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FBI arrests alleged terrorist group fund-raisers

The Associated Press
Thursday March 01, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Federal agents arrested seven people who used a charity scam to solicit money from travelers arriving in Los Angeles to support a terrorist Iranian opposition group believed to have used the funds to buy arms, the FBI said Wednesday. 

The seven people, who also solicited from the city’s large Iranian community, are a cell of the Mujahedeen Khalq Organization of Iran, or the People’s Holy Warriors, known as the MEK, said James DeSarno, assistant director of the Los Angeles FBI office. 

A woman identified as the cell leader and six men were taken into custody Tuesday. Each was charged with one count of supporting a terrorist organization, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  

They were expected in court Wednesday afternoon. 

The cell did not have an armed wing, the FBI said. 

“The subjects in this case targeted travelers, primarily of Asian descent, as they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. They dressed in business attire and used binders containing photographs of starving children and other documents,” he said. 

The FBI official said that during one 12-month period the group deposited $1 million in a Turkish bank. 

“It is believed that the money was used to buy arms, such as mortars and rocket propelled grenades,” DeSarno said. 

“Although the members of this cell are not known to have been involved in any of those specific actions, they are part of the same organization which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups,” he said. 

The Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq wants to overthrow Iran’s Islamic government. The group recently said its forces were involved in heavy fighting with Iran’s army this month. Britain, meanwhile, said Wednesday it will ban the group under a new anti-terrorism law. 

“The MEK is a known terrorist group and is believed to have participated in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and to have killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians,” DeSarno said. 

The FBI said the cell’s leader was Tahmineh Tahamtan, 39. The others were identified as Mustafa Ahmady, 46; Hossein Afshari, 43; Ali Reza Moradi, 30; Hassan Rezai, 46; Mohammad Omidvar, 44, and Najaf Eshkoftegi, 50. 

The FBI said Eshkoftegi is a naturalized citizen and the others are Iranian nationals. 

Omidvar’s wife, however, said that he is a citizen, too. 

“My husband is in this country 23 years,” Sabrina Omidvar, 32, said as she waited for his court appearance. “The only thing he had in his whole life was a parking ticket and that was dismissed. He’s a good citizen. These are all false.” 

Mrs. Omidvar said her husband, who manages a jewelry store, was arrested at gunpoint outside their Anaheim home as she and their 2-year-old daughter watched. 

She said she and her husband do not contribute to any causes but are political and dislike the government of Iran. Omidvar “cares about human rights,” she said. 

She said the Iranian regime imprisoned her for two years for being an opponent, jailed her father for seven years and executed three of her cousins. 

“The criminals are in Iran,” she said. 

The arrests capped a three-year investigation prompted by a report from German authorities and a separate report by Los Angeles television station KCBS. 

The FBI said German federal police reported in mid-1997 that they were investigating money laundering that included large sums being sent from Los Angeles. KCBS-TV reported on solicitations targeting Asians at Los Angeles International, the world’s fourth busiest airport in number of passengers. 

DeSarno said the cell raised $5,000 to $10,000 a day. FBI Special Agent Matthew McLaughlin said the cell had been soliciting since the early 1990s. 

“No evidence in the case supports the fact that any of these persons solicited either at the airport or in the Iranian community had knowledge of the fact that this money was being used to support terrorist activity,” DeSarno said. 

The cell raised the funds on behalf of a charity fund known as the Committee for Human Rights, which is known as CHR in Iran, he said. 

“The CHR purported to use the money for humanitarian aid,” he said. “This investigation has revealed that money was really used to support terrorist actions.” 

In addition to the $1 million transferred to bank accounts in Turkey, DeSarno said the FBI tracked $400,000 that was transferred to a used auto parts store in the United Arab Emirates in April 1989. 

“This transfer was not related to any humanitarian aid,” he said. 

Passengers traveling through Los Angeles International often face solicitors. 

John Martin, 29, of Oklahoma City handed over some spare change to one as he passed through the airport Wednesday. 

“I just saw the sign that said for abused children and that’s why I gave,” he said, adding that he was surprised to hear of the scheme alleged by the FBI. 

“I’m definitely going to think twice the next time around,” he said.