Monday, July 18, 2005

Dating via cell phone

From Valentines 2005, Sprint PCS teams up with Mobile and to bring love to the celluar world

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

How a Mosque for Ex-Nazis Became Center of Radical Islam

Documents Reveal Triumph
By Muslim Brotherhood
In Postwar Munich
A CIA Plan to Fight Soviets

July 12, 2005; Page A1

MUNICH, Germany -- North of this prosperous city of engineers and auto makers is an elegant mosque with a slender minaret and a turquoise dome. A stand of pines shields it from a busy street. In a country of more than three million Muslims, it looks unremarkable, another place of prayer for Europe's fastest-growing religion.

The Mosque's history, however, tells a more-tumultuous story. Buried in government and private archives are hundreds of documents that trace the battle to control the Islamic Center of Munich. Never before made public, the material shows how radical Islam established one of its first and most important beachheads in the West when a group of ex-Nazi soldiers decided to build a mosque.

The soldiers' presence in Munich was part of a nearly forgotten subplot to World War II: the decision by tens of thousands of Muslims in the Soviet Red Army to switch sides and fight for Hitler. After the war, thousands sought refuge in West Germany, building one of the largest Muslim communities in 1950s Europe. When the Cold War heated up, they were a coveted prize for their language skills and contacts back in the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, U.S., West German, Soviet and British intelligence agencies vied for control of them in the new battle of democracy versus communism.

Yet the victor wasn't any of these Cold War combatants. Instead, it was a movement with an equally powerful ideology: the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1920s Egypt as a social-reform movement, the Brotherhood became the fountainhead of political Islam, which calls for the Muslim religion to dominate all aspects of life. A powerful force for political change throughout the Muslim world, the Brotherhood also inspired some of the deadliest terrorist movements of the past quarter century, including Hamas and al Qaeda.

The story of how the Brotherhood exported its creed to the heart of Europe highlights a recurring error by Western democracies. For decades, countries have tried to cut deals with political Islam -- backing it in order to defeat another enemy, especially communism. Most famously, the U.S. and its allies built up mujahadeen holy warriors in 1980s Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union -- paving the way for the rise of Osama bin Laden, who quickly turned on his U.S. allies in the 1990s.

Munich was a momentous early example of this dubious strategy. Documents and interviews show how the Muslim Brotherhood formed a working arrangement with U.S. intelligence organizations, outmaneuvering German agencies for control of the former Nazi soldiers and their mosque. But the U.S. lost its hold on the movement, and in short order conservative, arch-Catholic Bavaria had become host to a center of radical Islam.

"If you want to understand the structure of political Islam, you have to look at what happened in Munich," says Stefan Meining, a Munich-based historian who is studying the Islamic center. "Munich is the origin of a network that now reaches around the world."

Political and social groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood now dominate organized Islamic life across a broad swath of Western Europe. These connections are frequently little known, even by the intelligence services and police agencies of these countries.

While these groups renounce terrorism and officially advocate assimilation, the upshot of their message is that Europe's Muslims -- now representing between 5% and 10% of the continent's population -- need to be walled off from Western culture. This in turn has helped create fertile ground for violent ideas. Islamic terrorists have increasingly used Europe as a launching pad for their attacks, from the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. to last year's bombing of trains in Madrid.

These current tensions are embedded in the events of half a century ago. Postwar Munich was a ruined city packed with Muslim emigres fleeing persecution. While the West tried to observe and control them as valuable pawns in the Cold War, they encountered formidable rivals seeking their own power bases in Europe's burgeoning Muslim world.

Over the next few decades, four men would try successively to control the Munich mosque: a brilliant professor of Turkic studies, an imam in Hitler's SS, a charismatic Muslim writer with a world-wide following and a hard-nosed Muslim financier now under investigation for backing terrorism. Most favored some sort of accommodation with the West. But the victor had a bolder vision: a global Islam opposed to the ideals of secular democracy.

The Scholar

Gerhard von Mende's interest in Muslims originated in 1919, when his father was murdered. The family had lived in Riga, part of a once-large German minority in Latvia. When the tiny land was invaded by the Red Army at the end of World War I, members of the bourgeoisie were rounded up and sent on a forced march. Mr. von Mende's father, a banker, was pulled out of the line and shot dead.

That awakened in the 14-year-old a loathing of things Russian. After fleeing with his mother and six siblings to Germany, he chose to study other people who were oppressed by Russian rule -- the Muslims of Central Asia. A blizzard of papers and books brought him academic prominence. Linguistically gifted, he spoke fluent Russian, Latvian and French, as well as passable Turkish and Arabic. When he married a Norwegian, he picked up her native tongue as well.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 put a premium on people like Mr. von Mende, who understood something about the lands that Germany's blitzkrieg was overrunning. He kept his job at Berlin University but was seconded to the new Imperial Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories -- or Ostministerium -- to head a department overseeing the Caucasus.

Germany's initial victories left it with staggering numbers of Soviet prisoners -- five million in all. Due in part to the efforts of Mr. von Mende and the Ostministerium, Hitler agreed to free prisoners who would take up arms against the Soviets. The Nazis set up "Ostlegionen" -- Eastern Legions -- made up primarily of non-Russian minorities eager to pay Moscow back for decades of oppression. Up to a million soldiers took up Hitler's offer.

As the war progressed, Mr. von Mende became one of the chief architects of the Nazi policy toward Soviet minorities. He was dubbed their "lord-protector," establishing national committees of Tatars, Turks, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Desperate for soldiers, the Nazis viewed these committees as little more than a way to keep their turncoat allies in the war. But for the people involved, they were like governments-in-exile, a taste of independence for which they were grateful to Mr. von Mende.

Colleagues from this era describe Mr. von Mende as a well-dressed, regal man with a wry smile, who used his personal charm to win over the exiles -- especially his favorites, the Turkic Muslims of Central Asia. He opened his home in Berlin to them for long dinners with the conversation flowing in Russian, Turkish and German. In the last months of the war, he cemented their loyalty through an act of bureaucratic genius: With Germany's infrastructure bombed to a pulp, he managed to get thousands of "his" Turks transferred to the western front -- Greece, Italy, Denmark and Belgium -- figuring it would be better if they ended up in British or American prisoner-of-war camps than Soviet. Those who fell into Soviet hands were shot as traitors.

By the late 1940s, hundreds of Muslim ex-soldiers were stranded in the U.S. zone of occupation in Munich. Mr. von Mende, whose Nazi past left him with limited job prospects, decided to devote himself to looking out for them.

That decision would prove beneficial -- both for the Muslims and for Mr. von Mende. It was the beginning of the Cold War and Western intelligence agencies were desperate for anyone who could provide a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain. They needed people to analyze documents, broadcast anti-Soviet propaganda and recruit spies.

In October 1945, Mr. von Mende wrote a letter to a "Major Morrison" in the British Army, according to a letter in his private papers that his family made available. He laid out the Ostministerium's unique source of knowledge about the Soviet peoples. He explained who worked for it and in which POW or Displaced Persons camp they were being held. It was the beginning of his intelligence career.

Mr. von Mende settled in the British-occupied sector of Germany, in the commercial center of Düsseldorf. Although he was no longer an academic, he called his office the "Eastern European Research Service." His staff was made up of ex-Ostministerium employees -- basically a re-creation of the Nazi apparatus that oversaw the Muslims during the war. Funding came from British occupation forces initially, then a variety of West German agencies, including the national domestic intelligence agency and the German foreign ministry, according to foreign-ministry documents and Mr. von Mende's private correspondence.

Mr. von Mende spent enormous amounts of time helping the Muslims who used to work for him in the Ostministerium. He wrung money out of the West German bureaucracy for them to be fed, clothed and housed -- conditions were appalling and even a decade after the war's end many were still living in barracks.

But at heart, his task was simple: keep tabs on the emigres and prevent them from falling into another country's control. The main threat was the Soviet Union, which wanted to stop the emigres from making anti-communist propaganda. Some emigre leaders in West Germany were murdered. Many carried weapons in defense against KGB assassins.

CIA vs. Nazi Imam

By 1956, a rival emerged to threaten Mr. von Mende's control over the Muslim ex-soldiers of Munich: the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism, widely known as Amcomlib. Set up as a U.S. nongovernmental organization to run Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Amcomlib was in fact a thinly disguised front for the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA funding lasted until 1971 when Congress cut Amcomlib's ties to the intelligence agency.

During the 1950s, the head of Amcomlib's political organization was Isaac Patch, who is now 95 and living in retirement in New Hampshire. Reached by telephone, Mr. Patch defended Amcomlib's strategy of using Muslims to fight the Soviets. "Islam was an important factor, no question about it," Mr. Patch said. "They were strong believers and strong anti-communists."

Amcomlib forged ties with Ibrahim Gacaoglu, a former Nazi soldier from the Caucasus who, like Mr. von Mende, was looking after Muslim soldiers stranded in Germany. Mr. Gacaoglu controlled food packages from the U.S., which he doled out to his followers, according to his organization's documents. Mr. Gacaoglu also did propaganda work for Radio Free Europe. In 1957, for example, he held a news conference with another former German political officer, Garip Sultan, who headed Radio Liberty's Tatar service, according to documents and Mr. Sultan. The two decried Stalin's abuses in Chechnya. Mr. Sultan, now 81 years old, said in an interview that he wrote Mr. Gacaoglu's speeches and a pamphlet for him on the situation of Muslims.

For Mr. von Mende and his colleagues, Mr. Gacaoglu's CIA connections were a problem. West Germany and the U.S. were on the same side of the Cold War, but Mr. von Mende didn't appreciate foreign agencies trying to influence German residents. As one informant had put it in a report to his boss: "Germany is a gate that no one controls because there doesn't seem to be a gatekeeper. Everyone comes and does what he pleases."

Mr. von Mende decided that Germany's Muslims needed a leader he could trust. He turned to a friend from the war: Nurredin Nakibhodscha Namangani.

Mr. Namangani had come from a long line of imams in his native land, modern-day Uzbekistan. But his religious service had mostly been in an unholy organization: Hitler's infamous SS. According to an autobiographical sketch he gave German authorities, he had been arrested by Stalin's security forces in 1941 and soon after liberated by the invading German army. He served as imam in various capacities, ending as imam for an SS division. He won some of Germany's highest commendations, including the Iron Cross.

Mr. Namangani arrived in Munich in 1956 to an uproar. Opponents such as Mr. Gacaoglu charged Mr. Namangani with having participated in wartime atrocities. Mr. Namangani's unit reportedly helped put down the 1944 Warsaw uprising of Polish partisans against the Nazis, but any personal role in atrocities is not evident in German war records.

Mr. von Mende beat back the attacks, persuading the federal government in Bonn to accept Mr. Namangani as the "Hauptimam" or "chief imam" of Germany's Muslims, on the West German payroll.

In late 1958, Mr. Namangani came up with a plan to rally the ex-Muslim soldiers behind him: a "Mosque Construction Commission." At the time, Germany had only a couple of mosques. Munich's mosque would be different: bigger and dedicated not to traders and visitors but to Germany's first permanent Muslim population of any note.

"For 13 years, Muslims haven't had a fixed place for their services and have had to hold them in various places," Mr. Namangani told the assembled 50 or so Muslims, including some Muslim students from the Middle East. Once, Muslims had been forced to hold services even in a brewery, other times in a museum, according to minutes of the mosque commission. Now, he told the group, Munich would be a center for Muslims and the Bavarian state government would certainly help out, according to the minutes.

It was a big event, so big in fact that someone special was on hand: Said Ramadan, the Geneva-based secretary general of the World Islamic Congress, a group that wanted to unite Muslims around the world. The rest of those assembled donated 125 marks in total (about $275 in today's money) for the mosque's construction. Mr. Ramadan himself gave 1,000 marks.

Mr. von Mende quickly put out feelers for information on the well-heeled visitor. Soon, his index of people to watch contained a new entry:

"Said Ramadan, Geneva. Circa 36 years old, 3 children. Since 1956 drives an expensive Cadillac, gift of the Saudi Arabian government. R.S. [sic] is supposed to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood."

The Brotherhood Arrives

Said Ramadan's arrival in Europe was the result of a clash of ideas that continues to tear at Islamic societies. At heart, the problem is how to reconcile Islam with the modern nation-state. Like many religions, Islam is all-embracing, prescribing behavior in many spheres, politics included. But when taken literally, these requirements can clash with today's liberal democracies, which promote individual freedom.

In 1920s Egypt, a young schoolteacher named Hasan al-Banna came down firmly on the side of orthodoxy. Troubled by what he saw as the immorality of a rapidly modernizing Egypt, he set up an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood. His plan was to re-Islamicize society by teaching the fundamentals of Islam in the everyday language of the coffee shop, not the classical Arabic of mosques. He set up welfare organizations and was famous for his commitment to social justice.

But this collided with other visions of Egypt, especially those imported from the West, such as socialism and fascism. Heavily involved in the turbulent politics of postwar Egypt, Mr. Banna was assassinated in 1949. A few years later, a military coup brought in a socialist government that banned the group in 1954.

Many members were thrown in jail and some were executed. Mr. Ramadan was the most prominent member to flee abroad. He was Mr. Banna's son-in-law and was famous for having helped organize Jerusalem's defense against the new state of Israel in 1948. Few countries in the region wanted to shield Mr. Ramadan; Egypt was a regional powerhouse and its neighbors were wary of antagonizing it. After stops in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan, he arrived in Geneva in the summer of 1958 on a Jordanian diplomatic pass, accredited to the U.N. and also neighboring West Germany.

While in Germany, he set out his ideas in a doctoral thesis called "Islamic Law: Its Scope and Equity." It was published as a book and became a classic of modern Islamist thinking.

"He was decent and intelligent," says his doctoral adviser at Cologne University, Gerhard Kegel, now 93, "if a little fanatical."

Not fanatical in the sense of advocating violence, Mr. Kegel says, but in his view of a world in which Islam guides all laws and there is no distinction between religion and state. Mr. Ramadan also published a magazine, Al-Muslimoon, which surveyed events in the Muslim world and criticized secularism.

Mr. Ramadan, like others in the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly opposed communism for rejecting religion. During the Cold War, that made him a natural ally of the U.S. But Mr. Ramadan also opposed the U.S. and other Western countries for their interference in Mideastern affairs. Then as now, that put people like Mr. Ramadan in a tough position: They needed to cooperate with the West but didn't want to be Western collaborators.

Historical evidence suggests that Mr. Ramadan worked with the CIA. At the time, America was locked in a power struggle with the Soviet Union, which was supporting Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. As Nasser's enemy, the Brotherhood seemed like a good ally for the U.S.

A document from the German foreign intelligence service, known by its initials BND, says the U.S. had helped persuade Jordan to issue Mr. Ramadan a passport and that "his expenditures are financed by the American side." Swiss diplomats concurred that the U.S. and Mr. Ramadan were close. According to a 1967 diplomatic report in the Swiss federal archives: "Said Ramadan is, among others, an information agent of the British and Americans."

When the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported the contents of the diplomatic report last year, the Ramadan family responded in a letter to the editor that read in part: "Our father never collaborated with American or English intelligence services. He was, on the contrary, the subject of permanent surveillance for numerous years."

Members of the Ramadan family refused to comment. They include two sons, the popular Muslim intellectual Tariq and his brother, Hani, who heads an Islamic center in Geneva that his father set up.

A Fateful Alliance

Although he was fortunate to have escaped the Middle East, Mr. Ramadan's Swiss exile cut him off from his base of support. He began to look around for allies, according to colleagues who knew him then. Soon, an opportunity presented itself: He was contacted in 1958 by some Arab students in Munich eager to build a new mosque.

The students had come to Germany to study medicine, engineering and other disciplines in which German education excelled. Many had been involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and were also using the chance to escape persecution. Mr. Ramadan "was a gifted orator and we all respected him," says Mohamad Ali El-Mahgary, who now heads an organization affiliated with the Munich mosque, the Islamic Center of Nuremberg.

The students quickly united in wanting to get rid of Mr. Namangani, the former SS imam. Fired up by Muslim Brotherhood ideology, they saw the Uzbek as a throwback to an earlier era, one where, for example, local traditions allowed for drinking alcohol when this was expressly forbidden in the Quran. Over the next three years, Mr. Ramadan and the Brotherhood showed their political mettle -- first sidelining the soldiers and their German allies, then striking out on their own.

First Mr. Ramadan teamed up with Amcomlib to undermine Mr. Namangani. In 1959, he organized the "European Muslim Congress" in Munich, which Mr. von Mende's informants reported was co-financed by Amcomlib, according to German foreign-ministry archives and Mr. von Mende's personal letters. The goal: marginalize Mr. Namangani by making Munich's mosque a European-wide center, not just for Munich's Muslims. For the U.S., this would help strengthen their man, Mr. Gacaoglu, and limit the West Germans' influence over the emigres.

In 1960, Mr. Ramadan took formal control of the mosque-construction commission, with the students convincing the former soldiers that only Mr. Ramadan could raise the money needed for a mosque, according to interviews. Mr. Ramadan was elected chairman and Mr. Namangani relegated to deputy.

Flummoxed, Mr. von Mende tried to figure out what Mr. Ramadan's goals were. His reports show that he was convinced that Mr. Ramadan was working with the U.S. But he needed confirmation and so turned to Germany's foreign-intelligence service. In a private letter to a former colleague in the Ostministerium, Mr. von Mende asked for information on Mr. Ramadan and suggested stealing files from his office in Geneva. He even estimated how much the operation would cost, bribes and travel costs included. Mr. von Mende's BND contact confirmed that Mr. Ramadan was backed by the U.S. As for stealing his files, the colleague advised against it: Mr. Ramadan was "much too careful" to leave valuable information in them.

Adding to Mr. von Mende's worries was that the CIA was now openly backing Mr. Ramadan. In May of 1961, a CIA agent attached to Amcomlib in Munich, Robert Dreher, brought Mr. Ramadan to Mr. von Mende's office in Düsseldorf for a meeting to propose a joint propaganda effort against the Soviet Union, according to Mr. von Mende's personal papers and interviews with contemporaries of the men. Mr. von Mende quickly turned them down.

Mr. von Mende decided he had to use Mr. Namangani to engineer Mr. Ramadan's removal. At first, it appeared the two had succeeded. In late 1961, Mr. Namangani called a meeting of the mosque commission. Mr. Ramadan was accused of financial irregularities. The soldiers put forward a new candidate and in a close vote won a simple majority. In memos to each other, German officials crowed that Mr. Ramadan was gone and with him the plans for a "monumental mosque."

But a sharp-eyed city government official noted that the commission's by-laws had required that Mr. Namangani's candidate win a two-thirds majority. The simple majority hadn't been enough. Once again Mr. Ramadan's ability to mobilize had been decisive: His students had turned out in force, unlike Mr. Namangani's more-numerous soldiers. Mr. Ramadan was still in charge of the mosque commission.

Discouraged, the soldiers began to leave the commission. Mr. Namangani remained head of the West German organization that oversaw the former soldiers' spiritual needs, but had nothing more to do with the mosque. In a seven-page letter to German officials that is now in the Bavarian state archives, Mr. Namangani explained he was tired of fighting Mr. Ramadan. "The Mosque Construction Commission has drifted far from its original goal and there is the danger that it will become a center for those engaged in politics," he wrote.

The emigres' departure from the mosque commission slowed its progress but didn't hurt it. The German bureaucracy, packed with many former Nazis, was still sympathetic to the idea of building a mosque, memos among officials show. They apparently didn't know that their former comrades-in-arms had left the commission. The West German bureaucracy even gave the mosque project, now firmly under Muslim Brotherhood control, tax-exempt status, which would be worth millions over the next decades.

Mr. von Mende, though, realized that his Turks were left in the political wilderness. In memos to the German foreign ministry, he said the federal government must do everything possible to block Mr. Ramadan, whom he saw as a foreign-backed outsider. Whether Mr. von Mende could have stopped Mr. Ramadan is unknown: In December 1963, while sitting at his desk in Düsseldorf, Mr. von Mende had a massive heart attack and died immediately. He was 58 years old.

A few months later, his Eastern European Research Service was closed and Mr. von Mende's network of informants dried up. It would only be decades later, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., that Germany would seriously focus domestic intelligence on the Brotherhood's Munich operations.

The Banker's Vision

Cloaked from outside scrutiny, the mosque had less and less to do with the needs of Munich's Muslims. And around this time, evidence of the CIA's involvement dried up. Instead, control eventually passed to an unlikely location: Campione d'Italia, a swath of mansions and millionaires in the Swiss Alps. Here, from a terraced villa overlooking Lake Lugano, one of Mr. Ramadan's trusted lieutenants, Ghaleb Himmat, ran the Munich mosque and influenced the network that grew out of it.

Of all the characters in the mosque's history, Mr. Himmat is the most enigmatic, although he is one of the few still alive. A Syrian, he went to Munich in the 1950s to study but ended up amassing wealth as a merchant. Now under investigation by several countries for links to terrorism, he normally shuns publicity. He agreed to comment briefly on the telephone for this article.

Contemporaries and archival records indicate that Mr. Himmat was a driving force behind the mosque. In 1958, members of the mosque commission say, he led the movement to invite Mr. Ramadan to Munich. Documents show that the two worked closely together. They went on fund-raising trips abroad and Mr. Himmat stood in for Mr. Ramadan when the older man was back in Geneva.

Mr. von Mende's death should have left Mr. Ramadan firmly in charge of the project. But over the next few years, he lost control to Mr. Himmat. The exact nature of their split isn't clear, but close associates say it had to do with their different nationalities. Mr. Himmat denies this, saying he does not know why Mr. Ramadan left.

At the same time, Mr. Ramadan was losing the support of his Saudi backers. Short of money, he stopped publishing his magazine in 1967. Over the last quarter century until his death in 1995, Mr. Ramadan's influence waned. His son Tariq describes him in a book as prone to "long silences sunk in memory and thoughts, and, often, in bitterness."

Mr. Himmat assumed control of the mosque just before it opened in August of 1973. Under his leadership, the mosque grew in importance, functioning as the Muslim Brotherhood's de facto European embassy. As its influence grew, its name changed. From Mosque Construction Commission, the group became the Islamic Community of Southern Germany and, today, the Islamic Community of Germany. It is now one of the country's most important Islamic organizations, representing 60 mosques and Islamic centers nationwide.

The group also became a cornerstone in a network of organizations that have promoted across Europe the Muslim Brotherhood way of thinking. The Islamic Community of Germany, for example, helped found the U.K.-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, which unites groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood and lobbies the European Union.

Mr. Himmat says the mosque has always been open to all Muslims but that the Brotherhood came to dominate it because its members are the most active. "If the Muslim Brotherhood considers me one of them, it is an honor for me," Mr. Himmat said in the telephone interview. "They are nonviolent. They are for interreligious discussion. They are active for freedom."

For decades, German authorities paid little attention to the activities in Munich, viewing them as unconnected to German society. They were slow to grasp the warning signs. In 1993, after a car-bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York killed six and injured 1,000, investigators discovered that one of the organizers was Mahmoud Abouhalima, who had frequented the mosque. He was tried in the U.S. and in 1994 was sentenced to life in prison without parole. German domestic intelligence began to observe the mosque, intelligence officials say, but dropped their efforts after a short while when no links to terrorism appeared.

The Sept. 11 attacks changed that. Three of the four lead hijackers had studied in Germany, as did another key organizer. As German and U.S. law enforcement searched for clues, some, it is only now becoming apparent, led back to the Munich mosque.

Mr. Himmat, it turned out, was one of the founders of Bank al-Taqwa, a Bahamas-based institution whose shareholder list is a who's who of people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The bank has been identified by investigators in several Western countries as having links to terrorism. Investigators believe the bank helped channel money to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and may have transferred money for al Qaeda operatives.

In 2001, the U.S. issued a list of "designated" terrorists that included Mr. Himmat and a fellow shareholder, Youssef Nada. The Treasury Department froze their U.S. assets. Last month, Swiss authorities dropped their own investigation, citing lack of evidence. The men's money, however, remains frozen and the U.S. has indicated that it is continuing its investigation.

Messrs. Himmat and Nada deny any involvement in terrorism. A longtime member of the Munich mosque, Mr. Nada said in an interview that he no longer attends it or its board meetings. He said the mosque wasn't a formal headquarters for the Brotherhood because the group is no longer a formal organization. Now, he says, it has become something different: a matrix of ideas. "There is no form you sign," Mr. Nada said. "We are not an economic and political organization. We are a way of thinking."

The U.S. terror-funding investigation was enough to end Mr. Himmat's career at the Islamic Community of Germany. In 2002, he resigned, he said, because by being put on the terrorism watch list he was no longer able to sign checks for the community, meaning it couldn't pay its staff. He says the organization is doing well on its own and he doesn't contemplate returning to it. "It is running," he said. "There is no need."

In April, German police raided the mosque, claiming that it was involved with money laundering and spreading intolerant material, a crime in Germany. Police carted off computers and files from the offices. That was one of several raids on the center, although none have resulted in charges.

Mosque officials say the organization's days as a focal point of political Islam are long over. "This center has developed from a center that was important in Germany and internationally to a local institution," says Ahmad von Denffer, a leader of the mosque. The Islamic Community of Germany has since moved its operations to Cologne, where its current president resides.

Inside the world of political Islam, though, the Islamic Center of Munich remains something special. Some of the ideology's top leaders have served or spoken there. And the Muslim Brotherhood's current murshid, or "supreme guide," Mahdy Akef, headed the center.

Mr. Akef fondly remembers his time in Munich from 1984 to 1987. A short, friendly man with an elfish smile and big glasses, Mr. Akef says the center is now one of several belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. During his stay there, he says, visiting statesmen from the Muslim world visited the Munich mosque to pay respects to the world's most powerful Islamic organization. The mosque was so important that when he was arrested in Egypt in the 1990s on allegations that he had tried to form an Islamic political party, one of the charges against him was that he headed the center.

The Muslim Brotherhood is still formally banned in Egypt but a tiny office in Cairo is tolerated. Sitting on a sofa under a map of the world with Muslim nations colored green, Mr. Akef says the Brotherhood did indeed spread out from Munich to others cities in Germany and Europe. Mr. Akef is a controversial figure who has spoken sympathetically about suicide bombers in Iraq. But he avoids answering questions about terrorism or fundamentalism. Instead, he prefers to talk about the community work the mosque did in Munich, helping to beautify a nearby landfill and plant pines in the mosque grounds.

"We made this dump beautiful and now it's full of trees," he says. "It's one of the most beautiful parts of Germany."

---- Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Johnson at

WSJ - A Different Islamic World

July 12, 2005; Page B1

LONDON -- Harrods, the iconic upscale department store, extended its opening hours to 8 p.m. this summer in hopes of courting a special consumer group: moneyed Middle Easterners who are accustomed to evening shopping sprees in their native countries. Nearby, rival specialty retailer Harvey Nichols has an Arab-speaking saleswoman on every store floor.

While much of the attention since last week's bombings here has centered on the radical Muslim sects who have sought haven in the U.K., a large community of affluent Muslims continues to influence day-to-day rhythms in the British capital.

Its members, predominantly Middle Eastern, own houses in leafy suburbs, send their kids to private schools and spend weekends in the lush countryside surrounding London. Many live here year-round, though some come to pied-à-terre in posh west London neighborhoods during summer months, to escape the heat in their home countries.

Wealthy Middle Easterners make up only a small fraction of the roughly 600,000 Muslims in London. But they are a visible and powerful part of the city's social, political and economic fabric. Britain's Parliament has had Muslim Members since 1997, and Arabs own major businesses in Britain, including the leisure company that operates Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, a popular tourist site. Harrods is owned by Egyptian-born Mohammed al Fayed, whose son Dodi was dating Princess Diana when they were killed in a car crash in Paris.

Especially in the summer months, these Londoners provide big business for restaurants, real-estate brokers and a wide range of service providers, from nannies to bodyguards. Veiled women are a common sight on retail-heavy Sloane Street. As Middle Eastern women climb into chauffeur-driven limousines outside high-end boutiques, fellow shoppers can often catch glimpses of trendy designer clothes and high-heeled shoes peaking out from beneath black robes.

Even women veiled from top to toe usually carry pricey designer bags, one of the few obvious fashion statements available to conservative Muslim women.

"We're lucky, many of us, because we come from families that never had to think about money, so yes we go into designer shops and just buy without looking at the price tag," says Jawhara Fawaz, a 32-year-old Saudi woman who lives in a five-bedroom apartment in the ritzy Knightsbridge area.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, some Arabs say they have felt more welcome in Britain than in the U.S., which has stricter entry and security rules. Kuwaitis, for instance, can get visas to Britain within a day, while permits to travel to the U.S. can take months. Some Arab women also often feel more comfortable in London than on the Continent, where veils have sparked public controversy.

In these early days after last week's subway and bus bombings, however, it is hard to say if Middle Easterners will keep coming to Britain in undiminished numbers. Many British Muslims have expressed concern about a backlash against their community. So far, there is no evidence confirming that last week's attacks were committed by Muslims. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in Parliament on Monday, said it was probable that the attacks were carried out by Islamist extremists.

Police Make One Arrest After Raids in North England

Network Links U.K. Police, Muslims

British Police Fear More Attacks by Terrorists

Complete coverage: Terror in London

London's continuing appeal depends on the British government's response to the attacks, some wealthy Middle Eastern residents say. If immigration rules are significantly tightened or new security measures make life more difficult for Muslims and Middle Easterners in the months to come, fewer people may come, they say.

"People have been put off by the Americans' extreme measures after 9/11," says Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of Al Quds, an Arab-language daily published in London. "If the British government's reaction is similar to that, the same thing will happen here."

"Things have changed since 9/11," says Hissa Al-Majed, a Kuwaiti woman, whose family owns a house in London's Chelsea district, where she spends a month every summer. "Before, we'd never get looked at in the streets. Now we do. I wouldn't say it has changed how we feel about the city or would stop us from shopping there, but it's not the same as before," says Ms. Majed, 59, who always wears a veil when outside the home.

Despite the complex emotions, there are few tangible signs that Thursday's terrorist attacks have diminished London's lure among Middle Easterners.

The British Tourism Council said it expects just a temporary drop in visitors from the Middle East, comparable to what Spain experienced after the Madrid bombings in March 2004, but that the numbers will recover. The Lanesborough Hotel, a deluxe destination overlooking Hyde Park popular with wealthy Middle Eastern tourists, had cancellations from European and American visitors, but none from Middle Eastern guests.

"We've seen a downturn in Americans, but not Arabs," echoes David Serlui, co-founder of Aura, a trendy bar and restaurant near the Mayfair district.

As a former colonial power in the Middle East, Britain is familiar to many Arabs, who have sent their offspring to British schools for decades. Prominent graduates from British universities include the current rulers of Jordan and Syria. At the two French Nursery Schools in west London, 50 of 220 children are from Lebanon alone.

The British tax system also attracts wealthy foreigners. Unlike in other countries, such as the U.S., foreigners who reside in Britain but don't have their permanent homes here, pay taxes only on their British incomes, not on investment income from overseas, provided it isn't sent to Britain.

Jimmy Choo, a London-based purveyor of luxury shoes and handbags, recently added a VIP room to its Sloane Street flagship store and offers home visits for Middle Eastern women who often prefer privacy to a busy store environment.

"For many Arabs, London is a home away from home," says Tara Ffrench-Mullen, a spokeswoman. "We try to sell to them any way they want."

--Yasmine el-Rashidi contributed to this article.

Write to Cecilie Rohwedder at and Deborah Ball at

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The latest on RSS, search engines, privacy, and more

Information Today, May 2005 v22 i5 p7(5)
(NewsBreak Update)Paula J. Hane Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Information Today, Inc.
Almost daily during the past several weeks, I've stumbled across sites and resources that now offer to deliver information directly to users' desktops via RSS feeds. The Coalition for Networked Information, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Yahoo! Shopping, the state of Missouri, and others now provide this service. Even Information Today, Inc.'s weekly NewsBreaks have been RSS-enabled.
Participants at the Computers in Libraries conference in March heard plenty about RSS. It was discussed in a number of sessions including the (infamous) Looking at Dead and Emerging Technologies session. According to panelist Genie Tyburski, the dead technologies are e-mail, stand-alone software, advanced search interfaces, bar codes, and physical information. What's emerging? Instant messaging, RSS, podcasting, browser access to information, simple search interfaces, RFID, virtual, and mobile information. Given the news crossing my desk, I'd say these picks are definitely on target. By the way, many of the conference presentation links are now available at
RSS for Users
Steve Cohen of recently steered readers of his blog to RSS news from Factiva. According to information on the Factiva site, the company is now making standard folders of content, such as its Editor's Choice articles (covering 30 industries), available through RSS feeds. The feeds will show the headline and lead paragraph of each article as a hyperlink. When you click on the link, your RSS reader will open in a browser window and attempt to log in and display the article. Currently, the service only works for content and can't handle content in customers' personal folders. It also does not work with IP validation. An FAQ explains: "When the RSS authentication standard matures, Factiva will be the first to take advantage of it. In the meantime, Factiva will be looking at ways to provide access to our content for the enterprise with our current authentication model." Factiva said it welcomes any feedback and suggestions and would like to hear from enterprise users about their plans for using RSS within their organizations.
A Shower of Search Engine News
Besides the steady stream of RSS news, there was a constant springlike shower of news from the search engines. Yahoo! had one announcement after the other. Yahoo! 360, which launched as an invitation-only beta on March 29, offers users an integrated experience, bringing together communications, content, and community services such as Yahoo! Messenger, Yahoo! Photos, Yahoo! Local, LAUNCHcast Music, and Yahoo! Groups with new services such as blogs, moblogs (mobile Weblogs that consist of content posted from portable devices), and other sharing tools.
Yahoo! expanded the storage it offers for its free e-mail service from 250 MB to 1 gigabyte. Of course, Google then raised Gmail's storage from 1 gigabyte to 2. The announcement came on April 1, exactly 1 year after the launch of the beta e-mail service. Gmail use is still by invitation only.
Yahoo! also beefed up its desktop search software. The software, licensed from X1 Technologies, Inc., now indexes content from e-mail address books and discussions in Yahoo!'s instant messaging service.
The company also launched Yahoo! Search for Creative Commons beta, a service that provides Internet users with access to the collection of Creative Commons Web content. Content is identified by special license information, indicating that the owners' copyrighted works are available for free through required attribution or noncommercial use. At this point, the service isn't accessible from the main Yahoo! search page.
Marking a bit of a coup, Yahoo! won the Outstanding Search Service category in the 5th Annual Search Engine Watch Awards, breaking Google's 4-year streak. But Google won in several other categories, including Best News Search Engine. Speaking of news, Yahoo! is expected to roll out a new version of Yahoo! News any day.
Amazon's A9 service now has a new capability called OpenSearch that syndicates vertical search. The new technology uses RSS to let content providers create "columns" of search results that can be syndicated. Nearly 100 columns (from an eclectic mix of sources that includes The New York Times, PubMed, The British Library, as well as the best bars in Connecticut to enjoy happy hour) are already available at A9. Like some other search engine initiatives, however, the good stuff may get lost among the masses of results.
Furthering the increasingly popular search engine trend to provide answers, not just links, Google introduced a new question and answer service. Google's Q&A uses open Web resources, not proprietary information or subscription databases, to answer questions. While the service still has bugs and many unanswered questions at this point, Google promises it will evolve as the company works to better understand the structure of information and how facts relate to each other.
Google definitely kicked things up a notch in search visualization when it integrated satellite photos into its mapping applications. When using Google Maps or Google Local, you can now plot driving directions and pinpoint locations on detailed satellite maps, which use the technology that Google acquired when it purchased Keyhole Corp. last year. It's actually very cool--you can switch between the map view with labeled streets to the satellite view to see the buildings and landscape.
Not so cool, in my view, was Google's announcement that it would let consumers upload their home videos, even the raunchy, adult-rated ones. The goal of digitizing the world's content is one thing, but, personal videos? First, everyone can be a publisher, now everyone can be a video producer. Sheesh ...
The Dutch-owned ixquick metasearch engine has some new features, including a re-engineered metasearch algorithm, simpler interface, an international phone directory, and more. ixquick's metasearch technology utilizes its exclusive Star System, which gives each result one star for every search engine that ranked it as one of the 10 best results for a given search. For example, a five-star result at ixquick means that five search engines rated the result top-10 relevant.
There's a new version of the blinkx search engine: blinkx 3.0, which the company called "the world's first fully integrated search tool." With blinkx 3.0, users can view results from their desktop, the Internet, or television set in a single, combined list. The blinkx PC-based application is free to download at http://
And, stretching further into nontext digital media, Podscope was just announced (and should've launched last month) as the Internet's first spoken-word search engine for audio and video podcasts. Podscope uses technology from TVEyes, a company that has been indexing television and radio broadcasts since 1999. According to the company, Podscope, which makes every word searchable within a podcast, enables the audio indexing of podcast content, which is equally applicable to video blogs and personal videos. TVEyes recently announced a partnership with Yahoo! to provide real-time broadcast search for Yahoo! TV.
More Google Reactions
Reactions to Google's recent digital initiatives continue to ripple over the information world. Officials in France have begun laying the groundwork for a European endeavor similar to the Google Library digitization project. French President Jacques Chirac asked the Bibliotheque Nationale de France to make plans for a digitization program, and he asked several other countries to do the same. While begun as a reaction against Google's supposed Anglo-American bias, projects like these will only benefit users. (There's even been talk of developing a French search engine because of unhappiness with Google's popularity ranking.)
Peter Suber, in a recent SPARC Open Access Newsletter, commented: "This wave of digitization projects could be cooperative instead of competitive, but it's good for research, scholarship, education, digital culture, and OA."
Grass-Roots Media
Support for grass-roots digital media initiatives grew with the recent "alpha" launch of The new site provides free storage and bandwidth for registered users to post files of all kinds-video, audio, photos, text, or software. Media files are hosted by the Internet Archive (IA); pages/data are hosted at Bryght. Members also get a free blog. The co-founders of are blogger J. D. Lasica and Marc Canter, founder of Macromedia. (What's not clear is whether there's a practical limit to the number and size of files stored.)
The Internet Archive made the news again with the announcement that it would host a new "universal repository" that will accept e-prints from any scholar in any discipline. According to Suber, who is working with the IA staff to set up the repository: "Not only will it host new content for scholars with no other place to deposit their work, but it will offer to preserve all the other OAI-compliant repositories in the world."
The Internet Archive is not only valuable for its Wayback Machine, which lets people visit archived versions of Web sites, but also for the range of digital resources it now collects, including collections of text, audio, moving images, and software. The Live Music Archive, for example, is an online public library of live recordings available for royalty-free, no-cost public downloads. There are also films of math lectures from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute as well as episodes of Computer Chronicles, which was a popular television program on personal technology that was broadcast from 1983 to 2002. And, don't forget about IA's Million Book Project, which is scanning books and indexing the full text with OCR technology. (Google isn't the only one with digitization projects.) The goal is to create a free-to-read, searchable digital library the approximate size of the combined libraries at Carnegie Mellon University. It's definitely worth your time to browse the Internet Archive.
Privacy Breached
Reports of personal data loss have escalated in recent weeks. Reuters reported that hackers attacked computer servers of California State University--Chico and may have gained access to the personal information--including Social Security numbers--of 59,000 people affiliated with the school. Boston College admitted a similar incident and warned approximately 120,000 alumni that their identities could be compromised as a result of a computer breach. And, a thief recently walked into a University of California-Berkeley office and swiped a computer laptop containing personal information of nearly 100,000 alumni, graduate students, and past applicants.
As a follow-up to the previously reported ChoicePoint fiasco, an article in Wired reported that, even though a federal law requires consumer-reporting agencies to either verify the data they give employers or notify job applicants about negative reports, ChoicePoint appears to be doing neither in some cases. More recently, ChoicePoint representatives said the company is developing a system that would allow people to review their personal information that is sold to ChoicePoint customers.
At press time, Reed Elsevier Group, PLC said that up to 10 times as many people as originally thought may have had their profiles stolen from LexisNexis' Seisint database, putting the total at 310,000 people.
Meanwhile, in other privacy-related news, we haven't heard the end of debates over the USA PATRIOT Act. The current administration urges for the renewal of all provisions of the controversial anti-terror legislation. A Senate Judiciary Committee has been holding hearings on potential changes, and librarians, civil libertarians, and others continue to voice concerns.
For the latest industry news, check every Monday morning. An easier option is to sign up for our free weekly e-mail newsletter, NewsLink, which provides abstracts and links to the stories we post.
Links rss/marketing.htm awards/article.php/3494141 newsbreaks/nb050328-2.shtml [NewsBreak on Amazon's OpenSearch] newsbreaks/nb050411-1.shtml [NewsBreak on Google Q&A] eprints.php
Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of News Breaks. Her e-mail address is

Privacy and the database industry

Information Today, May 2005 v22 i5 p17(2)
George H. Pike Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Information Today, Inc.It has been a difficult couple of months for many of the data broker industry's heavyweights. In mid-February, ChoicePoint reported that credit reports and other data for more than 140,000 people were provided to criminals posing as legitimate businesses. Later that month, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chastised Westlaw for the ease in which sensitive records can be attained through "egregious loopholes" in its database access policies. Finally, LexisNexis reported that "potentially fraudulent access" may have compromised the records of 32,000 individuals.
These incidents have led to calls for increased regulation of data brokers and other consumer information companies, as well as to questions about privacy and the information that these brokers hold. Social Security numbers (SSNs) are of particular concern, since they are often the base on which identity fraud is built. But what about other information such as names, addresses, and phone numbers? Or more detailed information such as birth date, employer, income, marital status, and home value? Or potentially harmful or embarrassing information such as credit reports, criminal records, bankruptcies, or lawsuits? How does the law cover the creation and distribution of these records?
Privacy Is Not Absolute
Privacy is a complicated area of the law. The Constitution does not identify a specific right of privacy. The privacy rights that we enjoy are implied from a variety of sources and include the right to life and liberty, freedom from warrantless searches, and even the rarely mentioned 3rd Amendment right to not have soldiers "quartered in any house." Courts have also made it clear that privacy of personal information is not absolute. There are few facts about ourselves that are not divulged at one time or another. The more such facts are divulged in the normal course of life, the less privacy protection they receive.
Social Security numbers are especially problematic, since they can be used to forge new and illicit identities. There are contrasting popular views regarding the use of SSNs. One view is that they are only to be used for income tax and Social Security purposes. Another view perceives that they are national identification numbers, available for use by both public and private entities.
Social Security Numbers
The law, of course, lies in the middle. Social Security numbers are controlled by a number of federal statutes that dictate what they can be used for and under what circumstances they can be disclosed. Many government benefit programs require SSNs to determine eligibility. Obtaining a commercial driver's license requires an SSN, and people who pay child support are required to submit them in order to create tracking databases. Similar federal laws allow states to require SSNs on state documents such as professional and marriage licenses, vital statistics documents, and court filings. IRS regulations require private companies to obtain SSNs for any person receiving taxable income--such as wages, dividends, interest, or similar payments.
Many private companies, particularly financial companies, healthcare organizations, and insurers, use SSNs to verify identity. While laws exist that restrict how such companies can distribute SSNs, those laws do not necessarily regulate the right of the company to request an SSN. As a result, it has become common practice to require an SSN in order to obtain credit, participate in an HMO, or obtain insurance. The law, however, may not require the use of SSNs for these purposes.
A Variety of Data Sources
Several federal laws restrict access to SSNs and related personal information. Generally, these acts--which include the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (affecting financial institutions), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act--limit distribution to defined purposes or only those with specific consent. In addition, several states have additional laws restricting the display or use of SSNs. A California law requiring notification of leaked personal information is credited with compelling ChoicePoint to publicly acknowledge its stolen credit reports. Data brokers are required to comply with these laws for the information that they have in their files.
Data companies receive information from a number of sources. Newspapers, telephone directories, business and product registries, and other published resources provide some data. Other data is obtained from government sources such as property and court records, licensing bureaus, corporate filings, and deed and will registers. More restrictive sources of data are vital statistics registries, motor vehicle and drivers licensing bureaus, and criminal records. These sources have limited public availability, and how they are obtained and used may be restricted. Credit, tax, and financial records are generally nonpublic information, regardless of whether the source is government or nongovernment. Data brokers obtain such information by license from the original data gatherer and are subject to the same legal restrictions as the data source.
Practical Obscurity
Back in the old days, this information was cumbersome to obtain and gather. The searcher needed to go to courthouses, vital records bureaus, and secretaries of state and sort through city-by-city telephone directories and the like. There was an inherent privacy in these records that arose from what the courts called "practical obscurity," i.e., due to the sheer difficulty of creating a meaningful database, records were open but often in limited formats and locations. The age of computer filing reduced this difficulty by allowing for compiled databases. Networking allowing those databases to be shared reduced the difficulty further. Searching through multiple databases allowed multiple points of data to be collected about individuals with ease. Finally, the availability of these databases over the Internet--whether on public or proprietary platforms--opened these files to a global audience of both legitimate and illicit users.
There is value in having a database industry that can put collections of information together. Employers needing background checks, consumers applying for mortgages, and law enforcement agencies investigating crime all benefit from access to personal data. But that value comes at a price of increasing identity theft and a loss of privacy. Congressional hearings held in the wake of the Choice-Point and LexisNexis problems may result in additional restrictions on the use of sensitive personal information, particularly its use by data brokers. The data broker industry is still relatively young and is going through some growing pains. But the industry carries a great responsibility to millions and needs to demonstrate a continuing commitment to enhancing security and privacy. If it doesn't, the law will impose one.
George H. Pike is director of the Barco Law Library and assistant professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. His e-mail address is pike@law

Growth Of Online Services And E-Commerce Increasing Demand For Toll-Free Services

InternetWeek, August 10, 2004
New research from Insight projects total toll-free services revenue will grow from $10.9 billion in 2004 to almost $14.5 billion in 2009.

The growth of online services and e-commerce is actually increasing demand for 800 or toll free services, says a new research study released by the Insight Research Corporation.
Insight projects that total toll-free services revenue will grow from $10.9 billion in 2004 to almost $14.5 billion in 2009.
Call centers, the specialized organizations within an enterprise that have traditionally been big buyers of to toll free to provide customer service, are adapting to online growth by providing Web-based customer services. Though migrating customer service from a voice-oriented toll-free service to Web-enabled customer service costs the enterprise less per transaction, online shopping and customer service continues to drive demand for voice-based customer service.
"As consumers shift from brick and mortar shopping to shopping on-line the need for service doesn't go away," says Insight's president Robert Rosenberg. "When shoppers migrate away from brick and mortar stores to make an online purchase, they know they cannot go back to a store clerk to resolve a problem. In this context, the toll-free call that the customer can make to register a complaint or resolve an issue takes on an even more strategic role that the 800 call did when first used to build recognition in the late 1980s" Rosenberg concluded.

Firm offers toll-free real estate service

San Diego Business Journal, Dec 6, 2004 v25 i49 p23(1)
(Freedom Voice Systems)(Brief Article)Lisa Kovach

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 CBJ, L.P.Freedom Voice Systems, an Encinitas-based company that develops and markets feature-rich voice messaging systems and services, has launched version 2.0 of the AdTrakker toll-free service.
The service enables real estate brokers and agents to connect with potential clients and develop new leads automatically.
It also allows people interested in buying or selling a house to call a toll-free number and hear valuable recorded information at their own convenience.
Through the toll-free number, the caller is able to receive additional information via fax, telephone or a transferal to a real estate agent.
The new version measures advertising ell fectiveness by tracking the number of calls to the toll-free number and capturing the contact information of the callers for potential new leads.
It can be purchased online at
Article A126315668

Freedom Voice Systems

San Diego Business Journal, Feb 21, 2005 v26 i8 p33(2)
Spotlight: Freedom Voice Systems.
(Small Business)(Eric Thomas)Lisa Kovach Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 CBJ, L.P.

Eric Thomas has grown his business into a $5.2 million-a-year company in nine years.
Thomas is the president and chief executive officer of Encinitas-based Freedom Voice Systems, a provider of toll-free communication services.

With 12,000 customers, Freedom Voice helps businesses have the feel of a larger company and allows them to work more efficiently by offering an answering service, which can direct the phone call to the client's home-based business or a firm that does not have a receptionist, he said.

And the service seems to be a hit with smaller companies that want to give off the image of a larger corporation but may not have the capital to do so.

Freedom Voice, which produced a nearly 95 percent increase in revenue from $2.7 million in 2002 to $5.2 million in 2004, also offers a toll-free hot line lead generation system for real estate agents and mortgage brokers and a service that allows a client to send and receive faxes from any computer through a broadband connection.

Name: Eric Thomas.
Title: President and chief executive officer.
Company: Freedom Voice Systems.
Address: 169 Saxony Road, Suite 206, Encinitas.
Phone: (800) 477-1477.
Founded: January 1996.
Prior experience: I had started a laboratory supply company, B/T SciTech, which, in its early years, was a home-based business and then a small business.
Source of startup capital: $120,000.
2004 revenue: $5.2 million.
2003 revenue: $3.3 million.
2002 revenue: $2.7 million.
Number of employees: 17.
Web sites:, www.,

Born: June 15, 1962, in Plainfield, N.J.
Education: Master of arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from UC Santa Barbara. Residence: Rancho Santa Fe.
Family: Wife, Julie Bryant; her parents, Roly and Brenda Bryant.
Hobbies: Soo bahk do, which is a Korean martial art, kayaking, photography and travel.

Reason for getting into the business: I had already done well with my previous company but I saw this as a way of doing something more useful. How I plan to grow the business: Our primary means of growth is to listen to our customers. Based on what they tell us, we continually add features to our existing technology and introduce new services. We will add conference calling and Web conferencing services in the first quarter of 2005 and are looking at Web and e-mail hosting.
Biggest plus of business ownership: I get to do something that makes a difference.
Biggest drawback: Lots of responsibility.
Biggest business strength: We've hired really well. The employees at Freedom Voice are top of their class and very talented.
Biggest business weakness: It'd be nice to have our own Telco network, which is a network of switches connected through the public service telephone network, to make some of our future vision happen, but we can overcome that by partnering carefully and with long-term goals in mind.
Biggest risk: Changing technology.
Smartest business decision: Marrying my wife. Of course, I married her because I love her, but she's so good at business and she's been able to teach me a lot about how to be successful.
Biggest business mistake: Mistakes are teaching tools so they are only bad in the short term, but it would have to do with overestimating the character of someone whom I thought was trustworthy.
Toughest career decision: Leaving my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job and starting my own company.
The most important part of my business: The quality of our client services. We have a feature-rich technology that can be used in many ways for the exact same business objective.
How your business has changed throughout the years: We've grown quite a bit in terms of number of employees and I've been fortunate to see people grow within the company.
Best way to stay competitive: Listen to your customers.

My five-year business plan: I think one key element is going to be client services. I think the power and availability of technology will continue to increase.

I would sell my business only if: My customers, distributors and employees were looked after.
Guiding principles: Product first--make the product or service and the support as good as I possibly can.

Most admired entrepreneur: I like Richard Branson's ability to take risks, and I like Donald Trump's business philosophy in that he's very direct and straightforward.
Important lessons learned: Always deal with the truth. Don't try to lie to yourself so you can feel better in the short term.

Advice for those looking to go into business: Persistence. I can't tell you how many times I would have been perfectly justified in walking away. But if you believe in what you're doing, you have to keep going.

Article A130051654