March 21, 2002
The Man Who Knows Too Much
Long before most Americans had ever heard of Al Qaeda, Steve Emerson warned it was planning attacks.
"American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," by Steve Emerson (Simon & Schuster, $26).
It began by happenstance
CNN reporter Steve Emerson was stuck in Oklahoma City on Christmas 1992 with nothing to do and wandered by the city's convention center, where a gathering of the Muslim Arab Youth Association was taking place.
Inside, he found "books preaching Islamic jihad, books calling for the extermination of Jews and Christians, even coloring books instructing children on subjects such as 'How to Kill the Infidel.'"
Later, after listening to speeches urging jihad against the Jews and the West from luminaries such as the head of the Hamas terrorist group, Emerson called his contacts in the FBI to inquire whether they were aware of this bizarre meeting.
They were not.
A year later, Emerson attended a similar Muslim conference in Detroit that included representatives from Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups. It also included an appearance by a befuddled senior FBI agent.
When a member of the hostile audience asked the agent for advice on how to ship weapons overseas, Emerson relates that the G-man said, matter-of-factly, that he "hoped any such efforts would be done in conformance with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms guidelines." Apparently, the FBI official had attended the radical conference under the mistaken impression that it was "some kind of Rotary Club."
That anecdote demonstrates the ignorance and passivity shown by the government on the threat from Islamic extremists in the United States.
Investigator of terror
In 1993, the reporter left the cable network and struck out on his own as an investigator of terror networks in this country. Working with a small staff, he founded The Investigative Project, which has specialized in bringing to light the facts about the ways these dangerous extremists have used our open society as a staging ground for international terrorism.
His award-winning 1994 film, "Jihad in America," broadcast over PBS, introduced the topic to a wide audience. Emerson amassed a vast library of vital information about the activities and ideology of these terror groups and became one of the country's leading experts on the topic. But, as he tells the story in his new book, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," the path he has trod has not exactly been smooth.
The broadcast of his film sparked death threats that the FBI took seriously. And the sizable number of domestic apologists and fellow travelers of these terror groups soon made Emerson the focus of their misinformation efforts.
Emerson was smeared as being anti-Muslim by some Islamic and Muslim groups. The mainstream press often treated the charges as true.
Emerson did stumble in 1995 when, responding to inquiries about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, he said the crime fit the profile of Islamic groups. When that was proved untrue, Emerson wound up with egg on his face.
That mistake proved to be what Emerson admits is "an albatross around my neck," but it did not stop him from continuing his research and regularly appearing in The Wall Street Journal and as an expert witness for congressional committees. Long before most Americans had ever heard of Al Qaeda, Emerson warned that its members were planning attacks on the United States.
The FBI was barred by law from snooping on domestic groups hiding behind the facade of charitable organizations. But Emerson went where the government feared to tread.
This information made him invaluable, but it also gave him the air of a Cassandra. Though he was able to keep The Investigative Project going, his warnings were largely ignored.
Banned by NPR
In 1998, for example, critics who accused Emerson of being an anti-Muslim bigot were able to pressure National Public Radio (NPR) to ban him from its airwaves. An NPR producer promised an Arab group "he won't be used again."
After this outrage was exposed, NPR falsely claimed there had been no blacklisting of Emerson. But he has yet to be heard on NPR since.
The Sept. 11 attacks vindicated Emerson, but that hasn't stopped the torrent of abuse directed his way. Although he has become something of a media celebrity in the last few months as a regular on the talking-head news shows (he's become a paid consultant for NBC), for many in the Muslim world and on the American left, he remains a target.
On Nov. 14, The Washington Post published a profile of Emerson that rehashed every misleading attempt to discredit him. The Post's John Mintz never questioned the credentials of some of Emerson's critics, and took an "evenhanded" approach to their accusations that he was anti-Muslim. He also brought up ridiculous charges that Emerson works for the Mossad, although the only evidence for that seems to be that he is Jewish. No wonder the reporter does his best to play down his religion.
The trendy Webzine Salon.com also took up the cause of trying to discredit Emerson. In a disingenuous piece posted on Jan. 19, the site accused Emerson of ruining "an innocent professor's life." The case involved Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor of engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa, whom Salon claimed was merely an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights.
In fact, Emerson's book details Al-Arian's leadership of the American wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- a group that is responsible for the murder of scores of Israelis and Americans. He used his tenured position at the Tampa college to set up a nonprofit organization that became a clearinghouse for the group's fundraising (including the "sponsoring of martyrs" -- in reality, suicide bombers) and propaganda in this country.
Al-Arian, who is an American citizen, was able to evade prosecution, but subsequent exposés by The Tampa Tribune inspired by Emerson's work led to the closing down of Islamic Jihad's Tampa branch. And after his story was aired on Fox News and NBC's "Dateline," the university finally fired the professor.
Despite the slander, Emerson has persisted. And though his new book gives the impression of being something of a quickie post-Sept. 11 effort, the slim volume has a lot to offer for the general reader who wants an introduction to the topic of Islamic extremists on the loose in America.
In its discussions of Osama bin Laden's American connections and the vast support networks set up here for the benefit of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Emerson provides a concise analysis of this phenomenon and the clear dangers it poses for our national security.
Emerson also spends a chapter talking about moderate American Muslims who oppose terror. That information is heartening, but it is tempered by the fact that these moderates themselves admit that extremists dedicated to jihad have taken over "80 percent" of American mosques and most American Muslim organizations.
He knows the war against terror is one that will go on for a long time without a clear-cut victory. More than 3,000 deaths testify to the truth of the picture that Emerson has painted for us of the danger from Islamic radicals. But in spite of threats and slanders, he continues to voice warnings about our vulnerability.
But even after Sept. 11, are we truly listening?
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