Commentary Magazine


American Jihad by Steven Emerson

American Jihad: The Terrorists Living among Us
by Steven Emerson
Free Press. 261 pp. $26.00

On September 11, Americans learned that international terrorists were living in their midst. The intrepid investigative journalist Steven Emerson knew this years earlier, as a result of his own inquiries. In American Jihad, a short but informative book, Emerson shows who the terrorists are, and how they operate.

On Christmas Day in 1992, as a staff reporter for CNN, Emerson was in Oklahoma City working on a story having nothing to do with terrorism. Looking for a place to eat, he passed a large group of men in Middle Eastern garb who were standing outside the city’s convention center. Wandering inside, Emerson found vendors hawking books urging jihad and calling for the destruction of Christians and other infidels. A meeting of the Muslim Arab Youth Association was under way. Emerson made his way unobtrusively into the main hall where he listened to a series of unexpurgated calls for killing Jews and annihilating the West.

What amazed Emerson, as he recounts here, was that he was hearing all of this not in the Middle East but in middle America. The FBI, he subsequently learned from his sources in the agency, had not known about the gathering. Nor would it have conducted an investigation if it had known, since its mandate was to probe “criminal activity and not simply hateful rhetoric.” Two months later, when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred, Emerson wondered whether what he had seen in Oklahoma City might somehow be connected to the attack.

To find out, he left CNN and, arranging with PBS to produce a documentary on radical Islam and domestic terrorism, started an investigative project that he still heads. “We discovered,” he writes, that “international terrorist organizations of all sorts had set up shop here in America. They often took advantage of religious, civic, or charitable organizations”—fooling the public, police, and “naive leaders of religious or educational institutions” who sponsored such groups in the name of “multiculturalism” or “diversity.”

PBS broadcast Emerson’s Jihad in America on November 21, 1994. The documentary won several awards, but not before it had been assailed as biased and even “racist” by American Muslim organizations and some mainstream U.S. newspapers. Emerson himself became a target of verbal abuse at meetings similar to the one he had beheld in Oklahoma City. He tells of attending one Muslim convention where a speaker shouted, “Steven Emerson is the enemy of Islam! Are we going to let Steven Emerson tell us what to do?” “No,” the crowd roared. “I sat there sweating,” writes Emerson. “Thankfully, I had altered my appearance . . . [and] no one noticed me.” Not long afterward, he was alerted by the FBI that a foreign Muslim group was plotting to kill him.

American Jihad zeroes in mainly on three international terrorist groups whose tentacles began to reach into the United States at least as early as the 1980′s. These are Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al Qaeda—the very same organizations singled out by President Bush in his State of the Union address this January and the last-named of which was responsible for the devastation of September 11. What Emerson shows is how they have operated on American soil: how they have recruited freely, focusing especially on persons bearing U.S. passports; how they have raised money; and how they have built clandestine networks in the service of planning mayhem and spilling blood.

Fundraising in the United States has been facilitated by the use of seemingly above-board organizations making seemingly above-board pitches—to help needy children, for example—the money from which has then been diverted elsewhere. A case in point is the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development based in Richardson, Texas, whose assets were frozen by the Treasury Department this past December after the FBI concluded that its funds had been used to support Hamas activities in the Middle East.

Raising money is not the only purpose served by establishing “charitable” fronts. “By far the most important tactic” employed by terrorist groups, writes Emerson, has been the use of nonprofit and religious organizations to create “a zone of legitimacy” within which planning for illegal action can occur. Until recently, the FBI has been unable to penetrate this zone, “barred,” as the Washington Post has reported, “even from collecting news clippings on such groups, unless they could show a crime had been committed.” Under these circumstances, Emerson’s own research has proved an invaluable resource. In the aftermath of September 11, his assiduously amassed files have been in great demand by law-enforcement officials and congressional investigators alike.

American Jihad is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the terrorist threat to America. Concentrating mostly on Islamist radicals, Emerson has little to say about other terrorist operatives working against us, including those in the employ of secular Arab regimes like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Nor does he take up the complex question of how best to prevent terrorism and disrupt and finally destroy the groups responsible for it. Still, American Jihad is a valuable primer on the threat within our borders—and one that is both accurate and fair.

It is important to emphasize this last point because, ever since his 1994 documentary, Emerson has been the object of a denunciatory campaign as an anti-Muslim bigot and worse. In American Jihad, Emerson emphasizes that the problem he has identified is “confined to a relatively small slice of all American Muslims.” But neither does he shrink from insisting that “mainstream” Muslim organizations take responsibility for what happens at their conferences and is issued in their name. It was, after all, Abdelrahaman Alamoudi, a founding member of the American Muslim Council, who at a demonstration in 2000 opposite the White House declared: “Hear that, Bill Clinton: we are all supporters of Hamas. Allahu akhbar. I wish to add that I am also a supporter of Hizbullah.”

Groups that put incendiary speakers at their microphones or that permit themselves to be used by radicals bent on jihad, should be exempt neither from criticism nor from the scrutiny of the law. But the sad fact is that, for far too long, groups preaching hatred and violence have indeed escaped scrutiny. If Emerson’s warnings had been heeded when he first issued them, our country might not be in the difficult straits in which it finds itself today.

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