Lebanese in Metro Detroit on edge
Feelings mixed about conspiracy to help Hezbollah
The Detroit News
2 January 2002
Ronald J. Hansen
DETROIT -- Ali Boumelhem packed a pair of shotguns and 700 bullets into a crate in Detroit bound for Beirut.
The shipment never made its way to Lebanon, however, because federal agents arrested Boumelhem. On Sept. 10, a jury in Detroit convicted him of conspiring to help Hezbollah, an organization the U.S. brands as terrorists.
The next day, 19 suicide hijackers from the Middle East changed the world and deepened American resolve against terrorism. It is in this climate that Boumelhem awaits sentencing and the Lebanese community in Metro Detroit feels isolated and subject to suspicion of supporting terrorists.
"We feel like we live in an open-ended jail here in Dearborn," said Hassan Bazzi, referring to the home town of about 30,000 of Metro Detroit's 220,000 Arab-Americans. Lebanese Muslims are the largest subgroup of Arab Americans in Dearborn.
The Boumelhem case is one of at least three since 1998 brought by the federal government claiming a network of support for Hezbollah from Metro Detroit. It has also taken on national prominence in gun-control circles.
It's not hard to find Lebanese immigrants who empathize with Hezbollah. But it may surprise some to hear those same people shrug off the prison sentence Boumelhem will receive when he is sentenced Jan. 24.
"Being an American citizen, you have to follow the law here," said Ali Jawad, founder of the Lebanese American Heritage Club in Dearborn and a native of southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah fought the Israeli army and its allies during the 1980s and 1990s.
"People here are morally supportive, but because of the current situation they are hesitant to talk about" better U.S. relations with Hezbollah, said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Dearborn.
Hezbollah, which means Party of God in Arabic, is an Iranian-backed organization pushing for an Islamic republic in Lebanon. Most Americans' view of Hezbollah was shaped by the truck bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 that killed 241 troops. The U.S. government has blamed Hezbollah for other terrorist attacks on Americans and Israelis.
But many Lebanese immigrants view the organization as patriots primarily responsible for the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from their homeland in May 2000. Israeli troops had occupied a nine-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon for 22 years.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government made it a crime in 1996 to lend any financial or military aid to Hezbollah and other groups branded as terrorists, and Hezbollah is among the groups targeted by frozen assets since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Earlier this month, however, the British government began direct talks with Hezbollah. That nation officially maintains Hezbollah still has a terrorist cell within its organization.
Jawad, 45, rejects talk that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that should be shunned by the United States and other governments.
"Killing innocent people -- we reject that," he said. "Hezbollah does not fit this category. It has protected its people."
Jawad and others also scoffed at the idea that Hezbollah would need minuscule support from Boumelhem, who had packed only two shotguns for the group.
Boumelhem was convicted Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court in Detroit of conspiring to aid Hezbollah. His brother, Mohamed "Mike" Boumelhem, was acquitted.
Federal authorities charged the men after a cousin tipped them about a freight package to be shipped in October 2000. The man provided federal agents with a videotape of Ali Boumelhem firing an assault rifle in a desert and voicing his support for Hezbollah, records show.
Ali Boumelhem was arrested Nov. 17, 2000, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport with a one-way ticket to Lebanon.
During a weeklong trial, the government claimed the Boumelhem brothers loaded a 40-foot, steel container outside their auto-repair shop in Detroit in October 2000. The container was bound by rail for Montreal and then to be shipped to Beirut, Lebanon. Ali Boumelhem was to receive the shipment.
Investigators found two shotguns, about 750 bullets and flash suppressors for assault rifles hidden inside the container, along with engine parts, shoes and cooking oil.
Equally troubling as the intended shipment is the fact Boumelhem bought the firearms illegally at gun shows in Michigan. In 1993, he pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to felonious theft, making it against the law for him to buy a firearm.
Gun-control advocates, including Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, have cited the Boumelhem case as an example of the need for background checks at gun shows.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cares, who prosecuted the Boumelhems, said he could not discuss the case, nor two others relating to
The cases at a glance
Metro Detroit has had at least three recent federal cases claiming residents supported the terrorist organization Hezbollah. The cases are:
In November 2000, authorities arrested Ali Boumelhem on charges of shipping a pair of shotguns and 750 rounds to Beirut, Lebanon. He was convicted Sept. 10.
In July 2000, Bassam Youssef Hamood of Dearborn was charged in a cigarette-smuggling ring that operated between North Carolina and Michigan. Profits bought equipment for Hezbollah, the government said. A trial in the case is pending.
In July 1998, Fawzi Mustapha Assi was arrested at the airport with $120,000 in electronics gear for Hezbollah, authorities said. He jumped bond and apparently fled to Lebanon.