Olajuwon says he didn't know of terrorism ties

Updated: February 10, 2005, 6:05 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A mosque established and funded by basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon gave more than $80,000 to charities the government later determined to be fronts for the terror groups al-Qaida and Hamas, according to financial records obtained by The Associated Press.

Olajuwon told the AP he had not known of any links to terrorism when the donations were made, prior to the government's crackdown on the groups, and would not have given the money if he had known.

"There is no way you can go back in time," Olajuwon said in a telephone interview from Jordan, where he is studying Arabic. "After the fact, now they have the list of organizations that are banned by the government."

A Treasury Department spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, declined to discuss Olajuwon's contributions but said, "In many cases donors are being unwittingly misled by the charities."

Federal law enforcement officials said they were not investigating Olajuwon, a 7-foot center born in Nigeria who played 17 seasons for the NBA's Houston Rockets before retiring in 2002.

Olajuwon, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, was known as "The Dream" and won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in 1994, when he led the Rockets to the first of back-to-back championships.

The Olajuwon-founded Islamic Da'Wah Center in Houston gave more than $60,000 in 2000 and $20,000 in 2002 to the Islamic African Relief Agency, the center's tax records show.

The government shut down the relief agency in October, saying it gave money and other support to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

But the agency and its possible ties to terrorism had been in news stories years earlier, before Olajuwon's contributions:

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development cut off two government grants to the Islamic African Relief Agency in 1999, saying funding the group "would not be in the national interest of the United States."

  • A former fund-raiser for the relief agency, Ziyad Khaleel, was named in a federal trial in 2001 as the man who bought a satellite telephone that bin Laden used to plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

  • Numerous news organizations reported shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks that the relief agency was among more than two dozen Islamic charities under scrutiny for possible terrorist ties.

    Olajuwon also participated in a 1999 celebrity bowling tournament for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which the U.S. government shut down in 2001, accusing it of sending money to Hamas. The Islamic Da'Wah Center gave more than $2,000 to the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation in 2000, according to its tax returns.

    At the time, Olajuwon was vice president of the mosque -- which was named after him -- and provided more than three-quarters of its money. Olajuwon heads the separate foundation that now controls the Islamic Da'Wah Center.

    All the donations came before the government designated the Holy Land Foundation and the Islamic African Relief Agency as terrorist fronts. Vipul Worah, an accountant for Olajuwon's charities, said U.S. authorities have never asked about the contributions.

    Olajuwon, who is married with four daughters, became a Muslim during his professional career and was known for playing in key games while observing dawn-to-dusk fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

    Tax returns for Olajuwon's Islamic Da'Wah Center show it gave the Islamic African Relief Agency $61,250 in 2000 and $20,000 in 2002.

    Those donations accounted for 2.2 percent of the $2.8 million the Islamic African Relief Agency received during 2000 and 1.4 percent of the $1.4 million it raised in 2002, records show.

    Olajuwon said the donations came after fund-raisers from the Islamic African Relief Agency visited Houston. He said the group told him donations would help the needy in Africa.

    "They came and approached us and everything was legitimate. I had no knowledge of their activity," Olajuwon said.

    The Treasury Department alleged in October that several top officials of the group's branches overseas are al-Qaida members or associates and the group gave bin Laden hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1999.

    The federal government says the Sudan-based Islamic African Relief Agency's U.S. branch is IARA-USA, based in Columbia, Mo. That group has challenged the terrorist designation in court, saying it is separate from the Sudanese group.

    Shereef Akeel, a lawyer for IARA-USA, acknowledged the U.S. group and the Sudanese group "may be in a partnership together" and some people with links to IARA-USA have terrorist associations.

    "Just because someone traveled in the same circles, just because one employee was at the same conference as someone who supported terrorism, doesn't mean the organization sponsors or condones acts of terrorism," Akeel said.

    The Holy Land Foundation was shut down in December 2001. Federal authorities say it was the main U.S. fund-raiser for Hamas and sent $12.4 million to the Palestinian terrorist group from 1995 to 2001. Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel that have killed scores of people, including Americans.

    The Holy Land Foundation and several leaders are awaiting trial on criminal charges of supporting terrorism -- charges they deny. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the group's 2002 lawsuit challenging its terrorist designation, ruling federal officials had "ample evidence" of financial support for Hamas.

    Attorney General John Ashcroft said in July that an indictment against several officers was "neither a reflection on the well-meaning people who may have donated funds to the foundation, nor is it a reflection on the Muslim faith and its adherents."

    In 2000, the year after Olajuwon participated in the Dallas bowling tournament for the Holy Land Foundation, the Islamic Da'Wah Center gave the group $2,430, tax records show. That money was a tiny fraction of the $13 million the foundation raised that year.

    Olajuwon said the bowling tournament was one of many charitable events he has attended.

    "I get all sorts of requests from charitable organizations," Olajuwon said. "It was a bunch of kids and I gave them autographs."


    Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press