August 15, 2002
Terrorist expert Steven Emerson's newest work details a network living in America.
"American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," by Steven Emerson. (Simon and Schuster, $26).
In November of 1994, PBS aired nationwide an unforgettable documentary titled, "Jihad in America." Recognizing as it did -- a year after the first attack on the World Trade Center -- the concrete dangers posed by the radical Islam network beginning to burgeon in the United States, the film caused an upheaval in the perceptions of many viewers -- just the reaction Steven Emerson wanted.
Emerson, an expert on terrorism and national security who serves as NBC's terrorism analyst, has now followed up his 1994 film with a book that picks up where the film leaves off. "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" describes how a network of organizations and radical Islamic institutions operate under the guise of cultural, welfare and charitable institutions, and describes the way these elements penetrate the heart of American society, taking advantage of its liberal democratic values. Delving through layers of camouflage, Emerson returns with a clear and frightening message about the spread of Islamic fundamentalist terror activists and their supporters throughout the United States.
"American Jihad" is more like two books than one. It is, first, a narrative detailing the personal anguish that Emerson experienced throughout his nonstop effort to expose a radical Islamic terror network in the United States. He relates, with the suspense of a Hollywood thriller, the initial research and reporting he did in preparation for his film. But it is also a textbook detailing Islamic institutions, figures and connections -- a lexicon of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States that should be included in the library of every researcher, academic and security official interested in radical Islam. In fact, it is saturated with so many names, dates, facts and events that it leaves a reader wondering how to absorb the scope of the phenomenon and whether it is not, in fact, too late to fight it and win.
The West "deluded itself into the belief that militant Islamic fundamentalism could be contained," Emerson writes. But the events of Sept. 11 demonstrated how deadly wrong our preconceptions were and that those who described the activities of the radical Islam network as legitimate, quiet, religious and educational were mistaken -- and misleading. According to Emerson, radical Islam fundamentalists see only one way to interpret the term "jihad." In the words of Osama bin Laden's ideological mentor, Abdullah Azzam: "Whenever jihad is mentioned in the Holy Book it means the obligation to fight. It does not mean to fight with a pen or to write books or articles in the press or to fight by holding lectures."
But the threat from radical Islam is not the territory of only one man, bin Laden, or even of one organization, Al Qaeda. As Emerson makes clear, it is a worldwide network of fanatical Muslim terrorists who share a frightening ideology, the fundamental nature of which is to impose radical Islam on the world. (Emerson not only describes the phenomenon but also examines the motives of radical Islam and claims that "poverty and lack of opportunity have little or nothing to do with it.") The severe danger arising from these terrorists and their supporters is not limited to the extremity of their viewpoint -- the belief that with terror attacks, they are fulfilling Allah's commandments. There are more pragmatic dangers.
Most of the radical Islamic fighters are alumni of the Afghanistan War (1979-1989), during which they acquired fighting experience against what was, at the time, one of the world's superpowers. They make use of the highly dangerous method of suicide attacks and have not concealed their readiness to use biological weapons and other unconventional substances. Moreover, they have a vast array of personal connections and relations, which not only inhibits penetration into their organizations, but also facilitates the perpetration of coordinated terror attacks worldwide. And this network is dispersed all over the world -- in the Arab states but also in the West, and particularly in the United States.
Emerson focuses on penetration and activities in the United States today of the three most dangerous terror organizations -- Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda. As it turns out, the United States serves as a convenient platform for the enlistment and training of activists, for fundraising and, as we've so tragically seen, as a stage for terror attacks.
It would appear that U.S. citizenship, or even exposure to Western liberal values, is no guarantee of moderation. In fact the opposite is true. Emerson confirms that among the radical Muslims who today shout "Death to America" are "highly sophisticated Westernized intellectuals." Those who did not heed Emerson's last warning, offered in his 1994 film, should heed his new one, that radical Islam is enlisting members from the ranks of U.S. citizens. This phenomenon was revalidated this spring when an American citizen, Jose Padilla, was exposed as allegedly planning a radiological attack with a "dirty bomb."
Similarly, Emerson points to the disturbing phenomenon of radical Islamic elements penetrating the ranks of American institutions of higher education. As an example, he contends that the University of South Florida (USF) is in danger of becoming a bastion of the terror organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that perpetrates suicide bombings and other terror attacks in Israel. At USF, academic sponsorship has served as a convenient background for the enlistment of activists and supporters, for the raising of funds and the brainwashing of many young Americans. It has become, according to Emerson, a potential hothouse for the cultivation of the organization's leadership.
A case in point is Ramadan Shallah, who in his capacity as adjunct professor of Middle Eastern studies at USF, was invited to brief military commanders at the U.S. Air Force base at MacDill near Tampa. Today, Shallah is head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- only one example of how these radical factions have been invited, in their academic guise, to lecture to policymakers and the U.S. security establishment, thereby trying to spread their doctrine to important places.
As Emerson makes clear, Hamas and Jihad activists have used the United States as a haven for the initiation, planning and organization of attacks in Israel. Still, many American citizens approach the idea of Palestinian Islamic terror elements in the United States with the false assumption that they are solely an Israeli problem -- an internal threat only to the people of Israel. By exposing just how Palestinian organizations such as Hamas use their infrastructure in the United States to plan attacks against American targets, Emerson shows the folly of such a view.
The last chapter in Emerson's book is devoted to the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in the United States, stressing the commitment of moderate Islam to fight fanaticism. Emerson applauds those exceptional Muslims in the United States -- such as Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, or Muslim scholar Khalid Duran -- who do not ignore the severity of the threat, and who do their best to draw the attention of U.S. decisionmakers to the dangers posed by radical Islamic groups.
Emerson's book illustrates how hard this fight is, and how helpless and unmotivated the U.S. security establishment was in understanding the scope of the threat before it was able to take root in American society. He criticizes the American security establishment, particularly the FBI, for its inability to identify the enormity of the danger in advance, a failure partially explained by the absence of appropriate legislation to enable American security forces to penetrate these organizations and institutions, and to keep a close eye on their modus operandi.
As the book makes clear, lessons must be learned from the lethargy that characterized American policy after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and we must memorize Emerson's contention about the second one: "Since Sept. 11, 2001, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. The only difference between Feb. 26, 1993, and Sept. 11, 2001, is that there are 3,500-odd more people dead. We are still vulnerable. We have only a short time to prevent the next chapter from unfolding."
Boaz Ganor is the executive director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.