The Case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir



In 2005, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an Iraqi-born American citizen, was convicted in Syracuse, New York of 59 felony charges. In addition to charges of mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, Medicare fraud, and mishandling charity money, Dhafir was convicted of violating the sanctions against Iraq. Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in jail.

Dhafir was one of the few, if not the only person, to be criminally charged with breaking the Iraq Sanctions. [1] Normally, a violation of the sanctions results only in a civil fine.

Dhafir’s crime was that he circumvented the sanctions, raising and funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars for humanitarian aid to Iraqis suffering from the U.S. sanctions. While the prosecution claims that he was a common money launderer and defrauder of donors, the sanction violations remain the centerpiece of the charges and were the direct cause of him receiving the maximum sentence. [2]

But it is our opinion that had the U.S. not chosen to invade Iraq, Dr. Dhafir would not have been convicted. Arguably, he might never even have been brought to trial.

The story of the targeting, indictment, trial, and sentencing of Dr. Dhafir in many ways mirrors the story of U.S. aggression against the Iraqis, who suffered for years under the sanctions, and whom, at the time of Dhafir’s arrest, the Administration was planning to invade. The invasion of Iraq mirrors the invasion of the rights of Dr. Dhafir and the Muslim community of which he was a member.

Perfect Candidate

Dhafir was the perfect candidate for government targeting. He was a naturalized American citizen of Iraqi descent that still had family and friends in Iraq. Through his fund-raising efforts to help those suffering in Iraq from the brutality of the Sanctions, he traveled across America and around the globe. This gave him a high profile with connections to Muslims around the world.

Prior to the invasion, the U.S. government began targeting suspected Iraqi intelligence agents in order to rattle potential terrorists and “shake the tree” to see what fell out. It appears now that the targeting of Dhafir was part of that effort. The government was convinced he was terrorist. He was Iraqi, Muslim, had strong Iraqi connections, and operated a charity that moved great amounts of money into Iraq. In fact, according to Ed Menkin, Dhafir’s original defense attorney:

Prosecutors have been asking witnesses whether Dhafir “surreptitiously traveled to Afghanistan,” whether he was a longtime mole for Iraqi intelligence, whether he met with a high-ranking al-Qaida official, and whether he’d used the code word “tourism” for terrorism in e-mails. [3]

Recent terrorism indictments of several of Dhafir’s business associates confirm that the government believed he was a terrorist and was trying to find a way to taint his humanitarian work. While a law enforcement official recently noted that there is no known connection between Dhafir and these indictments [4], it is clear from those documents that the government has been mining Dhafir’s business connections deeply for terrorism connections.

Moreover, as former Bush Administration National Security Coordinator Richard Clarke revealed in his book, Against All Enemies, the Bush Administration had a score to settle with Iraq and intended right from the outset to take down Hussein. Bush Sr. had not succeeded in getting Iraq under his heel. The Administration of Bush Jr. took it upon themselves to complete the mission of removing Saddam from power and making Iraq into a Western player, if not an American-owned commodity.

Of course, the government found no evidence Dhafir was a terrorist and brought no terrorism charges against him. But that didn’t stop Ashcroft or Pataki from calling him a terrorist prior to trial [5], from Dhafir being included on a government list of terrorists cited by President Bush [6], or from the prosecution obtaining a maximum sentence based on their assertion that anyone who violated the Iraq Sanctions was inherently a national security threat.

Operation Imminent Horizon

A little over a week after Dr. Dhafir was arrested, ABC News reported that the military had begun an effort code-named “Operation Imminent Horizon.” The declared purpose of this operation was to “disrupt and rattle” potential terrorist operations. This operation was put into play just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The report stated:

The United States is launching a campaign, code-named Imminent Horizon, to disrupt and rattle Iraqi intelligence agents around the world, intelligence sources told ABCNEWS. These are people the United States suspects are trying to engineer terrorist attacks against American interests overseas. [7]

According to the report, Imminent Horizon was implemented both domestically and overseas. The idea was to harass and disrupt the activities of suspected agents.

On the day of Dr. Dhafir’s arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft noted that the arrest was part of the effort to prevent terrorism prior to the invasion of Iraq:

“As President Bush leads an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and support for terror, the Justice Department will see that individuals within our borders cannot undermine these efforts,” stated Attorney General John Ashcroft. “Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted.” [8]

It is clear that Dhafir’s arrest and the tactics used in the Syracuse Muslim community on the day of his arrest (as we discuss below, over 150 persons were rounded up and interrogated) was part of Operation Imminent Horizon. But while other suspected Iraqi agents were simply asked to leave the country, Dhafir — who was not ever charged with being a terrorist — was subjected to much more aggressive treatment. Agents pushed the door in on Mrs. Dhafir, knocking her down, and held a gun to her head while questioning her. Dhafir claimed that eighty-five agents came to his home that day. The government denied this. [9]

Subsequent treatment of Dhafir also reflected a strong bias against him. He was denied bail, one of his attorneys was forbidden to see him, and he was only allowed to see his remaining attorneys in person if he was strip-searched — a practice that is against his religion.

ABC reported that the Operation Imminent Horizon consisted of rounding up businessman and students and interrogating them: “In law enforcement terms, it’s called ‘shaking the tree,’ — creating doubts, trying to rattle potential terrorists.”

The interrogation of 150 Muslims in Syracuse on the day of Dhafir’s arrest, many of whom had donated to Dr. Dhafir’s charity, was “shaking the tree.” The FBI came to the homes of Dhafir’s donors in the early morning. Husbands and wives were separated either by not allowing wives to call their husbands who had left for work or by putting them in separate rooms. Agents carried a card with them that had questions on it. But it was the questions asked which were not on the card that was instructive of the FBI’s motive: “How often to do you pray? Do you have family in the Middle East? Do you celebrate Christmas? Etc” The questions, according to those who were interrogated, clearly focused on their religious leanings and their connections and travels to the Middle East, not on possible criminal activity as it pertained to Dhafir.

The shaking and rattling went even further. One local Muslim indicates that during his interrogation by the FBI, the interrogating agent repeatedly suggested that Dhafir was a Shi’ite, in an apparent attempt to turn the man against the defendant. The agent was trying to get the man to talk by bringing up the Shi’ite/Sunni divide. In Iraq there is a civil/religious conflict going on between the two Muslim factions. The agent was trying to provoke the man into getting angry by implying that Dhafir was a Shi’ite.

Department of Defense Blessing

Another factor linking the Dhafir case to Imminent Horizon was a 2002 DOD memo found by the defense team that encouraged the FBI to keep up its efforts in the Dhafir case. The FBI has always claimed that it had been investigating Dr. Dhafir for four years prior to his arrest, but the DOD memo indicates a connection with the military effort against Iraq.

This suggests that the motivation in prosecuting Dhafir went beyond prosecution for violating the Sanctions or other laws. But the prosecution provided no explanation of the DOD interest and apparently none of the charges relied on intelligence gathered through the DOD. (According to the lead prosecutor, Olmsted, regular wiretaps were used on Dhafir. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) taps — authorized only for taps of foreign powers and agents of foreign powers — were not used.)

It seems that, again, Dhafir was the victim of a taint operation by the government. Interestingly, the 2002 memo ties in with the ABC report that planning for “Operation Imminent Horizon” had begun a year before the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Sources say the CIA, FBI and military intelligence agencies have worked on this operation for more than a year — a period during which they say evidence has continued to mount that Baghdad intends to strike.”

Smear Dhafir

In Dhafir’s case, instead of using “shock and awe” as it did to scare the Iraqi people into submission, the government resorted to smearing Dhafir as a “terrorist” to frighten the Muslim community into stopping their business and to keep them from coming to Dhafir’s aid.

As noted earlier, numerous officials have called Dhafir a terrorist. Additionally, a report done by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Paul Rosenzweig for the Heritage Foundation noted that one provision of the PATRIOT Act — the delayed notice warrant provision — was used in the Dhafir case. In the same paragraph, the report cites several examples of terrorist cases, thus implying again that Dhafir belonged in the same class. [10]

At the time of Dhafir’s arrest the country was still reeling from 9-11 and preparing for war with Iraq. When the government called Dhafir a “terrorist” it was as if they had shouted fire in a crowded movie theater that had all its exits locked. The media and the local community went into frenzy. This made it difficult for him to get a fair trial.

Will Justice Prevail?

Had the government been more objective and done its job better it would never have considered Dhafir a terrorist or investigated him as an Iraqi intelligence agent under the Operation Imminent Horizon effort.

Dhafir supporters say that he was on Saddam Hussein’s “hit list.” If he were an Iraqi agent working for Saddam, the Iraqi leader would not have issued orders for his assassination. Like many others in Iraq who opposed Saddam’s brutal reign and tried to help his countrymen, Dhafir would have been killed had he gone directly to Iraq with his aid. Dhafir avoided the legal channels in order to avoid the pilfering of the aid by Saddam’s henchman. Dhafir’s supporters say that he never went back home to Iraq because he faced certain death.

Dr. Rafil Dhafir escaped the clutches of Saddam Hussein but not the clutches of an over-zealous and ambitious Bush administration, looking for feathers in its hat.

Popularity for the invasion and occupation of Iraq continues to wane. Politicians appear willing to come up with an exit plan before mid-term elections. But what will the exit plan be for all the casualties of this senseless war? Countless Iraqi’s and USA/coalition forces have been killed and maimed. Their fates etched in stone.

And what of Dr. Dhafir? At 58, he likely will die in prison before his release. Will politicians similarly look to right a wrong and admit that he too was a victim of a senseless war?

To learn more about go to: www.FreeDhafir.org or www.dhafirtrial.net/.

To keep abreast of developments on the Dhafir case, send an email to the following address to subscribe to the Free Dhafir newsletter: FreeRafilDhafir-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

JENNIFER VAN BERGEN, a journalist with a law degree, is the author of THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE BUSH PLAN FOR AMERICA (Common Courage Press, 2004). She writes frequently on civil liberties, human rights, and international law. Her book, ARCHETYPES FOR WRITERS, about the characterization method she developed and taught at the New School University, will be out in 2006. She can be reached at jvbxyz@earthlink.net.

Madis Senner, CPA, is an ex global money manager turned faith-based activist. His causes include supporting Dr. Rafil Dhafir. He can be reached at: madis@twcny.rr.com.


[1] See Madis Senner, “Stop the Crusade.”

[2] See JENNIFER VAN BERGEN, “The Case of Dr. Dhafir.”

[3] John O’Brien, “Iraqi Uniform in Doctor’s Home, Court Papers Say; Dr. Rafil Dhafir’s Lawyer Asks Judge to Step Down, Citing Son’s Military Service.”

[4] Dan Eggen, “Ohio Men Accused of Plot to Kill Troops in Iraq,” (2/22/06).

[5] Re. Ashcroft, see fn.8 below. Re. Pataki, see Michael Powell, “High-Profile N.Y. Suspect Goes on Trial,” (10/19/04). See also, Marnie Eisenstadt, “What’s going on with Upstate?”, and Madeleine Baran, “The Terrorism Case that Wasn’t” (2/29/04).

[6] Dan Eggen & Julie Tate, “U.S. Campaign Produces Few Convictions on Terrorism Charges” (6/12/05). The list is available here. See also: Syracuse Post Standard Editorial (6/22/05), “Playing Loose With Terrorism: President should not cite Dhafir case as evidence.”

[7] See “Operation Imminent Horizon.” The ABC News article is no longer available on their web site. It is archived.

[8] Department of Justice, Press Release, 2/26/03, “Indictments Allege Illegal Financial Transfers to Iraq; Visa Fraud Involving Assistance to Groups that Advocate Violence.”

[9] http://freedhafir.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_freedhafir_archive.html.

[10] Edwin Meese and Paul Rosenzweig, “The SAFE Act Will Not Make Us Safer,” (4/30/04).



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