Two congressional candidates in Illinois, Justin Burau and Thomas Lynch, have withdrawn from an upcoming event at a mosque that has come under repeated scrutiny in past decades from the federal government and media because of its long record of involvement with extremism and terror finance.
The Mosque Foundation and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) announced earlier this month that its "candidate forum" on August 27 would feature at least eight congressional candidates – four Republicans, three Democrats and one Independent – vying for eight different districts.
The moderator for the event is listed as the Mosque Foundation's own "Government Relations Coordinator," Ayoub Razick.
The Mosque Foundation, however, has served as a major component of terror-tied Islamist financing and activism over the past two decades.
In 2003, the Foundation was reportedly the subject of an FBI investigation into terror finance-related money laundering.
In 2005, the institution had its bank account shut down over concerns relating to large donations it had made to the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA), a designated terrorist organization headquartered in Sudan that financed Osama Bin Laden.
IARA was not the mosque's only beneficiary. The Chicago Tribune reports the Foundation provided a "total of about $374,000 to three other charities that were later shut down by the federal government and accused of having links to terrorism: Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, Benevolence International Foundation and Global Relief Foundation."
The Mosque Foundation has repeatedly brought extremist speakers to address its congregation. In 2013, for instance, the mosque invited Jordanian Islamist Amjad Qourshah, who was later imprisoned in Jordan in 2016 for promoting jihadist propaganda. In his lectures, Qourshah has seemingly defended ISIS members as "decent men."
The Mosque Foundation had honest beginnings. According to an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune published in 2008, while the institution was initially set up in the 1980s as a simple place of worship, Islamist leader Jamal Said became its imam following a takeover of the mosque by hardliners with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a violent Middle Eastern Islamist movement. The founding moderates were forced out.
Counter-terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt, in his book Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, described Said as "a leader of the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States."
Extremists have led the mosque ever since.
Mosque Foundation official Kifah Mustapha served as imam at the Mosque Foundation from 2002 to 2014. He was previously a member of the Islamic Association of Palestine, which, as noted by the Anti-Defamation League, is a "now defunct organization that was once described by the U.S. government as part of 'Hamas' propaganda apparatus."
Mustapha and Jamal Said were also named as unindicted co-conspirators by federal prosecutors during a 2007 terror financing trial.
In an exhibit entered into evidence during the trial, Mustapha was recorded chanting: "O mother, Hamas for Jihad. Over mosques' loudspeakers, with freedom. Every day it resists with stones and the dagger. Tomorrow, with God's help, it will be with a machine gun and a rifle."
In 2009, the Illinois State Police rescinded a job offer to Mustapha after investigating his long history of extremism.
A third Mosque Foundation official, Muhammad Salah, was sentenced to five years in an Israeli prison in 1995, while serving on the Mosque's Executive Committee, reportedly for funneling $650,000 to members of the designated terrorist organization Hamas.
Current Mosque Foundation leader Oussama Jammal, a prominent Islamist figure tied closely to Turkish regime head President Erdogan, has long used the institution to advance his own extremist ideas.
As uncovered by Cynthia Farahat, under Jammal's leadership, in 2012, the Mosque Foundation hosted an official delegation of al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And as reported by the Chicago Tribune, Jammal also used the Mosque Foundation in 2003 to raise $50,000 for Sami Al-Arian, who was later deported from the United States after a criminal conviction for supporting the designated terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) contacted all congressional candidates publicly listed by CIOGC as attending the forum, including Democratic Congressmen Sean Casten, Danny Davis and Bill Foster.
Thomas Lynch, the Republican nominee to contest Illinois' 2nd congressional district, explained to FWI that he would be withdrawing from the event, and expressed a preference to address a moderate Muslim institution instead.
Writing to the CIOGC, Mr. Lynch stated: "I will not be attending the Candidate Forum. You failed to mention in your request that there would be a separate organization involved, let alone hosting the event. The reasons for leaving this information out seem disingenuous when noting the checkered past of the Mosque Foundation and its leaders in connection with extremist funding."
The campaign for Justin Burau, the Republican candidate for Illinois' 2rd congressional district, also told FWI that, "we will not be participating in the forum."
In contrast, James Falakos, Republican candidate for Illinois' 4th congressional district, reaffirmed his planned attendance at the forum, and warned FWI not to contact him again.
No further responses were received from the other candidates at the time of publication.
Despite its dangerous ties, the Mosque Foundation has worked consistently to build close relationships with federal politicians and government.
Such efforts appear to be succeeding. In June 2022, Representative Marie Newman, of Illinois' 3rd District, announced she had secured $1.5 million of federal funding for the Mosque Foundation's planned building expansion.
Benjamin Baird, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamism in Politics project, told FWI that: "Rep. Newman's embrace of the radical Mosque Foundation, which her office refers to as 'an anchor for the community,' lends it undeserved credibility as a local power broker for political candidates looking to court Muslim voters."
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.