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Published: Friday, 6/4/2010

Toledo couple held for alleged aid to terror organization Hezbollah

BY BRIDGET THARP AND IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Hor and Amera Akl expected to be with their three children traveling to visit relatives in Lebanon today.

Instead they are behind bars.

After an eight-month federal investigation, the West Toledo husband and wife were arrested yesterday on charges of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, Hezbollah.

They were arrested during a raid of their home, 3911 Brookfield Drive off Sylvania Avenue. Many neighbors watched from their front lawns as FBI investigators spent hours removing wheels, snaking a device down the gas lines, and peering under the hoods of two family automobiles: a sport utility vehicle and pickup carrying a bag of cat litter, a child's swimming inner tube, and a large pack of mulch.

Hor Akl and his wife, Amera, appeared in federal court in Toledo Thursday. Hor Akl and his wife, Amera, appeared in federal court in Toledo Thursday.
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"Very good people. Very nice, very friendly," said Bob Lydy, 25, who has lived beside the Akl family for two years.

Mr. Akl, 37, and his wife, Mrs. Akl, 37, both dual citizens of the United States and Lebanon, face charges that they conspired to launder money and committed arson relating to an insurance fraud scheme. Mr. Akl is also charged with two counts of bankruptcy fraud and one count of perjury.

If convicted on all counts, Mrs. Akl could face a maximum of 45 years in prison and up to $752,000 in fines. Mr. Akl could face up to 55 years in prison and up to

$1.25 million in fines.

"This case demonstrates our continued commitment to prosecuting those who seek to aid terrorists and terrorist organizations, whether they do so from our backyards or abroad," U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach said in a news release. "Furthermore, those who seek to take illegal advantage of our government, judicial, and financial institutions, for their personal benefit or for the benefit of others, will not be ignored."

Both suspects will be detained until a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court in Toledo at 1 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Vernelis K. Armstrong ruled.

Mrs. Akl struggled to stifle her coughing throughout the federal court proceedings yesterday. Their attorney, Chuck Sallah, sat silently behind the couple as they were represented by public defenders. He said time did not allow him to speak for the couple yesterday, though he would appear on their behalf next week.

Mr. Sallah told the media outside the courthouse that he would be "hard-pressed to believe" the charges against his clients.

"These people have been members of this community for a long time. These people have been socially active in this community for a long time," Mr. Sallah said.

The case against the couple is based on information provided by an FBI confidential informant, referred to as "Source-1," who has been paid $23,425.07 for providing information to the FBI in Toledo since 2003, according to a federal affidavit.

Most of that money, more than $19,000, was paid since Oct. 1 for reporting related to the Akl case, the affidavit said.

The informant was initially arrested by Immigration and Naturalization Services in Cleveland in 2003, though charges were dropped upon the FBI's request. The informant and his or her spouse were sponsored for permanent residency by the FBI in December, 2008.

Information from such a source was used by the FBI in two high-profile terrorism cases in 2006. Three Toledo men - Mohammad Amawi, Marwan El-Hindi, and Wassim Mazloum - were convicted of plotting to assist Iraqi insurgents. A West Toledo charity, KindHearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development Inc., was dissolved by the U.S. Treasury Department amid allegations it was shuffling cash to terrorists, though a judge condemned the government's action as illegal in 2009.

According to the complaint, the Akls agreed to send money to the terrorist organization Hezbollah after they were approached by a confidential informant for the FBI who claimed he worked for an anonymous donor eager to support Hezbollah. The couple researched and proposed at least 10 ways in which the money could be shipped to Hezbollah.

The complaint alleges the Akls ultimately agreed to conceal as much as $1 million in the hollow sections of two vehicles that would be shipped to Lebanon via a car dealership in Toledo. They then would remove the cash and give it to Hezbollah officials on behalf of the purported anonymous donors in the United States, the complaint said.

The Akls expected to receive a fee or commission for arranging the transfer of funds, and Mr. Akl in March traveled to Lebanon to make arrangements for the delivery of the money to Hezbollah, the complaint alleges.

The affidavit also said others involved in the plan include a brother of Mrs. Akl who resides in Maumee and Mr. Akl's brother in Lebanon, who owns a recreational facility where Hezbollah allegedly is allowed to meet.

Several neighbors in their West Toledo neighborhood described the family as kind, generous neighbors and expressed disbelief that the friendly folks from the corner could have terrorist ties.

Mr. Lydy, their neighbor of two years, said he enjoyed Mr. Akl, who was handy and had a background in concrete work.

"I'm very surprised," Mr. Lydy said of the FBI investigation and charges.

Alida Forshaw, 35, said Mrs. Akl went out of her way to invite her to an outdoor picnic to welcome her to the neighborhood when she moved in a few years ago. Children on the cul-de-sac near their home flocked to the swing set in the Akls' backyard.

"She's always super nice to, like, everybody," Ms. Forshaw said.

The couple immigrated to the United States from a small rural area called the Bekaa Valley, also spelled Beqaa. Mr. Akl - who prefers to go by "Har" - was granted American citizenship in 1997. The family takes an annual vacation back to Lebanon, and were expected to leave today, Mr. Lydy said.

Mr. Akl once worked at Spice Bar, 319 North Superior St., in downtown Toledo near the new Huntington Center arena. His employment ended by the time the bar gained a new owner last year and became the Hat Trick Bar & Grill.

Ahmad Mahmoud, who bought the bar, said he knew Mr. Akl but never would have guessed that he could have been involved in alleged terrorist activities.

"All I knew about that guy was that he worked hard. He used to work 50, 60 hours a week, 70 hours a week to support his family," said Mr. Mahmoud, who recently turned the bar over to a new owner following his well-publicized dispute with the Downtown Toledo Parking Authority.

The couple filed for divorce in 2005, but later withdrew the case.

Their two youngest children, ages 4 and 7, were home during the raid. The oldest, 15, was in school. All were in the care of family members yesterday, neighbors said.

Staff writers JC Reindl and Carl Ryan contributed to this report.

Contact Bridget Tharp at:

btharp@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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