WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (JTA)— The FBI is investigating the mysterious death of a young American Jewish terrorism expert who worked at a think tank where research into Islamic extremism has drawn death threats, family and friends said.
Jason Korsower, 29, died in his sleep at his father’s Atlanta home on Friday, Nov. 26, after Thanksgiving celebrations with his family.
For his 29 years, Korsower had lived a full life, thriving in a Jewish youth group, serving in the Israeli army in a crack infantry unit, studying religion and most recently plunging into terrorism research in Washington. He was about to start law school.
Korsower’s family and friends told JTA that FBI agents had gathered information about the death, but they know little else.
An FBI agent in Atlanta, Steve Lazarus, refused to confirm or deny an investigation, citing FBI policy.
However, the agency was at least aware of the case. An FBI spokeswoman in Washington, Debra Weierman, referred JTA to the FBI’s Atlanta bureau, even though JTA had not mentioned Korsower’s hometown in its request for information.
Sources made clear that the FBI is asking questions, and without relating specifically to Korsower’s death, Lazarus said that agents would only ask questions about a death if a full investigation were underway.
Officials at the Investigative Project, where Korsower worked, also would not comment.
The Investigative Project is run by Steve Emerson, whose predictions of a major Islamist attack in the 1990s enhanced his credibility as a terrorism expert after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It ratcheted up death threats against him and his organization — and drove his organization semi-underground.
The death of Korsower, who was athletic and believed to be in good health, continued to mystify his family, wracked with grief. An autopsy was inconclusive.
“It wasn’t an aneurysm. It wasn’t a heart attack. It wasn’t the obvious things that could happen to a healthy 29-year-old,” his mother, Karen Grablowsky, told JTA on Tuesday.
“I knew he worked for the Investigative Project. But we thought he was safe,” she said, noting that Emerson himself said that it was very unlikely that he would have been targeted.
Grablowsky said she understood from Emerson that FBI agents were asking questions in Washington as well.
FBI investigations into single homicides are very rare, a former agent said.
“The only times they are involved in a homicide is in cases of terrorism, crimes on government reservations — military bases, federal property — or, as in the case of Martin Luther King, when someone is killed while carrying out a constitutionally protected activity,” said Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI investigator who now consults for Jewish organizations.
Friends and family of Korsower recalled a handsome, self-effacing man with a will of steel.
“He was a terrific little athlete ‘for a Jewish kid,’ ” his mother said, with an affectionate laugh. He was the pitcher on his Little League baseball team, she said, and a star on a flag football team in Israel where he would deflect praise, saying instead, “You should see my little brother.”
After completing his degree at Colgate University, a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting in upstate New York, where he joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, he traveled to Israel in 1998 on the United Jewish Communities’ OTZMA program, a 10-month volunteer program that brings American young adults to Israel to do social service projects and live among Israelis.
He fell in love with the country and decided to make it his home. In May 2000 he broke some stunning news to his mother.
“He sent me an e-mail, ‘Happy Mother’s Day; Don’t freak out I just joined the Israeli army,’” she recalled.
“I was freaking out. If I was ever going to lose him that’s where I was sure I was going to lose him,” she said, noting that there was a lot of violence against Israel going on.
He served in the Nahal unit and during time off lived on Kibbutz Tzora, near Jerusalem. After completing his service, he studied Jewish texts at the modern Orthodox Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
His best friend since their time together on the OTZMA program and then through Nahal service, Tahg Adler, recalled an enthusiastic soldier and an avid athlete.
“He was the most athletic guy I ever met. He played basketball, he was strong like an ox,” Adler, a personal fitness trainer who remained in Jerusalem, told JTA.
Adler posted a PowerPoint tribute to Korsower on his Web site (www.tahgsfitness.com).
In it, Korsower poses in his army uniform and automatic rifle and with green war paint on his face. Other photos show him hiking near the Dead Sea, smiling in front of the Western Wall in his army uniform, drinking a beer on Israeli Independence Day, donning his green Nahal beret after completing his basic training.
He returned to the United States two years ago and joined Emerson’s outfit. He co-wrote a number of Op-Eds on terrorism and Islam with Yonah Alexander, a veteran terrorism expert.
Korsower planned to start law school at Syracuse University in New York in the fall.
Family and friends were left asking questions.
Grablowsky said her ex-husband and Jason’s father, Alan Korsower, a medical doctor, was convinced of foul play, and was pressing hard for answers. Korsower didn’t seem fearful about the line of work he was in, investigating terror groups, although he once fretted about a Web site biography that mentioned his Israeli army service, Adler said.
A former colleague said the work at Investigative Project drew “unwanted attention,” but added that he was doubtful it would result in an actual attack, especially on a relatively low-profile researcher like Korsower.
You’re “going to get people’s attention that you may not want to get,” said Glen Feder, who works at the Investigative Project. “I just have a hard time believing that anyone would go after him due to the work he was doing.”
Korsower did not write anything that would have particularly inflamed passions, Feder said, especially compared to some of the Project’s other output. Feder said he believed a health complication was likelier than homicide.
Adler said he spoke on the phone with his friend the night before he was found.
“He said he was going to visit me, that he was dating a beautiful girl.” Two days later, Adler got the phone call saying his friend was dead.
Korsower’s girlfriend recalled him as “a beautiful, humble, kind soul.”
“He just made the world a better place, quietly, in his own way,” she said, requesting that her name not be used. “This world is a much sadder place, you know, without him.”
“It’s just a bad dream,” she added.
Friends were planning the traditional 30-day memorial on Dec. 26 at Pardes.
“We had a lot of plans,” Adler said.
(JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Jerusalem and staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.)