It seems that being formally exposed as a terrorist support group by U.S. senators hasn’t fazed the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). In the first weeks of 2005, the same organization excoriated by Senator Charles Schumer for having “intimate links with Hamas” was once again rallying support in the press for American Muslims whose civil rights allegedly were violated by U.S. counterterrorism officials.
The victims: a group of 40 Muslims – some of them American citizens – crossing the Canadian border on their way back from a weekend in Toronto, where they attended a conference titled “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” (RIS). Their grievance: being held at the border for six hours and singled out for questioning and fingerprinting by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents solely (they allege) on the basis of their religion. Homeland Security officials claim they acted on specific information regarding terrorist involvement at conferences like RIS, but CAIR shrugged off the explanation as a cover story for racial and religious profiling, and called for a “formal investigation.”
This story is a familiar one. Over the past 10 years CAIR has carved a niche for itself in the American political landscape by serving as the representative for Muslim citizens who believe they have been subjected to violence, discrimination or discomfort because of their religion. Each year, CAIR publicizes and collects accounts of these “hate crimes” – most of them unquestionably heinous – and publishes a report that blames them entirely on the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. (For my full analysis of CAIR’s 2003 report, click here.)
But the case of Muslims at the Canadian border and the ongoing political backlash demand special attention. First, the concerns of anti-terrorism officials are certainly warranted by the radical reputation of the RIS conference. Second, whether or not the grievances of the victims are justified, the involvement of CAIR and another Islamist group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), points to a much larger problem: radical Islamists seeking to exercise influence over federal policies designed to stop terrorism. And insofar as the security of America’s borders are concerned, such influence cannot be tolerated.
The ‘Reviving the Islamic Spirit’ Conference
Weeks before the December 24-26 RIS conference, the Toronto Sun hailed the event’s “international line-up of top Islamic scholars and speakers.” A closer look at the roster, however, reveals personalities well known for preaching radical intolerance and violent anti-Americanism.
Headline speaker Imam Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, for example, once told a gathering of the Islamic Circle of North America, an organization reported to be connected with terrorist organizations in Pakistan, that “jihad is the only way.” As Stephen Schwartz reported in the Daily Standard, following Yusuf’s own complaints of problems at the border, the longtime radical has seen his popularity and political influence grow since recasting himself as a moderate after 9/11.
Also present was Imam Bilal Philips of Qatar – formerly a Communist Party activist in the U.S. and Canada – who has admitted to playing an active role in converting U.S. soldiers to Islam during the first Gulf War at the behest of the Saudi government. In an interview with the Saudi-owned London weekly al-Majallah, Philips revealed that he was employed by the Saudi military and put in charge of setting up a “Saudi Camp for Cultural Information” at the U.S. army barracks in Al-Khubar, Saudi Arabia, and at least two other U.S. camps. Philips claims that in the five months after Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, his operatives converted 3,000 American soldiers to Islam. Philips told al-Majallah, “Western culture, led by the United States, is the enemy of Islam.”
Giving a presentation to RIS attendees titled “In the Spirit of Forgiveness” was Brooklyn Imam Siraj Wahhaj. It was a fitting subject for the Imam. Wahhaj testified on behalf of convicted 1993 World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, and is widely believed to have been an un-indicted co-conspirator in the attack. The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Barrett reported in 2003 that Wahhaj believes the FBI and CIA are the “real terrorists.”
Perhaps most interestingly, the searches at the Canadian border were not the first time that the RIS conference has drawn the attention of American counterterror officials. In 2003, Soliman Biheiri, a board member for the now-defunct American Muslim Council, was arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists as “the financial toehold of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States.” Court documents filed by Special Agent David Kane identified Biheiri’s business partner, Tareq Suwaidan, as a speaker at the 2003 RIS conference, where he told the crowd:
“It [the West] will continue to grow until an outside force hits it and you will be surprised at how quickly it falls. . . . It is the duty of local Muslims to help cure America’s inner decay.”
Suwaidan, also known to be a leading figure in the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, was invited back to address the RIS in 2004. Obviously, the Department of Homeland Security is justified in being concerned.
The Islamist Playbook
As federal officials firmly stood their ground following the incident, articles in the press decrying the controversy and publicizing CAIR’s demands for an investigation continued throughout January. In early February, DOJ officials promised to meet, within the next two months, with members of the Western New York Chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to hear their concerns over the incident.
This sequence of events gives an all-too-familiar insight into the political strategy of radical Islamist groups. First, CAIR or another of its Islamist kin complains loudly to the media regarding an alleged violation of civil rights. Sympathetic media outlets then report the claims, with little scrutiny of who is making them and why. Federal agencies, anxious to avoid embarrassment over the contentious issue of civil liberties, then agree to meet with the leaders of these groups, who air concerns and offer policy advice that would supposedly make the War on Terror more amenable to the American Muslims they claim to represent.
It is a pattern that has been used repeatedly by Islamists to gain access to policymakers at all levels of government. In 1997, CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, was appointed by Bill Clinton to the civil rights advisory panel to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. Since 9/11, the Council has met with the FBI director, the secretary of transportation, and officials from the White House, State Department and Department of Justice.
Unfortunately, CAIR and other Islamist groups seeking to affect changes in U.S. anti-terrorism policy are inextricably linked to the very terrorist network that U.S. officials are trying to disrupt.
Since September 11, 2001, for example, no fewer than three CAIR officials – Randall Todd Royer, Ghassan Elashi and Bassem Khafagi – have been found guilty on charges related to major counterterrorism investigations. Royer, a former communications specialist with CAIR, was charged with providing material support to al-Qaeda. Nihad Awad has stated, “I am in support of the Hamas movement.” Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper has defended Saudi financial aid given to families of suicide bombers. At a congressional hearing marking the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Senator Richard Durbin stated that CAIR is “unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its associations with groups that are suspect.”
MPAC, whose officials will soon be meeting with DHS agents in New York, has defended Hezbollah and lobbied against the designation of the group, along with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as terrorists. MPAC, which also collects reports of hate crimes via its Web site, actively discourages Muslims from cooperating with anti-terrorism investigations. It is also interesting to note that MPAC’s Western New York Chapter was until 2004 a regional affiliate of the American Muslim Council, whose leader, Abdurahman Alamoudi, is now serving a 23-year prison sentence for conducting financial dealings with Libya aimed at assassinating the Saudi crown prince.
When groups that voice support for Hamas and Hezbollah and have employed alleged associates of al-Qaeda are meeting with Homeland Security officials in charge of protecting our borders, it can no longer be considered community outreach; it is subversion.
What Must Be Done
The solution is simple. Federal agencies must cease to meet with officials from Islamist organizations known to be affiliated financially, materially or ideologically with identified terrorist groups. The fact checking will not be difficult; all of the evidence featured in this article is a matter of public record and easily accessible to anyone who can navigate the Internet. Nor should it be difficult to realize that those who are so eager to give their counsel to policymakers almost certainly have a political agenda of their own.
Community outreach by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies is certainly a noble endeavor, but without the necessary precautions it is ripe for exploitation by the targets of their mission. What’s more, by agreeing to meet with groups like CAIR and MPAC, counterterror officials lend credence to these groups’ claims of being legitimate representatives of America’s Muslims. If our officials continue to take this legitimacy for granted, peaceful American Muslims who do not subscribe to the Islamist ideology will find it ever more difficult to defend their own traditions and freedoms against politically empowered groups like CAIR. Finally, the Islamist strategy of cozying up to counterterror officials while simultaneously sowing distrust of their work in the community serves to intimidate Muslims who might otherwise cooperate with investigations and could thwart future attacks.
Nowhere do these lessons in political strategy require more immediate consideration than in the case of our borders, the points at which our most dangerous enemies will surely challenge us. And just as we must ensure that our borders remain impervious to terrorists, we must also ensure that our political institutions and the agencies charged with protecting those borders remain impenetrable to the influence of radical Islamism.