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FBI Holds News Conference on Terrorism Arrests

Aired February 28, 2001 - 1:43 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going back to L.A. Here's the assistant director, FBI chief in Los Angeles, James Desarno.


JAMES DESARNO, FBI: ... Operation Eastern Money.

First, I want to thank the Los Angeles Police Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service specifically for their outstanding contributions in this case. They and other members of the FBI Los Angeles Task Force on Terrorism, through their professionalism and dedication, made this case possible.

I also want to recognize the United States attorney's office for their support in this investigation. Through close coordination with the United States attorney's office, we're able to provide sufficient evidence to facilitate successful prosecutions in these types of cases. As all of you know, cases like this are always a team effort.

Seven people were arrested yesterday following a three-year investigation. In June of 1997, the German Federal Criminal Police contacted the FBI concerning an investigation regarding money laundering involving a group known as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or MEK. Some of the members, they believed, were in Los Angeles.

Our investigation uncovered this cell of the MEK and led to yesterday's seven arrests. These arrests are based on federal criminal complaints.

According to the affidavit in support of these complaints, the subjects in this case targeted travelers, primarily of Asian descent, as they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. They dressed in business attire and used binders containing photographs of starving children and other documents, and then aggressively solicited these travelers for donations. Some $5,000 to $10,000 a day was collected in this manner. They also aggressively solicited members of the Iranian community.

I should note at this time that no evidence in the case supports the fact that any of these persons solicited, either at the airport or in the Iranian community, had knowledge of the fact that this money was being used to support terrorist activity.

This cell of the MEK raised funds on behalf of a charity front known as the Committee for Human Rights or the CHR in Iran. The CHR purported to use the money for humanitarian aid. This investigation has revealed that the money was really used to support terrorist actions. It is believed that the money was used to buy arms such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades or RPGs.

According to the affidavit, during one 12-month period, $1 million was transferred by this cell to bank accounts in Turkey. Then in April of 1999, we tracked another $400,000 that was transferred to a used auto parts store in the United Arab Emirates. This transfer was not related to any humanitarian aid.

The MEK is a known terrorist group and is believed to have participated in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and to have killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians.

The MEK is also tied to the occupation of the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York in 1992. They have also claimed a number of terrorist acts throughout the world and have asked for credit for those acts.

Although the members of this cell are not known to have been involved in any of those specific actions, they are part of the same organization which is on the State Department's list of terrorist groups. It is the FBI's mission to thoroughly and aggressively investigate such groups, and I think yesterday's arrest are a result of such an investigation.

The FBI Los Angeles Terrorism Task Force continues to investigate this matter.

Thank you, and I'll take questions, please.

QUESTION: The bottom line, how significant do you think these arrests are that we're looking at?

DESARNO: Well, I think they're very significant, in terms of the fact that we have identified in our affidavit these individuals as part of a terrorist group. And we identify, of course, a terrorist, anyone who is involved in support of a terrorist group, fund-raising for a terrorist group, are in fact terrorists. And we aggressively, in the United States, and the FBI aggressively investigates those cases.

So I think it's significant in the fact that, as I said, more than $1 million was transferred from this kind of activity to a known terrorist group.

QUESTION: You referred to this as a cell. How many cells are there worldwide to this group, do you think?

DESARNO: Well, as I said, investigation continues. And, of course, we're investigating similar kinds of activities in other cities throughout the United States, but I can't comment on that.

It's an ongoing investigation at this time.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Two questions. One, we don't see the picture of the man that in LAX (inaudible) the supervisor in charge of the group. The picture is not there of that person, the young fellow.

And, number two, how much of this money do you think has gone to Teheran, because there has been several explosions during the last few months and some of them have been taken responsibility by the MKA (ph).

DESARNO: OK. If I could take your second question first, I don't think we know exactly how much money has gone to those kinds of actions in Teheran, so I don't think we can specifically tie any amount of money to a specific action or terrorist action, but we do know that the money went to support the group in general, as a whole.

In response to your first question, I don't know. I know you viewed the Channel 2 investigative report piece on collection at the airport, and I don't know how many of those individuals are involved in yesterday's arrest. However, as I said, this investigation is continuing and we continue to identify individuals.

WATERS: All right, the FBI announcing its arrest of seven people stemming from a three-year investigation that began as a money laundering case in Germany and ended up as an investigation of seven men who were targeting Asian travelers in Los Angeles, soliciting donations up to $5,000, $10,000 a day, money used to support terrorist actions, allege the FBI. Those actions including the purchase of arms, mortars and RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. Up to $1 million traced to an account in Turkey in association with this operation, this group.

The significance of this arrest, according to the assistant director, is that they have identified part of a terrorist group. And this group, designated as the MEK, is on the State Department's list of terrorist groups responsible in part for the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the killing of civilian and military personnel -- American civilian and military personnel overseas. And the FBI is continuing its investigation.

That's about all we know for now. We'll continue to keep you posted on this story as it develops.



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