“Isolated Enclave” by Mercury News


By BRANDON BAILEY and SEAN WEBBY. February 11, 2007 at 1:50 am (Published originally in Mercury News)


FRESNO, CALIFORNIA – Khadijah Ghafur sat silently in hijab and correctional jumpsuit, facing a judge, a lengthy prison term and the complete collapse of her elaborate plans.

Where did the money go?

The answer could lie in evidence never introduced in court. The Mercury News has learned of several overseas fund transfers, a mysterious letter and a web of connections between Ghafur and an obscure Pakistani cleric known as Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Gilani.

Supporters say Gilani is a charitable teacher and spiritual leader who promotes self-improvement. But over the years, state and federal authorities have described him as the head of an in

The story of the mysterious cleric and the self-proclaimed all-American girl offers a rare glimpse into the murky world of international extremist groups. Experts say that many extremists raise money under the guise of humanitarian work. But if it was one thing to convict Ghafur of stealing money from the Gateway charter school, it was something far different to determine whether the money went to terrorists overseas.

“These groups are very effective fundraisers,” said Robert Templer, an Asia expert with the International Crisis Group, a New York think tank. “And there’s no oversight as to where that money ends up. There’s a huge blurring between humanitarian activities and political or religious jihadi activities.”

Was Ghafur using a state-funded charter school as a source of revenue to bankroll a terrorist?

Or was she, as she says, the victim of social forces that were warped by anti-Islamic prejudice after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

“I’m not a terrorist. I don’t know any terrorists,” Ghafur said in a recent jailhouse interview. In the wake of Sept. 11, she was railroaded on charges of stealing school funds, she insisted. “This is what we as Muslims have to deal with.”

The beginnings: From civil rights to social work

Khadijah Ghafur grew up as Deanna Moton, at a time when the South was a dangerous place for African-Americans who asserted their civil rights.

When she was a teenager, she joined in the famous “Bloody Sunday” protest march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Later that month, her older brother Leroy was riding beside Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker, when Liuzzo was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Leroy Moton survived by playing dead.

Ghafur and many of those close to her declined to speak at length for this article. But her story can be gleaned from records and other sources.

She trained as a social worker in Alabama and Atlanta before moving to New York in the 1970s. A decade later, she landed in Southern California. By then, she had converted to Islam and began calling herself Khadijah, after the powerful, intelligent businesswoman who was the Prophet Muhammad’s wife.

This Khadijah married James Jennings, who used the name Abdullah Baqi. Law enforcement authorities describe him as a West Coast leader of Jamaat ul-Fuqra, a movement led by Gilani, whose U.S. and Canadian followers were linked to a variety of financial crimes, bombings and killings in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Supporters of Gilani, whose name is also spelled Jilani, insist there is no such thing as Ul-Fuqra.

No one, however, disputes that Gilani’s following in this country started around 1980, when the Pakistani cleric visited New York and began preaching among African-American Muslims there. At his urging, they founded several Muslim communities in rural America.

“I have studied and followed Sheikh Jilani’s teachings on the meaning of the Holy Quran since 1982. He has never taught or sponsored violence or terrorism,” Khadijah Ghafur says in a statement posted on a Web site by supporters who characterize her as a political prisoner targeted because of her religion.

“Sheikh Jilani urged urban Muslims to abandon what he called the `welfare mentality,’ move out of inner-city ghettos and set self-sustaining communities of Muslim families in rural areas,” she wrote.

Ghafur tried to start a community in the desert east of Los Angeles and later on the site of a former Baptist camp in the Sierra foothills. Each time, the residents were evicted or drifted away.

By the mid-1990s, Baqi had dropped from sight and Ghafur was living in Fresno with her second husband, Salih Ghafur. Soon she acquired another property, deep in the Sierra foothills, on a remote stretch of state Highway 245.

On 300 acres of steep hills and scattered pines, she established a settlement known as Baladullah, or “City of God.”

Baladullah wasn’t just a residential enclave, though about 100 men, women and children lived there in mobile homes. It’s unclear whether everyone there was a Gilani follower, and some would later deny that Baladullah was officially connected to Gilani. But a sign out front announced it was also a campus of International Qur’anic Open University, the educational arm of Gilani’s movement.

Although the nearest neighbor was miles away, the property was surrounded by a fence and occasionally guarded by young men with guns.

But Ghafur, the community’s matriarch, had lofty ideas and a knack for getting people to embrace them. She impressed Fresno school officials in 1998 with her plans for a charter school serving low-income families.

California was then in the vanguard of a national movement. New rules opened the door for community groups to create schools and operate them with public funds.

“We all wanted to believe in what they were doing, what they said they intended to do,” said Marilyn Shepherd, then-director of charter schools with the Fresno district.

Ghafur opened the first Gateway Academy charter school in Fresno in 2000. There was another campus housed in a ramshackle building at Baladullah.

In less than a year, Ghafur had built an empire of a dozen campuses around the state, mostly by affiliating with existing private schools. In official documents, Gateway projected a 2001-02 enrollment of 1,400 students.

The number would never reach more than half that.

In August 2001, gunfire shattered the silence of the hills around Baladullah and started the unraveling of Ghafur’s plans.

Fresno sheriff’s Deputy Erik Telen responded when neighbors reported a trespasser. Telen confronted 20-year-old Ramadan Abdullah, who had broken into a vacant cabin. Authorities say Abdullah fatally shot the deputy with a gun he found inside.

A Gilani follower from New York, Abdullah had been living at Baladullah. He eventually was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Fresno school district officials, meanwhile, were becoming concerned. A Gateway campus had reported 100 percent attendance – a rarity at any school – on a day when Shepherd visited and found the classrooms closed. Gateway also was reporting an unexplained operating deficit of $1.3 million. Fresno officials asked the state Department of Justice for help.

The assignment went to Special Agent Thomas Win, a veteran white-collar crime investigator based in Fresno. Win, 46, is genial and intensely focused, the kind of cop who favors Hawaiian shirts on his own time but wears a crisp suit and tie to work. It didn’t take him long to discover that Ghafur had 29 bank accounts. To him, the sheer number signaled that someone might be moving money around surreptitiously.

Poring through records with a forensic accountant, Win found evidence that Ghafur used money from the school to repay debts, including loans for the purchase of Baladullah and other property.

The evidence would persuade a jury in July 2006 to convict Ghafur on 13 counts of grand theft, misappropriation, fraud and tax evasion. But the closer Win looked, the more unusual the case became.

In one account, opened under the name “Khadijah and Associates,” Win found an odd series of transactions in 2001. By his count, $40,000 in Gateway funds flowed into the account – and then flowed out, in wire transfers of approximately $5,000 each.

The number of accounts and the flow of money made Win suspect “structuring” – an illegal ploy to move large sums without detection, by keeping individual transactions below $10,000, the minimum level before banks must report to the federal government.

But it was the destination that raised Win’s eyebrows. Ghafur had transferred the money to her husband, Salih Ghafur, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Salih Ghafur is an enigmatic figure. Khadijah Ghafur told a probation officer over the summer that they are divorced and she had not seen him for four years.

But if his wife was the public face of Baladullah, a local newspaper feature in 2002 said Salih Ghafur appeared to be a leader there, too, exercising quiet authority with glances and non-verbal cues for members to let outsiders onto the property. Law enforcement sources call him a longtime follower of Gilani.

Salih Ghafur is now living in a small brick home in the working-class neighborhood of Montebello on the outskirts of Denver. He recently declined to answer questions about Khadijah Ghafur, money transfers or his relationship with Gilani.

But after a moment, he said of Khadijah Ghafur, “She was just trying to help children, the money was for children.”

When asked whether authorities have misunderstood Gilani, Ghafur muttered, “Most people do.” He refused to say anything more.

Win never learned what happened to the money after Khadijah Ghafur sent it to her husband in Pakistan. But after finding those transfers, along with the other evidence of Khadijah Ghafur’s links to Gilani, Win thought the answer was clear.

“She used Gateway as a storefront to funnel … money to a cause,” Win said later. “And there is no doubt in my mind her cause was Gilani.”

Enigmatic mentor: Cleric preaches self-improvement

Mubarik Gilani has been little-known in the West, gaining only brief notoriety as the mysterious cleric that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was trying to interview in Pakistan, when Pearl was kidnapped and killed in 2002.

Gilani was questioned and released by Pakistani authorities; they later said the kidnappers had only used Gilani’s name to lure the reporter to his death.

Gilani himself has denied involvement in terrorism and said he bears no ill will toward the United States. In a rare interview, videotaped by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1994, the cleric boasted of having a positive influence on his North American followers.

“They stop smoking, they stop stealing, they stop living on welfare,” he said.

On a Web site maintained by Muslims of the Americas, an organization of Gilani followers, he espouses a mix of Sufi mysticism, faith healing and conspiracy theories. He complains of being portrayed unfairly in “the Zionist media” and alleges that Jewish workers at the World Trade Center were given advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gilani also blames rivals for committing crimes in his name. He defends his followers, mentioning Khadijah Ghafur as the victim of “venomous attacks” by the Anti-Defamation League – a Jewish advocacy group that urged authorities to revoke Gateway’s charter.

But the Web site glosses over a history of violence.

Analysts who study the Alice in Wonderland world of Pakistani extremist groups say Gilani has supported Muslim insurgents in the disputed Chinese-Pakistani-Indian region of Kashmir. In recruiting videos from the 1980s, seized by authorities, Gilani boasted that he provided “highly specialized training in guerrilla warfare” and encouraged anyone interested in joining to contact the Muslims of the Americas.

Authorities say Gilani’s followers were involved in a string of bombings and assassinations – some plotted, others carried out – against members of other sects in the 1980s and early 1990s. The incidents include an explosion in Portland, Ore., a deadly fire in Detroit and a conspiracy to blow up a Hindu temple in Toronto.

Representatives of Muslims of the Americas, which is based in upstate New York, said four years ago that their communities, including Baladullah, are peaceful and law-abiding.

Authorities say that has not always been so. A Colorado case led to convictions for racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder and – as in the Gateway prosecution – theft of public funds.

That case began in 1989, when Colorado Springs police opened a storage locker filled with a cache of firearms, explosives and shooting targets – human silhouettes with phrases like “FBI Anti-terrorist team” and “Zionist pig” written on their torsos.

The discovery led Colorado authorities to a group of Gilani followers, along with documents connecting them to the bombing of a Hare Krishna temple in Denver and the killing of a moderate Muslim cleric in Arizona.

Colorado investigators also found a trove of phony identification papers and evidence of a scheme to steal money from a state-funded workers’ compensation program. Authorities say the group stole more than $350,000, used some of it to buy land for a remote settlement in the mountains, and sent at least $20,000 in state funds to Pakistan.

Years later, echoes of that Colorado fraud would surface in California.

Making money: Were funds meant for extremists?

While searching Ghafur’s cluttered apartment in Fresno, Win found a closet filled with instructional booklets and videos, offering advice on ways to get rich. There was also a three-page typed letter, unsigned, but bearing the heading “from Khadijah Ghafur” and addressed to “My Dearest Abu.”

The author pledged to be “a 100% lifer” and outlined a series of enterprises – including a U-Haul franchise on the Baladullah property, a secretarial service and a duplex rental in Clovis – that was expected to produce $5,000 a month.

The money was for something called “AbuJiFund.” After discussing ways to maintain “a steady cash flow to you,” the letter warned about the need to disguise the revenue source:

“I can’t afford a verified paper trail against me that would stop my service and dedication to you.”

Authorities now speculate that “AbuJiFund” might be a compound of the word Abu – Arabic for father, a term of respect that Gilani followers sometimes use for him – and the name Jilani: Father Jilani Fund.

“In essence, it seems to be a business plan,” said Deputy Attorney General Brian Alvarez, who prosecuted the Gateway case. “We did not determine who the letter is addressed to, but we surmise it is to the cleric in Pakistan, or someone in the upper echelon of the organization.”

Attorney Franz Criego, who defended Khadijah Ghafur in the Gateway case, said she never sent money to Gilani. Ghafur, in an interview at the Fresno jail, denied writing the letter or knowing what it is about.

Win said he found the letter in Ghafur’s briefcase.

Ghafur has previously said she visited Pakistan and Kashmir, and a former associate said she encouraged other women to participate in long missions there. Muslims of the Americas representatives said female members have delivered food, money and humanitarian supplies to Kashmiri refugees.

Alvarez said he did not introduce the letter or fund transfers to Pakistan during the charter school embezzlement trial because he did not want to make a complicated case any more confusing to jurors. Sending money to suspicious groups overseas would be a federal matter, if it was a crime at all, and that was not his jurisdiction.

But Alvarez summed up his feelings in an interview: “It’s troubling that this money, intended for schoolchildren, may have ended up in a dangerous person’s pockets.”

IRS investigation: No charges after federal review

Khadijah Ghafur was never charged with funding terrorism. It’s unclear whether federal authorities – who declined comment – ever considered it.

The Gateway case did draw the attention of the Internal Revenue Service and federal prosecutors in 2002. As part of a nationwide investigation into Muslims of the Americas, federal authorities got a court order to review the evidence seized by California officials. But they never disclosed what they concluded, and representatives from Muslims of the Americas did not respond to interview requests.

That’s not an unusual outcome. Legal experts say many investigations involving terrorism allegations do not produce indictments. Authorities might have concluded there were no federal violations – or they might have simply decided that California authorities had the stronger case.

Tracing money overseas is difficult, noted Kelly Moore, a former federal prosecutor who handled terror cases.

Foreign banks might ignore subpoenas. Records might not even exist – especially in Muslim countries where it is common to transfer cash through informal financial networks known as hawala. And although the State Department and other agencies have described Ul-Fuqra as a terrorist group, they have not added it to the formal list of organizations – such as Al-Qaida and Hezbollah – to which Americans are explicitly forbidden to give financial support.

The U.S. government has “been very uneven in how it understands these groups,” added Christine Fair, a terrorism expert at the non-profit United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. Referring to Ul-Fuqra, she added, “nobody has been able to really track their money once it gets to Pakistan.”

Authorities still have concerns about what Gilani followers might do next in the United States.

In an internal planning document, the Department of Homeland Security listed Jamaat ul-Fuqra in 2005 among a handful of U.S.-based Islamist organizations that “require continued monitoring.”

The document, first disclosed by Congressional Quarterly, said Ul-Fuqra has 1,000 to 3,000 members and “continues to conceal its activities and prepare itself for a possible confrontation with U.S. authorities.”

Some experts, meanwhile, think Gilani is currently focused on fundraising.

Canadian authorities say Ul-Fuqra leaders are actively recruiting North Americans “to send regular donations in support of Fuqra jihad activities in Kashmir,” according to a classified Canadian government report quoted by the National Post newspaper in June.

“It is very clear” that Gilani gets money from his American followers “for supporting Kashmiri militants and establishing the network of the Qur’anic University,” said Mohammad Amir Rana, who tracks extremist groups for a Lahore think tank, the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

Complaint of prejudice: Khadijah Ghafur fights back

As for Khadijah Ghafur, she has never shrunk from critics.

When the Fresno school district took steps to revoke Gateway’s charter in 2002 – citing building safety violations, teachers without credentials and a failure to account for a $1.3 million deficit – Ghafur complained publicly that officials were motivated by racism and anti-Muslim prejudice.

She later sued the district and the Anti-Defamation League after it urged officials to revoke Gateway’s charter; the suits were eventually dropped or dismissed. Even after a jury found her guilty of 13 felonies in July, Ghafur continued to deny the charges.

“Every count is explainable and not true,” she wrote in a letter to Judge Putnam, contending that all the money went to Gateway or to reimburse her for legitimate expenses.

During her most recent court appearances, Ghafur sat mostly in silence, her eyes closed and face tilted upward as if in prayer. When a reporter visited her at the Fresno County Jail in October, after a court hearing in which she was ordered to repay more than $675,000, Ghafur was extremely guarded – even as she displayed flashes of ego and charm.

She declined to talk about Gilani or Salih Ghafur. During a 30-minute visit, she complained that previous news reports about her were biased.

While saying she wouldn’t answer questions without legal advice, Ghafur again blamed her troubles on anti-Islamic prejudice. She would not say whether she had sent money to Gilani but insisted that she has always worked for the benefit of others.

“I’m – pathetically – a person that loves to help people,” she said with a smile.

Moments later, Ghafur seemed to find bitter irony in the prospect of a long prison term.

“I was a Girl Scout. I was a good, all-American girl,” she said, half laughing. Then, she grew serious and paced back and forth across the jailhouse floor. “Now, this is my fate.”

Contact Sean Webby at swebby@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5003. Contact Brandon Bailey at bbailey@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5022.