Hatem Abudayyeh, head of an activist network in Chicago that deals in immigration and discrimination issues, says the trips he helped coordinate to the Palestinian territories were fact-finding and educational visits hosted by a women's organization and that he knew of no links to groups that could be considered involved in terrorism.
The federal government has divulged almost nothing about the focus of the probe, which included subpoenas demanding Abudayyeh and 22 other activists from Chicago, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, Mich., appear before a grand jury. A line in one Minneapolis subpoena says agents were looking for evidence of money paid "directly or indirectly" to Abudayyeh.
Abudayyeh says the trips were designed for left-wing activists who support the Palestinians' long battle to have their own homeland and who paid money to the Palestinian women's organization. That organization has links to a small, Marxist-oriented organization called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was named in the subpoenas and is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups.
Abudayyeh, 39, says his knowledge of the Palestinian women's group is limited to its social work, such as establishing kindergartens and day cares.
"We don't know of any links to anybody else," he said.
Abudayyeh has not been accused of any wrongdoing, nor have the 22 other activists. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, refused to comment about the ongoing investigation.
Last week, nine of the subpoenaed activists were scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury. But like the others, they refused to comply, risking being held in contempt of court. They condemn the raids and subpoenas as FBI harassment and an attempt to stifle their rights to free speech and assembly, and they have held several vocal protests outside federal office buildings.
The federal law cited in the search warrants prohibits giving "material support or resources" to nearly 50 organizations on the U.S. State Department's terrorism list.
Abudayyeh said he arranged the trips through the Chicago-based Palestine Solidarity Group, which he co-founded. It sent roughly 70 activists over the past nine years to the West Bank, Gaza and to parts of Israel with large Palestinian populations.
His group paid money to a group hosting the visits called the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees. But he said the cash was only for accommodation, food and transportation - or, he said, no more than $50 per person a day during the two week tours.
"No money was ever just plopped in front of anybody," he said.
Abudayyeh said the trips aimed to help activists learn "firsthand that U.S tax dollars support the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine."
Jess Sundin, whose home in Minnesota was raided, said she and others raised small sums of money for the Union of Palestinian Women's Committee's social work; her daughter even set up a lemonade stand to raise a few dollars in the effort.
"That's the only fundraising that anybody did for organizations in Palestine," said Sundin, of the left-wing Anti-War Committee, who said members of the Women's Committees would take time from their work to show visitors around. "What we were funding was their work, which was very public, which was not illegal."
The Union of Palestinian Women's Committees, also known as the UPWC, was founded in the 1980s by women sympathetic to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, according to Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with the Washington-based International Crisis Group. He said the UPCW has an "ideological" affinity" with the PFLP, but experts said that the women's group was not linked to the front's militant activities.
The PFLP has a political arm with elected members in the Palestinian legislature but also a militant wing that occasionally claims responsibility for Palestinian rocket fire on Israelis. PFLP gunmen assassinated an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001, and the group staged a number of hijackings and other violent acts against Israelis going back to the 1960s.
A Popular Front legislator in the West Bank, Khalida Jarar, denies any financial ties between his openly militant group and the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees.
"The Union supports the PFLP political and social approach, but there is no money linkage between both of them," he told the Associated Press in an interview in Ramallah.
But others say such Palestinian groups sometimes disguise ties to militants, in part not to scare away potential donors. "They specifically set up groups to confuse and subvert," said E.J. Kimball, a former staff director for the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus.
Abudayyeh, a Chicago native, has served as executive director of the Arab American Action Network - a nonprofit group that advocates for new immigrants and tries to combat anti-Muslim prejudice.
He said he attended a White House briefing on civil rights and immigration with dozens of other Arab-Americans last April. The attendee list was submitted by a non-governmental institute.
During the Sept. 24 raid on Abudayyeh's condo, agents copied his computer hard drive and seized bank records and even photos of a trip his wife and daughter took to the Palestinian areas.
The federal attention has unnerved him, he says, in part because refusal to testify could lead to jail time. Even his 5-year-old is unsettled by memories of the FBI's dawn raid.
"To this day, she still jumps into my or my wife's arms when she hears a loud wrap on the door," he said.
Associated Press Writers Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.