Terror Watch: The GOP's Unwelcome Guests

An FBI counterterror unit put another notch in its belt last week when one of its targets was arrested by Spanish police. The apprehension of Canadian businessman Brian Anderson's received little media attention, but his case could prove politically embarrassing in Washington. Both Anderson and a key business partner, Abdul Tawala Ibn Alishtari, claim to have attended fund-raising events staged by national campaign organizations of the Republican Party.

While it's not clear to what extent Anderson and Alishtari participated in GOP events, their case raises some of the same questions that dogged the Democratic Party 10 years ago. Back then, Democrats came under pressure to return hundreds of thousands of dollars from a plethora of suspect donors, including a convicted Florida drug dealer and foreign businessmen under scrutiny for alleged ties to Chinese intelligence.

Alishtari, a 53-year-old businessman of Moroccan extraction who lived in Ardsley, N.Y., was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on charges that he sought to finance a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Then, late last week, Anderson, a native of White Rock, British Columbia, was arrested in Madrid by Spanish authorities on an FBI complaint accusing him of defrauding investors of around $4 million. Alishtari's lawyer could not be reached for comment. Anderson is still reported to be in Spain and could not be reached.

In the years before his arrest, Alishtari gained access to GOP fund-raising circles by contributing more than $35,000 to the National Republican Senate and congressional campaign committees between 2002 and 2004, federal election records and GOP officials confirm. Alishtari, in a resume posted on the Internet, claimed to have had several Republican Party honors bestowed on him, including the "US National Republican Senate Inner Circle Member for Life" and "US National Republican Congressional Committee NYS Businessman of the Year." The resume and other documentation about Alishtari's political activities were originally dug up by the investigative blog TPMmuckraker.com, which also came up with a press release designating Alishtari as a member of the GOP congressional committee's Business Advisory Council.

Anderson worked closely with Alishtari  trying to persuade members of the public to invest funds in a stock exchange project that they claimed was backed by royal families in the Persian Gulf. Like Alishtari, Anderson claimed to have a GOP connection, according to documents obtained by NEWSWEEK. In a document that he presented to would-be investors at a seminar near Toronto in June 2003, Anderson said he had attended a "Republican National Small Businessman's Convention" in Washington, D.C., as the guest of Alishtari in March or April of 2003.

Asked about Anderson and Alishtari this week, GOP officials said they could find no evidence indicating that the party had ever knowingly dealt with Anderson or hosted him at a dinner. But the officials confirmed that Alishtari had been a donor to the GOP senatorial and congressional campaigns and, as a contributor, had indeed been given the type of awards and titles that political parties routinely confer on major financial donors.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which recruits GOP candidates for House seats and helps to fund their campaigns, acknowledged Alishtari had made contributions. But a spokeswoman, Jessica Boulanger, added: "We don't want to rush to judgment as the judicial process moves forward. If [Alishtari is] convicted, we will immediately donate [his contributions] to charity." At the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to which Alishtari donated $20,000 in 2003, spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said that the committee has already turned over the amount donated by Alishtari to a charity that helps the families of wounded soldiers find accomodations near hospitals where the veterans are being treated.

Documents made public by Canadian provincial stock market regulators show that in the spring of 2003, Anderson and Alishtari (who also used the name Michael Mixon) were apparently traveling around the United States and Canada giving seminars in which they tried to convince people to buy $125,000 seats on something they called the Flat Electronic Data Interchange, which they claimed was a new, high-tech international financial exchange based in the United Arab Emirates. In a document presented to prospective investors at a seminar Anderson held in a suburban Toronto hotel in June 2003, it was claimed that Alishtari had been appointed as "custodian" of the new financial exchange by a "Supreme Council." The council supposedly represented "10 Royal families" who had each put in escrow $5 billion in gold—for a total of $50 billion—which would be used to create jobs around the world. Other documents presented at the seminar claimed investors would eventually benefit from the creation of a new network of 50,000 U.S.-based Internet cafes, of which 2,000 would be in New York City.

Canadian and U.S. investigators have offered detailed information to support their allegations that Alishtari and Anderson were con men and that their business schemes were bogus. But officials have offered very little hard evidence to support their other charge—that Alishtari had terrorist connections. A press release issued by the United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan at the time of his indictment last month alleges that Alishtari late last year "facilitated" the transfer of $152,000 "with the intention that it be used in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help train terrorists." The press release claims that Alishtari "believed the funds were being sent abroad to support a terrorism training camp in Afghanistan by funding the purchase of equipment such as night-vision goggles." At one point, in connection with the alleged terror-finance scheme, the press release and related indictment say that Alishtari transferred $25,000 from a bank in New York to an account in Montreal. But in the records made public by the government, there is no indication of what happened to the money when it got to Canada, or whether Alishtari's alleged Canadian collaborator, Anderson, was involved in any way in the transactions in question.

News reports following Anderson's arrest in Spain suggested he was under investigation in connection with the same alleged terrorism-finance scheme for which Alishtari has been charged. However, the FBI document that Spanish authorities used to arrest Anderson makes no mention of terrorism, and instead only accuses Anderson and a codefendant named Bonnie Dick (identified in the FBI document as Anderson's daughter) of involvement in a fraudulent investment scheme called Frontier Assets. The FBI complaint describes this as a "classic Ponzi, or Pyramid, scheme." A federal law-enforcement official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, said that there was no significant terrorism accusation against Anderson at this point and declined to elaborate on the real significance of the alleged terrorism-finance activities of his former partner, Alishtari.

Federal court records in Seattle indicate that in late 2005, Bonnie Dick was arrested on the same fraud charges her father now faces and that she was subsequently released from custody on condition that she subject to electronic monitoring. Her lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Exactly who invited Alishtari to become a GOP contributor—and who in the Republican Party the two men might have come into contact with—is unclear. According to another posting on the TPM Web site, at one point a site operated by Alishtari included copies of signed photos of President George W. Bush, a note from the president and First Lady Laura Bush thanking Alishtari for his GOP contributions and a photo of Alishtari meeting with former GOP Congressman J. C. Watts. Republican officials said they could not immediately explain how Alishtari had become a party contributor, who in the GOP had been in contact with Alishtari or whether Alishtari might have sought or obtained any political benefits or favors using his connections as a party donor.

So far, there is little evidence that the GOP and its fund-raising arms did much more than accept Alishtari's money and present him with important-sounding but largely meaningless awards given routinely to other campaign contributors. But there is little doubt that the accused swindlers tried to use their apparent GOP connections to impress investors. It turned out that undercover investigators from the Ontario Securities Commission were present when Anderson pitched his and Alishtari's United Arab Emirates scheme to investors at the suburban Toronto hotel in 2003. During the meeting, they acquired copies of the fund-raising documents touting Anderson and Alishtari's alleged GOP connection. Anderson later reached a settlement with Ontario regulators in which he agreed never to present the documents again to "any person or company."