in Karachi, Pakistan.

Even though most of the transactions cited in the indictment occurred before that date, prosecutors say they can obtain convictions if they can prove the Khans sent money overseas to any groups involved in killing or maiming people.

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