Al-Banna admits unlicensed money-transfer [Archives:2006/959/Local News]

June 29 2006

SANA'A, June 25 ) A prominent member of Lackawanna's Yemeni community and two of his relatives admitted in U.S. District Court Friday that they ran an unlicensed money-transfer business that sent at least $3.5 million (USD) to people in Yemen.

The guilty pleas by Mohamed Al-Banna, his brother, and nephew could bring a prison term of as long as five years for Al-Banna, who was a voice for the Islamic community during the trial of the Lackawanna Six.

The 55-year-old Yemeni deferred comment to his attorney as he left the courtroom of Judge William M. Skretny in New York state.

“From the very beginning, Mohamed had told everyone that he assisted people in sending money to Yemen,” said attorney Philip M. Marshall. The guilty plea acknowledged that and also meant the government dropped tax evasion and other charges.

Defense attorneys said the Patriot Act provisions the three men violated only apply because money was sent by unlicensed traders and does not mean they intended to break the law.

“These are very good people caught up in a very tough statute,” said Thomas J. Eoannou, who represented Al-Banna's older brother, Ali, 62. “The money ended up going to poor villages, helping people eat and get medical care.”

“A lot of these people [in Yemen] don't have access or ability to get the money,” added Herbert L. Greenman, who represented Al-Banna's nephew, Ali Al-Banna, 33. “They don't have bank accounts, so you send it through a currency exchange, and the people come in and the guy gives them the money.”

Defense lawyers stressed that the government made no allegations that any of the money was used to aid terrorism and said that had the case gone to trial, they would have asked the judge to tell that to the jury.

Federal prosecutors, however, had been prepared to call as a witness Yahya Goba, a member and organizer of the Lackawanna Six, the group of young men who admitted giving material aid to a terrorist organization.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said in earlier court papers that Goba, now serving a prison term, would have testified that Al-Banna's money-transfer business sent money to Kamal Derwish, an alleged Al-Qaida recruiter, in Yemen.

During al-Moayad's trial, an agent from the Joint Terrorism Task Force of Western New York testified that the former Lackawanna imam, Abdulwahab Ziad, had sent $1,500 to Al-Moayad. Ziad could not be reached for comment Friday, and associates said he left the U.S. about two years ago.

Al-Banna told The Buffalo News last year that Ziad would never have knowingly sent money to aid terrorists.

Since his arrest in December 2002 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Al-Banna has never publicly denied that he transmitted money from Buffalo, New York, to Yemen.

Al-Banna repeatedly has said that he never intended to violate the law and was only trying to help law-abiding families send money to their relatives in Yemen.

“This service is needed by families in Yemen,” Al-Banna told The Buffalo News in January 2004. “We aren't providing it anymore, and people are suffering.”

But federal agents have long been suspicious of the money-transmitting operation, wondering how Yemeni-Americans who run small businesses in Buffalo and Lackawanna could come up with such amounts of money.

Prosecutors also said that in January 2002, Al-Banna sent a package of checks to Yemen with a note that concluded: “[We] did not want to register it in our ledger as a precaution from the American Government.”

Al-Banna has long been active with local Muslim-American organizations, and he has said many times that he and other area Muslims do not support terrorism.

Dr. Khaled Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, declined to say whether he was surprised by Al-Banna taking a guilty plea.

“Everyone knew that he was sending money [to Yemen],” Qazi said on Friday. “I believe he had good intentions. I believe he was trying to help families.”