The Terrorist at City Hall

Mufid Abdulqader was a popular civil engineer. But he sang in a band that called for the destruction of Israel, and the government believes he has secret ties to terrorists. Last summer, his two worlds collided.

ROOM 305 of the Oak Cliff Municipal Building, an outpost of Dallas City Hall, houses some of the city’s most highly skilled worker bees. They labor largely unknown within a honeycomb of cubicles. They are the civil engineers of the Public Works and Transportation Department, bound together almost tribally by technical language and complicated undertakings most outsiders wouldn’t understand.
Mufid Abdulqader was one of the department’s rising stars. He had earned the respect of his colleagues and supervisors in his eight years there, and his employment evaluations were exemplary. As a project manager who mostly designed street and sidewalk projects, Mufid was ambitious, always pushing for the next step up the pay-grade ladder. His leadership on the $4.8 million Bishop Arts District redevelopment in 2001 won him commendations. Even Mayor Laura Miller, who consulted with Mufid on the project, praised his talents.

His fellow engineers also appreciated how Mufid could liven up a roomful of technocrats with backslapping, disarming goofiness. Thickening a bit at the age of 45, Mufid wore his graying black beard heavy on his cheeks, as is customary for many pious Middle Eastern men. The full head of bristly black hair and limber eyebrows, which he flexed sharply upward for comic effect, made him come off as a big, smiling teddy bear of a man. Some colleagues noted a nasty temper that flared up from time to time, but who didn’t get frustrated when dealing with contractors?

Mufid loved the spotlight, relishing any excuse to speak in front of a crowd. A Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait and a proud father of three U.S.-born daughters, he never turned down an invitation to lecture high school students about the struggles he endured as an immigrant searching for a better life in America. Yet he remained proud of his background. Mufid and a couple of other Muslim engineers prayed five times a day, even if that meant breaking up a business meeting. He could often be spotted toting his prayer mat down the hall to an office conference room.

During lunches at Las Ranitas in Oak Cliff, where television sets were tuned to CNN Headline News, Mufid would offer running commentaries on the events in the Middle East. Like many Palestinian Arabs, he saw the Israelis as brutal occupiers of a stolen Palestinian homeland, but his colleagues never sensed that he held extremist views.

What his co-workers didn’t know was that Mufid led a secret life, one that seemed almost impossible to reconcile with the affable person they had all liked. But Mufid’s two worlds collided on the morning of July 27, 2004, when he failed to show up for work. Instead, representatives of the Dallas FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force came to the office to explain why he had been thrown in jail.

Mufid had been named with six other men in a 42-count indictment for helping to fund Hamas, a terrorist organization that has waged a grisly suicide-bombing campaign against Israeli civilians. The FBI set its sights on Mufid after discovering that he was associated with leaders of the Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The group’s supporters have always claimed that the Holy Land Foundation, or HLF, was a legitimate charity that helped orphans and widows. But President George W. Bush closed down the organization in 2001, calling it the largest clandestine fundraising arm for Hamas in the United States, a depiction upheld by successive federal court rulings.

His connection to HLF, however, was just the beginning of Mufid’s secrets. For more than a decade, he’d been touring the country with the popular Arabic singing troupe Al-Sakhra. If he had muffled his political views about the Middle East while at City Hall, the Arabic lyrics he sang on weekend gigs all across the country left no doubt about his true feelings. With all the angst of a rock star, he urged on the violent holy war and glorified the martyrdom of suicide bombers. Video of Mufid’s performances was first aired by CBS Channel 11 in November, when the station broke the story. Mufid’s band often appeared at fundraisers for Hamas. In one song, he sang, “We won’t fear a Jew. Oh, Hamas, respond to them with force. … Death is right for the Jews. It is right!”

But Mufid had yet another secret. His half brother is the notorious Khalid Mishaal, the current leader of Hamas. The federal government believes that Khalid has directly supervised assassinations and bombings to disrupt U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations in the Middle East. His operations have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis and 10 Americans, and he is reputed to occupy the top slot on Israel’s assassination hit list of Hamas leaders.

The discovery of Mufid’s family connection to Hamas, taken with his HLF ties and his performances with Al-Sakhra, became mile markers in a long, complicated investigation that would reach the highest levels of Dallas’ government—and would eventually have FBI agents infiltrating city offices on cloak-and-dagger surveillance missions reserved for national security matters of the highest magnitude.

MUFID’S FAMILY HAILS FROM THE WEST BANK farming village of Silwad. His half brother Khalid was born in 1956; Mufid was born four years later to a different mother. In 1967, Israel occupied the area after beating back a five-army Arab attack from the West Bank, and the family retreated to the burgeoning oil kingdom of Kuwait. There, the brothers lived among thousands of resentful former Silwad residents who would stew over the failure of yet another combined Arab attack on Israel in 1973.

Mufid and Khalid both graduated from a Kuwaiti high school. Khalid became an anti-Israel student activist at Kuwait University while earning a degree in physics. But Mufid was bound for America. In March 1980, the 21-year-old made his way to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to study engineering, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. By 1988, he had married a native Oklahoman named Diane, had become a naturalized citizen, and was working for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

As he would later do in Dallas, Mufid won over his colleagues with his talent and, as one letter of recommendation put it, his “super personality.” By this time, he had already discovered that he liked the spotlight. “Mufid is a fellow member of Toastmasters International where he has worked to improve his public speaking,” one former co-worker wrote in 1992. The recommendation went on to describe Mufid as “civic-minded, honest, and an asset to the community.”

But nothing in the public record suggests that Mufid’s singing career was by this time taking off. A video shot in 1992 places him and Khalid at a major Hamas fundraising conference in Oklahoma City. To a single droning drumbeat, Mufid and the members of Al-Sakhra, all wearing traditional Kefiya headdresses and desert robes, sang: “I have nerves of steel, and no threats scare me. Only the one who is proud of carrying the rifle will succeed. No to the peace conference! Yes to jihad!”

Khalid, who was climbing the ranks of Hamas’ political bureau, praised what he called the brave acts of martyrdom that had characterized “the blessed uprising” since the Persian Gulf War. He promised that the jihad would continue unabated “with the power of Allah.” Otherwise, he warned, greedy Jews would overtake the land.

Videotapes of this conference and others like it are familiar to FBI counterterrorism agents who investigated the HLF. The tapes show masked jihadists in camouflage uniforms marching to the band’s drumbeats, waving national flags. Children perform pantomime stabbing and shooting motions to the music. The federal government, in its July 2004 indictment, noted that Mufid participated in skits that “glorified the killing of Jewish people.” In some of them, Mufid’s goofy, playful personality shines through.

In 1996, Khalid was elected chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, which directly controls its “military” operations. That year, Mufid and Al-Sakhra performed at a crowded New Jersey fundraising conference to benefit Hamas, an act that President Bill Clinton had just made illegal. Mufid sang: “Mother, when they bring you the good news of my martyrdom, remember how I sacrificed my head and heart. With my blood I mark the way for my children, and under the ash, Mother, there is still fire.”

Later that year, the City of Dallas hired Mufid.
 
HE DEPARTED OKLAHOMA CITY on exceptional terms with his employers. One lamented in a recommendation letter that Mufid “will be greatly missed” and “hard to replace.” But by then, he had already shown up on the FBI’s radar. In 1993, not long after the HLF set up its headquarters in Richardson, the organization’s officers got swept up in a top-secret FBI surveillance operation. Mufid was identified as one of 25 individuals attending an invitation-only “Hamas conference” in Philadelphia. The FBI bugged a conference room as the attendees discussed ways to cover up their ties to Hamas. “Participants … resolved the ’Movement’ should not publicly acknowledge receiving instruction from a foreign power,” the FBI surveillance report reads. The members also vowed to support the jihad and raise funds at 15 festivals across the United States.

Those who have investigated the HLF-Hamas nexus say this meeting in Philadelphia represents a watershed moment in understanding how Hamas had surreptitiously opened support bases throughout the country. The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, had been created only a few years before the Philadelphia meeting, in 1988, from the fabric of an international network of Islamic fundamentalist cells known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood created Hamas to add more punch and organization to the first Palestinian uprising against Israel. According to the federal government, as the Hamas organizational chart developed, the Brotherhood began spinning out a variety of other Islamic organizations on U.S. soil designed to support Hamas’ goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic theocracy.

According to the government, the Occupied Land Fund, which in 1992 changed its name to the Holy Land Foundation, was to pose as a legitimate charity while serving as Hamas’ primary source of income. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Justice stepped up its investigation to prove that HLF funds had been used, in part, to support the families of Hamas suicide bombers.

Tino Pérez, a retired supervisor of the FBI squad that investigated HLF, said the bureau was drawn to Mufid’s performances at the movement’s political festivals, where tens of thousands of dollars were raised. Pérez says the FBI realized that the popularity of Mufid’s band roused audience members to give to jihad operations and investigated whether the performances violated anti-terrorism statutes. “They were like a top 10 group of the Middle East,” Pérez says. “People loved to hear them. If it fired up the troops to give more money, then all the better.”

Mufid’s attorney, Marlo P. Cadeddu, declined to be interviewed but issued an e-mail statement. (Mufid, who maintains his innocence, declined requests to be interviewed.) “I will say,” Cadeddu wrote, referencing Mufid’s performances, “that in the United States, the right to express your political beliefs is protected by the Constitution.”

But Pérez says that’s not the point. “We were not looking at this guy because he was expressing his First Amendment rights,” he says. “That wasn’t the issue. It was his support for financial gain for Hamas. There’s no First Amendment right if it’s in support of terrorism.”

Nonsense, say some members of the North Texas Muslim community who know Mufid. “What I heard from him,” says Iyas Maleh, president of the DFW branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “is that he has a band and they play music and sing songs and used to invite them to their fundraisers to sing. To be indicted for such activity is ridiculous.”

Much less is known about how authorities view Mufid’s relationship with his half brother. The July 2004 indictment was the first public disclosure of the relationship, and one FBI agent says that Mufid kept the fact that Khalid was his half brother a closely guarded secret. Today Khalid is a hunted man. He survived one botched Israeli assassination attempt in 1997 when his bodyguards caught two Israeli intelligence agents who tried to spray poison in his ear. To its great embarrassment, Israel was later forced to exchange for them Hamas’ imprisoned founding spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin.

Since a brokered peace agreement fell apart in 2000, Khalid’s Hamas has engaged in one of the bloodiest campaigns of suicide bombings the world has ever seen. That was a good year for donations to HLF. A photograph in one HLF newsletter shows Mufid working at a crowded conference table, apparently tabulating contributions.

While the familial tie must certainly have imbued Mufid with some stature among stateside Hamas activists, his attorney questioned the relevance of the relationship. “We … do not hold people legally responsible for things their relatives do,” Cadeddu wrote.

Mufid’s friends also question the government’s mention of the relationship in the indictment. Having a criminal sibling doesn’t make you a criminal, says Mohammed Elmougy, a Richardson hotel owner who knows Mufid. “That’s called guilty by association. So you’re the half brother of someone the government doesn’t like. So what? Give me a break!”

Dallas will have to wait until the trial to learn what the government knows of the sibling relationship, though no date has been set. But an obscure August 2003 Treasury Department “fact sheet” on Khalid contains a detail that might suggest he has ties to HLF. The document accuses Khalid of accepting diverted charitable donations of the kind that HLF is uniquely suspected of distributing. “Funds transferred from charitable donations to Hamas for distribution to the families of Palestinian martyrs have been transferred to the bank account of [Khalid] Mishaal and used to support Hamas military operations in Israel,” the fact sheet states.

But if the question of a link between HLF and Khalid’s suicide bombing campaigns ever provoked a methodical investigation, the Dallas FBI’s discovery of the sibling relationship in late 2001 or early 2002 caused real alarm. Agents realized that the half brother of Hamas’ leader had access to Dallas’ most vulnerable infrastructure—gas lines, water plants, electrical grids, and maintenance tunnels under DART rails. The Oak Cliff Municipal Building contains a special room known as “The Vault,” where detailed blueprints are made available to the civil engineers. With Hamas having reason to be furious over Bush’s shutdown of its financial lifeblood in the president’s native state, FBI officials had to assume the worst: Dallas could be in grave danger.

BY THE SPRING OF 2002, the FBI didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Mufid, so agents turned their attention to neutralizing the threat they believed Mufid might pose. That’s when the FBI crept into Room 305 after hours. They went in armed with authorization from a special secret court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The court approves intelligence-gathering missions only on matters deemed to be of high national security interest. How agents got inside Room 305 undetected and what exactly they did remains classified. But among the techniques the secret court can authorize are wiretaps, surveillance, and computer-use monitoring.

The surveillance operation, however, did not yield what the agents had hoped to find. Of course, Mufid may have been innocent. But the FBI worried that he had covered his tracks or that he had already inflicted damage. On April 2, 2002, agents approached Mufid away from work and requested an interview. He turned them down cold.

The next day, Dallas FBI Special Agent in Charge Danny Defenbaugh sent a letter to Mayor Laura Miller pressing for an administrative solution. Just what solution wasn’t made clear, and Defenbaugh refuses to speak about it today. The letter offered this warning: “[Mufid] is believed to have access to detailed technical plans pertaining to the city’s infrastructure. … In light of the events of September 11, 2001, this letter is being brought to your attention for whatever action you deem legal and necessary.”

Astonishingly, Miller never read the letter. The official warning of a possible terrorist mole at City Hall got lost in the paperwork shuffle. Miller’s less-than-persuasive explanation now is that a staffer made an executive decision to pass it on to the police department without showing her. “I had just been elected. There was tons of correspondence,” she told CBS Channel 11 in a November interview. “There are still some letters in my office from citizens that I haven’t even read, saying thank you or congratulations. My staff got it and apparently sent it right to the police, which is good, because if I had read it, I would have done the same thing with the letter.”

To this day, no evidence has surfaced that Mufid posed a serious public safety threat. A federal judge let him out of jail after his July 2004 arrest on a personal recognizance bond. But Miller could not have known that when Defenbaugh sent his letter. With such a rare warning from the FBI in hand, Miller might have pushed city staff—as she does on numerous less consequential city affairs—to neutralize Mufid’s access to city infrastructure materials as well as his ability to move freely within it.

But Miller said she sees no role for herself as mayor to act on government warnings about suspected terrorists on city staff. “I don’t investigate people criminally,” she said. “So if someone tells me there’s a potential problem with an employee, then I would send that on to the police department.”

The mayor might have figured that the police would have had considerably less leeway to deal with a suspected terrorist than the FBI chief who sent her the letter. She might have also realized that a half-dozen Dallas police officers were assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and would already have known all about Mufid.

(Miller’s view of her limited role in terrorism matters rings especially hollow in light of a more recent situation in which  federal agents arrested a Muslim traveler and seized videotape he had taken of bridges, buildings, and infrastructure. Dallas landmarks appeared on the tape, and so the FBI passed it along to Police Chief David Kunkle to help him educate business leaders. The newly hired chief didn’t include the mayor in those security meetings, and she let it be abundantly known that she wanted in the loop.)

At some point, other top city leaders learned that the FBI was investigating Mufid. They, too, took no administrative action that would curtail Mufid’s computer access or ability to help Hamas sympathizers take revenge for the HLF closure. In fact, by all indications, top city leaders let Mufid fall off their radar until the day he was arrested.

Former City Manager Ted Benavides knew about the FBI’s investigation. According to some accounts, Benavides’ first inclination was to fire Mufid. But with no indictment or arrest, a move like that would have exposed the city to legal liability and possible protests by Muslim-American activists. Still, Benavides had alternatives at his disposal. City policy says employees known to be under criminal investigation can be placed on paid leave. But Benavides said he decided not to take action because that would alert Mufid and disrupt the FBI investigation.

That explanation, though, sounds implausible. Mufid had to have known that he was under the FBI’s microscope. Newspapers had reported that the government was actively investigating the HLF, and agents had already tried to interview him. Furthermore, if the FBI was so concerned that an administrative move against Mufid would disrupt an investigation, why would it send a letter to the city’s mayor suggesting just that? All of which raises a fair question: what would happen the next time city leaders are warned of a possible terrorist threat?

One last missed opportunity for an administrative fix to the FBI’s concerns indicates that Mufid eventually was forgotten altogether. As it turns out, since March 2001 he had been working with an expired license from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. To knowingly seal and sign off on engineering projects, like the high-profile Bishop Arts District, without a valid license would be grounds for transfer or termination. But no one caught it. In fact, Mufid was the one who brought it to the attention of his boss, Public Works and Transportation Department Director David Dybala.  A  June 2004 letter explains that he had never received reminders after moving to a new house. But surprisingly, the FBI’s concerns about Mufid had never trickled down to Dybala—and news about Mufid’s lapsed license never made it up to Benavides or, apparently, anyone else who knew of the FBI investigation. The revelation would have provided the perfect reason to terminate Mufid, but sloppy communication got in the way. Mufid was simply demoted, his salary cut by 8 percent, as though he were just any engineer with a lapsed license. He was allowed to continue working in the office, his security access unchanged.

Again as luck would have it, none of those lapses would matter much beyond the questions they raise about how the city plans to handle known terrorism suspects in the future. One month after his demotion for working without a proper license, on July 27, the FBI arrested Mufid. The city placed him on paid administrative leave, then fired him a month later, citing the indictment.

Mufid is appealing his termination.

FIVE MONTHS AFTER HIS ARREST, Mufid is largely confined under court orders to his modest Richardson home. The house is well-kept, the lawn recently mowed. A baby swing hangs from a tree in the front yard. Mufid is allowed to venture out to attend religious functions, and he has appeared at city hearings in the ongoing fight for his job.

It is unclear when Mufid last performed. His band, now known as Al-Nojoum, currently runs a web site (www.alnojoum.com) offering tamer CDs. Even if he is no longer singing publicly, Mufid has still found his way to a center stage, of sorts. He has been spotted giving religious lectures at a Dallas-area mosque.

As for the engineers of Room 305, they are still trying to digest the news that a radical singer accused of funding a prolifically bloody terrorist organization run by his half brother brought undercover FBI agents into their midst.

“It’s just a shock to everyone,” says Henry Nguyen, Mufid’s former supervisor. “It’s hard to believe you work with someone a long time and there’s a possibility that someone would be involved in that. It makes you feel like you can never know anybody.”

Todd Bensman is an investigative producer for CBS Channel 11.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments