In Dallas, former President George W. Bush must surely have smiled the evening of May 27 at the good word coming from the Earl Cabell Federal Building, just a few miles from his new retirement digs. Bush’s late, great war on terror had reached up from the grave to grasp an historic victory inside that courthouse.
U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis had just handed a combined 145 years in prison to five Dallas-area Palestinian Hamas operatives indicted by the Bush justice department after 9/11. Their harsh punishment was for running the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the largest covert terrorist fundraising operation in U.S. history. Set up to look like a charity, HLF was a front that funneled at least $57 million to Hamas over more than a decade.
Presaging a newfound intolerance for terrorist fundraisers of any kind on U.S. soil, Bush called a Rose Garden press conference just weeks after 9/11 to announce that he had shut down the Holy Land Foundation as a newly designated illegal terrorist organization. All told, it took eight more years and two trials (one a mistrial) to wrap it all up with this pretty bow.
FBI agents and prosecutors indulged in an alcohol-soaked celebratory bash across town that night. It had all ended in such rich just desserts for the bad guys.
But lost in the post-production plaudits is a nagging loose end: two of the seven original defendants got away with it.
At least so far. Haithem Maghawri and Akram Mishal, both naturalized U.S. citizens, remain international fugitives from American justice. And it appears that no one is particularly interested in hunting them down or even talking about it.
Maghawri and Mishal were early HLF founders and high-level charity insiders, according to the indictment. The Lebanon-born Maghawri served as HLF executive director. Mishal, a cousin of supreme Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in Syria, served as the HLF’s grants and projects director.
Perhaps sensing trouble, Maghawri and Mishal left the country just ahead of the July 2004 indictment. Wives and children disappeared too, abandoning Dallas houses and friends.
Oddly, their disappearances or prospects for capture are almost never publicly discussed.
As a reporter who for years covered the HLF investigation and later the indictment phase, I got to wondering about the seemingly forgotten fugitives. Are they really not on anyone’s radar? What do the feds know about their whereabouts? What, if anything, is being done to locate and nab them? Are they alive or dead?
I called some of my old federal contacts who spent years working on the case, looking for answers. Granted, these two fugitives aren’t the bombing types, as far as anyone knows. But they’re accused of playing important supporting roles that made it ultimately possible for Hamas suicide bombers to kill Israelis and also no small number of Americans visiting Israel.
As long as they’re at large, the Holy Land Foundation matter will remain an open book for the Obama administration now. If these two fugitives ever are caught, there will have to be yet another expensive and emotionally taxing Holy Land Foundation trial.