Accused man once worked at Va. school

Critics say academy is breeding ground for Islamic extremism

August 25, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Ismail Selim Elbarasse, who is accused by federal officials of helping to manage the finances of the radical Muslim group Hamas, worked for 14 years as an accountant at a Saudi school in the Washington suburbs that has been criticized as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

Officials at Islamic Saudi Academy in Northern Virginia said yesterday that Elbarasse - who was stopped with his family near the Bay Bridge on Friday after officers spotted his wife videotaping from their car - was "terminated" from the school in 1998, the year he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with a federal investigation into Hamas' finances.

The academy, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school sponsored by the Saudi government that offers instruction in the Arabic language and Islam, was unaware of Elbarasse's ties to Hamas and would have fired him earlier if it had been, said David Kovalik, the school's director of education.

"I'd have turned him in myself and reported him to the proper authorities," said Kovalik, who began working at the school after Elbarasse's departure. "That kind of activity is not tolerated here."

Documents and other evidence seized during a federal raid on Elbarasse's Northern Virginia home highlight his relationship with the 1,000-student school. And the academy's association with Elbarasse is not its first link to suspected terrorists.

Within the past three years, former students of the school have been accused of terrorism-related acts including planning a suicide bombing in Israel and joining and plotting with the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Some critics of the school think its curriculum is to blame. It promotes a fringe version of Islam that instructs students to denounce other faiths, they say.

"How much longer can they argue that all of these people related to terrorism are just falling through the cracks?" asked Kamal Nawash, a Muslim and president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. "There must be an environment there that is tolerant of the kind of extremism that leads to this kind of activity."

Nawash's group brought attention to the school this month when it demanded that educators there remove a first-grade textbook that includes instruction "that all religions, other than Islam, are false, including that of the Jews, Christians and all others." Such a view is not supported by the teachings of the Quran, Nawash said.

Last year, Ahmed Abu Ali of Falls Church, the school's valedictorian in 1999, was arrested in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of joining a cell of al-Qaida. He had reportedly expressed admiration for Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and planned to emulate him, according to FBI testimony in another federal terrorism case.

Two other former students at the school were denied entry into Israel in 2001 and were found to be carrying what federal officials described as a "farewell letter" in anticipation of a suicide mission.

Court documents in a case against one of the former students, Mohammed Asman Idris, said anti-Americanism was prominent at the school after the 2001 terrorist attacks and that some students considered the attacks to be an acceptable retaliation for the United States' treatment of the Muslim world, according to an account by the Associated Press.

The school's college-style campus in suburban Fairfax County was quiet yesterday, patrolled by a security guard and maintenance workers but empty of students, who are on their summer break. A roadside sign in front of the school identifies the school as ISA, and it looks like any other private, upscale elementary or high school in the Washington area.

That, school administrators say, is what the academy is. Kovalik described Islamic Saudi Academy as essentially a parochial school that specializes in Islamic education, no different from a typical religious school in the United States that specializes in Catholic education, for example.

Students follow a curriculum similar to the one offered by Fairfax County's public schools, with the notable addition of courses in the Arabic language and Islam.

Most instruction, except for the classes focused on Arabic or Islam, is conducted in English. The school charges tuition but is underwritten by the government of Saudi Arabia. More than half of its students are Saudi.

Elbarasse kept documents and other items related to the academy at his home, including an identification card, "historical data" and a letter about another employee of the school, according to a federal affidavit detailing the FBI's search of his house.

School officials say they have had no association with him since he was fired in 1998, or with the kind of terrorist activity he is accused of.

"We have more than 1,000 students here every year, and we do our best to teach them the values of tolerance and inclusiveness," Kovalik said. "Unfortunately, there is a problem with extremism in the Muslim world, and sometimes a student gets caught up in that and it comes back to haunt us. But they didn't get it here. Whatever brainwashing took place didn't come from us."

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