U.S. agents sweep a chain of mall kiosks for terror clues

A nationwide sweep of immigrant-run jewelry stores launched two weeks ago by federal investigators appears to be aimed at determining whether these commonplace stores are linked to international terrorism, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

In the opening hours of the sweep, witnesses told the newspaper that FBI and INS agents raided a jewelry kiosk in the Gallery mall in Philadelphia on June 26, taking a Pakistani man into custody and questioning his coworkers about illicit cash, suspicious travel, and the al Qaeda terror network.

Within 48 hours, agents reportedly swept through more than 65 jewelry stores in Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina–most belonging to a chain of mall kiosks operating as Intrigue Jewelers.

Federal officials confirmed to the newspaper only that the Immigration & Naturalization Service did carry out an “enforcement operation” that day as part of an ongoing investigation with the FBI.

“I cannot give out any names of any arrests or anything,” INS spokeswoman Nicole Edwards told the newspaper.

But interviews that the newspaper said it has conducted with law-enforcement sources, attorneys, and detainees suggest that federal officials are investigating Intrigue Jewelers to see whether it plays a role in a vast money-laundering operation, possibly funneling money to terrorists abroad, with or without employees’ knowledge.

The FBI’s first interest in these mall kiosks may have been sparked in Pennsylvania after an Intrigue employee named Ashar Iqbal Butt was arrested at a mall near Allentown, Pa., hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. He had tried to develop 25 photos of the World Trade Center taken several days before.

“The entire investigation was focused on Intrigue, and anyone who had some prior business or personal relationship with Intrigue,” Neil St. John Rambana, a Florida immigration attorney who is representing three Pakistani men and a Nepalese woman arrested June 26 in a raid at the Governor’s Square mall in Tallahassee, Fla., told the newspaper. “They want to know whether the funds received from these kiosks were being sent to terrorists.

“I’ve talked to the INS agents,” Rambana reportedly said. “I’ve seen their paperwork. It’s a fishing expedition. It’s ‘Let’s see what we come up with.’ “

Across the country, media reports suggest that at least 32 foreign nationals have been detained: 19 in Atlanta, five in North Carolina, seven in Florida, and one in Pittsburgh.

The Gallery employee, identified to the newspaper only as “Muhammed” by coworkers and other Pakistani community sources, could not be reached. Workers said they hadn’t been able to contact him since he was led out of the mall by agents that Wednesday morning. It is believed that he has a wife and small child living in the Philadelphia area, the newspaper reported.

The INS’ Edwards would not say whether any of the detainees was still in custody, citing the federal Privacy Act, meant to protect privacy rights of detainees.

With federal officials publicly silent, it remains unclear whether the Intrigue raids figure directly into the war on terror, are a routine sweep for illegal immigrants, or both. But in Pittsburgh, the detention of one Pakistani American at an Intrigue kiosk indicates al Qaeda is on investigators’ minds.

Tariq Hussain, 27, told the newspaper FBI and INS agents detained him for hours in a mall conference room on June 26, then searched his apartment, seizing photos, papers, and a computer.

“They’re questioning me about Osama bin Laden, if I knew him, or if I knew anybody like that,” Hussain reportedly recalled. “I was like, ‘Come on. How the hell do I know him?'”

Hussain was a U.S. Army mechanic whose three-year enlistment served at Fort Drum, N.Y., ended last month. He reportedly said federal agents “flipped” when they found his handwritten notes about nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare—notes he said he took as part of an Army training class.

Hussain was released after nine hours, he reportedly said, and one week later had still not recovered 67 items seized by the FBI.

“They should have at least given me some respect for being a soldier,” said Hussain, a native of Pakistan who holds a U.S. green card.

In the Philadelphia area, Intrigue operates at the Gallery and at the Plymouth Meeting mall in Montgomery County. It also has stores in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and, until recently, the Lehigh Valley Mall in Allentown. Raids have been reported at each location – most recently at Colonial Park Mall in Harrisburg, where mall officials said the kiosk was closed last Monday. They referred all questions to the FBI.

Intrigue kiosks have the same basic layout: a glass rectangle of chest-high display cases, lined with modestly priced gold chains.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, about 1,200 foreign nationals were detained by federal investigators. Most were of Arab or South Asian ancestry, charged only with immigration violations, and the vast majority of detainees are no longer in custody. Several businesses and Islamic charities have also been accused of funding terrorism.

All along, the Justice Department has conducted much of its investigation in secret, refusing not only to acknowledge who is in custody but on what charges. That position has the support of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June blocked an effort to open hearings to the public.

At the Gallery, workers described to the newspaper the arrest of the 30-year-old coworker they knew only as Muhammed. They said two male agents approached the kiosk at 11 a.m. that Wednesday, while two more agents watched from a distance.

“They took [Muhammed] over there, and they were asking him all kinds of questions,” recalled Adelaida, 34, a Nicaraguan immigrant who did not give her last name, reportedly said, afraid of reprisals from members of the public who might decide she is a terrorist.

“They asked me did I see a lot of money being kept in the store? Did they talk about illegal things, like al Qaeda or something? Did they talk about traveling or making any secret plans?

“Muhammed looked scared, with a white face,” she reportedly recalled. “I asked them. ‘Why are you taking him?’ They said he was illegal to work here.”

Coworker Ali Hossain reportedly added: “It’s crazy. We just work here.”

Hossain, a 19-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, graduated from John Bartram High School and hopes to join the Air Force. “This country helped me, and I want to help this country.”

Intrigue Jewelers kiosks are franchised by a Florida company called Gold Concept Inc. Formed in 1996, Gold Concept is headed by an Orlando businessman, Arif Rajan, who is listed by the Florida Department of State as a principal in 11 businesses, ranging from pool cleaning to petroleum.

A woman who answered the phone at Rajan’s home told the newspaper the family was “cooperating fully with the authorities” and referred all questions to Orlando attorney Phillip Calandrino, who is listed as Rajan’s partner in one venture.

Intrigue’s trouble with the FBI may have begun 10 months ago in Allentown, with the puzzling case of Ashar Iqbal Butt, a Pakistani employee of Intrigue at the Lehigh Valley Mall.

Butt was arrested Sept. 12, after a suspicious film-store clerk called 911, saying that Butt had appeared “anxious and in a hurry” to get his photos, which included 25 pictures of the World Trade Center taken at the site several days before the attacks, the newspaper reported.

Confronted at the Intrigue kiosk, Butt, 22, gave a false name to FBI agents. He has since pleaded guilty to using a false passport and is to be sentenced Sept. 12, the newspaper reported. After 10 months in custody, he has not faced any charges related to terrorism.