Thursday, February 22, 2024

Maryland Legislature Funds Pro-Iran Mosque Entangled in Terror Trials

ResearchGovernment Funding of IslamismMaryland Legislature Funds Pro-Iran Mosque Entangled in Terror Trials

While Iranians continue to take to the streets, risking their lives in a women-led uprising to topple the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Maryland General Assembly is set to fund a Potomac-area mosque once seized by federal authorities for allegedly acting as a “front” for Iran’s tyrannical regime. The Islamic Education Center (IEC) and associated Alim Academy will receive around $115,000 in grants earmarked for facility renovations, despite the property belonging to a highly controversial charity suspected of operating under the ownership and direction of Iranian authorities. 

Part of a 2023 legislative bond initiative, the funding measure stands as a painful affront to Iranian dissidents and victims of the regime’s atrocities, many who experienced arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture, only to encounter the regime’s patronage network at work in the United States.  

“As an Iranian-American Marylander, I have to wonder why the Maryland General Assembly wants to grant funding to an organization that is openly associated with a regime whose human rights abuse track record is an abomination,” said Banafsheh Zand, whose father, a political prisoner, film critic, and renowned journalist, died under house arrest in Iran in what the regime ruled was a suicide. 

A “State of Maryland 2023 Bond Initiative Factsheet,” which includes a $75,670 request to IEC for “kitchen improvement,” lists the Alavi Foundation as the owner of the grantee’s property. A separate $40,000 bond initiative was allocated to building a “playground” at the Alim Academy, IEC’s secondary school. Both projects are sponsored by State Senator Brian Feldman (D-15). 

The Alavi Foundation came under scrutiny from federal authorities in 2009, when U.S. Marshals placed forfeiture notices on the charity’s properties, including a Manhattan skyscraper valued at close to $1 billion and several pro-regime mosques and Islamic schools around the country. What followed was a sequence of vigorously litigated cases lasting more than 13 years and involving hundreds of litigants, sweeping motions, and years of discovery.

Also at stake was more than $5 billion dollars in judgments awarded to the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism, who stood to collect on civil penalties owed by Iran’s government through the forfeiture of Alavi Foundation properties. 

IEC leaders have long maintained that the mosque’s relationship to Alavi is merely that of tenant to landlord. Yet, from the Islamic center’s founding, its leaders and benefactors have been die-hard Khomeinists, expressing complete loyalty and adoration for Iran’s supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini and promoting the regime’s image with revolutionary zeal.

As a member of the IEC community, Bahram Abolfazi Nahidian was instrumental in securing Alavi Foundation funding for the mosque in 1980. A Washington Post article from the same year claimed Nahidian was “acknowledged by all as the most prominent supporter in this country of Khomeini,” and the “inspirational force behind the supporters of the revolution” in the U.S. He offered religious guidance to a small cadre of African American converts, including Daoud Salahuddin, who assassinated an Iranian opposition leader living in Bethesda, Maryland, before escaping to Tehran. 

Mohammed Al-Asi reportedly led IEC’s congregation from the mosque’s founding in 1981 until 1997. In a 1994 letter published in the Washington Post, Al-Asi swore “allegiance” to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini in Iran, calling him the “leader of all Muslims.”

That same year, investigative reporter Steve Emerson released a documentary titled Jihad in America, in which Ali-Asi is heard agitating for violence at a 1990 conference. “We should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world,” he said. “Strike against American interests.”

The list of pro-regime IEC leaders extends to more recent years. A Washington Times article from 2009 documents the mosque’s links to Iranian interests, even after the congregation allegedly sought to distance itself from foreign politics. The article points to IEC manager Ali Mohammadi, who denied any connection to Tehran, despite hosting several meetings between the Iranian-American community and then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Iran’s Interest Section, which serves as Tehran’s diplomatic mission in the U.S. after the two countries formally cut ties, organizes pro-regime events with IEC’s Iranian Muslim community. From celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution at IEC, to holding an interfaith event with mosque leaders at the National Cathedral, Iranian officials’ involvement with the Potomac center belies a troubling degree of coordination. 

Imam Ahmad Bahraini, the senior cleric at IEC in more recent years, attended a 2007 event honoring the “demise anniversary” of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Sharing the stage with the head of Iran’s Interest Section, Bahraini recited some of Khomeini’s poetry and praised the Islamist revolutionary for “enhancing the dignity of the Islamic world.”

Although Maryland’s spending bill allocated money to the “Islamic Education Center, Inc.,” a nonprofit representing the mosque community, the Alavi Foundation stands to be enriched as property holders from the state-funded renovations. At the least, this should have given lawmakers a pause who were familiar with the embattled charity’s legal history. 

After a 5-week trial in 2017, a federal jury found Alavi Foundation properties forfeitable in what was the largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture in U.S. history. During the trial, federal prosecutors presented evidence alleging that the Alavi Foundation was under the direction and control of Tehran. 

Originally founded by the Shah of Iran under a different name, what came to be called the Alavi Foundation was absorbed along with its properties by Iran’s post-revolutionary government. In 1991, Khomeini transferred authority over the foundation to Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations after ordering several board members to resign.

A letter from Alavi’s president at the time details how he was summoned to the ambassador’s office and was told that “the role of the Managing Director and the role of the Board of Directors will be just a formality, and that the Ambassador “will be conducting all of its [the Foundation’s] affairs.” Notes from one foundation board member referred to fears that if Alavi’s true nature as an Iranian proxy were to be revealed, it would result in “sure death” to the charity. 

“The efforts at concealing assets did not stop when the lawsuits were filed—they continued with vigor,” wrote District Judge Katherine Forrest, who presided over the case. In 2010, Alavi Foundation President Farshid Jahedi was sentenced to three months in prison for destroying typed and handwritten notes of interest to prosecutors. 

The jury ultimately determined that Alavi Foundation properties were subject to forfeiture for violating federal laws that ban trade with Iran, and for engaging in money laundering to circumvent those laws. Seventeen percent of IEC in Maryland was awarded to the federal government, while 83 percent of the property would go to “private claimants,” including families which held judgments against Iran for terrorism-related offenses. 

However, just two years later, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stunning reversal on procedural grounds. In a 3-0 decision, the court found that Judge Forrest made “a troubling pattern of errors on relatively straightforward issues.” Ownership of the properties returned to the foundation, and the appeals court blocked the victims of Iranian terrorist attacks from pursuing certain claims in a retrial. 

The decision was familiar territory for Stephen Flatow, who lost his daughter Alisa in 1995 from a Palestinian terrorist attack orchestrated by Iran. Ten years before the federal government brought its case against the Alavi Foundation, Flatow unsuccessfully sued to execute a judgment against IEC and other Alavi properties in hopes of recovering $247 million dollars obtained in a default judgment against Iran. 

“As I know from my personal experience, courts in the United States were reluctant to rely on available evidence in order to hold the Iranians accountable for the lives they destroyed,” Flatow wrote in an email. “While the appellate court has dealt the victims a setback, I hope the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney will continue to pursue the Alavi Foundation until the case is resolved in favor of the victims.”

Where does that leave the Maryland mosque located at 7917 Montrose Road in Potomac? IEC leaders sued the Alavi Foundation in 2017, claiming to be the rightful owners of the property after the charity lost its case against the government. The mosque’s attorneys claimed that a $2 million donation, given in 1981 from a prominent Iranian cleric to the Alavi Foundation and used to complete construction of the Fifth Avenue building in Manhattan, was actually intended to pay off IEC’s debt to the charity for purchasing the property months earlier. 

However, the mosque community was apparently uninterested in ending its tenant-landlord relationship with the Alavi Foundation after the appellate court’s reversal in 2019. Safe from forfeiture actions for the time being, IEC chose to place its lawsuit against the foundation on hold pending further litigation. 

For now, IEC remains an Alavi Foundation property, and the state of Maryland’s $115,000 grant to the mosque stands to raise the property value significantly. Just four years earlier, a similar disbursement to an accused “alter ego” of the Iranian government may have been considered material support to a state sponsor of terrorism. 

Although Maryland merely dispensed money to IEC to construct a playground and to update its kitchen appliances, the state’s grant could still be used indirectly to support other causes.  “Money is fungible,” the Supreme Court has ruled in cases involving terror finance. Donating money to an alleged state-controlled charity — even for the most benign humanitarian purposes – frees up capital for the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism to allocate towards more sinister purposes. 

Zand, the Maryland resident who continues to speak out against the Iranian regime that imprisoned her father for years, hopes the state will keep a watchful eye over its grantee. “As a Maryland taxpayer, I certainly hope that, at the very least, the funding that is being offered to this mosque is not only overseen but managed to make sure that it is spent for exactly the purposes that the grant states it is for,” she said. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard did not respond to repeated inquiries about the Southern District of New York’s past or pending litigation against the Alavi Foundation.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article provided an incorrect last name for Banafsheh Zand, erroneously referring to her by her father’s surname, Pourzand. We regret the error.

Benjamin Baird is the Director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum. 

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