Published 11 Sep 07
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
The Terrorist Next Door
Part II: Know Thy Neighbor
One of my favorite post-9/11 tales involves a Dutch journalist speaking on a panel in Amsterdam a few months after the attacks. He was trying to describe how he was able, on that day, to file his coverage of the event, to divorce himself enough from what he was watching on his TV set – the images of men and women jumping from the towers in the moments before the towers themselves, too, fell – and put it all in written words in time to meet his deadline. It was difficult, he acknowledged. But then, he said, "I realized this was about America. It had nothing to do with me."
Leaving, for a moment, the idea that the murder of 3,000 civilians could possibly "have nothing to do with" any other human being on the planet, the point, of course, is this: only three years later, Islamic terrorism struck that journalist's own city - not, to be sure, from an outside force centered in the Middle East, but through the actions of a local group of mostly Dutch-born Muslims, the children of Moroccan immigrants who had come as part of Europe's "guest worker" program several decades back.
And then came the London bombings, and the British airport threat, and the failed bomb on a German commuter train, and more recently, the attack that failed in Glasgow. (The Madrid bombings pre-date the Amsterdam attack, but they count, too, of course, as evidence that this was not "about America.")
But the reaction in the USA? "That's the way things are in Europe," we said, "but it won't happen here." Americans, we tell ourselves and one another, are different: we understand integration. We are an immigrant society. And America's Muslim immigrants are nothing like the Muslim immigrants in Europe. There is no home threat here.
And indeed, the average Muslim immigrant in the US is more prosperous than the average non-Muslim American, and better educated than his European counterpart (although it is worth remembering that the perpetrators of Britain's last failed terrorist attempt were physicians). He is, on average, better assimilated into Western culture.
The Threat Within
But the fact that Muslim immigrants do not pose a specific threat in the United States does not mean domestic Islamic terror threats do not exist – and such threats do not need to be linked to al Qaeda, the Bush administration's Boogeyman, to be dangerous. In fact, arguably, by focusing on al Qaeda as if it were the only enemy - or as if it ruled all Islamist initiatives - we are blinding ourselves to the more immediate dangers from within. Among them:
- Saudi-funded Wahhabist schools and mosques being built throughout the country, unchecked. (New York Senator Charles Schumer has stated, in fact, that "there is mounting evidence that Saudi-sponsored groups are trying to hijack mainstream Islam here in the United States - in mosques, in schools, and even in prisons and the military - and replace it with Wahhabism.")
- Growing separatist communities and organizations, largely populated by American converts to Islam;
- Front groups for such organizations that raise funds for foreign terrorist powers like Hezbollah and Hamas;
- Radicalizing African-Americans in the prisons, and those that they recruit;
- Former prisoners, recruited by extremist separatist groups who take advantage of the lack of support our society provides them.
That these separatist groups are comprised largely of African-American converts becomes especially alarming in light of a recent Pew study, which found that only 36 percent of African American Muslims expressed a "very unfavorable" opinion of al Qaeda, while 69 percent of other native-born Muslims and 63 percent of foreign-born Muslims held such a view. (This, it is worth noting, still leaves a sizable number of non-black Muslims in the US who do not.)
There are reasons for this. Many black American Muslims come to Islam while serving time in prisons, where they may be particularly susceptible to radicalization. (Radicalization of both blacks and whites in the prisons of Europe is widely-documented – "shoe-bomber" Richard Ried converted to Islam and became radicalized in a British jail, for instance). A major George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute study, produced in conjunction with the University of Virginia's Critical Incident Analysis Group and published in September, 2006, noted that this can often be due to prisoners' "anti-social attitudes and the need to identify with other inmates sharing the same background, beliefs, or ethnicity." White inmates historically may join white supremacist factions, which also tend to proliferate in prisons; and similarly, with black Muslim organizations (such as Nation of Islam) already established, there is a particular draw towards such groups among black prisoners.
Making matters worse, our current system leaves few options for ex-cons, who are frequently left unemployed and without access to education, vocational training, and other opportunities for advancement. Families may have turned against them. Friends may have moved away, or died. In this environment, many radical groups and communities take advantage of the opportunity to embrace these individuals, offering them housing, emotional support, and in some cases, even money. The lure is often irresistible, and the threat, say experts, potentially enormous.
"The potential for radicalization of prison inmates in the United States," wrote the authors of the George Washington University/UVA report, "poses a threat of unknown magnitude to the national security of the U.S."
Since September 11, 2001, according to the study, "several individuals who were radicalized while incarcerated have been involved in terrorist organizations." Kevin James, an inmate at California State Prison in Sacramento since 1996, is believed to have been at the center of a 2005 terrorist plot described by the FBI as "the one that operationally was closest to actually occurring" since 9/11. Jose Padilla, recently convicted of conspiracy to murder individuals in a foreign country, also encountered Islam - and radicalization - while serving time.
Not that finding religion in prison is anything new, of course – but so-called "jailhouse Islam" isn't the "religion of peace" many Muslims preach. Instead, it tends towards the kind of pro-jihadist, anti-Western, political Islam associated with terror groups and the most conservative forms of Islamism. In fact, Senator Schumer and others have noted a strong Saudi presence in the US jails, where Wahhabist propaganda and versions of the Koran circulate widely, and imams sanctioned by Saudi Wahhabists lead prayers and lessons on Islam.
And when these prisoners go free?
Jam'yyat al-Islam al Saheeh
James's organization, Jam'yyat al-Islam al Saheeh, or JIS, which he founded in 1997, stands accused of orchestrating attacks against military recruitment centers, synagogues, and Israeli government agencies in the Los Angeles area, and attempting to finance these and other plots through gas station robberies. According to a statement from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, "Kevin James allegedly preached that it was a duty of JIS members to kill 'infidels' - perceived enemies of Islam. James' definition of the enemies of Islam included U.S. government personnel, supporters of Israel, and Jewish Americans.
To achieve his extremist goals, James allegedly sought to establish 'cells' of JIS members outside of prison to carry out the violent attacks."
Though James maintains he is not guilty, one terrorism analyst familiar with the case feels "there's no question it was a serious plot."
The group under greatest scrutiny these days, however, is Jama'at al Fuqra, a sizable organization founded by Sheikh Mubarik Ali Hasmi Shah Gilani, the Pakistani cleric alleged to have ordered the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl (and yet another of those who claim to be a "direct descendant" of Mohammed). Al-Fuqra maintains locked communities throughout the US - some under front names like "Muslims of the Americas" - with headquarters in Hancock, New York. Other Al-Fuqra groups have also formed in Virginia, South Carolina, Brooklyn, California, Tennessee, and Georgia, with an outpost in Combermere, Canada.
Many of these settlements are unmistakable, particularly in Hancock, where signs identify al-Fuqra territory as "Islamburg." Generally speaking, however, al-Fuqra settlements are easy to spot, wherever they may be: they're the ones where members engage in paramilitary training, where gunshots ring out regularly and where children only attend schools inside the campground. Some members maintain jobs in the outside world. Others receive welfare. In either case, tithing is considerable - up to 100 percent, according to some reports. One former member told a terrorism expert (who, like others interviewed for this story, declined to be identified) that people occasionally also carried as much as $10,000 in cash to Pakistan to fund Gilani's activities there.
Over the years, Al Fuqra members have compiled a long list of convictions for violent crimes and terrorist incidents and plans, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and plots to bomb the United Nations, the Federal Building, and various tunnels and landmarks throughout the country. A March, 2002 story in the Weekly Standard noted that "at least a dozen Fuqra members have been convicted of crimes including conspiracy to commit murder, firebombing, gun smuggling, and workers' compensation fraud in the United States and Canada. And Fuqra members are suspects in at least ten unsolved assassinations and 17 firebombings between 1979 and 1990. " (Among the most notable of these is Brooklynite Clement Rodney Hampton-El, who was known, naturally, as an upstanding member of the community - until it turned out he wasn't.)
Al Fuqra is not new. Begun when Gilani visited the US in 1980, the organization has relied on recruiting African American Muslim converts, many from inner cities and from prisons, and another group, Dar ul Islam, for its growth. Some claim that Al Fuqra members frequently travel to Pakistan for training.
But the organization first attracted public notice in 1989 according to the Standard, "when police, seeking evidence in a series of thefts, searched a storage locker in Colorado Springs. They found a remarkable trove of armaments and documents, with multiple links to Fulqra."
The Standard reports further that "among the handguns, semi-automatic firearms, more than thirty pounds of explosives, pipe bombs, and bomb components were several bombs of an unusual design identical to that of a device recovered from the firebombed Hare Krishna temple in Denver. There was a large photo of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric who would be convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing."
To deflect scrutiny, Al Fuqra now maintains various front groups, some of which act as charitable organizations. Hands to Hands, for instance, which poses, according to one investigator, as an "Islamic faith-based organization that brings disaster relief to Katrina victims," raises significant sums for Al Fuqra settlements and activities, and, possibly, for Gilani's operations in Pakistan.
Or there is the "Muslims of the Americas," a sort of nom de guerre for al Fuqra, described by the Anti-Defamation League as "a virulently anti-Semitic, Islamic extremist group with ties to Al Fuqra." (The ADL also posts statements by the group against Jews, Christians, and America on its site at http://www.adl.org/extremism/moa/default.asp.)
What does it all mean?
Already, I can anticipate the outcry: Just because some al-Fuqra members were involved in terrorist activities, it doesn't mean al-Fuqra is a terrorist organization. Kevin James has yet to be proven guilty. We still don't know how serious the Lodi and Lackawanna groups really were. And how powerful a threat can a bunch of convicts be, anyway?
But the evidence against al-Fuqra (among others) can't help but be alarming: twenty incidents in over 27 years suggests that it's about more than "a few bad apples." The extent of JIS's preparedness for its attacks indicates that some of these groups are also making significant progress - and that suicide bombing and other acts of martyrdom are not beyond the realm of possibility within American borders. (Already, European caseworkers point to the vulnerability of lower-income Muslim boys to the payouts offered by recruiters for jihad: "Sacrifice yourself, and your family will be well-compensated for the rest of their lives," the line goes, and many say it's working.)
And even if it seems but a small few, with few apparent links to terror groups abroad, as the terrorism analyst I spoke to says ""Are we looking in the right places? Are we collecting the right information?" To those who argue that "not many American Muslims have been radicalized, he responds, "How many do you need?"
The hard truth is: we need to stop looking only at The Big Threat – organizations capable of acquiring WMDs, brand names like Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda. Or perhaps we should redefine the concept of "weapons of mass destruction" to include mass communication, like the Internet sites that feature beheading videos or provide instruction on creating bombs, and books thick with propaganda that are distributed in prisons (and increasingly, in schools).
It all reminds me clearly of a lesson we learn as children, and are careful to teach our own: Even when you think there's nothing coming, look both ways before you cross the street.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West to be published by Praeger in 2010.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2007 Abigail R. Esman
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