Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
In 2004, Mark Siljander, a former Michigan congressman and a UN ambassador in the Reagan administration, told his friends and colleagues he was writing a book. He didn't tell them that he was also illegally lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of a Sudan-based charity that the U.S. Treasury had added to its list of sponsors of international terrorism, the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA).
On July 7, 2010, Siljander pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and operating as an unregistered foreign agent. (Lobbyists have to register with the Justice Department.) Under the plea the government is likely to drop other charges of money laundering and conspiracy, but he faces up to 15 years in federal prison without parole and a fine of up to $500,000. No sentencing date will be set, according to the Justice Department, until it has completely finished investigating the case.
But the Siljander case is not just about crime; it is also about religion. Part of how Siljander ended up lobbying for an Islamic group may have been his desire to build bridges to powerful Muslim leaders in foreign countries. In this, Siljander found common cause with the Fellowship, a shadowy Washington religious group that funds various nonprofits and builds relationships among politicians worldwide.
Siljander funneled some of the $50,000 he received as a lobbyist for IARA through the Fellowship. And while the Fellowship is not facing any charges and hasn't apparently done anything illegal, the Siljander case brings attention to the group's informal connections with powerful and sometimes notorious people throughout the world.
Informally, members of the organization, in efforts to reach out to Muslims, have fraternized with some of the most despicable Islamic leaders in the world, like Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court just charged with three counts of genocide in addition to the previous five charges of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Siljander recounts numerous meetings with Bashir in his 2008 book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide (see sidebar below).
That book was at the center of the case against Siljander. U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips said after Siljander's guilty plea that he had "repeatedly lied to FBI agents and prosecutors investigating serious crimes related to national security." Siljander told FBI agents and prosecutors in 2005 and 2007 that IARA's payments were to support him as he wrote his book.
On May 27, 2004, IARA paid $25,000 to the International Foundation (synonymous with the Fellowship). On June 30, 2004, the Fellowship transferred the net amount, $18,337, to Siljander's account.
As far as the Fellowship was concerned, that money was only for Siljander's book. The Fellowship board member who oversaw the transactions, Eric Fellman, denied that the money had been funneled as a lobbying payment. "The money was supposed to be used for Mark Siljander to be supported for a year to write a book," he told me. "Mark did write the book and it got published." Siljander listed Fellman as part of his "core of companions" in the acknowledgements of his book. Fellman told me he hadn't talked to Siljander in "years."
IARA director Mubarak Hamed, in pleading guilty on June 25 to sending $1 million to Iraq when the country was under U.S. sanctions, asserted that the checks were lobbying payments for Siljander. IARA's Abdel Azim El-Siddig, a co-defendant, pleaded guilty the same day as Siljander. According to the Justice Department, he delivered the checks made out to the various nonprofits directly to Siljander in Washington. An IARA board member and employee who were charged in the case have also pleaded guilty in the last months: Ali Mohamed Bagegni pleaded guilty to conspiracy and Ahmad Mustafa pleaded guilty to the illegal transfer of funds to Iraq.
"I can't comment on testimony from people I do not know, but I do know defendants will say lots of stuff to please the federal authorities and arrange a lesser penalty," Fellman wrote in an email. "We received a check from a U.S. charity in good standing with the IRS asking it be assigned to the salary account provided for Siljander to write his book."
The Fellowship's due diligence on donations involves checking the terrorism watch list and the IRS status of the nonprofit, Fellman said. "Even though we were intensely interviewed by the FBI, no question of us having done anything wrong ever came up," Fellman said. "And in fact we were never called to testify again because there was nothing-there was no smoke let alone fire in what had happened between us and the IARA."
IARA also funneled $25,000 in payments to Siljander through the National Heritage Foundation, a group that oversees "donor advised funds" (but declared bankruptcy last year). The money was designated for "Ambassadors of Peace and Reconciliation." Siljander's consulting group, Global Strategies, Inc., received $24,350 from Ambassadors of Peace and Reconciliation in late 2004. No such 501(c)(3) appears in IRS records. The Fellowship once had an affiliate nonprofit called "Ambassadors of Reconciliation," but that group ceased operations in 2006, and Fellman denied that it had any connection to Ambassadors of Peace and Reconciliation. Siljander, in his book, lists one of the directors of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, William Aramony, as a "dear friend" and relates a trip they took together to Khartoum in 2006.
In January 2004, before the Fellowship accepted funds from IARA, the Senate Finance Committee added IARA to its list of sponsors of terror. In March, IARA hired Siljander to lobby and clear its name, but he was unsuccessful. The Treasury added the group to its official terror sponsors list a few months later, saying IARA had sent $130,000 to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the onetime Afghan foreign minister allied with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. The FBI wiretapped IARA employees and raided its Missouri offices in 2004. The Treasury froze the group's funds and assets, effectively shutting it down. In 2008 the government issued an indictment charging the group with violating international sanctions and its top officers with money laundering, violation of terrorism sanctions, and theft of public funds.
While IARA is based in Columbia, Mo., it is affiliated with the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) based in Khartoum, Sudan, and Siddig (IARA's fundraiser who pleaded guilty) has ties to the Bashir government-his close friend, Ali Karti, is now the foreign minister there (see sidebar below). Siddig and Siljander have visited Khartoum together.
Siljander has strong convictions about reaching out to Muslims-a view the Fellowship shares. The Fellowship, which sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington each year, excited controversy when the breakfast included readings from the Quran (a decision Siljander himself originally opposed). The leaders of the Fellowship like Doug Coe eschew the term "Christian" and describe Muslims as fellow "followers of Jesus."
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Dinners with a dictator
In his 2008 book, A Deadly Misunderstanding, Mark Siljander wrote, "Omar al-Bashir was, in the eyes of the West, a bad man. In the eyes of God, as near as I could understand it, he was just another human being, with frailties and failings like the rest of us."
When Bashir seized power in a military coup in Sudan in 1989 and instituted Shariah law throughout the country, atrocities against Christians living in the South proliferated. Nearly 2 million have been killed in the course of religious cleansing in the South and 4 million southern Sudanese have been displaced (including over 27,000 young orphans who came to be known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan") by the time the parties to the conflict signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.
In 1997, at a time when the United States had broken off relations with the Islamic government, Siljander made his first of many trips to Khartoum to meet with the Sudanese head of state, accompanied by the head of the Fellowship, Doug Coe. Terrorist leaders Carlos the Jackal, Osama bin Laden, and Abu Nidal all resided in Khartoum at one time or another in the mid-1990s, and in 1996 the Clinton administration designated the Sudanese government under Bashir a state sponsor of terror and broke diplomatic relations. In 1997 it imposed comprehensive sanctions against Sudan.
During Siljander's visit, he recounts in his book that he told Bashir: "Of course, you can make peace with the south or not, sign a treaty or not, you do whatever you're inclined to do. But just know that we're going to be praying with you and for you in this process, and believing in you and in the very essence of what you call the power of Islam-being surrendered to God and in peace."
His book recounts trips to meet with other heads of state-in Libya, Benin, the Balkans, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries. Many of these were then considered Marxist or Islamist terrorist rogues, particularly Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. Both Siljander and Coe flew to Benin, surrendered their passports, and took a middle-of-the-night flight aboard an unmarked Libyan jet in order to evade prevailing sanctions against travel to Libya. In the end Qaddafi denied them an audience.
Siljander met Abdel Azim el-Siddig during a trip to Chicago in 2001, where they met with faculty members at Wheaton College to discuss Christian-Muslim relations in the wake of 9/11. Siddig eventually hired Siljander as a lobbyist for the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA). Siddig is also a close friend of Ali Karti, a longstanding member of the Bashir government who earlier this year was named foreign minister. Siddig and Siljander traveled to Khartoum together in 2006. Siljander told me in November 2006 he made other frequent trips to Khartoum: "I've had dinner four times in the last four months with Bashir."
Ali Karti was increasingly a part of Siljander's circle in Khartoum. And Karti at the same time was fingered by the Bush administration as a key player in orchestrating attacks on villages in Darfur. In September of that year U.S. Homeland Security officers detained Karti for four hours on the tarmac of Dulles International airport outside Washington after his name appeared on a suspected terrorist watch list. The suspicions stemmed from his support for janjaweed militias then attacking African tribal villages in the western Sudan region of Darfur. Experts estimate that between September 2003 and December 2008 in the conflict 300,000 died and over 2 million were displaced as Arab militias backed by Khartoum overran African villages and African militias.
"Yes, we made mistakes with janjaweed," Siljander said during our interview. "Ali Karti and Bashir have said that to me. It doesn't remove the evil but privately indicates their desire to change. If they say they are willing to disarm janjaweed and protect [aid] workers, let's come to some agreement, remove sanctions, and then incentivize them."