Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 October - 3 November 2004
Issue No. 714
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fall from grace

Prominent American Muslim leader Abdul-Rahman Al-Amoudi has been sentenced to 23 years in jail. Mustafa El-Menshawy gauges the reactions and potential consequences

"Your honour, I regret my involvement in everything," prominent Muslim leader Abdul-Rahman Al-Amoudi apologised to United States federal judge Claude Hilton on Friday 15 October. This was just before he was sentenced to the maximum 23 years in jail.

Many American Muslim leaders were shocked by the harsh sentence imposed on the 52-year-old man. He had previously been invited to the White House under the Clinton administration. Now his crimes included illegal dealings with Libya and conspiracy to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz.

While Amoudi put on a brave face as he was led away from the courtroom after being sentenced, many Muslims living in the country felt both betrayed and worried. The Muslim community had trusted this once iconic figure to represent them. Now they learned that this same figure had plotted murder.

"It damages the credibility of the Muslim community and its organisations that someone as prominent as Amoudi has such bad judgement and had, by his own testimony, been ready to engage in assassination," Hussein Ibish, a Washington-based activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Amoudi has no excuse. Muslims here feel betrayed after he pleaded guilty to the charges in July," said Ibish, -- a former spokesman of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and a founding member of the Progressive Muslim Union, a new group designed to clear stereotypes and promote a more influential position for the community.

Amoudi was a naturalised US citizen who had founded the American Muslim Council and was, until the conviction, the president of the American Muslim Federation. His position within the Muslim community had seen him invited to White House ceremonies as a representative of American Muslims. He had also participated in a group discussion with the then- presidential candidate George W Bush.

No wonder many were stunned when Amoudi pleaded guilty on 30 July. His charges consisted of three criminal violations of US law concerning activities both home and abroad with nations and organisations linked to terrorism, in addition to his participation in the assassination conspiracy.

According to a 20-page "statement of facts" filed by the prosecutors, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi wanted Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah killed after a March 2003 Arab League summit had seen the two leaders insulting each other. Within two weeks, Amoudi was summoned to a meeting in Libya and told by Libyan officials that Gaddafi intended to punish Abdullah. The unidentified Libyan officials wanted Amoudi to introduce them to Saudi dissidents who could create "headaches" for the Saudi regime, the prosecutors said.

Amoudi was carrying $340,000 in cash, received from Libya, when it was seized by airport authorities in the United Kingdom during a routine baggage search. He was questioned about the money without being arrested. Amoudi returned to Libya and was arrested in September 2003 when he returned to the United States.

While Amoudi was not directly charged in connection with the assassination plot, prosecutors cited the plot as a reason to pass the maximum sentence against him. "This conduct is so base, so reprehensible that this defendant deserves every day of prison that this court will impose upon him", government attorney Steven Ward declared.

US Attorney-General John Aschroft welcomed the end of the year-long case. He said Amoudi will aid "critical" terrorism investigations. This statement raised fears of a forthcoming clamp down on American Muslim leaders and their organisations. Government officials were quoted as expecting that the case's outcome would help probes into whether Islamic charities, companies and think-tanks helped finance alleged terrorist organisations.

"Muslim organisations in the United States would be affected by that case," an American Muslim leader told the Weekly, on strict condition of anonymity. "There are overwhelming feelings within the Muslim community that its members are unfairly targeted and charities unjustifiably shut down," he added. Amoudi was known for his successful campaigns to raise funds for poor and needy Muslims, a factor the Muslim leader said could throw mistrust on all US Muslim charities.

US officials have called the ruling against Amoudi a step in the right direction in the fight against terrorism. "This is a clear victory in the war against terrorism," said Paul McNulty, the US attorney in Alexandria, where Amoudi was first brought before court. Michael Garcia, the Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that the statement "reflects the seriousness of Amoudi's crimes". During the investigation he noted, "agents tracked suitcases stuffed with cash, unearthed Swiss bank accounts and documented meetings with shadowy figures around the world".

Almost all American Muslim groups stopped short of throwing suspicion on the fairness of the sentence, unlike other similar occasions. Notably, the Council on American- Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil advocacy group in the US, with 18 regional offices, distanced itself from the whole case.

"We have nothing to do with Amoudi or his organisations," Nehad Awad, the executive director of the Washington- based organisation, told the Weekly. Dismissive as he is, Awad stated "the action of one individual should not affect the reputation of [all Muslim] organisations."

But Amoudi is by no means an ordinary Muslim American. He is a high-profile activist known for his high profile among Muslims in the US. "Some community members reacted to the sentence with denial, as they feel how that was damaging and embarrassing for Muslim institutions," said Ibish.

Other Muslims shared doubts about the case, saying it could have been "set up" by the government in order to destroy a symbolic figure -- a figure known for his efforts to promote the political position of a seven million strong community. They alleged that the sentence could be "politically motivated", as it came less than three weeks before the presidential elections and would appeal to conservative voters and supporters of Bush's so-called war on terrorism.

Still, the imprisonment of Amoudi did have one positive impact on Muslim groups. They are now taking stock of their leader selection methods in order to avoid a repeat of the Amoudi case. "These organisations have begun to pay attention to the identity and character of Muslim leaders after the Amoudi case," Ibish said. He noted that Amoudi was rather "a leader by default", as he had taken the initiative to serve Muslims rather than be picked for the position. "We should think who is in the leadership position, otherwise it would be unhelpful," he concluded.

Sources close to Amoudi told the Weekly his term could be reduced in a next-year review if he shows significant willingness to cooperate with further investigations. None of his attorneys were available to verify this.

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