Steven Emerson's "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" provides an acutely important service. The author lines up only the most verifiable facts in a concise and surprisingly readable text that relates how Islamic terrorists take advantage of our open society to plan, fund and execute their operations.
But if the book is to be considered a comprehensive investigation of a network of terrorist funding, then it shows us how little is known. Emerson has waded through a maze of similar names of men and organizations as no one else has and made his case in the simplest of terms. His text provides the framework for future researchers who will delve into this previously unexplored domain.
Emerson sets out the sparse facts to speak for themselves. Evidence is there, but it is not even the proverbial tip of the iceberg. So far, it is merely a few ice crystals floating to the
Emerson is a journalist who runs a private research organization from behind an unmarked door in an office building in Washington, D.C. The few visitors are asked by his staff to be blindfolded before being driven to the building and taken up the back stairs.
The cause for concern is evident. Emerson's is one of the few voices on terrorism not encumbered by political or bureaucratic restraints. The result is, simply, that a lot of dangerous people would like to be rid of him. He has been threatened, scoffed at and
discounted, but his message took on new meaning after Sept. 11, and he was in a unique position for this detailed update.
During the last decade, Emerson, a former CNN reporter, has observed and reported on the structure of a campaign of violence he has labelled the American Jihad. As a seeker of facts to persuade doubters, his goal has often been a cache of tell-tale documents, but he has been willing to go a step further and make trick phone calls or infiltrate a crowd listening to a hate talk.
In his book, Emerson tells how the FBI is rendered toothless by internal restrictions and of the refuge that terrorists take behind laws meant to protect religious, civil rights and charitable causes. Most uniquely, he has documented from city to city that hate groups have openly operated and raised money for acts of death and destruction, and that others will publicly decry the acts and privately support them.
The account is strong because names are named and no space is wasted on excessive speculation or opinion.
Emerson's weakness is that he is an outsider. This is not the work of an author with some family background or years of experience in the culture he is writing about. He may have meticulously observed what few have seen, but he has not lived among the people he investigates and has no interesting cultural insights to share. His book is pretty much a checklist.
His account is gleaned from public records that resulted from government investigations following acts of destruction such as the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, or the seizure of arms or weapons. He has been primarily following government investigators
and news accounts rather than jihad operatives.
He offers no new or important revelation that will cause a flutter in FBI offices, but he fulfills a need to have relevant information well-organized between book covers.
Emerson is best at straightforward explanations of often- reported accounts, such as tracing the origins of Osama bin Laden's power, his early successes and failures. He puts in perspective bin Laden's 1996 "Ladenese Epistle" as a 60-page declaration of war
against the United States. He examines bin Laden's subsequent efforts to recruit an Islamic following in America and his escalating attacks on Americans.
Emerson writes that he learned "when operations in one place are shut down, the rest of the network soldiers on, virtually unaffected. Even if bin Laden himself were to be killed, this Islamist network would survive and in all likelihood continue to expand, sustained by its ideological adhesion." The most rewarding storytelling comes in an early chapter about Emerson's visit to Pakistan. From that narrative the reader gets some perspective on the genesis of the jihad against America. Emerson is told:
"The Islamic teaching about jihad says that it is to clear the way for those calling to God's religion. Wherever the missionaries of Islam are fought against, it becomes necessary for the Muslim power to protect them." Emerson summarizes:
"America and the West were the new arrivals on the target list, as legitimate a target as Israel or the secular regimes of the Muslim world. Jihad would follow wherever the warriors went."
But the narrative does not take us on the trail of the men and money behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, it skips to America and turns its probe to the funding of Hamas and other organizations named by federal investigators as terrorist groups.
Emerson sets out the differences between the Palestinian- centered Hamas and bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, and readers should know that much of the material in the book is about the former rather than the latter. Some of the connections Emerson makes
between local organizations and either Hamas or Al Qaeda seem a bit disjointed. Even when there is an overt act of terror by some group, we do not get much continuity: Young men are trained to make bombs, but we are not told if they specifically did any damage. Money is raised for armaments, but who got them and to what direct purpose is never made clear. In detailing nine organizations he loosely links to Hamas, Emerson explains:
"It would be unfair to say these groups are engaged in actual terrorism. But the monies they raise support an entire spectrum of services and activities that support the agenda of radical Islamic ideology." Emerson notes that any money raised by charitable groups
goes to widows and orphans of "martyrs" and cites a State Department official's comment that, " 'Every dollar that is raised to buy milk frees up money that can be poured into terrorist activities.' "
But upon taking the reader on a tour of mosques, schools, training camps and hotel meeting rooms, the fact-digging stops at what people said or did. Little meaningful background research seems to have been done. Consequently, the "why" of journalism is missing.
Emerson reveals none of the internal power strife or personality conflicts in the society that supports an American jihad. There is no hint of the relative size of factions with different agendas, or of the standing or influence in the community of particular mosques
to which he traces jihad purposes. The reader gets no feeling for the motives of the people who raise money for an organization that has been identified as a supporter of violence.
"American Jihad" contains no rebuttals. If Emerson has misconstrued the facts or arranged them to suit preconceived ideas, the other side will have to tell its story on some other platform.