In the months after 9/11, a media brouhaha grew around the figure of Sami al-Arian—Palestinian, long-time U.S. resident and tenured computer-science professor at the University of South Florida. The commotion erupted with broadcasted exposés on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor and NBC’s Dateline, which alleged that al-Arian, while serving on the USF faculty, provided pivotal fundraising and organizational aid to the notorious terror group the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Resembling the likes of Hamas and Hizbollah, the PIJ is known for suicide bombings in the Gaza Strip and the beheading of “collaborators” who favor a nonviolent answer to the Palestinian question. Among cited evidence of al-Arian’s suspect probity generally and his venom toward Israel specifically was a dated videotape of the professor shouting the unambiguous phrase, “Death to Israel,” at a Cleveland mosque.
Despite such disconcerting language, there straight away came journalists to defend al-Arian, his entitlement to continued professorship, and his right to free speech (no matter how odious). These writers were, namely, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and a fiery Eric Boehlert of the e-zine Salon. Boehlert, specifically, concluded that the networks, “ruined an innocent professor’s life” by “pandering to anti-Arab hysteria” in the wake of 9/11.
Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, few in the media paid attention to, much less investigated, al-Arian’s Florida-based activities. Early exceptions, however, were the Tampa Tribune’s Michael Fechter and, most notably, former CNN correspondent Steven Emerson. Emerson had asserted the professor’s PIJ ties as early as 1994, when his documentary The Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America, aired on PBS. The program claimed that al-Arian was not only involved with the PIJ but actually spearheaded U.S.-based support for the terror group.
Now in the important but scattershot American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Emerson chronicles his 12-year investigation into several domestic hubs for international terrorism and specifically extends his argument that al-Arian acted as the PIJ’s North American frontman for more than a decade while at USF. In a chapter devoted exclusively to the professor, Emerson submits al-Arian managed two nonprofit organizations in the 1990s that were created ostensibly to advance interfaith relations, but that actually functioned as fundraising and operational fronts for the PIJ in the United States: the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP) and a university-affiliated think tank, the World Islamic Strategic Enterprise (WISE).
According to Emerson, the ICP acted as the mouthpiece for the PIJ and regularly published anti-Jewish, anti-America, and pro-terrorism vitriol under the direct oversight of al-Arian. The ICP also organized annual conventions in various American cities and invited speakers from a veritable who’s who of Islamic terrorism, including Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (the blind Egyptian cleric who was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to bomb the WTC and other New York City landmarks). More important, ICP conventioneers raised money for Palestinian “martyrs” and their families and incited terrorist acts against specific targets, including American interests.
Emerson claims that, through WISE, al-Arian maintained intimate ties with several dubious (to say the least) characters. Among them were Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, former WISE administrator, former USF lecturer, and later worldwide PIJ leader; Tarik Hamdi, former WISE board member and later courier for Osama bin Laden; Bashir Nafi, WISE director of research and executive PIJ member (deported on visa violations in 1996); and al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazan al-Najjar, former WISE operations officer and suspected PIJ operative (also deported on visa violations in 2002).
Given the compelling evidence that Emerson lays out in American Jihad, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that al-Arian knowingly advanced the PIJ’s hate and brutality under the cover of nonprofit goodwill and a state-funded educational system. And as Emerson writes, al-Arian’s case exemplifies today’s insidious methods for cultivating Islamic terrorism on American soil:
“The formula was simple: use the laws, freedoms, and loopholes of the most liberal nation on earth to help finance and direct one of the most violent international terrorism groups in the world.”
Ironically, organizations like the PIJ use America’s peculiar rights of free expression and religious tolerance — rights often inaccessible in Muslim-dominated governments — to pursue the path toward Khalifah, a world dictated by a wholly intolerant faction of Islam. Emerson reminds us that the FBI traditionally has had no authority to monitor what appears to be, on its face, merely inflammatory free speech; consequently, the FBI could do little initially to investigate people like al-Arian, without material cause. (Moreover, before passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001, incriminating classified intelligence could not be shared with domestic law enforcement for use in criminal prosecution.)
According to Emerson, other groups such as Hizballah and the “original infiltrator” Hamas have freely used American bases to foment Islamic terrorism. Hamas has long insinuated itself into such innocuous-sounding places as Bridgeview, Illinois; Richardson, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and Herndon, Virginia. Hamas received millions from the Richardson-headquartered Holy Land Foundation, a charity that solicited donations for "needy Palestinian children, health clinics, and schools," according to the group’s pamphlet. The foundation’s assets were ultimately frozen by presidential order in December 2001.
Other nonprofit Islamic groups that officially renounced the acts of 9/11, like the Muslim Arab Youth Association, nevertheless provide important opportunities for jihadists to spread hate and plan criminal activities. Emerson reveals that organizations like MAYA create “the sea in which the fish swim.” Likewise, many U.S. mosques — among them, the Al-Farooq center in Brooklyn and the Bridgeview Mosque in Illinois — have been usurped by militant Islamists in an effort to recruit, network, fundraise, money launder, equip, and plan for terrorist acts.
A pervasive theme throughout American Jihad is the shifting traffic of elusive characters in a global terrorist network. One example is Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistani who underwent terrorist training in Afghanistan, joined the Filipino terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, masterminded the 1993 WTC bombing while living in Jersey City, and conspired to assassinate the pope and blow up American jets over the Pacific while back again in the Philippines. To expand the influence of the PIJ, al-Arian attempted to orchestrate a merger with Hamas. Emerson quotes the professor in a government-confiscated letter: "The link with the brothers in Hamas is very good and making steady progress, and there are serious attempts at unification and permanent coordination."
Emerson packs a whole lot more — too much, really, for a single, coherent book — into American Jihad. Included are analyses of the 1993 WTC bombing conspiracy, the insensitivity of U.S. law enforcement toward terrorist threats before 9/11, the roots of contemporary jihad and specifically of al Qaeda, and the dilemma of moderate Muslims in a subculture bullied (and worse) by militant Islam. There are also appendices cataloging suspect nonprofit Islamic organizations in America and a primer on the roots of militant Islam.
Certainly Islamic terrorism is an unqualified snake pit, and Emerson deserves enormous credit — despite considerable barriers (including death threats) — for attempting to paint a comprehensive image of this extremely complex evil. But Emerson overshoots his theme in American Jihad — that is, the infiltration of Islamic terrorism into the United States — and thereby submerges his book in too much fragmentary information. For example, chronicles of his travels to the Middle East add little to his exposé, and appendix material far exceeds the necessary background.
Also Emerson has a particularly irksome penchant for showing himself as remarkably prophetic of the 9/11 horrors. Nevertheless, post-publication developments do, in fact, support many of Emerson’s early contentions. For instance, Sami al-Arian was finally arrested in February of this year on the basis of a 50-count federal indictment alleging conspiracy to commit racketeering and murder, among other crimes. Co-indicted were two of his former WISE associates, Shallah and Nafi, still at large. With respect to these late developments, journalists Kristhof and Boehlert have been stunningly silent.