Entrepreneur's Donations Linked to Supporting Terrorism
ORLANDO -- Savvy entrepreneurs sprinkled souvenir shops along tourist-sated International Drive here like so many grains of salt, knowing that kiddies would tug their frazzled parents inside to load up on all manner of seashell statues, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and lacquered alligator jaws.
Some of these little shops are dark and dingy. But not Jesse Maali's. He builds gift shops on steroids, outlandishly proportioned places called Big Bargain Worlds that look a bit like wayward UFOs.
When the tourists are done giving Maali their money in his gift shops, they can drive down the block and give him some more at his Ponderosa Steakhouses or his Dunkin' Donuts, or his TGI Friday's or Bennigan's restaurants. By the time they leave town, Maali is that much richer, allowing him to live opulently in the same gated community as Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal.
The endless stream of tourist dough also lets Maali, who was born in Jerusalem, donate lavishly to Palestinian and Muslim charities. But these donations have attracted the attention of federal prosecutors, who say that Maali has links to Middle Eastern groups that advocate violence because he gave tens of thousands of dollars to those organizations.
Prosecutors have not charged him with supporting terrorism, but they have brought up his alleged ties to violent groups in an unsuccessful attempt to have him held without bond on charges of executing an elaborate, $2.5 million money-laundering scheme that allegedly allowed him to employ more than 50 illegal immigrants through shell companies.
The charges frame the case as a straightforward illegal-labor crackdown, like those prosecuted almost every day in courtrooms throughout the nation. But many Muslim leaders believe something much bigger is happening here.What is really at stake, they say, is whether thousands of Muslims nationwide -- Maali among them -- can be considered supporters of terrorism because they donated to charities that, after Sept. 11, 2001, were designated as conduits to terrorists. The fears are compounded because Islam requires its adherents to donate a portion of their annual income to charity -- a practice known as zakat.
The allusions to terrorism in the Maali case inflamed the sizable Muslim and Arab American communities here, leading to demonstrations and impassioned assertions that Maali is being targeted because of a hysterical reaction to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Prosecutors counter that the attacks have nothing to do with the case, noting that the FBI began investigating Maali long before planes smashed into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a Pennsylvania field.
Since the attacks, some of the biggest Muslim charities in the nation have been designated as terrorist financiers by the U.S. government, including the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, which received donations from Maali and many other Muslims. Holy Land says its vast fundraising operation supported only humanitarian causes, such as improving water systems and schools.
"A lot of people are worried; there are a lot of questions," said Hussam Qutub, an adviser to the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that lobbies for Muslim causes.
Qutub has written a few checks over the years to Holy Land, which he said was once the most widely respected charity in the Arab American community, a Muslim equivalent of the United Way.
"There is," Qutub said, "a feeling [among many Muslims] of, 'What is going to happen to me? . . . Is the government coming after us?' "
A Knock at the Door
On Nov. 14, Maali was upstairs at his 10,500-square-foot home when armed federal agents knocked on his door. His wife, Jihad (a name that she says means "struggle," though the word also is often associated with holy wars), heard someone say "federal" and thought it was the Federal Express deliveryman.
Several miles away, dozens more federal agents assigned to a sprawling investigation nicknamed "Operation Thunderdome" poured into Maali's Big Bargain World stores up and down International Drive.
"They wanted to make a splash," Maali said in a recent interview. "Here now I have to go out and prove I'm innocent. This is a new era. I hope America still stays America. I hope we are not going to be a police state."
Maali, 57, speaks in politely measured, somewhat cautious tones, often starting a thought, then apologetically cutting himself off in mid-sentence. While Maali chatted, a dozen members of his extended family of 200 were arrayed around the ground floor of his $3 million mansion. It resembles a fancy hotel lobby, both in style and scope, with its marble floors, giant chandeliers and multiple clusters of upholstered sofas.
On the same day that Maali was arrested, federal prosecutors announced in court that he had "financial ties to Middle Eastern organizations who advocate violence." They did not elaborate, but there was the promise of more to come at a bond hearing several days later.
As Maali sat in jail awaiting the hearing, tensions built outside. A local television station superimposed his face next to an image of Osama bin Laden and dubbed the case "Tourism for Terrorism."
Mosques were abuzz. Muslim leaders complained about what they said was a discriminatory case. Maali's family held a traditional Ramadan feast without him, an act resonant with emotional significance.
"It really shook our community," said Tariq Rashid, the imam of the Jama' Masjid spiritual center in south Orlando and a tutor to some of Maali's children. "To tie him to terrorism without solid proof, this is wrong."
An Atmosphere of Giving
Most of the donations at the heart of the Maali case were made between the mid-1990s and 2000, when a strong current of peer pressure stoked large donations by the elite in Arab American communities across the United States, according to Walid Phares, a terrorism and Middle East expert at Florida Atlantic University.
"Sometimes it may have been just a businessman showing off," Phares said. "They were not even paying attention to how the money was being used."
Extremists took note of the free-wheeling climate, Phares said, and moved into Arab American communities, ostensibly to solicit donations for new schools and medical supplies, competing alongside legitimate charities.
Maali gave big. He turned over about $1,000 a year to Holy Land, but he saved his biggest checks for the Society of In'ash el-Usra, donating about $45,000 a year from the late 1980s onward, according to Taleb Salhab, one of his top business aides. El-Usra deposited one of Maali's checks in the Al Aqsa Islamic Bank, which prosecutors said has ties to the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.
Maali had money to give away because his tourism empire was thriving. He bought into the tourism market at the perfect moment, in the mid-1980s, when International Drive was awakening.
He came to Orlando with a small fortune amassed by selling a string of successful New York supermarkets that he bought cheap from a national chain that fled the city. Now, Maali said, he has the three highest-grossing Ponderosas in the world and his largest Big Bargain Worlds each pull in $3 million a year. His real estate holdings are vast.
"I forget what I have," Maali said.
Prosecutors say the empire was boosted, at least in part, by questionable business practices. They say Maali hired illegal immigrants and counseled business associates how to do the same without being detected by the FBI.
No one could go into business on "I Drive," the local shorthand for International Drive, without his okay and Maali's nephews provided his muscle, acting as "enforcers," prosecutors said. More recently, they said, some of his nephews threatened to kill a government informant.
"I'm afraid the kid [who is acting as an informant] is going to get whacked," said Cynthia Hawkins Collazo, the veteran prosecutor handling the case.
Maali's defenders have been bolstered by several leading International Drive business owners who dispute the assertion that he runs the street.
Mark NeJame, Maali's attorney, calls Collazo's allegation "the stupidest thing imaginable. . . . The only thing whacked about this case is the government's theory."
By the time of Maali's bond hearing, the authorities were preparing for pandemonium, blocking streets and diverting traffic from Orlando's federal courthouse. Outside, more than 200 people who couldn't get a seat inside marched in support of Maali. Several times during the day, dozens of Muslims broke off from the crowd and knelt in the street to pray toward Mecca.
Collazo said the discrimination allegations made by the courthouse demonstrators and by Maali's attorney are unfounded.
"This investigation started three years ago," she said. "I can't imagine there would be any reason to pick on any particular community at that point."
During the bond hearing, FBI counterterrorism specialist Stephen John Thomas outlined Maali's donations and said he collected $30,000 for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the government has listed as a terrorist organization.
Thomas also said Maali corresponded with another charity that allegedly has terrorist ties, Benevolence International Foundation. Like Holy Land, Benevolence has denied supporting terrorism, but the disavowals by both organizations have not swayed the federal judges who ordered their assets frozen.
Faced with the allegations about ties to groups thought to be aiding terrorism, Maali's attorneys struck back aggressively. They came up with receipts to show that the $30,000 the FBI thought Maali was collecting for the Popular Front actually went to the Palestinian Aid Society, a group that has not been accused of terrorist links. The correspondence with Benevolence turned out to have been sent by one of Maali's employees.
At times, it seemed as if the government was grasping. Thomas, for instance, was critical of Maali for holding two passports (U.S. and Jordanian), a common practice among international business executives and the large number of Americans who have dual citizenship.
"I don't know why a U.S. citizen who, when he takes the oath [and] renounces all allegiance to foreign governments, would be traveling with a foreign document," Thomas testified. "It might be nice that he would have a foreign document from his homeland or his country as a memento or keepsake, but to travel under that as an official travel document -- no, I would find that very unusual."
Prosecutors and Maali's attorneys also have dueled over the meaning of a letter Maali wrote to an Arabic-language newspaper in London. The prosecution's translator said the article praises suicide bombers as martyrs for the Palestinian cause.
Looking back, Collazo said, the combination of Maali's donations and the letter was enough to give her "cause for concern," even though she is not "saying that we proved that he knowingly supported terrorism."
Maali says the letter was misread by the government translator and simply sought to understand the motivation of suicide bombers, ultimately concluding that such attacks are misguided. Regardless, Sami Qutby, a prominent business figure and head of the Arab American Community Center of Central Florida, and who testified on behalf of Maali, said Muslims should be free to write whatever they please.
"I thought we're in the U.S.," Qutby testified. "We have the right to write. What happened to this country?"
U.S. Magistrate David A. Baker refused to order Maali held without bond, though he did require the entrepreneur to put up $500,000 in cash and $5 million worth of property to guarantee his appearance at future court dates. Baker said the financial requirements, believed to be the steepest in the history of the federal court in Orlando, were necessary because of Maali's wealth and history of foreign travel.
Then the magistrate scolded the prosecution.
"There is a great danger," Baker said, "that connections and associations can be used to paint with a very broad brush. Simply because someone meets or knows someone . . . or shares the same characteristics does not make him responsible for somebody else's actions."
The judge's words encouraged Maali and his supporters, but where the case goes from here is still uncertain. The Maali investigation is ongoing, Collazo said, with possible tax evasion charges in the offing and federal authorities looking into "anything and everything."