Skip to comments.'Jihad in America': Author explains how he made video, lived to tell about it
Posted on 03/19/2002 10:43:02 PM PST by JohnHuang2
In December 1992, I was a staff reporter for CNN, covering what I consider one of the worst stories imaginable a press conference for pool reporters.
In this case, the conference was given by Lawrence Walsh, the former special prosecutor for the Iran-contra affair, who was issuing a statement in reaction to then-President George Bush's pardon of former Secretary of State Casper Weinberger. It was the kind of situation where more than a dozen reporters ask the same question over and over, then go back and write the same story.
In short, I was bored. In Oklahoma City, I found myself with nothing to do on Christmas Day. As I walked around looking for a place to eat, I passed a large group of men dressed in traditional Middle Eastern clothing.
These men had congregated outside of the Oklahoma City Convention Center. I realized there was some kind of convention going on. Drawn to the scene, I wandered inside and found a bazaar of vendors hawking all kinds of radical material. There were books preaching Islamic "Jihad," books calling for the extermination of Jews and Christians, even coloring books instructing children on subjects such as "How to Kill the Infidel." It was a meeting of the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA), an umbrella group that included many smaller groups.
When I asked admittance to the main meeting hall, I was told that as a non-Muslim I couldn't enter. But I found my way into a group of "recent converts," where I was befriended by a man who sponsored my admission. I ended up sitting through the entire program. It was a shocking experience. Given simultaneous translation by a jihadist next to me, I was horrified to witness a long procession of speakers, including the head of Hamas, Khalid Misha'al, taking turns preaching violence and urging the assembly to use jihad against the Jews and the West. At times spontaneous shouts of "Kill the Jews" and "Destroy the West" could be distinctly heard. I had heard such declamatory speakers many times in the Middle East, but it was astonishing to hear it all being preached here in a Middle American capital such as Oklahoma City.
I had some contacts in the FBI at this point and called one to see if he knew that all of this was going on. He said he didn't. Even if the FBI had been cognizant, however, there wouldn't have been much they could do about it, owing to the FBI's mandate to surveil criminal activity and not simply hateful rhetoric.
Just how far behind the FBI had fallen in keeping abreast of these potentially dangerous subversive groups became clear a year later when I attended a five-day Muslim conference in Detroit in December 1993. This annual gathering featured speakers and representatives from some of the world's most militant fundamentalist organizations, including Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others. After five days of listening to speakers urging Muslims to wage jihad, I was startled to hear that a senior FBI agent from the Detroit office would be making an unscheduled appearance on the program. Sure enough, the official showed up. After making some perfunctory remarks about civil rights, the official asked for questions from the visibly hostile audience. A series of scornful responses followed, including that of one audience member who asked, tongue in cheek, if the agent could give the group any advice on "shipping weapons" overseas to their friends. The FBI official said matter-of-factly that he hoped any such efforts would be done in conformance with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms guidelines.
Returning to Washington again, I asked FBI officials if they knew that their Detroit colleague had spoken at this radical gathering. They assured me it was impossible. After checking, however, they admitted within a few hours that their man had indeed been there, mistakenly thinking it was "some kind of Rotary Club."
I soon learned that the FBI could do little or nothing to monitor such groups. Congressional restrictions imposed following disclosure in the 1970s of abuses by law enforcement and intelligence agencies had long since prevented the FBI from performing "blanket surveillance." Investigations could only be done on particular individuals and then only if these individuals appeared to be in the act of committing a crime. Regulations, as former FBI official Oliver Revell has stated, forbade them from compiling even "open source" information articles that appear in the newspaper, for instance without receiving prior permission to open up an "investigation." Indeed, individual FBI investigators could be personally sued for engaging in surveillance activities that went beyond these guidelines. Several agents had been the targets of such lawsuits, and most FBI agents had become extremely wary of straying outside the lines. Even more significant, the FBI was particularly hamstrung if these groups operated under the auspices of "religious," "civic," "civil rights" or "charitable" groups. This has provided cover for recruiting and fund raising by jihad warriors in the United States.
I was still working for CNN in 1993 when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred on Feb. 26. As the story unfolded, it became obvious that the whole plot had been hatched among small terror cells in this country. I had heard an excess of explosive rhetoric in Oklahoma City and other places where I had investigated militant organizations. I was sure there must be some connection.
But I was faced with a difficult moral dilemma. I hadn't started investigating anyone to any great degree. All I had at that point was a collection of books and pamphlets and promotional material by which these groups advertised themselves to a very select audience. I didn't know whether it was all rhetoric or whether there was really substance to all this. I had a few videos showing that Hamas had definitely established itself in this country, but that was about it. Would I be risking my career by following up this story, in what might prove to be a wild goose chase?
I decided to take a proposal to Richard Carlson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Already, I was thinking in terms of a video. I'm a print journalist by background, but here was a story that would be much easier to tell as a TV program. The most dramatic material I was collecting was already in video form anyway. The training and recruitment videos, the fiery speeches at mosques and conventions it would be hard to convey the bloodcurdling nature of this material except by letting it speak for itself.
Carlson liked the idea and passed it up the line. Before long I was passed over to the Public Broadcasting System, the network subsidiary of CPB. I ended up dealing with Bob Coonrod and Ervin Duggan, who was then president of PBS. They were very enthusiastic but couldn't generate much interest within the bureaucracy of PBS. Finally, Dugin took matters into his own hands and provided me with some research and development money.
And so in 1993 I left CNN to work full-time as an investigator of terrorist networks in the United States. I founded The Investigative Project, which has employed a shifting staff of from two to 15 people. What we discovered is that, indeed, international terrorist organizations of all sorts had set up shop here in America. They often took advantage of religious, civic or charitable organizations. Usually, this was more than enough to fool the public, the police and especially naive leaders of religious or educational institutions, who were more than willing to encourage and sponsor these groups in the name of "multiculturalism" and "diversity." Meanwhile, U.S.-based terrorists have been able to use these organizations to ferry equipment to Middle Eastern terror groups, to offer financial support to the families of suicide bombers, to coordinate efforts with other terrorist networks around the world, and ultimately to plan and support terrorist acts in the United States.
It took us a while to piece all this together. Going to conferences and collecting promotional material had its limits. We could attend mosque services, but much of them were in Arabic. Early on, I hooked up with a friend named Khalid Duran, and he began providing translation services for much of the written and video material. But it was slow going.
Then one day I found myself standing in a Yemeni grocery store in Brooklyn. I looked around and spotted dozens of copies of dusty videos that appeared to have something to do with commandos and rifles. I bought twenty different tapes much to the astonishment of the store owner. When I got them into Khalid's hands we realized we were looking at paramilitary training videos for the leaders of Islamic militant groups. One of them was put out by an organization called the Islamic Association for Palestine, in Richardson, Texas. To our horror, it showed the actual torment and forced "confessions" of Palestinian "collaborators" moments before they were executed.
We followed up this material by traveling to Texas, Florida and New York to try to arrange interviews with the leaders of these groups. For the most part they were not very cooperative. We got very little footage. Slowly, however, we were beginning to accumulate enough material to put together a documentary.
Part of the task, I realized, would be tracing some of these organizations to their origins in the Middle East and beyond. I started in Israel. I had learned by this time that the first calls for worldwide jihad had come from Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian mullah who had set up a way station in Peshawar, Pakistan, for Muslim recruits who wanted to take part in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. One afternoon, riding around the West Bank in a taxicab, I was talking absentmindedly with my Palestinian driver when I mentioned Azzam. "Oh, his brother-in-law lives here just north of here," the driver said. He gave me the name of the village of Jenin.
The next day I found another driver and headed for Jenin. All I had was Azzam's name and the name of the village. When we got there and asked a few people, however, they quickly directed us to his house. Azzam was very gracious and immediately welcomed me in. He told me about his experience in Peshawar and about his brother-in-law. It was a strange encounter. At the time, Palestinian electricity was not very reliable and every 10 minutes or so the lights would go out, plunging us into total darkness.
Azzam told me he had other relatives living in Chicago. When I got back to the United States, I called them up and arranged to visit one of Azzam's nephews. Khalid came with me. We rendezvoused at a small Middle Eastern restaurant in Bridgeview, Ill., a suburb southwest of Chicago. The nephew was very gracious. He was not aware that I was collecting information, and I didn't make any attempt to misrepresent myself. I simply said I was interested in his family and anxious to write about them. He told me about Hudaifah, one of Abdullah's sons, and said he was trying to hold together his father's organization in Peshawar.
Later, he took Khalid and me to the Bridgeview Mosque, where Jamal Said was the imam. I could tell immediately that we were deep in the heart of Hamas territory. The walls of the vestibule were covered with Hamas posters and recruiting literature showing masked gunmen brandishing automatic weapons. It was all in Arabic, but you could see daggers plunged into Jewish hearts wrapped up in American flags. They even had a library filled with militant terrorist videos and books. Khalid was there to translate for me. The Friday service was a rather strange experience. Out of 800 people, I was the only one wearing a red ski jacket. When the service was over I approached the imam and asked him if he had known Abdullah Azzam. He was very defensive. "I never met with him," he said quickly and then dismissed me. Earlier that year, two Hamas operatives, congregants of the mosque, were arrested in Israel for transferring money from the United States to terrorists on the West Bank. One of these men, Mohammad Jarad, told the Israelis that he was sent on his mission by Jamal Said.
"Jihad in America" pulled together a fair representation of the material we had collected. We showed Hamas operatives and militant mullahs preaching jihad and violence "with the gun" against Israel and America. We didn't show the torture and confessions of Palestinian collaborators that would have been too inflammatory. The documentary continuously stressed the fact that militant Islamists are only a minute percentage of the Muslim population. Nevertheless, the film was attacked, and I was called a "crusader," a "racist" and just about everything else. To say it was disconcerting would be an understatement. I never anticipated the degree to which these groups were going to try to deny what was going on. They claimed that I was making it all up and that I had fabricated the tapes. I was also amazed at how far some prominent mainstream newspapers would do the same, some running several highly skeptical and critical editorials. Other newspapers simply used the tried-and-true method of being "even-handed." On the one hand, Steve Emerson says militant Islamic groups are bringing jihad to America. On the other hand, Islamic groups deny it.
Despite all the skepticism, the fights and the controversy, "Jihad in America" won the prestigious George Polk Award. It was also named the "best investigative reporting in print, broadcast or book" by the Investigative Reporters and Editors Organization. It won the National Headliner Award and the Chris Award as well.
Suddenly thrust into the public eye, I encountered situations I had never dealt with before. One night I was taking a cab back to my apartment from Reagan National Airport in Washington. I glanced at the front seat and saw an Arabic-language newspaper. On the front page was my picture with a bull's-eye superimposed on it. I realized my life was going to be very different from then on.
Once I found myself at a Muslim convention where a speaker started shouting, "Steven Emerson is the enemy of Islam! Are we going to let Steven Emerson tell us what to do?" "No," the crowd roared in response. I sat there sweating. Thankfully, I had altered my appearance. Even so, I was exceptionally nervous. Fortunately, no one noticed me.
Over the years, The Investigative Project's acquisition of materials has become quite sophisticated. We subscribe to more than a hundred radical periodicals a month and acquire hundreds more documents from sources, conventions, rallies and other venues. We sustain a rigorous effort to collect video- and audiotapes of radical Islamic groups and leaders in action. We have translators working full-time and often send Arabic-speaking representatives to conventions and other gatherings, since this is the only way to understand fully what is going on. We have logged more than 6,000 hours of video- and audiotapes, and our electronic library is probably the most comprehensive in the world. We have compiled a database of some thousands of individuals who are known or suspected terrorists, or direct supporters of terrorists, as well as dossiers on scores of militant groups.
The Investigative Project built on its own momentum. We became a collection point. People started calling up and asking, "What do you know?" or "Do you know this?" We received countless tips. Most of them turned out to be bogus, but a few were incredibly fruitful.
Then the death threats began. It started in South Africa. A public television station in that country announced it was going to show "Jihad in America." Radical Islamic groups immediately went to court and tried to block it. Much to our satisfaction, a South African court ruled in our favor. The show ran, with a good deal of pre-publicity.
A short time later, I got an urgent call from U.S. law enforcement officials. I was working in my Washington apartment. They told me to get in a taxi and come downtown immediately, making sure no one was following me. They gave me an address in Foggy Bottom. When I got there it turned out to be the offices of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (BDS), an arm of the State Department that deals largely with terrorism.
FBI and BDS officials quickly briefed me. After "Jihad in America" aired in South Africa, a militant Muslim group had taken offense. They had dispatched a team to assassinate me. The State Department and FBI had only found out recently; as far as they knew, which unfortunately was not a lot, the assassins had already entered the country. It was even possible they already had me under surveillance. The problem was that the FBI simply had no idea whether or not the militants had entered the country.
"What would you like to do?" they asked me.
"What can I do?" I asked.
Well, there wasn't too much. One thing that was out of the question was round-the-clock police protection. That was too expensive. I was only a private citizen and it wasn't in anybody's budget. They would send a team of officers out to my apartment to discuss the options.
The next day, a whole team came to my Connecticut Avenue condominium FBI officials, federal counterterrorism experts, detectives from both the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police Departments the latter being the guards of the Capitol area.
Here were the possibilities:
I was amazed. For years I had thought of myself as an observer, taking note of events, writing down notes, making reports, storing information for future reference. Now I was an active participant in one of my stories, and I wasn't sure that I liked it.
I told them none of this sounded very appealing. I would think it over. Meanwhile, I was given one prop. They presented me with a collapsible mirror that I could carry around with me and use every time I got into my car to check to make sure a car bomb had not been attached to the underside of the engine. As any rational person would do under the circumstances, I used it quite a bit.
After thinking it over for a day or so, I made up my mind. I wasn't going to give up investigating. I wasn't going to move to New York. I wasn't going to assume a new identity. But I would have to move out of my apartment and live underground for a while. This was not an easy decision. I had bought my condominium six years before the first time I had owned my own home. I couldn't buy anything new. It would take too long to sell the old one, and I might have to be moving regularly anyway. I had to develop new habits. The D.C. Police Department parked a cruiser outside my house for 15 hours a day while I was making arrangements. Even then I had to sleep somewhere else to be safe. I had about a week before I was on my own again.
Having said that, have these revelations (and of course 11th Sep. 2001) resulted in any crackdowns on these enemies within? How many arrests by the FBI, from information taken from the film? How many trials? How many convictions?
Is incitement of violence a crime? If not, shouldn't it be?
Would you trust and believe a muslim in the US, who stated his opposition to terrorism? I do not.
We just had a big bust here in Dallas over this. Everybody was screaming racial profiling during and after the bust.
Things are totally out of control anymore. Law enforcements hands are tied in many cases. Thanks to the PC crowd the inmates are running the asylum.
David Schippers talks about Iraqi connection to OKC bombing thread.
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