A longtime activist for the disputed Kashmir territory who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to members of Congress admitted Wednesday that he secretly received millions of dollars from Pakistan's spy service in violation of federal law.
Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, of Fairfax, executive director of the Washington-based Kashmiri American Council, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy and one of impeding the Internal Revenue Service.
Fai admitted using a network of straw donors to receive more than $3.5 million from Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, starting in the mid-1990s. Fai used that money to fund his council's lobbying efforts with Congress, where he annually doled out contributions totaling $80,000 to $100,000 a year to various members. He also organized an annual Kashmiri Peace Conference that attracted high-profile speakers and attendees.
Fai admitted that he covered up his links to ISI and never disclosed his sources of funding.
When Fai was arrested in July, he was charged with conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). But the charges filed Wednesday as part of a plea agreement allege only a generic count of conspiracy and do not mention a violation of FARA.
Fai's lawyer, Nina Ginsberg, said the distinction is significant. While Fai admits that he secretly accepted millions of dollars from Pakistan, he maintains that his lobbying efforts were his own, and that his actions and efforts were not dictated by the ISI.
In a statement he issued after his guilty plea, Fai wrote, "Kashmiri American Council and I have always tried to represent the sentiments of the people of Kashmir, irrespective of the religious background and cultural affiliations."
The council's board of directors issued a statement welcoming the government's decision not to pursue charges that Fai was a foreign agent, and said the council at times issued opinion pieces that critiqued Pakistan as well as India.
Still, court documents indicate that Fai's ties with the ISI were extensive. And U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride, whose office prosecuted the case, called Fai "a paid operative" of ISI.
"For the last 20 years, Mr. Fai secretly took millions of dollars from Pakistani intelligence and lied about it to the U.S. government," MacBride said. "As a paid operative of ISI, he did the bidding of his handlers in Pakistan while he met with U.S. elected officials, funded high-profile conferences, and promoted the Kashmiri cause to decision-makers in Washington."
As part of the plea agreement, Fai admitted that he routinely submitted his strategy plans and budgets to ISI, specifically to a contact named Javeed Aziz Khan, also known as "Brigadier Abdullah." Khan at times chastised Fai for making decisions without ISI approval.
Fai also admitted that in December 2008, he submitted a strategy plan to the ISI outlining his plan to secure Congressional support for pressuring the White House to support Kashmiri independence. As he planned the agenda for his 2009 Peace Conference, Khan sent Fai a list of 18 suggested topics. Of the 10 sessions eventually included on the conference agenda, six were taken directly from Khan's suggestions.
Also, a cooperating witness told the FBI that only 20 percent of Fai's work was his own, with the other 80 percent being directed by his Pakistani handlers.
Kashmir has been a flashpoint in relations between India and Pakistan, and ISI has been accused of supporting militant groups that have allegedly planned terrorist attacks in India. U.S.-Pakistan relations have also at times been complicated by accusations that ISI has thwarted efforts to combat insurgents and terrorists.
Following Fai's rest in July, several congressmen who received contributions from Fai said they would take the money and donate it to charity.
Fai, a U.S. citizen of Kashmiri origin, said little during Wednesday's hearing. Among those who were there to support him were Shaker Elsayed, imam of the dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. The mosque has drawn scrutiny because a former imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, later went on to become one of al-Qaida's most prominent figures.
Fai's concealment of ISI funding resulted in a tax loss to the U.S. government of between $200,000 and $400,000, according to the plea agreement.
Fai is free on bond pending a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 9. He faces up to eight years in prison.