Korans began arriving at al Haramain’s Oregon headquarters by the shipping container. Al Buthe also sent plush blue carpets for the prayer rooms, plus furniture, cushions and a Bedouin tent, which was erected on a hillside above the house. To evoke the Saudi Arabian landscape, Seda planted palm trees and even bought an aging camel from a Portland-area petting zoo for $7,000. He named it Mandub (Arabic for “ambassador”), and the camel, led by an al Haramain volunteer in flowing white Saudi robe and headdress, soon became the star of Ashland’s Fourth of July parade. Schoolkids came to al Haramain by the busload to sit in the prayer house and learn about Islam; their parents came to a similar event, held in the Bedouin tent in the evening, that Seda dubbed “Arabian Nights.” Al Buthe became a regular guest of Seda’s, and Cadillacs loaded with visiting Arabs were a common sight in downtown Ashland, as well as at the Costco in Medford, where al Buthe and his Saudi friends liked to shop.
Bank records show that, over the course of nine trips between 1997 and 2001, al Buthe deposited a total of $778,845 into the Ashland branch of Bank of America, where al Haramain maintained a business account. Al Buthe only withdrew money and took it back with him to Saudi Arabia once, a transaction that has become the basis of the government’s charges.
The chronology of events, according to the federal indictment and other court records, began on February 24, 2000, when an Egyptian physician named Mahmoud Talaat El Fiki wired $149,985 (in “support to our Muslim brothers in Chychnia”) from the National Bank of Kuwait in London to al Haramain’s Bank of America account in Ashland. During a trip that al Buthe made to Oregon two weeks later, he and Seda walked into the Bank of America and withdrew $131,300, which they used to buy 130 traveler’s checks worth $1,000 each. Seda then returned to the bank the next day and purchased a $21,000 cashier’s check, which was issued in al Buthe’s name. On March 12, al Buthe left the United States carrying the checks in a laptop briefcase, but at the airport failed to fill out a customs form that’s required of anyone leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash.
On the nonprofit’s 2000 federal tax return, Seda indicated that the $130,000 in traveler’s checks that al Buthe had taken back to Riyadh instead had been used to purchase a mosque in Springfield, Mo. The cashier’s check, according to the same return, was refunded to the Egyptian donor.
The IRS contends that the pair conspired to launder the original donation, with al Buthe purposely concealing the money from customs officials and Seda attempting to cover his friend’s tracks by lying on his al Haramain tax return.
Soon after al Buthe returned to Riyadh with the money, Seda and his family joined him in Saudi Arabia for hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Al Buthe drove the group in a van to Mecca, where for 11 days the men and boys spent their days in prayer and their nights in tents. They made circuits around the Kaaba—the sacred building that all Muslims face to pray—drank holy water from the Zamzam well and cast stones off the Jamarat Bridge to ward off the devil. By this point, al Buthe was like an uncle to Seda’s children, then ages 12 and 16, and had become a best friend to Seda, who called his benefactor halwa (an Arabic term of endearment that roughly translates as “sweets”).
Pete Seda’s world began to unravel on September 11. Anonymous callers left threatening messages on the answering machine at his prayer house (“You better leave the country while you’re still alive”). Soon after, to demonstrate his personal opposition to the attacks, Seda called the FBI and invited agents to his house, offering to answer whatever questions they might have. David Berger, an Ashland attorney who handled some of the chapter’s legal affairs, attended the meeting. According to Berger, on September 15 two plainclothes agents, one from Medford and another from San Francisco, sat in Seda’s living room.
“Pete offered to make anything they wanted available to them, and they seemed satisfied,” says Berger. But a couple of months later, Seda called Berger to the house and led him down to the end of the driveway and across the road. There he pulled back the branches of some bushes to reveal a hidden video camera that he’d discovered, its lens aiming straight up his drive. “It was upsetting to him that he didn’t have the privacy he was entitled to as a U.S. citizen,” says Berger. “Pete became quite paranoid. He would call and come over, but he wouldn’t talk inside my house. He was convinced it was wired.” Not long after that, Mandub died of kidney failure. Seda believed the animal had been poisoned.