Ice cream man guilty

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 30 September 2005

A Yemeni immigrant to the United States is facing up to 15 years in jail after being convicted of operating an illegal money-transfer business. Last week, a jury in New York found Abad Elfgeeh guilty of sending almost $22 million overseas from his tiny ice cream shop in Brooklyn.

Fifty-year-old Elfgeeh, described by his lawyers as a pillar of the city's Yemeni community, appears to have become a casualty of the American crackdown on terrorist funding. 

His financial activities came to light during a controversial "sting" operation against the Yemeni Sheikh, Mohammed al-Moayad who was lured from Sana'a to Germany and then extradited to the US, where he is now serving a 75-year sentence for supporting and conspiring to support terrorism [see previous report].

Witnesses at Moayad's trial said the sheikh had told undercover investigators that Elfgeeh was a trustworthy person for sending money from the US to Yemen. They also said the sheikh had Elfgeeh's phone number in his address book.

Prosecution documents in Elfgeeh's case initially portrayed him as a vital link in a chain that sent millions of dollars to Usama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Hamas, but these claims were later dropped. A report by the US Probation Department played down any terrorism connections, saying there appeared to be "little, if any, evidence to suggest that Elfgeeh had any role in financing terrorism or any knowledge that money he was transmitting was used to finance terrorism".

In court, Elfgeeh's defence lawyers maintained that his money-transfer activities did not break the law because they were a non-profit community service rather than a business that would have required a licence. The money that was sent abroad came from immigrants wanting to buy homes or business equipment and to support their families, his lawyers said. 

In legal argument during the trial, Assistant US Attorney Pamela Chen again sought to raise the terrorism issue on the grounds that "suspicious" cheques had been confiscated from Elfgeeh, some carrying the words "jihad" and "mujahideen", but the judge rejected this.

The entrapment of Sheikh Moayad and, indirectly, the arrest of Elfgeeh resulted from the efforts of Mohamed Alanssi, a Yemeni living in the US who became a highly-paid FBI informer following the September 11 attacks. In October 2001, at a time when the American authorities were desperate for information about al-Qaeda's funding, Alanssi denounced one of this former business partners who was later charged with trying to send $140,000 to Yemen hidden in a consignment of honey. As a result of this tip-off, several honey businesses in Yemen were summarily closed at the behest of the US authorities, though it is doubtful whether the affair had any connection with al-Qaeda.

In January 2003, Alanssi and an undercover FBI agent, entrapped Sheikh Moayad at an hotel in Frankfurt after promising him a large "charitable" donation from an American Muslim. Their conversation was secretly recorded and Sheikh Moayad and his assistant were then arrested.