Steven Emerson: Combating Radical Islam
Defeating Jihadist Terrorism
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2010, pp. 15-25
On Christmas afternoon in 1992, Steven Emerson, then a staff reporter for CNN, noticed a large group of men in traditional Arab clothes congregating outside the Oklahoma City Convention Center. At first, he thought they were extras for a movie—until he remembered the date. So, he explored a bit; inside, he discovered a conference sponsored by the Muslim Arab Youth Association. The vitriol of the speakers, replete with hateful rhetoric against Jews, Israel, and America mixed with exhortations of violence toward these enemies, alarmed him. Spontaneous shouts of “Kill the Jews” and “Destroy the West” came from the audience throughout the event.
Steven Emerson has emerged as a powerful independent force, working with U.S. security services while also carrying out investigations on his own in areas beyond their reach.
Worried by what he had witnessed, Emerson notified a contact in the FBI, only to be told that the agency knew nothing about the conference and also lacked a mandate to investigate it because no criminal activity had occurred or was imminent. This experience indelibly impressed him, leaving a sense of government weakness and suggesting the need for a private agency to explore the threat of radical Islam within the United States. On graduation from Brown University, Emerson (b. 1954) went to work as an analyst on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served as an international investigator and helped shape the aid package to Israel and Egypt following the Camp David accords in 1978. He honed his skills while working for the committee until 1982, during which time he developed an abiding interest in Middle Eastern affairs.
In 1986, he joined U.S. News & World Report where he worked as a national security correspondent. During this time, he authored two books: Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era and The Fall of Pan Am 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation. In Secret Warriors, Emerson argued that technical breakdowns, bureaucratic disarray, presidential interference, and professional jealousy contributed to the inertia of America’s elite forces. This perception may have played a large role in convincing him that government alone is inadequate to the challenges of modern terrorism. In The Fall of Pan Am 103, he promoted the theory—then held by the U.S. government—that Iran was responsible for the bombing of the flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Since that early experience in Oklahoma, Emerson has emerged as a powerful independent force who works with U.S. security services but carries out investigations on his own in areas beyond their reach. He does not take any funds from the government. In 1995, he established his own think tank, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), which has since conducted investigations into many Islamist and terrorist groups and individuals. The IPT has stirred up more hornets’ nests than many government agencies. Its acute focus has allowed it to hone in on targets that broader agencies missed. Emerson’s initiative has paid off handsomely.
New Nongovernmental Agencies Emerge
The Islamist campaign to implement Shari’a law presents a grave challenge to the United States and all Western countries. And while a security apparatus has arisen to defend against these threats, several nongovernmental bodies have emerged as critical adjuncts in the effort to identify those who work within the law to change the Western way of life.
Compared to Western Europe, the United States has an unusual approach to domestic political extremism. Since 1976, the FBI has officially conducted surveillance of extremist and potentially violent groups under the attorney general’s guidelines, established after revelations of misconduct and abuses arising from the COINTELPRO initiative, a secret program through which the FBI disrupted both far-left and far-right groups. However, the extremely well-coordinated attacks of 9/11 exposed gaping holes in the area of human intelligence and impelled the government to reexamine and recalibrate this policy.
In response, the FBI relaxed its guidelines for investigations of religious extremists, and the federal government now allows information to be shared between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Moreover, to augment their investigatory functions, the authorities increasingly rely on recently created, private monitoring groups, including JihadWatch.com and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Their efforts are complemented by think tanks such as the Middle East Forum and publications such as the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
Operating in a decentralized fashion, private entities can be more flexible and effective than government agencies in providing time-sensitive and actionable intelligence resources. For example, MEMRI releases high-quality, up-to-date information and translations about radical organizations, frequently before such intelligence is processed by government.
Emerson’s IPT has established itself as the most effective nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring Islamic radicalism. It is the only private entity in the United States that conducts undercover research into the activities of Islamist groups. To preserve its independence, IPT accepts no funds from the U.S. government or donors outside the United States.
Emerson’s IPT focuses primarily on U.S.-based Islamist groups, some working in legal ways to undermine American society, others with links to terrorist organizations overseas. Along the way, he has created an unparalleled undercover investigative apparatus. According to Rep. Sue Myrick (Republican of North Carolina), cofounder of the bipartisan Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus, “The Investigative Project is the only one out there who is really doing substantial research into what is going on in the world and here in America. They are actually researching … they are verifying how these [jihadist] movements are taking place. … I don’t know of anyone else who is doing the same thing.”
Emerson has returned the compliment: “Congressmen like Frank Wolf, Pete Hoekstra, and Sue Myrick have shown a backbone that is unparalleled in Congress in courageously tackling the Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR [Council on American Islamic Relations], and other Islamist groups, and radical Islamic groups. So it shows there are brave Congressmen as well.” Like Emerson, Myrick focuses less on outright terrorism than the infiltration of American institutions by Islamists. Alliances like this lend strength to Emerson’s own efforts. The task of exposing and combating Islamist organizations and individuals takes place in a highly political context and requires high-level lobbying and juristic skills.
Exposing Islamists in America
Emerson undertook effective investigations on his own before he started the IPT. Most notable was his 1994 documentary Jihad in America, which raised awareness of the threat of radical Islam in the United States. The film focused on a Palestinian, Abdullah Azzam, who founded the Arab Fighters Service Bureau in Afghanistan to recruit and train thousands of mostly Arab jihadists. Osama bin Laden, a protégé of Azzam’s, cofounded the bureau and later transformed it into Al-Qaeda. The bureau’s North American office, the Al-Khifa Refugee Center in the Al-Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, soon became the hub of a network that included outposts in Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Interestingly, while in Pakistan and Afghanistan for several months in 1993, shooting the documentary, Emerson befriended Azzam’s son Hodeyfa.
After Azzam’s assassination in Pakistan in 1989, the blind Egyptian sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, emerged as the spiritual leader of the international jihadist wing of the bureau. In 1990, Abdel Rahman, who had been expelled from Egypt, was allowed to emigrate from Afghanistan to the United States despite having been named on the State Department’s terrorist watch list; he settled in the New York city area. Soon, a circle of Islamists congregated at his Al-Salaam Mosque in Jersey City. In 1990, one of his followers, Egyptian-born El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Israeli politician and founder of the Jewish Defense League. A few years later, other Abdel Rahman followers linked up with Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six persons and wounded 1,042 others. Emerson’s work in uncovering and exposing this network complemented the efforts of official agencies operating under greater constraints.
The Charity Networks
Since August 1994, Emerson has testified before or informally briefed the United States Congress hundreds of times. His efforts appear to have had an influence on lawmakers. The videotape of his first documentary, Jihad in America, was distributed to all 535 members of Congress and, according to Rep. Chris Smith (Republican of New Jersey), it played a significant role in persuading them to pass the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001. In 2002, he published a book entitled American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, in which he traced the development of radical Islam in the United States. He also testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) in July 2003.
In later testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on November 8, 2005, he ch
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