WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. officials are investigating hundreds of Muslim and Arab small businesses suspected of sending money raised through criminal activity in the United States to terrorist group overseas, according to a published report Monday.
The Washington Post reported that the investigation into some 500 Arab and Muslim businesses was initiated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It wasn't until after September 11 that we understood the magnitude of the (terrorist) fundraising from our own shores," John Forbes, a former U.S. Customs Service official who directed a financial crimes task force in New York, told the Post.
U.S. authorities said they believe small-scale scams are generating tens of millions of dollars a year for militant groups.
"We were always looking to catch the big rats" in terror financing, he added. "But in looking for rats, thousands of ants got by," Forbes told the newspaper.
The criminal activity includes skimming of profits of drug sales, stealing and reselling baby formula, illegally redeeming huge quantities of grocery coupons, collecting fraudulent welfare payments, swiping credit card numbers and hawking unlicensed T-shirts.
Investigators suspect that some of the money has gone to Palestinian groups that use suicide bombings to kill Israeli civilians, including the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, federal officials told the Post.
Since Sept. 11, however, federal authorities have deployed hundreds of investigators to pursue the plots, the Post reported.
Arab and Muslim civil rights activists said they were unaware that officials had launched a large and coordinated investigation into small businesses in their communities.
"It wouldn't surprise me that authorities are singling out Arab and Muslim businesses for scrutiny, given the presumption of guilt we've confronted from government since September 11," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group.