JCT: You've been doing terrorism research for 12 years now. What drives you to work the hours you do?
Emerson: Look, I'll be honest with you, I would rather not be eating at midnight over my keyboard. But when I think about other things that I could be doing, and for a lot more money, there is nothing that compares with the satisfaction that this job brings. Yes, there is also the instinctive thrill of the chase-for example, uncovering hidden terrorist assets and secret terrorist connections-- that still energizes me from the days that I used to be an investigative reporter.
I have met dozens of families who have lost their children in terrorist attacks for whom life will always be a function of grieving. They need a voice and, for them, I can play some small role. I am grateful for the opportunity.
I also draw inspiration from the incredible dedication of government officials who don't get public recognition for their hard work. FBI agents, Justice Department prosecutors, local police, and Treasury analysts are some of the faceless members of the government who understand what this war is all about.
JCT: And what would you say this war is all about?
Emerson: Well, it is not just a war on terrorism. That's like saying World War II was a war against submarines. There is a particular enemy who seeks to kill Americans and westerners and impose its theological totalitarianism on countries with Muslim populations. That enemy is militant Islamic fundamentalism. It is rooted in theological doctrine-and the West makes a big mistake claiming that radicals have "hijacked" a religion or that they have perverted the meaning of "jihad." While genuine moderates certainly exist, and while jihad can mean spiritual struggle to some, the stark reality is that jihadists have been in control of Muslim hierarchies and religious institutions throughout the Muslim world, and for that matter, many Muslim institutions in the West.
When we sanitize the concept of jihad, or when we simply call the war we are fighting a "war on terrorism" instead of calling it a war on Islamic extremism, we are only playing into the hands of the savvy Islamic fundamentalist apologists by essentially rendering the attacks by radical Islam to be devoid of a motive. There is clearly a religious motive behind the suicide bombings in Israel, the bombings on the London and Madrid transport systems and Bali clubs, and the attacks of 9-11. That motive is the belief by some that their version of Islam can be imposed or that they are entitled to attack their "enemies" who block their imposition of Islam. It is that totalitarianism that empowers Islamic terrorists to carry out their attacks.
JCT: So is it a war against Islamic terrorism or a war against radical Islam?
Emerson: It is both. We need to be fighting those would kill us, but we also need to be fighting the parental ideology and leadership that sanction these attacks. Islamic terrorists are subsumed under the larger body of radical Islamic religious and political leaders, who not only provide the justification for attacks, but who also provide the religious rationale for rules that subjugate women to second class status, for honor crimes in which young women are executed by their brothers and fathers, for the rights of husbands to beat their wives, and for throwing acid in the faces of secularized Muslim women if they do not cover-i.e., wear a hijab-as has happened in Gaza and Algeria. Additionally, Christians in the Muslim world are routinely persecuted.
Frankly, focusing on the Islamic terrorists who are targeting us is the easiest part of explaining what the war is about. No, not easy in terms of actual fighting, but it is easy in terms of understanding who the enemy is. It is more difficult to understand that we are fighting the larger force of Islamic fundamentalism, of which Islamic terrorism is but one tool. Aside from the treatment of women, there is the unremitting virulent hatred expressed towards Christians, Jews and Hindus in many Islamic text books, in many mosque sermons, on the airwaves, and on the internet - to "educate" both children and adults. And perhaps most difficult to understand in an open pluralist society are the related assiduous efforts made by Islamic fundamentalists in the West who insinuate themselves into positions of authority, intimidate us into accepting their version of reality and who advance an unspoken agenda that has totalitarian goals - all to acquire political influence.
These actions are exactly from the playbook of the Muslim Brotherhood. We in the West are supremely naive in accepting their sincerity.
JCT: What is their agenda?
Emerson: Ultimately, it's about conquering the West and imposing their interpretation of Islam. Oh, I am not worried that the US is going to become part of a Caliphate. But I am worried that we are being intimidated, by either implicit threats of violence or by false charges of racism, into compromising our beliefs and values. Nowhere was this more evident than in the confrontation over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The West gave in to the fear of violent bullying and thereby engaged in self-censorship. Muslim groups phrased the argument in terms of religious disrespect for Islam: in other words, they wanted to suppress publication of material they considered blasphemous. And we obliged them.
Aside from the sheer hypocrisy shown by many in the Muslim world with their unremitting daily demonstrations of hatred toward other religions in their media and culture, since when did "blasphemy" become part of American jurisprudence? With only a few notable exceptions, many of the beacons of freedom of thought, who pride themselves in the freedom of the press' right to disclose national security secrets, acquiesced to the demands of the Muslim world.
The editors at the Washington Post and New York Times performed rhetorical acrobatics in trying to explain why they would not publish the cartoons. And yet it came down to pure raw intimidation. Journalists, too, have to suffer the false branding of somehow being 'anti-Islam' when legitimately reporting on Islamist extremism. Ironically, it is the extremists who are making that connection! When you add the deception perpetrated nearly every day by radical Islamic groups falsely pretending to be victimized, often with the witting and unwitting connivance of some members of the media and government, you start to see another facet of this war-and it is this facet that we are losing.
JCT: Can you give examples of deception?
Emerson: I think the American public would be absolutely shocked to see how some within the FBI, DHS, State Department, the Bureau of Prisons and numerous other governmental agencies have kowtowed to officials of radical Islamist groups who purport to be moderate. Many of the leaders of these groups claim to speak on behalf of most Muslim Americans, while they attempt to close down other voices within the Muslim community.
The "dialoguing" that goes on - with group leaders who demand to be the only representatives of the Muslim community with whom the government should meet -- has real consequences: There is in fact a cost to our long term security --because ultimately, the answer to the threat of militant Islam is to encourage an Islamic reformation. That means empowering genuine moderates, not the ones who ostentatiously issue "fatwas," (with no content), against terrorism as was done last summer, yet attack every prosecution of Islamic terrorists as part of a sinister war against Islam. How can one be against terrorism yet champion Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah, Lashkar-e-Taibah and others? Rather than call these groups on their hypocrisy, some within the FBI and State Department-and I don't mean all members of those institutions-have often legitimized, and sometimes even given grants to groups such as CAIR, MPAC and ISNA-all of whom are ideological derivatives of the Muslim Brotherhood - to provide "sensitivity training" to government agents.
The agencies even have used these groups' conferences as sites for recruiting new agents. This legitimization goes far beyond our own borders. Does the State Department's Karen Hughes honestly believe that promoting the leaders and members of ISNA and the Muslim Student Association as the poster models of American Muslims will make the Muslim world respect us, or cause these groups to stop championing Islamic terrorist movements or cease portraying the war on terrorism as a war against Islam?
The State Department has continued to give visas to radical Islamic extremists to visit this country. And under the banner of outreach, State has arranged for officials of radical Islamic groups to represent the US abroad. Moreover, US embassies abroad have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions of hard-earned tax payer money, on conferences in which radical Islamic groups and leaders from the US have been feted abroad. In one case we just discovered, the Embassy in Pakistan gave a grant of $22,000 to Islamic fundamentalist groups to produce a 10 part CD series that promotes wearing of the hijab and spawns conspiracy theories about the "war against Islam."
JCT: Who is watching over these practices?
Emerson: That's the problem. No one is. If federal agencies are prepared to spend millions of dollars on outreach program that empowers front groups to the exclusion of actual moderates, who is going to stop this? Fortunately, one FBI program was nixed at the last moment, but these shenanigans go on routinely throughout the government at the federal, state and local level. The height of this deception occurred with American Muslim leader Abdurahman Alamoudi, who in the 1990's was invited routinely to the White House, sent abroad by the State Department, lauded at the CIA, and feted at the FBI. He pretended to be moderate, a pretension accepted at face value by nearly every wing of the US government.
Alamoudi succeeded in insinuating himself into the highest reaches of the US government-just look at the numerous pictures of him with the President Bill Clinton and Vice President Gore. He had been routinely portrayed as a moderate by some in the mainstream media. But it was patently clear from scrutinizing his organization-the American Muslim Council-that he was a supporter of terrorist groups; he vehemently expressed such support in a public speech in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.
I wrote two articles in the Wall Street Journal in 1996 warning that the administration was essentially inviting Hamas to the White House. But the articles fell on deaf ears -- until 2003, when Alamoudi was arrested (at Heathrow airport with $340,000 in a briefcase). He ultimately pleaded guilty to illegal financial dealings overseas and participating in a plot to assassinate the leader of Saudi Arabia with the connivance of two Al Qaeda supporters in London. This deception is not limited to just one administration, or to just Democrats. The former Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader based in Tampa, Sami Al-Arian, and family were photographed with, then-candidate, President George W. Bush in Florida.
JCT: How can we guard against such deception?
Emerson: Well, that's one of the primary reasons I created the Investigative Project on Terrorism to insure accountability, to chronicle the activities of radical Islamist groups and their enablers and to document the ulterior motives of these groups by collecting open source material. We also are able to contact members of Congress who have oversight over agencies that are engaged in legitimizing the radicals. Unfortunately within the law enforcement and intelligence communities, there is still a residual bias against open source intelligence. Something stamped 'Secret' is always going to be more sexy. But the reality is that open source intelligence can be just as important. Increasingly however, institutions are now beginning to understand the role of open source intelligence.
But to your larger question about insuring that we do not fall for the deception, the problem is that we live in a 'Kumbaya' society -- we can all get along if we simply hold hands and roast marshmallows. The extent to which the government officials--essentially the gatekeeper for the agencies in government-- have fallen for this chicanery is mind-boggling. Law enforcement officials have actually attended fundraisers for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group created by Hamas front organizations and whose officials have defended Islamic terrorist groups. The FBI has embraced the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), whose leaders have defended Hezbollah and other Islamic terrorist movements and leaders. So naturally, the Department of Homeland Security has done the same thing. You know that one of the most effective defense strategies by accused Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian was playing up the fact that he had been invited to the White House four times: How could a terrorist have been invited to the White House? He must be innocent, it was argued by his defense. By embracing these ersatz moderate groups, we are making a major mistake in that we are empowering the radicals at the expense of the genuine moderates. And we are legitimizing groups that, were it not for their campaigns of intimidation against critics by labeling them anti-Muslim, would be seen for exactly who they are: Corollaries of David Duke. Law enforcement would never attend a David Duke fundraiser. So why do they attend CAIR fundraisers? The point I am trying to make is that if we see the battle only in terms of preventing a physical attack on America soil, i.e. focusing on actual terrorists, but not the terrorist ideology, we will lose.
JCT: Five years after 9-11, why do you think we have not been hit, and what do you foresee is coming down the line?
Emerson: A series of factors have probably contributed to the failure of terrorist groups to carry out operations here in the US. Number one has been the aggressive intelligence gathering and prosecution by law enforcement, in particular the FBI, which has undergone a revolution since 9-11. I might add parenthetically that despite the FBI's seemingly contradictory outreach program towards fundamentalist groups, they have done a phenomenal job of investigating terrorists -those who would carry out violence. The second factor has been the unrelenting pressure by the Department of Justice on individuals here in the US. The Virginia Jihad case is a great example of the US making very clear that the recruiting, training or planning for terrorist activity abroad is simply not going to be tolerated in this country. The third factor has been the pressure exerted on terrorist financiers and groups by the Treasury Department. The fourth factor has been the external pressure put on Al Qaeda by the CIA and DOD overseas; Al Qaeda is just a shell of its old corporate self, having lost much of its executive talent to the US 'early retirement program.' And with all that, Al Qaeda will try to reconstitute itself and rebuild itself to the extent that it can, no matter how long it will take. But as the recent Miami, Toronto, London and Australian cases demonstrate, we now have the additional phenomenon of home-grown terrorists. And they are much more likely to strike here in the US sooner than later. Given that they are largely self-compartmentalized, self-directed, and self-financed, they do not need an Al Qaeda mastermind to carry out their operations.
In the past 18 months alone, we have witnessed four dangerous cases in the US: one hatched in California's Folsom Prison where inmates were plotting the destruction of synagogues, military installations and a National Guard facility; the second case revolved around a group of men in Toledo, Ohio plotting attacks on American forces overseas. The third involved the young Muslim in Brooklyn who plotted to bomb the New York City subway stations. And the last case is the group of Miami-based radicals who swore an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden and wanted to create an Islamic Army here in the US and blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and several FBI offices, and free Muslim inmates from a Chicago prison.
JCT: What motivates these homegrown jihadists?
Emerson: The electronic global jihad has arrived. Anyone with an internet connection can plot jihad at a Starbucks. There are other factors at play here as well. We have read repeatedly over the alienation of young Muslims in Europe who have not been integrated socially to some extent because of the separatist philosophy of their culture but also to blame are some of these countries who have been complicit in keeping them on the fringes of society-- and thus provide ripe candidates for radicalization. While the US does not have the same degree of Islamic underclass here, there is a widespread alienation in the Islamic community that is self-induced and self-perpetuated: some mainstream Islamic 'civil rights' groups barrage their followers with the message that their rights are being taken away and that there is a war against Islam. These groups' leaders indoctrinate their followers with paranoid views of the US, not dissimilar to the views expressed by Osama bin Laden in his rants of how the US has become an enemy of Islam. Add to this mixture the easy access of jihadi websites and militant Islamic publications that are widely available, the end result are increasing numbers of radicalized Muslims who hate this country. Of course, this does not mean that all Muslims hate the US, but in the absence of reliable polling data, the circumstantial evidence points to numbers that are dangerous.
By the way, the distinction we now make is quite revealing. It was not long ago when the term, 'homegrown' terrorists, referred to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Timothy McVeigh-types. Nowadays, we use the term for indigenous Islamist militants not tethered to any external foreign source of support. 'Homegrown' is still a misnomer because the factors influencing these local jihadists is still an external ideology, but it has become embedded into American culture through, often foreign-funded, Islamist schools that incorporate Wahabi textbooks and curricula, the internet, and some US-based clerics who preach jihad.
JCT: Then why do we not see more homegrown plots?
Emerson: There are essentially two types of jihadists. The hard-core military jihadists who are prepared to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States. They have already been indoctrinated. All they await is a charismatic leader or the external order that gives them a green light. Secondly, there is the far greater number of what I call 'cultural jihadists.' The cultural jihadists are not willing to carry out attacks themselves, but rather, they provide the moral support for the military jihadists. The Pew poll of Muslim public opinion recently showed that only 17% of British Muslims felt that Arabs were responsible for the 9-11 attacks. Its not a matter of rocket science to intuit who they think is responsible the US and Israel. And earlier this year, in the trial of the would-be NYC Herald Square bomber, an undercover informant for the NYPD recounted an astonishing observation. He said that as he made his rounds among two different mosques, he encountered a virulent hatred for the United States. This does not mean that all mosque members hate the United States--I know of mosques and Islamic leaders who genuinely foreswear violence--but it does tell us that there is a problem that has been brewing here for a long time. For example, I can show you a tape of a Hamas rally held in New Jersey in 1993. There are thousands of people in attendance, women, children and men all chanting slogans such as "We buy paradise with the blood of the Jews." Do I think that all of them are terrorists? Of course not. But they are cultural jihadists.
Various Islamic conventions held over the past 12 years have distributed virulent jihadist publications and the constant refrain of many of the speakers at these conferences is that there is a war against Islam, that Muslims are unfairly stereotyped and profiled, that there is an orchestrated campaign of hatred against Muslims, and that the negative image the Islam suffers from derives from the malevolent product of the media and folks like myself, etc. You will not hear an iota of self-responsibility from the leadership of these groups for Islam's 'image problems' - - rather, these officials constantly portray Muslims and Islam as victims. No acknowledgement of the Islamic extremism and violence that emanates from established Muslim institutions, mosques, publications, websites and sermons. Instead, all we hear from Islamic leaders is the mantra that Islam condemns terrorism.
JCT: Why have these so-called mainstream Islamic groups not taken responsibility?
Emerson: Because these self-appointed spokesmen of the U.S. Muslim community are actually extensions of Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood movements that do not see any distinction between moderate Islam and extremist Islam. To them, there is only one Islam and it is fundamentalist. The ultimate aim of the Salafists and Brotherhood types is to impose Islamic sovereignty and the Sharia through the Muslim world and for some, throughout the non-Muslim world, i.e. religious hegemony.
The groups operating in the United States, with few exceptions, replicate the same spectrum of Islamist groups operating in the Middle East. I know what you'll ask me, "Don't these groups say they are civil rights organizations protecting the rights of Muslims in the US?" Yes, that is exactly what they say. And no doubt they do take up some legitimate cases of bias against Muslims. But they do it to acquire legitimacy in the US in order to promote an Islamist agenda. And that includes neutralizing the counter-terrorist laws, removing terrorist designations from Hamas and other terrorist organizations, excising from school textbooks and curricula references to Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, intimidating Hollywood to refrain from producing any films with Islamic terrorists as antagonists, to try to prevent public discourse about Islamic extremism, discrediting genuine Islamic moderates and secularists, and ultimately making this country a Muslim country under Shariah law. This goal was explicitly stated by a leader of CAIR and by Abdurahman Alamoudi.
JCT: Are any of these groups preaching jihad?
Emerson: Some, no. Others have had leaders who, behind closed doors, preach that jihad is in some cases not only permissible, but obligatory. You can hear sentiment against carrying out attacks in the United States, not because it is immoral but because it is counter- productive. I am reminded of the famous speech of former American Muslim Council leader Abdulraham Alamoudi made in Chicago before a Hamas convention in 1996. He told the crowd that even if they wanted to see America destroyed, violence should not be carried out in the US and that ultimately the US would become a Muslim country thru dawah [education]. However, he added, that if one wanted to attack the US outside its borders, then that would be fine. A few years later he stated that if an attack were to take place against US interests, he would prefer it to be a Zionist target in the United States.
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood groups do not want to see attacks occur here partly because it sets back their efforts to acquire political influence. Still, at the same time, the groups are caught up in a contradiction, since they constantly reinforce the message that there is a war against Islam practiced by the United States. This Islamist paranoia is what feeds terrorism and legitimates jihad as self-defense. It is quite significant that none of the major Islamic groups have ever endorsed or applauded the government in any of the numerous counterterrorism actions taken, such as terrorist deportations, convictions and asset forfeitures. The response of CAIR, MPAC, ISNA and others has been to attack the government for nearly every counterterrorism program, from the enforcement of immigration law, to the freezing of funds of terror supporters. This proves that the famous fatwa against terrorism that CAIR and other groups ceremoniously announced last summer was an illusion designed to foster the false image that these groups are against terrorism. At least one of the signatories to the fatwa was an actual unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist case.
JCT: Are we likely to see suicide bombings like Israel has experienced?
Emerson: That's a question that is discussed a lot in law enforcement circles. I don't think we will find ourselves in the situation Israel faces. Israel has to contend with tens of thousands of terrorist attacks and plots per year. The entire Palestinian political and religious infrastructure from Fatah to Hamas sponsors, funds, trains, and protects Palestinian terrorists. Sadly for Israel, it lives in a bad neighborhood and it cannot move. With its small population, Israel has endured the equivalent of twenty-five 9-11's. The United States is a long way from that environment. And yet, the first time a suicide bomber detonates himself in the US it will have tremendous ripple effects in our country.
I think we already have seen the profile of two potential suicide bombers. One was the Egyptian who went to LAX in 2002 and killed two American-Israelis at the El Al ticket counter before he himself was shot and killed by a guard. And most recently, the UNC graduate student who ran his car into as many students as he could because he was avenging the crimes against Islam. Now these individuals fit the profileâ©they were prepared to die-- but did not commit suicide in their acts. I think that as the number of homegrown jihadists continues to grow, it is only a matter of time before a suicide bomber walks into a shopping center or as happened in London, into a mass transit system.
JCT: So are you hopeful or pessimistic?
Emerson: Some days I am hopeful, other times I am pessimistic. But if I were truly a pessimist, I would be moving to southern California and learn how to surf. It is true that we face a determined enemy who has a much longer time frame than congressional re-election cycles. Moreover, a large bloc of my time is spent trying to contain the damage caused by naive public officials who do not see the larger battle we face. The fundamental problem comes down to one word: Deception. That being said, this is going to be a long haul. I don't think we will see an end to this battle in our lifetime. But if we give up, the bad guys win. We don't really have a choice since failure is not an option.
JCT: Thank you for your time.