The conviction of one of America's most influential Muslims on charges of involvement in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi royalty casts a shadow on the future of Washington's budding relationship with Libya, writes Rasha Saad
Abdul-Rahman Al-Amoudi, a renowned American Muslim activist, pleaded guilty on Friday to charges of illegal financial dealings with Libya, and revealed his participation in an alleged Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz.
Al-Amoudi pleaded guilty to three criminal charges "relating to his activities in the United States and abroad with nations and organisations that have ties to terrorism, and his participation in a plot to assassinate an ally in the war against terror," a US Justice Department statement said.
He was charged with unlicensed travel to, and commerce with, Libya; providing false information on immigration forms; and tax offences designed to conceal his transactions with Libya from the US Internal Revenue Service, it said.
According to the US Justice Department, between November 1995 and September 2003 Al-Amoudi plotted to obtain money illegally from Libya and other foreign sources. He provided false information on immigration forms -- he travelled to Libya at a time when US citizens were not permitted to do so and failed to inform immigration officials. The plot also involved evading currency reporting requirements, and concealing foreign bank accounts.
"Al-Amoudi participated in recruiting participants for this plot by introducing the Libyans to two Saudi dissidents in London and facilitating the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash from the Libyans to those dissidents to finance the plot." The Friday statement, however, did not include more details on the plot.
Starting in 2003, the report goes on to say, Al- Amoudi visited Libya regularly for meetings with government officials, during which the officials talked about creating "headaches and disruptions" in Saudi Arabia. "As the scheme continued, however, Al-Amoudi learned that the actual objective of the scheme was the assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah," the statement said.
Al-Amoudi was stopped by British authorities in Heathrow airport last September as he was boarding a flight to Syria while in possession of $340,000 which, he said, he received from a Libyan-backed charity. He was allowed to board the plane, however, and his itinerary included stops in Egypt, Syria and Libya. On his return to the US he withheld information from immigration officials about his trip to Libya. He was arrested and has been in detention ever since.
Ironically, these revelations come at a time when the US is developing ties with Libya.
Al-Amoudi -- born in Eritrea and a naturalised US citizen -- may go to prison for 23 years and faces a fine of $750,000. He may be stripped of his citizenship, is required to hand over the funds from his illegal dealings with Libya -- which amounts to at least $910,000 -- and to cooperate fully in US government investigations. He will be sentenced on 15 October.
Although Al-Amoudi has admitted to taking part in the alleged plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah, his lawyers insist that he was merely aware of the plot but not actually involved. His lawyer, Stanley Cohen, said the government conceded that Al-Amoudi's role was "minimal" and he was unaware of much of the conspiracy.
"When he agreed to participate in a conspiracy, he had no idea it was a conspiracy to kill Abdullah. But he did agree in the statement of facts in the case that there did come a point in time where he knew the stated goal of the plot was to kill Prince Abdullah," said Cohen.
Al-Amoudi allegedly met with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on two occasions to discuss details of the plot, although the Department of Justice statement mentioned only the word "official".
The Libyan leader clashed with Crown Prince Abdullah at an Arab League meeting in March 2003, which allegedly prompted the assassination plot.
While American Muslim activists are still shocked by Al-Amoudi's plea, US officials hailed his cooperation. "America has gained the cooperation of an individual who can provide critical intelligence in our war against terrorism, particularly regarding terrorism financing," US Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
"This conviction is a milestone in the war on terrorism. Al-Amoudi was a major player in the financial support of terrorism," said Paul McNulty, US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
"It's an intelligence coup for the US," said one government official, requesting anonymity. "This guy was really well-connected, and he knows who all the players are," the official told CNN.
The Washington Post said Al-Amoudi's plea marked the downfall of a highly visible figure who met with top US officials to gain a greater political voice for Muslims in this country.
Indeed, Al-Amoudi, a resident of Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington suburb, was a prominent member of the US Muslim community, a founder of the American Muslim Council and the American Muslim Foundation, and an influential member of other Islamic groups. He is a longtime activist who helped found the Pentagon's Muslim chaplain programme. He was involved in giving Muslims a greater say in American politics, meeting with senior Clinton and Bush administration officials.
Many of Al-Amoudi's supporters, who regard him as a moderate, are not convinced of Al- Amoudi's part in the alleged assassination plot. They assert he was forced into admitting his complicity to secure a plea bargain.
Nasser Al-Zahery, a United Arab Emirates national said that Al-Amoudy "understood the Arab and Islamic needs in spite of the American and Zionist financial and moral support for the Jewish lobby."
Al-Zahery finds it ironic that "Al-Amoudy is being implicated in supporting terrorism at a time when he was collecting every dollar to change the stereotypical image of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists."
However, revelations of Libya's alleged involvement in the assassination plot -- which was reported by the media in early June -- did not prevent the US from improving ties with the north African country. It was an embarrassment to the Bush administration, indicating that connections with the Libyan leader had been established late last year even though there was knowledge of the existence of the plot.
Reacting defensively to media reports in June, the US said it was "monitoring Libya's behaviour carefully". US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the allegation, if proven, would affect the pace of US relations with Libya.
However, the US formally resumed diplomatic ties with Libya a few days later. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns revealed the intention to re-establish diplomatic links after talks with Gaddafi and his ministers in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on the 28 June. Burns was in the city to formally open a new US liaison office.
But US Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia that the relationship with Libya "will not be fully normal until it is absolutely clear that Libya is no longer participating in any kind of terrorist activity. So, we take these charges very seriously, and we are gathering all the information we can. We will take it all into account as we determine how fast or how to move forward with our relationship with Libya."