The brother of a man suspected of ties to the al-Qaida terrorist group has been arrested in Utah and indicted on charges of loan fraud and money laundering.
The question that federal authorities are trying to answer is whether Sharif Omar funneled some of that money to support terrorist activities. Omar is the brother of Shawqi Omar, who is being investigated for ties to al-Qaida in Iraq.
"We do have some indications of where the money went," said Greg Bretzing, a special agent with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Utah. "We know some went to Jordan overseas and a lot went to personal accounts. What exactly it was spent on or what happened to it overseas is still under investigation."
Sharif Omar, 37, of Cottonwood Heights, appeared Thursday in U.S. District Court on four counts of bank fraud and money laundering. Family members looked on as U.S. marshals led Omar, in chains and wearing a red Salt Lake County Jail jumpsuit, into the courtroom. During the brief hearing, U.S. District Magistrate Judge David Nuffer ordered Omar released from custody, pending trial.
Asked if there were any terrorist ties between his brothers and al-Qaida, Gus Omar told the Deseret Morning News, "None whatsoever."
"The money was coming from Jordan, not going there," he said as he walked quickly out of court Thursday.
Emotions ran high outside the federal courthouse just before the hearing as family members scuffled with a Deseret Morning News photographer, threatening to hit him. Federal Protective Services (a division of the Department of Homeland Security) and Salt Lake City Police were investigating the altercation Thursday.
Later, a member of Omar's family came outside the courthouse to apologize to news photographers, saying the family had been under a lot of stress since Sharif Omar's arrest.
According to grand jury indictments handed up in October 2005 and unsealed this week, Omar and his brother-in-law, Ahmad Abudan, 35, of Chula Vista, Calif., took part in an auto loan fraud scheme that yielded $40,000. That money, according to officials, was then sent to a bank in the country of Jordan.
However, federal agents told the Deseret Morning News they had no conclusive proof that the money went to support terrorism.
"We're not saying nor has it been alleged in any of the indictments that this money has made its way into the hands of terrorists," Bretzing said. "What we are doing is investigating where that money's gone, what it's been used for, and certainly it is our responsibility to determine if it has been sent overseas, whose hands it's in and what the purpose is."
FBI officials were trying to gain access to those accounts Thursday, but Jordanian banks are notorious for keeping account information under wraps.
According to federal court documents, in March 2002, Omar used Abudan's 2001 Mercedes-Benz to take out a $40,000 loan from Utah First Credit Union, claiming the vehicle was his. At the time, Omar told the credit union employee that he needed the money for some home improvements. However, federal officials allege that Omar gave the money to his nephew, Ihab Ramadan, who is Abudan's stepson, and that Ramadan then wired $50,000 to a bank account in Amman, Jordan, called Amman General Trading LLC.
Of interest to the FBI and terrorism investigators is Omar's brother, Shawqi Omar, who is in military custody in Iraq.
A former Utahn, he repaired refrigerators while working to gain U.S. citizenship. Shawqi Omar was arrested in October 2004 in his Baghdad apartment, accused of working with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by harboring foreign terrorists and plotting kidnappings. U.S. officials say al-Zarqawi is the leader of al-Qaida's terror campaign in Iraq that is blamed for hundreds of deaths, both American and Iraqi.
Family members contend Shawqi Omar was a businessman in Iraq trying to get reconstruction work. Gus Omar defended his brother, saying he was no terrorist.
"If they have any ties or any proof about it, they would have charged him by now," he said Thursday.
Since October, Shawqi Omar has been held in U.S. military custody on suspicion of terrorism, but he has not been charged with any crime.
Back in Utah, indictments and arrests were also leveled against Shawqi and Sharif's brother, Bassam Omar, 42, of San Diego, and nephew Ihab Ramadan, 27, of Chula Vista, Calif. Alaa "Alex" Ramadan, 29, a resident of Jordan, was arrested Wednesday at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Federal prosecutors say Sharif Omar's activities are part of a larger scheme of loan fraud involving other family members. A six-count indictment against Alaa Ramadan and Bassam Omar says a mortgage fraud scheme involving homes in Sandy and Bountiful netted the two men $121,399.
Another indictment against Alaa Ramadan and three non-family associates, including a loan officer and a licensed appraiser, alleges the group took part in another mortgage scheme involving a home in Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood that netted the group about $125,712. The indictment also charges the group with money-laundering and mail fraud.
In the final indictment, Ramadan and two other non-family associates are charged with conspiring in an auto loan scheme that netted them $40,000.
In court Thursday, Sharif Omar was handed a copy of the indictment against him. Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request to release Omar, saying he was not believed to be a flight risk or a danger to the community. However, FBI agents were quick to say they were not suggesting Sharif Omar or anybody else charged are terrorists.
"We're not saying that. There have been no allegations to that effect. We're aware of who they're related to and what he's involved with," Bretzing said, referring to Shawqi Omar. "But that has not been charged or alleged in any of the proceedings. We just have to investigate all aspects of that."