Friday, March 31, 2006

Article published Mar 30, 2006
FBI: International scam targeting Islamic mosques broken
By GARRY MITCHELLAssociated Press Writer

An international wire fraud scheme targeting Islamic institutions with a phony stranded-traveler plea, netting only small sums but hitting multiple victims over many years, has been disrupted by the arrest of its mastermind, the FBI says.Islamic advocates say Mohammed Mustafa Agbareia, who was arrested in Canada and pleaded guilty March 1 in Alabama to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, may have scammed more than $1 million from mosques and Islamic groups over nearly two decades.He will be sentenced July 10 by U.S. District Judge Charles Butler in Mobile, where he is in the custody of federal marshals.Agbareia is accused of claiming to be with a Saudi development bank investing in local Islamic society projects. Eventually he would contact Islamic leaders asking for money, saying he was stranded at an airport in Canada or another distant location and needed money wired.Agbareia manipulated the Islamic tenet of lending aid to a stranded traveler, the FBI says.He would always ask for $1,000 to $1,500 - amounts small enough to "pass under the radar" of local authorities, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C."This guy was really unique," Hooper said in an interview Wednesday.Agbareia, whose guilty plea was first reported by the Mobile Register, faces a possible 5-year prison sentence, a $250,000 fine and 3 years of federal supervision after his prison release. But penalties could vary because a religious institution was a victim and the court's sentencing guidelines are only advisory in this case, according to the plea agreement.The scheme dates to the 1990s and had at least 45 victims in the United States before being halted. It involved over 10,000 solicitations for money, according to the FBI.Agbareia was indicted in Mobile and Vermont on the fraud charges about a year ago. A second man, Zouhair Youssei Hissy, also was indicted in Mobile for an alleged role in the scheme and awaits extradition to the United States from Canada.Agbareia, 40, was arrested in Canada pending his unrelated deportation to Israel. Records show he's from Nazareth in Israel.The FBI probe of Agbareia began in Vermont where two victims were defrauded, an FBI spokesman said in a March 22 statement about the case. Another complaint came in Alabama in 2004 from the Islamic Society of Mobile Mosque.Collecting victims' phone numbers on the Internet, Islamic institutions or mosques were contacted by Agbareia and Hissy, who claimed to represent the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB).Agbareia usually kept 60-80 percent of the money, with Hissy getting the remainder, the FBI said.In Mobile, FBI spokesman Special Agent Craig Dahle said it's unknown how much money the scheme collected. He said there could be victims worldwide.In the plea agreement, Agbareia, represented by the public defender's office, agreed to forfeit any proceeds of his criminal activity and cooperate with the government's investigation under threat of additional charges.

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