Shortly after the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired his controversial film on Islamic fundamentalism in America last November, Steven Emerson attended a rally of his worst enemies.
Eight hundred Hamas supporters - some wearing black masks signifying identification with its terrorist Izzadin Kassam branch - assembled in a Chicago high school. The group sponsoring the rally, the Islamic Association for Palestine in North America (IAP), was founded by Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, who was arrested last week by US officials.
During that rally, the group was confident as it condemned Emerson:
"Steven Emerson is the enemy of Islam, and are we going to let Steven Emerson tell us what to do?" the speaker roared.
"No!" The crowd resounded.
Emerson admits he was sweating. He had only slightly altered his appearance - "I've always been scrupulous about not misrepresenting myself," he says - but no one in the crowd noticed the diminutive, redheaded journalist who had just exposed them to millions of Americans.
In Jihad in America, which aired both in the US and locally on Channel 1, Emerson dramatically shows that a small segment of Islamic immigrants to the US is bent on armed struggle against those they consider enemies: Jews, Christians and moderate Moslems. In small towns across America, these extremists have raised funds, distributed propaganda and recruited followers to support a terrorist network in Israel and the US.
They are shielded by laws protecting freedom of speech and religion, which prevent authorities from doing anything about them until after such incidents as the February 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center. There is potential for more terrorist attacks in the US, the film suggested.
The 41-year-old investigative journalist, based in Washington, DC, picked up his fourth Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Jihad in America. But he also became a target of his subjects. It has "forced a change in life-style," admits Emerson, though he dislikes comparisons to Salman Rushdie, the writer who went into hiding after Iran issued a religious edict calling for his murder.
Emerson is far from being in hiding. He recently met with Islamic radicals in Gaza to gather footage for his next two projects.
"I'm not a journalist willing to relegate stuff to an assistant while I sit in some plush office," Emerson explains during an interview at his Tel Aviv hotel last month. "I have to be out there."
"Out there" has been, for most of Emerson's career, the Middle East. In film, four books, and countless articles - including several cover pieces for The New Republic - Emerson has provided readers with the results of his painstaking research, and is considered a leading expert on Middle East terrorism.
He knows a great deal about Marzook, who was arrested Tuesday night by US officials at New York's Kennedy Airport. Emerson says Marzook personifies the link between Islamic radicals in America and Hamas. He was simultaneously a key leader of Moslem militants in the US and the powerful head of Hamas's political committee.
"He is the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) for Hamas who is responsible for all its activities," says Emerson.
Emerson - who jokes that his extensive files on the man make him a "Marzook groupie" - says that there is no doubt Marzook is a top Hamas leader. He says Marzook and his brother-in-law, Ghassin Ashi, started the IAP 14 years ago in Illinois; this group - which later moved to Richardson, Texas, and established branches in more than a dozen cities - was a precursor to Hamas.
The charter for Hamas, established 1988 in Gaza, was penned by Marzook in the US, Emerson says. IAP later regularly sent funds and recruits into the administered territories, he adds. "IAP was the parent to Hamas in the territories."
According to Emerson, the 44-year-old Marzook, born in Rafiah, is a yuppie businessmen, who has had a "green card" for 14 years. He lived with his family first in Falls Church, Virginia, and later in Brooklyn, New York. He has legitimate business operations in the computer and construction fields. These interlock with his Hamas operations.
It is difficult to prove whether Marzook has had a direct hand in specific terrorist activities, Emerson says. But there is no doubt that the US provided him with the freedom to build his organization. Marzook's arrest might change the climate for other terrorist organizations operating out of the US, the journalist maintains.
Arresting Marzook was "a psychological blow to terrorists, showing that it is no more business as usual in the US," he says.
Emerson chose to focus on this region because it's so often misunderstood by journalists. "My specialty is to go into areas others won't touch because they're too dangerous or too much work," says Emerson.
"It's unfair for the American public to be denied the true story or told a story that is blatantly false," he adds. "Unless you have people willing to define, research and investigate areas not being pursued by 99 percent of the media pack, they will stay under the rock. I feel compelled to lift that rock."
When reading the five newspapers he receives daily, Emerson feels a range of intense emotions: anger at an event sloppily covered; sympathy with the victim of a tragedy; relief that some injustice is finally being exposed.
"Ask me about journalism today and I can talk at length about the corruption and incompetence," says Emerson.
"Someone might say, 'But you're in it.' Well I feel someone has to save it. The media today is one of the principal - if not primary - vehicles through which people learn and how history is made. Those recording history, unfortunately, are too often caught up in a narrow spectrum and define the news in a very narrow way as to preclude the reality."
Emerson has an intensity and obsession with minutiae that characterize his profession. After an interview, he loads down a reporter with newspaper clippings, faxes some more, and then telephones several times from Washington, seemingly unconcerned about the phone bill. He is known for meticulously checking details, often exceeding his budget. In his obsession to debunk one famous conspiracy theory, he once spent six months fact-checking a book, demonstrating that it contained more than 200 errors.
This fervor extends to his daily personal regimen. Despite a packed schedule during his trip here, where he is collecting material for the two documentaries and a book, he still found time to work out daily on the stair machine at a local gym. The stair machine supplements his jogging, which he cut down from six miles daily only after two doctors warned it was ruining his body.
Unable to find a stair machine in Peshawar, Pakistan, Emerson jogged around the city, eliciting curious glances from passers-by. Despite all his brutal exercising and a wiry physique, Emerson subsists largely on Diet Coke and meals of tuna fish on iceberg lettuce.
In Washington, a city where people usually climb by avoiding controversy, Emerson has become successful by being independent and taking risks. He is a self-described loner.
"The number of jobs I've gone through is only slightly less than the number of suits I've owned," jokes Emerson. "I don't take well to institutional authority."
One such institution, the Cable News Network (CNN), offered Emerson a three-year contract in 1993 as an investigative correspondent for "more money than I could have imagined," he says. Emerson had been working for CNN during the previous three years as a freelance correspondent. Friends suggested he take the offer, but he refused.
"I wanted to remain independently poor," he says. "I didn't want to answer to another person's news judgment which I didn't respect. I wanted to determine the areas of interest in which I wanted to specialize. I trusted my own news judgment best."
Emerson admits, though, that he couldn't have turned down such an offer if he weren't unmarried with no family obligations.
The key to understanding Emerson's independence, drive and perhaps even bachelorhood, is a family tragedy about which he rarely talks. He has an identical twin brother, 10 minutes younger, who was born brain damaged.
"Growing up with him, he was my equal and my unequal," says Emerson. "He was my albatross and yet I had to protect him. Others would cruelly taunt him and I had to protect him from the taunts, but I was also taunting him myself.
"There's a sense of injustice and burden I carry which comes from living with him," he adds. "He always felt it was unfair he came out 10 minutes later than me. But for the grace of God, I could have came out later. I could have been brain damaged. It has given me a desire to protect someone who is being persecuted and helpless. It also gives me the tenacity to accept the criticism that comes with being controversial. I have had to live with not being liked."
Emerson did not dream of becoming an investigative journalist. He was simply intent on avoiding law school, which his parents hoped he would attend. Writing did not seem like an option. An English teaching assistant at Brown University once ripped up one of his papers and declared Emerson the worst writer in the class. Not surprisingly, Emerson never took another English class. In 1977, he earned a master's in sociology at Brown, writing his graduate paper on industrial modernization and the roots of German National Socialism.
He then headed to Washington, DC, to work on the staff of Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the committee, Emerson trained as an international investigator. He helped shape the US aid package to Israel and Egypt after the 1976 Camp David accords and investigated Saudi oil production.
Emerson used both his investigating skills and Middle East expertise to write his first major article about the sale of AWACS planes by the US to Saudi Arabia for The New Republic. The sale was considered the pro-Israel lobby's biggest defeat in Congress. Emerson later expanded the article into his first book, The American House of Saud, in which he argues that American corporations were lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the Saudis in exchange for lucrative deals.
Saudi money was also behind one of Emerson's major investigative stories, which also ran in The New Republic several years later. He discovered that the 1989 PBS documentary Days of Rage - a one-sided, anti-Israeli look at the intifada - had been secretly funded by the Saudi government. This violated a PBS rule requiring that no party with a vested interest fund a documentary.
Emerson, who was an investigative reporter at US News and World Report from 1985 to 1989, was appalled by the American media's coverage of the intifada. Journalists, he felt, inappropriately tried to liken the intifada to the American civil rights movement, without taking into account the complexities of Middle East history.
In covering the Middle East, "journalists would just follow the pack mentality and apply the same paradigms from US experience," he says, adding that this is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole.
For example, says Emerson, American journalists refused to cover the killing by Palestinians of other Palestinians they termed "collaborators."
"Many members of the American press corps didn't believe it was a legitimate story," says Emerson. "Perhaps they weren't as concerned because it was Arabs killing Arabs, or because it reflected badly on the Palestinians, or because the journalists were naively convinced every Palestinian collaborator killed deserved to be executed."
Although Emerson believes the coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict has become more balanced, the double standard toward Israel still exists. Those prisoners who die in Israeli jails are given far more attention than those who die in Palestinian jails, he asserts.
But he believes the American media reached one of its pinnacles of foolishness with regard to the so-called October Surprise conspiracy.
In April 1991, former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick alleged in a book that during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-80, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made a deal with the Iranians: They would not release the Americans held hostage in the US Embassy until after the 1980 presidential elections. In return, his administration would sell Iran arms.
Emerson, then with CNN, was asked to report on the allegations. But after some investigation he concluded there had been no October Surprise. Sick, Emerson believes, based his conspiracy theory solely on allegations from a group of known "liars" and "con artists."
"I concluded that if anyone rationally looked into this conspiracy it amounted to nothing but zero," says Emerson. "Charlatans and unscrupulous journalists were peddling the story, but because Reagan was involved it was a conspiracy jamboree made to order."
But CNN, Emerson recalls, wasn't interested in his investigation. They wanted a positive story about the October Surprise. Emerson continued investigating and then published his findings in a 10-page story for The New Republic where he systematically and categorically punched holes in the theory.
"I was living and breathing the October Surprise," he says. "It really got my gall that all these journalists accepted it. It was like watching a plane about to crash and saying to others it was going to crash and they said 'so what?' "
Even after he finished the article, Emerson couldn't stop investigating the conspiracy. In what he admits was a futile exercise, he fact-checked the footnotes in Sick's book and noted more than 200 errors. This listing was later handed over to a congressional committee which, after spending $ 5 million and several months on the subject, agreed there was no evidence to support the October Surprise.
In December 1992, CNN sent Emerson to cover the Oklahoma City press conference of Lawrence Walsh, former special prosecutor for the Iran-Contra affair, who was reacting to President George Bush's pardon of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. It was the kind of story Emerson most hates: A pack of journalists, all of whom will report the identical story. Going out for a stroll one night, Emerson saw hundreds of men dressed in Moslem attire heading for the city's convention center.
"I thought they must be extras for a movie and I started looking around for a production trailer," Emerson recalls.
As he entered the center, he saw a bazaar of vendors hawking radical material. There were books calling for the extermination of Jews and Christians and coloring books on "How to Kill the Infidel."
It was a meeting of the Moslem Arab Youth Association, an umbrella group whose members included such Islamic terrorist groups as Hamas. The group didn't want Emerson to attend the meetings, but he was befriended by a convert who arranged for him to sit in his section. From there, he heard various speakers, including a radical from Egypt exhorting the crowd to "destroy the West."
"I thought I was in Beirut," says Emerson. "I was shocked to see this going on in the US."
He later asked an FBI contact if his organization had known about the meeting. It hadn't. Indeed, the FBI once naively sent a speaker to the meeting of a radical group whose publicly available bylaws excoriated the US, according to Emerson. They had apparently thought it was like a Rotary club meeting.
"I have good contacts in the FBI and other intelligence agencies, but I have by and large found consistently in this area that much of my work is ahead of the FBI's investigation," he says.
After the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York, local authorities, admits one official in Jihad in America, seriously blundered in investigating the crime. They thought 47 boxes of papers found in the home of the alleged assailant, Sayyid Nosair, contained irrelevant religious material.
In fact, says Emerson, it was the largest collection of terror-related material ever found in the US. Amid the lists of assassination targets, plans for blowing up airplanes and bomb recipes was a simple spiral notebook with Arabic scrawling. In it was a notation that read: "Our enemies must be killed by destroying and blowing up the towers that constitute the pillars of their civilization, such as the tourist attractions and high buildings they are so proud of."
In 1993, a powerful car bomb shook New York's World Trade Center. Several were arrested in connection with bombings, all with links to a blind Egyptian cleric, Omar Abed Rahman, who had been preaching jihad to his followers in Brooklyn.
Although Emerson had shot some impressive footage about radical Islamic groups in the US for CNN, in the end the network refused to run a segment of his findings.
"They were unwilling to designate Americans as terrorists because they were people who lived among us," says Emerson. "You can only call people terrorists if they live overseas."
Emerson started looking for alternative funding and found it from an unlikely source: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the parent company of PBS and the organization he had strongly criticized over its earlier programming. Additional funding came from the Bradley and Carthage foundations.
Since the footage he had shot earlier belonged to CNN, he had to start from scratch. At CNN, Emerson acquired hands-on experience in putting together a filmed news story. But he had to hire an experienced director for Jihad in America. In his next documentary, he will probably do more of the production himself.
In making Jihad, Emerson found a medium he likes better than writing.
"I like to have written, but I hate to write," admits Emerson. "A documentary is time intensive but the product is more compelling and more satisfying (than a book), and has more of an impact."
Emerson clearly thrived on digging out material for films. He visited Islamic organizations throughout the US and Middle East, never posing as anything but a curious journalist interested in Islam. He boasts that the 150,000 pages of tapes, footage and manuscripts he ultimately collected is the largest archive of radical Islamic material in the US. Among the material shown in the documentary are Middle East terrorists attending conferences in the US and scene after scene of radical leaders calling for jihad.
Emerson had some close calls obtaining the material. Once he was surreptitiously tape-recording a speaker lambasting the US. Hearing his tape flip off, he reached into his coat to turn it over and accidentally pressed the play button. Rock music blared out.
"It made my appearance, which already stood out, even more bizarre," Emerson says. "But nothing happened."
Islamic scholar Khalid Duran, now the editor of new quarterly TranState Islam, about Islamic issues, worked closely with Emerson on Jihad in America. He recalls that Islamic radicals in places like Afghanistan were suspicious of him, a Moslem, while they immediately liked and trusted Emerson.
"They thought he was just a naive and nice American who they could take for a ride," says Duran, speaking by telephone from Washington, DC.
When these groups realized that Emerson had exposed them they became vicious. Although Emerson says several times in his film that most Moslems are peace-loving people, he was charged with being a bigot. A month before Jihad in America aired, an Islamic group with ties to Hamas issued a press release linking arson in two mosques in New York and Maryland with the film. But local investigators concluded that both fires were set by mosque members, says Emerson.
Left-wing publications like The Village Voice and The Nation also joined the attack. A former student coordinator for left-leaning presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, Emerson becomes particularly indignant discussing how he's become a target of the left.
"They don't want to legitimize the notion that militant Islam is a threat to the West, because this puts the West in a superior position culturally and politically," says Emerson. "But the values of the West, like freedom of religion and speech or separation of church and state - are those also espoused by these left-wing journalists."
But Emerson, like many others, erred in initially accusing Islamic radicals of responsibility for the April car-bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. He bolstered his argument by saying that Oklahoma City is one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East.
"The modus operandi of the attack was reminiscent of bombings in Buenos Aires, Algeria and Beirut," says Emerson. "Islamic radical groups had threatened to carry out revenge for the conviction of Ramzi Yousef (a key figure in the World Trade Center bombing)."
When it was revealed that a right-wing American militia group was responsible for the bomb, Emerson, along with the FBI, was attacked by American Moslems for having initially pointed to Islamic militants.
Despite his interest in these other American terrorists, Emerson has no plans to investigate them.
"If no one was covering them I would feel compelled to do so," says Emerson. "But other journalists are doing a good job in this area. These groups speak English and are all based here."
Emerson, incidentally, does not speak Arabic, the language of most of his journalistic subjects, and relies heavily on translators. But he does not see this as a great impediment.
"You shouldn't use the absence of language as an excuse not to cover or to misrepresent what goes on," he says. "That's part of the challenge of being a journalist."
In his next PBS documentary, for which he is currently raising funds, Emerson will focus on the World Trade Center bombing.
Emerson believes another attack in the US by Islamic militants is possible, perhaps as early as this month, when the second group of World Trade Center defendants, including Rahman himself, faces possible conviction.
"The ingredients (for an attack) are all there: The rhetoric of rage against the US government, the mobilization to act and the capability," he says. "What's stopping them is the self-restraint they impose on themselves. If they commit an act of terrorism it would bring too much heat from the law-enforcement community."
Among the stacks of evidence from the World Trade Center investigation submitted in court is a taped telephone conversation between two suspects, members of radical Islamic groups, says Emerson.
One argues in favor of a terrorist attack in the US. You can't be a good Moslem unless you're completely committed to jihad, he says. The other disagrees. Islam will be blamed for such attacks, which are better committed in the Middle East. These two poles, says Emerson, are pulling and tugging the Islamic radical movement in the US.
What can America do? Emerson argues that it is vital to expose the ulterior motives of those Islamic groups that are posing as religious, tax-exempt organizations but are actually fronts for radical groups.
"Let these groups operate, but let there be truth in advertising," says Emerson. "The Council on American-Islamic Relations sounds like a lofty group promoting better US-Islam relations when in fact it's a front for Hamas."
Such disclosures would strengthen the many moderate Moslems who need to know there is an effort to protect them, Emerson maintains.
"Islam is a fast-growing religion with only an extremist fringe involved in radical activities," says Emerson, who is also working on a documentary series on the subject. "But they are disproportionally powerful in several organizations. This intimidates the silent mainstream majority which repudiates violence. These voices aren't heard."
Many Islamic moderates living in the US - people originally from countries such as Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia - approached Emerson after they saw Jihad in America.
"They said, in a poignant, touching way, 'We have no future unless you expose this,' " says Emerson. "They have seen the domination of the Moslem community by radical fringe organizations and they are concerned about their own children. I want to let people know there is a moderate wing that needs to emerge and to whom we should be giving as much protection as possible."
One of those who contacted Emerson was Ahmad Nasr Said, a former Egyptian diplomat who had been closely following the progress of these groups. After seeing Jihad in America, he praised the film in the weekly Egyptian publication Sabah al-Khayr and then contacted Emerson offering to help. The two developed a friendship.
"I have seen other documentaries about this subject, but this is by far the best," said Said, during a phone interview from Washington, DC. "It's not just a lot of people just talking for the sake of talking. It's carefully documented events. The film shows the powers of destruction these groups have and how they abuse the freedom they enjoy in Western countries."
Emerson's relationship with such Moslems as Said and Duran is reshaping a book he has been working on for several years. Begun as an examination of Islamic fundamentalism, the book is now becoming a personal account.
"I've always been a reporter who stayed away from using the word 'I,' " he says. "But such an integral part of the story is how the Moslem community interacted with me as they fought for the soul of Islam in the US today. I'm part of the story whether I want to be or not."