[Editor's note: this article first appeared in the Spring 2006 edition of Middle East Quarterly. An earlier version of it appeared in the Capital Research Center’s Organization Trends, August 2005]
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), headquartered in Washington, is perhaps the best-known and most controversial Muslim organization in North America. CAIR presents itself as an advocate for Muslims’ civil rights and the spokesman for American Muslims. “We are similar to a Muslim NAACP,” says its communications director, Ibrahim Hooper. Its official mission—“to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding”—suggests nothing problematic.
Starting with a single office in 1994, CAIR now claims thirty-one affiliates, including a branch in Canada, with more steadily being added. In addition to its grand national headquarters in Washington, it has impressive offices in other cities; the New York office, for example, is housed in the 19-story Interchurch Center located on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive.
But there is another side to CAIR that has alarmed many people in positions to know. The Department of Homeland Security refuses to deal with it. Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) describes it as an organization “which we know has ties to terrorism.” Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat, Illinois) observes that CAIR is “unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its associations with groups that are suspect.” Steven Pomerantz, the FBI’s former chief of counterterrorism, notes that “CAIR, its leaders, and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups.” The family of John P. O’Neill, Sr., the former FBI counterterrorism chief who perished at the World Trade Center, named CAIR in a lawsuit as having “been part of the criminal conspiracy of radical Islamic terrorism” responsible for the September 11 atrocities. Counterterrorism expert Steven Emerson calls it “a radical fundamentalist front group for Hamas.”
Of particular note are the American Muslims who reject CAIR’s claim to speak on their behalf. The late Seifeldin Ashmawy, publisher of the New Jersey-based Voice of Peace, called CAIR the champion of “extremists whose views do not represent Islam.” Jamal Hasan of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance explains that CAIR’s goal is to spread “Islamic hegemony the world over by hook or by crook.” Kamal Nawash, head of Free Muslims Against Terrorism, finds that CAIR and similar groups condemn terrorism on the surface while endorsing an ideology that helps foster extremism, adding that “almost all of their members are theocratic Muslims who reject secularism and want to establish Islamic states.” Tashbih Sayyed of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance calls CAIR “the most accomplished fifth column” in the United States. And Stephen Schwartz of the Center on Islamic Pluralism writes that “CAIR should be considered a foreign-based subversive organization, comparable in the Islamist field to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party, USA.”
CAIR, for its part, dismisses all criticism, blaming negative comments on “Muslim bashers” who “can never point to something CAIR has done in its 10-year history that is objectionable.” Actually, there is much about the organization’s history that is objectionable—and it is readily apparent to anyone who bothers to look.
Part of the Establishment
When President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington several days after September 11, 2001, to signal that he would not tolerate a backlash against Muslims, he invited CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, to join him at the podium. Two months later, when Secretary of State Colin Powell hosted a Ramadan dinner, he, too, called upon CAIR as representative of Islam in America. More broadly, when the State Department seeks out Muslims to welcome foreign dignitaries, journalists, and academics, it calls upon CAIR. The organization has represented American Muslims before Congress. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency hosted CAIR’s “Sensitivity and Diversity Workshop” in an effort to harmonize space research with Muslim sensibilities.
Law-enforcement agencies in Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Arizona, California, Missouri, Texas, and Kentucky have attended CAIR’s sensitivity-training sessions. The organization boasts such tight relations with law enforcement that it claims to have even been invited to monitor police raids. In July 2004, as agents from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and Homeland Security descended on the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America, a Saudi-created school in Merrifield, Virginia, a local paper reported that the FBI had informed CAIR’s legal director, Arsalan Iftikhar, that morning that the raid was going to take place.
CAIR is also a media darling. It claims to log five thousand annual mentions on newspapers, television, and radio, including some of the most prestigious media in the United States. The press dutifully quotes CAIR’s statistics, publishes its theological views, reports its opinions, rehashes its press releases, invites its staff on television, and generally dignifies its existence as a routine part of the American and Canadian political scenes.
CAIR regularly participates in seminars on Islamic cultural issues for corporations and has been invited to speak at many of America’s leading universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia. American high schools have invited CAIR to promote its agenda, as have educationally-minded senior citizens.
Terrorists in Its Midst
Perhaps the most obvious problem with CAIR is the fact that at least five of its employees and board members have been arrested, convicted, deported, or otherwise linked to terrorism-related charges and activities.
Randall (“Ismail”) Royer, an American convert to Islam, served as CAIR’s communications specialist and civil rights coordinator; today he sits in jail on terrorism-related charges. In June 2003, Royer and ten other young men, ages 23 to 35, known as the “Virginia jihad group,” were indicted on forty-one counts of “conspiracy to train for and participate in a violent jihad overseas.” The defendants, nine of them U.S. citizens, were accused of association with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a radical Islamic group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in 2001. They were also accused of meeting covertly in private homes and at the Islamic Center in Falls Church to prepare themselves for battle by listening to lectures and watching videotapes. As the prosecutor noted, “Ten miles from Capitol Hill in the streets of northern Virginia, American citizens allegedly met, plotted, and recruited for violent jihad.” According to Matthew Epstein of the Investigative Project, Royer helped recruit the others to the jihad effort while he was working for CAIR. The group trained at firing ranges in Virginia and Pennsylvania; in addition, it practiced “small-unit military tactics” at a paintball war-games facility in Virginia, earning it the moniker, the “paintball jihadis.” Eventually members of the group traveled to Pakistan.
Five of the men indicted, including CAIR’s Royer, were found to have had in their possession, according to the indictment, “AK-47-style rifles, telescopic lenses, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and tracer rounds, documents on undertaking jihad and martyrdom, [and] a copy of the terrorist handbook containing instructions on how to manufacture and use explosives and chemicals as weapons.”
After four of the eleven defendants pleaded guilty, the remaining seven, including Royer, were accused in a new, 32-count indictment of yet more serious charges: conspiring to help Al-Qaeda and the Taliban battle American troops in Afghanistan. Royer admitted in his grand jury testimony that he had already waged jihad in Bosnia under a commander acting on orders from Osama bin Laden. Prosecutors also presented evidence that his father, Ramon Royer, had rented a room in his St. Louis-area home in 2000 to Ziyad Khaleel, the student who purchased the satellite phone used by Al-Qaeda in planning the two U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in August 1998. Royer eventually pleaded guilty to lesser firearms-related charges, and the former CAIR staffer was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
A coda to the “Virginia jihad network” came in 2005 when a Federal court convicted another Virginia man, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, of plotting to kill President Bush. Prosecutors alleged that Abu Ali participated in the Virginia jihad network’s paintball games and perhaps supplied one of his fellow jihadists with an assault rifle. Royer’s possible role in Abu Ali’s plans are unclear.
Ghassan Elashi, the founder of CAIR’s Texas chapter, has a long history of funding terrorism. First, he was convicted in July 2004, with his four brothers, of having illegally shipped computers from their Dallas-area business, InfoCom Corporation, to two designated state-sponsors of terrorism, Libya and Syria. Second, he and two brothers were convicted in April 2005 of knowingly doing business with Mousa Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas leader, whom the U.S. State Department had in 1995 declared a “specially designated terrorist.” Elashi was convicted of all twenty-one counts with which he was charged, including conspiracy, money laundering, and dealing in the property of a designated terrorist. Third, he was charged in July 2004 with providing more than $12.4 million to Hamas while he was running the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, America’s largest Islamic charity. When the U.S. government shuttered Holy Land Foundation in late 2001, CAIR characterized this move as “unjust” and “disturbing.”
Bassem Khafagi, an Egyptian native and CAIR’s onetime community relations director, pleaded guilty in September 2003 to lying on his visa application and passing bad checks for substantial amounts in early 2001, for which he was deported. CAIR claimed Khafagi was hired only after he had committed his crimes and that the organization was unaware of his wrongdoing. But that is unconvincing, for a cursory background check reveals that Khafagi was a founding member and president of the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), an organization under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for terrorism-related activities. CAIR surely knew that IANA under Khafagi was in the business of, as prosecutors stated in Idaho court papers, disseminating “radical Islamic ideology, the purpose of which was indoctrination, recruitment of members, and the instigation of acts of violence and terrorism.”
For example, IANA websites promoted the views of two Saudi preachers, Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali, well-known in Islamist circles for having been spiritual advisors to Osama bin Laden. Under Khafagi’s leadership, Matthew Epstein has testified, IANA hosted a conference at which a senior Al-Qaeda recruiter, Abdelrahman al-Dosari, was a speaker. IANA disseminated publications advocating suicide attacks against the United States, according to federal investigators.
Also, Khafagi was co-owner of a Sir Speedy printing franchise until 1998 with Rafil Dhafir, who was a former vice president of IANA and a Syracuse-area oncologist convicted in February 2005 of illegally sending money to Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime as well as defrauding donors by using contributions to his “Help the Needy” charitable fund to avoid taxes and to purchase personal assets for himself. Dhafir was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.
Rabih Haddad, a CAIR fundraiser, was arrested in December 2001 on terrorism-related charges and deported from the United States due to his subsequent work as executive director of the Global Relief Foundation, a charity he cofounded which was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department in October 2002 for financing Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Siraj Wahhaj, a CAIR advisory board member, was named in 1995 by U.S. attorney Mary Jo White as a possible unindicted coconspirator in the plot to blow up New York City landmarks led by the blind sheikh, Omar Abdul Rahman. In defense of having Wahhaj on its advisory board, CAIR described him as “one of the most respected Muslim leaders in America.” In October 2004, he spoke at a CAIR dinner.
This roster of employees and board members connected to terrorism makes one wonder how CAIR remains an acceptable guest at U.S. government events—and even more so, how U.S. law enforcement agencies continue to associate with it.
Links to Hamas
CAIR has a number of links to the terror organization Hamas, starting with the founder of its Texas chapter, Ghassan Elashi, as noted above.
Secondly, Elashi and another CAIR founder, Omar Ahmad, attended a key meeting in Philadelphia in 1993. An FBI memo characterizes this meeting as a planning session for Hamas, Holy Land Foundation, and Islamic Association of Palestine to find ways to disrupt Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and raise money for Hamas in the United States. The Philadelphia meeting was deemed such strong proof of Islamic Association of Palestine’s relation to Hamas that a federal judge in Chicago in December 2004 ruled theIslamic Association of Palestine partially liable for US $156 million in damages (along with the Holy Land Foundation and Mohammad Salah, a Hamas operative) for having aided and abetted the Hamas murder of David Boim, an American citizen.
Third, CAIR’s founding personnel were closely linked to the Islamic Association of Palestine, which was founded by Ibrahim Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas operative and husband of Elashi’s cousin; according to Epstein, the Islamic Association of Palestine functions as Hamas’s public relations and recruitment arm in the United States. The two individuals who established CAIR, Ahmad and Nihad Awad, had been, respectively, the president and public relations director of the Islamic Association of Palestine. Hooper, CAIR’s director of communications, had been an employee of the Islamic Association of Palestine. Rafeeq Jabar, president of the Islamic Association of Palestine, was a founding director of CAIR.
Fourth, the Holy Land Foundation, which the U.S. government has charged with funneling funds to Hamas, provided CAIR with some of its start-up funding in 1994. (See $5,000 money transfer, figure 1.) In the other direction, according to Joe Kaufman, CAIR sent potential donors to the Holy Land Foundation’s website when they clicked on their post-September 11 weblink, “Donate to the NY/DC Disaster Relief Fund.”
Fifth, Awad publicly declared his enthusiasm for Hamas at Barry University in Florida in 1994: “I’m in support of Hamas movement more than the PLO.” As an attorney pointed out in the course of deposing Awad for the Boim case, Awad both supported Hamas and acknowledged an awareness of its involvement in violence.
A class-action lawsuit brought by the estate of John P. O’Neill, Sr. charges CAIR and its Canadian branch of being, since their inception, “part of the criminal conspiracy of radical Islamic terrorism” with a unique role in the terrorist network:
both organizations have actively sought to hamper governmental anti-terrorism efforts by direct propaganda activities aimed at police, first-responders, and intelligence agencies through so-called sensitivity training. Their goal is to create as much self-doubt, hesitation, fear of name-calling, and litigation within police departments and intelligence agencies as possible so as to render such authorities ineffective in pursuing international and domestic terrorist entities.
It would be hard to improve on this characterization; under the guise of participating in counterterrorism, CAIR does its best to impede these efforts. This approach can be seen from its statements.
CAIR encourages law enforcement in its work—so long as it does not involve counterterrorism. Wissam Nasr, the head of CAIR’s New York office, explains: “The Muslim community in New York wants to play a positive role in protecting our nation’s security, but that role is made more difficult if the FBI is perceived as pursuing suspects much more actively than it is searching for community partners.”Nasr would have the FBI get out of the unpleasant business of “pursuing suspects” and instead devote itself to building social good will—through CAIR, naturally.
Likewise, on the eve of the U.S. war with Iraq in March 2003, CAIR distributed a “Muslim community safety kit” that advised Muslims to “Know your rights if contacted by the FBI.” It tells them specifically, “You have no obligation to talk to the FBI, even if you are not a citizen. … You do not have to permit them to enter your home. … ALWAYS have an attorney present when answering questions.” On the other hand, when it comes to protecting Muslims, CAIR wants an active FBI. The same “Muslim community safety kit” advised: “If you believe you have been the victim of an anti-Muslim hate crime or discrimination, you should: 1. Report the incident to your local police station and FBI office IMMEDIATELY.” In January 2006, CAIR joined a lawsuit against the National Security Agency demanding that the U.S. intelligence agency cease monitoring communications with suspected Islamist terrorists. Part of its complaints concerned a belief that the U.S. government monitored its communications with Rabih Haddad, the suspected Al-Qaeda financier who has since moved to Lebanon. Upon learning that CAIR was a fellow plaintiff in the suit, political writer Christopher Hitchens said, “I was revolted to see who I was in company with. CAIR is a lot to swallow.”
Finally, CAIR discourages Americans from improving their counterterrorism skills. Deedra Abboud, CAIR’s Arizona director, approves of police learning the Arabic language if that lowers the chances of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. “However, if they’re learning it in order to better fight terrorism, that concerns me. Only because that assumes that the only fighting we have to do is among Arabic speakers. That’s not a long-term strategy.”
Apologizing for Islamist Terrorism
CAIR has consistently shown itself to be on the wrong side of the war on terrorism, protecting, defending, and supporting both accused and even convicted radical Islamic terrorists.
In October 1998—months after Osama bin Laden had issued his first declaration of war against the United States and had been named as the chief suspect in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa—CAIR demanded the removal of a Los Angeles billboard describing Osama bin Laden as “the sworn enemy,” finding this depiction offensive to Muslims. CAIR also leapt to bin Laden’s defense, denying his responsibility for the twin East African embassy bombings. CAIR’s Hooper saw these explosions resulting from “misunderstandings of both sides.” Even after the September 11 atrocity, CAIR continued to protect bin Laden, stating only that “if [note the “if”] Osama bin Laden was behind it, we condemn him by name.” Not until December 2001, when bin Laden on videotape boasted of his involvement in the attack, did CAIR finally acknowledge his role.
CAIR has also consistently defended other radical Islamic terrorists. Rather than praise the conviction of the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, it deemed this “a travesty of justice.” It labeled the extradition order for suspected Hamas terrorist Mousa Abu Marzook “anti-Islamic” and “anti-American.” CAIR has co-sponsored Yvonne Ridley, the British convert to Islam who became a Taliban enthusiast and a denier that Al-Qaeda was involved in 9-11. When four U.S. civilian contractors in Falluja were (in CAIR’s words) “ambushed in their SUV's, burned, mutilated, dragged through the streets, and then hung from a bridge spanning the Euphrates River,” CAIR issued a press release that condemned the mutilation of the corpses but stayed conspicuously silent on the actual killings.
During the 2005 trial of Sami Al-Arian, accused of heading Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United States, Ahmed Bedier of CAIR’s Florida branch emerged as Al-Arian’s effective spokesman, providing sound bytes to the media, trying to get his trial moved out of Tampa, commenting on the jury selection, and so on.
More broadly, TheReligionofPeace.com website pointed out that “of the more than 3100 fatal Islamic terror attacks committed in the last four years, we have only seen CAIR specifically condemn 18.”
Ties to Extremists, Left and Right
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has affinities to extremists of both the left and right, sharing features with both. Its extensive ties to far-left groups include funding from the Tides Foundation for its “Interfaith Coalition against Hate Crimes”; endorsing a statement issued by Refuse & Resist and a “National Day of Protest … to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.” CAIR supported the “Civil Liberties Restoration Act,” legislation drafted by Open Society Policy Center, an organization founded by George Soros that would obstruct U.S. law enforcement from prosecuting the “War on Extremism.” Far-left members of Congress such as Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) and Jim McDermott (Democrat, Washington) have turned up as featured speakers at CAIR fundraising events.
Its neo-Nazi side came out most clearly in CAIR’s early years. In 1996, according to testimony by Steven Emerson, Yusuf Islam—the Muslim convert formerly known as the singer Cat Stevens—gave a keynote speech at a CAIR event. The contents of the speech itself are not known but Islam wrote a pamphlet published by the Islamic Association of Palestine, CAIR’s stepparent, which included these sentences:
The Jews seem neither to respect God nor his Creation. Their own holy books contain the curse of God brought upon them by their prophets on account of their disobedience to Him and mischief in the earth. We have seen the disrespect for religion displayed by those who consider themselves to be “God’s Chosen People.”
In 1998, CAIR co-hosted an event at which an Egyptian Islamist leader, Wagdi Ghunaym, declared Jews to be the “descendants of the apes.”
CAIR continues to expose its fascistic side by its repeated activities with William W. Baker, exposed as a neo-Nazi in March 2002. Even after that date, CAIR invited Baker to speak at several events, for example in Florida on August 12, 2003 and New Jersey on October 18, 2003. CAIR liked Baker’s work so much, it used the title of his book, More in Common Than You Think, in one of its ad campaigns in March 2004 and as the title of an Elderhostel lecture.
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FDCH Political Transcripts, June 27, 2003.