Lawmaker Plans Controversial Hearings on Islamic Threat
Larry Cohler-Esses reports from New York; Nathan Guttman reports from Washington.
New York Rep. Peter King has long railed against a “wall of political correctness” blocking out his warnings about the mass threat he sees coming from the mosques of America. Now, as incoming chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Long Island Republican is poised to do something about this.
King, who has vowed to make hearings on this perceived threat his first order of business as chairman, promises to “do all I can [to] drive the public debate on Islamic radicalization.” But some question whether a former supporter of the Irish Republican Army, which targeted civilians with its bombs, is the right person for this job.
For Muslim American groups, King’s hearings promise a new challenge following hard on months of often vitriolic national debate over the Park51 Islamic cultural center project near Ground Zero in Manhattan and over efforts to block mosques going up elsewhere around the country.
“When a hearing is designed to target a religious minority and is headed by a person with a history of anti-Muslim bigotry, that’s when we start to worry,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He called the planned hearings a “show trial” of the Muslim community. Hooper said that his organization’s main concern is with King’s record of biased statements regarding Muslim Americans. “These hearings will inevitably serve to marginalize American Muslims,” he added.
But should he choose, King can enlist none other than Attorney General Eric Holder in support of his contention that the nation faces an increased threat from domestic Islamic terrorism. In a recent ABC News interview, Holder said that law enforcement has shifted from focusing on foreign terrorists to “worrying about people in the United States, American citizens — raised here, born here, and who for whatever reason, have decided that they are going to become radicalized and take up arms against the nation in which they were born.”
It is King’s prescriptions for addressing this trend that cause controversy. The hearings, still in their formative stage, are likely to be shaped by King’s view of Muslims as a community to be intensively monitored and systematically infiltrated. That is at odds with other views, held by some in law enforcement and counter-terrorism, who see American Muslims quite differently: as willing partners, if sensitively cultivated and understood as individuals who want to stop terrorism — but who bristle at being targeted as a community and pressured to spy on their own congregations.
“You can’t do anything without good informants, and they are starting to dry up,” warned Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in the 1990s. In an interview with the Forward, Cannistraro said that King’s hearings could accelerate a process of alienating the Muslim community from the American mainstream that he thinks some in law enforcement are already abetting.
Oliver “Buck” Revell, former associate deputy director of the FBI, holds the opposite view. Like King, he believes that clerics in American mosques preach radical views and that King’s hearings can help shake up a system that so far has refused to take on the issue. “I [hope] he can convince [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano and others in the government that it is time to call a spade a spade,” Revell said. “It’s time to put an end to the fairy tale that [terrorism] has nothing to do with Islam.”
Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the key in these hearing is “to have it done right.” The correct approach for dealing with extremism among American Muslims must be two-pronged, he said: addressing genuine grievances of discrimination, profiling and hate, and contesting “the radical ideology.”
King, a 66-year-old, nine-term member of Congress, known for his independence and occasional pugnacity, strikes some critics as a dubious figure to be leading this charge, given his past invovlement with the IRA. From the early 1980s up until 9/11, King, whose family hails from Limerick and Galway in Ireland, was an ardent supporter of the U.S.-designated terrorist group.
The son of a New York City police officer, King forged his links with the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, during a 1980 trip to Northern Ireland, according to a June 2005 article in the New York Sun. On his return, he hooked up with the Irish Northern Aid Committee, known as Noraid, a New York-based organization that the American, British and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA.
“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County in 1982. King refused to denounce the IRA when one of its mortar bombs killed nine Northern Irish police officers. But since President Clinton’s brokering — with King’s assistance — of the so-called Good Friday Agreement in 1998, ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, King has distanced himself from a rump IRA faction that has committed violence in an effort to topple it.
King’s representative did not respond to several requests from the Forward for comment.
King’s determination to showcase his concerns regarding Muslim Americans promises to bolster one faction in what is an urgent and deep divide among advocacy groups, law enforcement authorities and counter-terrorism experts.
According to data compiled by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one-third of terror plots in the United States linked to al-Qaeda or its affiliates since 9/11 were foiled thanks to cooperation from members of the Muslim community. Alejandro Beutel, the group’s government and policy analyst, said that these numbers were derived from government records and press reports tracked by the Congressional Research Service and the Heritage Foundation.
“The number clearly shows that there is cooperation with law enforcement agencies,” Beutel said, terming King’s claims “grossly inaccurate.”
But King, and some advocates and experts on whom he relies, look to a different Muslim source. In January 1999, Sheik Hisham Kabbani, founder and chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, said at a State Department event that “the ideology of extremism has been spread to 80% of the American Muslim population.” He claimed that Muslim leaders were sending charitable donations from their congregations to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Kabbani later qualified his statement, explaining that the majority of American Muslims were moderate, but that extremists had gained leadership positions at 80% of the country’s mosques.
Kabbani did not respond to an e-mail seeking his source for this statistic.
Today, King holds to this statistic adamantly — and hints at likely candidates to appear as witnesses at his hearings to back it. “I can get you the documentation on that from experts in the field,” he told Sean Hannity on Fox News last February. “Talk to a Steve Emerson, talk to a [Daniel] Pipes, talk to any of those. They will tell you. It’s a real issue…. I’ll stand by that number of 85%. This is an enemy living amongst us.”
Such statements give a hint of what to expect from his committee hearings, though a date and witness list have yet to be published. Emerson, founder and executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, has long warned that many mainstream Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Society of North America, have documented ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a Middle East-based group that seeks political rule for Islam and Islamic law. He rejects MPAC’s database documenting Muslim assistance in terror cases as “flawed” and “selective.”
He points, too, to a 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document discovered by federal investigators during a domestic terrorism case, in which the group defines its mission in the United States as “a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house… so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
It is unclear how much of this relates to the masses of rank-and-file American Muslims. An authoritative 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center found that a large majority of America’s estimated 2.35 million Muslims were “highly assimilated,” with strongly positive views of American society. Among the poll’s other findings:
• Thirty-six percent were “very concerned” about the rise of domestic Islamic extremism, and another 25% were “somewhat concerned,” for a total of 61% worried about domestic Muslim extremism.
• Just 1% said that suicide bombings against civilian targets were “often justified to defend Islam.” Seven percent said they sometimes were. Among those born in Arab countries, a combined 12% said they were often or sometimes justified.
• Fifty-eight percent said their view of Al Qaeda was “very unfavorable;” 10% said “somewhat unfavorable;” Only 5% termed their view “favorable.” But 27% didn’t know or declined to answer.
• There is widespread denial among American Muslims that groups of Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Just four out of 10 said that Arabs engineered the attacks. About one-third expressed no opinion as to who was behind them. Twenty-eight percent flatly disbelieved that Arabs conducted the attacks.
King summed up his own views about Muslim attitudes in an interview with the Washington publication Politico, also in 2007. “Unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country,” he said. “There’s too many people who are sympathetic to radical Islam. We should be looking at them more carefully. We should be finding out how we can infiltrate. We should be more aggressive with law enforcement.”
Today, King can point to a recent spate of homegrown episodes involving Muslims as evidence that the threat from abroad is emerging at home. These include:
• The murder in November 2009 of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major, is charged in the slayings, and faces court martial.
• American-born convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s June 2009 shooting attack on a Little Rock, Ark., military recruiting station, leaving one dead and another seriously injured.
• An attempt, allegedly by Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old naturalized citizen from Somalia, to explode a bomb in the midst of a giant Christmas tree lighting event in Portland, Ore., the day after Thanksgiving.
• A May 2009 attempt by four African-American converts to Islam to explode bombs outside two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
But critics point out problems with linking these cases to allegedly radicalized mosques and religious leaders here. In the case of Hasan and Muhammad, federal investigators say the alleged perpetrators’ radical links were with Muslims abroad, not with anyone in the United States. And the Riverdale and Portland, Ore., cases, the critics note, involved federal informants who proposed and helped the men involved implement what were actually government-staged stings. Defense lawyers in the Riverdale case and in some others have charged that federal informants infiltrated mosques, as King advocates, to engage in entrapment — enticing individuals into plots they otherwise would not have hatched. But so far, no jury has accepted this defense.
King himself has focused on the case of Najibullah Zazi in explaining the need for congressional hearings. Zazi was arrested in 2009 and charged with plotting to plant bombs on the New York City subway system. As evidence of the danger posed by Muslim clerics, King pointed to an imam from Queens as the one who “tipped off Zazi.”
But what this case in fact demonstrates is the delicate nature of cooperation between law enforcement and local Muslim leaders.
The imam informant that King cites, Ahmad Wais Afzali, had cooperated without pay with law enforcement prior to the Zazi case because, he told The New York Times, he was upset after the 9/11 attacks. Asked in September 2009 to identify photos of several suspects being urgently tracked by the New York City Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit, Afzali named Zazi and two others as former students whom he had not seen for years. The police believed that the young men were plotting a bomb attack, and therefore asked Afzali to find out what they were up to, but did not tell him why they sought this information or how to obtain it.
When he called Zazi, the imam essentially warned him that he was under surveillance and — failing to grasp the significance of what he had stumbled onto — urged him sternly to stay out of trouble. He contacted one of the other men, whom he also told of the police visit, and was told the three friends had recently been in Pakistan to see about a possible wedding arrangement between the man and Zazi’s cousin.
Afzali kept his police contacts updated regularly on the information he was getting. But in two separate interrogations, he subsequently lied to FBI agents about having tipped off Zazi, who ultimately pleaded guilty to organizing the plot.
In a plea bargain to avoid prison, Afzali, who came to Queens as a young boy with his Afghan parents, agreed to be deported back to his native country. At the sentencing hearing, even the prosecutor conceded that the defendant was “almost certainly” unaware of the seriousness of his conduct.
“I’m standing in front of you as a convicted felon, a lying imam, which is a physical, emotional and spiritual burden far greater than any sentence you could impose,” Afzali told Judge Frederic Block at the brief sentencing hearing.
“Honest to God,” he added, “it was never my intention to help those idiots for what they do in the name of Islam.”
*Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org *
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com