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Jewish Journal

Author Infiltrates Islamic Terror Cells

by Aaron Leibel

August 28, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Rita Katz, middle, with her family in Iraq before the 1969 execution of her father on spy charges. Photo courtesy of Rita Katz

Rita Katz, middle, with her family in Iraq before the 1969 execution of her father on spy charges. Photo courtesy of Rita Katz

"Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America" by Anonymous (Ecco, $25.95).

She's had some frightening moments during the past several years. As an undercover investigator, Rita Katz attended pro-Palestinian rallies and fundraising events disguised as a Muslim woman in order to expose the links of American Islamic groups to foreign terrorist groups.

At one conference, the Potomac, Md., resident relates in her recently published book, "Terrorist Hunter," she was seated on the right side of the room -- with the other women and children as is the custom at such events -- when, suddenly, someone from the left side of the room screamed, "You are not a brother! Get out!"

"I hear raised voices again," Katz writes. "Someone shouts, 'The insolence! Who do they think they are? The next one we find we'll tear apart! No recording in this hall, everyone! We mean that!' My heart is beating fast, and I am sweating. I pray to God that my perspiration won't cause the $5,000 digital camcorder and back-up voice-recorder [that she is wearing under her clothes] to malfunction and that nothing will go wrong. Putting myself in danger is one thing, but risking my baby [she is pregnant] ... there's too much at stake. If I'm discovered, I'll never be able to do this again."

"It was scary, especially in small meetings," Katz said in an interview. "I tried not to think about it.

"My husband used to tell me it's good that I'm scared because that will make me more alert," she added.

One fear for Katz, who spent much of her childhood and years as a young adult living in Israel and often spoke a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, was that she might blurt out some word in Hebrew.

She considered giving up this dangerous work.

"I wanted to be a normal woman," said the author, who is the mother of four children. "But I thought, 'If I don't do this, no one else will.'"

In May, Katz told her story on the CBS newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," but in disguise. She also wrote her book under the name "Anonymous" to protect herself and her family from retaliation from groups, whose hidden links to Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah she has exposed.

However, last month, two of the groups she discussed in her book and on television -- the Heritage Education Trust and the Safa Trust -- sued her and revealed her name and the identity of The Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute (SITE) that she heads.

Because the lawsuit is pending, Katz is reluctant to talk about the case. But she does say "this attempt to silence her" will not prevent her from continuing her work.

Katz has good credentials to be hunting terrorist-connected Muslim groups. She was born in 1963 in southern Iraq's Basra into a wealthy Jewish family. She remembers a happy childhood amid a small, but tight-knit Jewish community.

Her world fell apart when her father, who was in the import-export business, was accused of spying for Israel and arrested shortly after the Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party seized power in 1968.

"I'll never forget how he was taken away from us, that we wanted to kiss him, but [the authorities] didn't permit that," she said.

The family, all of whose property was confiscated by the state, moved to Baghdad to be near her father. He was publicly hanged in 1969. Two years later, her mother, fearing for her life, organized an escape for the whole family through northern Iraq into Iran, then still ruled by the shah. From there, the family made its way to Israel, where Katz grew up.

After earning a degree in Middle Eastern studies from Tel Aviv University, Katz joined her mother in a business venture, manufacturing and selling clothes to the ultra-Orthodox.

Often, on business visits, she remembers changing her clothes in her car to garb more appropriate for the Orthodox community -- a precursor to her future undercover work in the Muslim community in America.

Katz says she resisted coming to live in the United States because of her Zionist views ("I believed that Jews belong in Israel"), despite her physician husband's opportunity to advance in his field by working here. But after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli in 1995, she and her husband decided "to try a different life [in the United States]," she said.

She attempted to be a stay-at-home mom after her arrival, but soon became bored. So about five years ago, Katz answered an ad and was hired by a Middle Eastern research institute. (Because of her lawsuit, she doesn't want to reveal the institute's name.)

On her first day on the job -- much of her work entailed "administrative stuff and copying," her new boss had told her -- she started reading documents in English and Arabic about the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF).

"I saw differences in the translations," Katz recalled. "The Arabic list was longer, and I recognized that some organizations mentioned in Arabic and not in English were Hamas front organizations."

That realization propelled her to start doing research on that group, collecting Arabic documents and eventually going undercover.

Her work, through her SITE Institute, which is funded by various federal agencies and private groups needing to know about radical Muslim groups operating in the United States, has led to closures of organizations, deportations and ongoing investigations. She also has provided the media with information.

Two of her victories have involved the White House. In 2000, Katz learned through a HLF newsletter that the organization had been approved to receive federal aid.

"I freaked out," she said. A call to the White House put an end to a situation in which "the U.S. government could have been [indirectly] funding Hamas."

In another case, Abdurahman al-Amoudi, who was considered a moderate, had access to the Clinton White House.

The author recorded him at an event where he said he supported Hamas and Hezbollah. The tape she sent to the media ended his intimate relations with that administration, she said.

Despite being subjected to virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda in her undercover work, Katz said she believes that most Muslims living in America are moderate. A small group of people, however, funded by the Saudi Arabians and others, are trying to radicalize them, she said.

She is convinced that they will be stopped, and that the United States will eventually triumph over international terrorism. She said her book is a wake-up call for the American people.

"I wrote the book because Islamic fundamentalism doesn't only exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan," she said. "It is here, and if we don't understand it, we can't fight it."

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