NEW YORK and WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a brisk December morning. Way too early for suburban commuters. The train was slated for a 7:05 a.m. departure from Penn Station, and the Amtrak system seemed to be on time.
The conductor yelled, "All aboard," and ticketing seemed seamlessly easy—as no one checked identification or scanned luggage.
Aboard the Carolinian, we delved into all the notes dredged up through the past weeks of research on the Investigative Project on Terrorism and Steven Emerson, the Project's executive director.
Of these, we devised a series of questions that would be hard-hitting, yet capable of answers in one hour or less.
Emerson's personal secretary, "Kim," arranged the meeting in a one-hour time slot. She seemed like a very cheerful, yet stressed individual from her exclamations in e-mails. Kim also informed us of specific instructions once we reached Washington, D.C.
The three-hour trip went quickly—tiredness must have set in—or the work made it seem effortless.
Either way, we arrived at Union Station on time.
That was the easy part. The hard part: the rendezvous.
In Emerson's book, "American Jihad," he writes that after his documentary, "Jihad in America" aired in the mid-1990s, he became a target of Islamic extremists.
"One night I was taking a cab back to my apartment from Reagan National Airport in Washington. I glanced at the front seat and saw an Arabic-language newspaper," he writes. "On the front page was my picture with a bull's-eye superimposed on it."
He later describes that, as the Project began to build momentum by conducting covert operations, more risks were attached.
Emerson writes that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation briefed him on incoming death threats and that, "…as far as they knew, the assassins had already entered the country."
We knew the risks from the first contact made with Emerson. Meeting him, however, became a completely different ballgame.
In our research, we discovered part of this procedure included wearing blindfolds when escorted to an undisclosed location, also known as "the bat cave."
We both agreed and informed the Project we would follow their rules to conduct a face-to-face interview…
…The first handshake came from the secretary. She fit the exact description of our thoughts.
The next was Emerson.
The five-foot-six redhead certainly was not the man we imagined was connected to the world of Islamic intelligence.
"How was the trip?" he asked.
A bit bumpy when you don't know where you're going was the first thought that came to mind, but a simple, "Not too bad," was a good enough response.
We were escorted to a room where maps plastered the walls and hierarchical graphs of terrorist organizations and their leaders provided the wallpaper.
Emerson was prepped and ready—as were we.
"Has there been a significant increase in domestic terrorism in 2009?"
"There has been a radical increase and spike in domestic terrorist incidents…the greatest number we've seen since Sept. 11. That's because we're seeing the effects of a narrative that has been disseminated by radical Islamic groups via the Internet, via the mosque, via the imam…that ensures there's a war against Islam and that it has to be avenged and the war is being waged by the United States," he said.
"And that narrative is the single-most common narrative in all of the terrorism cases we have seen in terrorists carrying out Jihad—whether it's being carried out against the United States on American soil or whether that's against American allies on foreign soil."
"You've said repeatedly in your books that a vast majority of practicing Muslims are a wonderful, peace-loving people. What does the spike in domestic terror mean for those in their day-to-day lives and their worship?"
He answered the question unreasonably, but with the intent to inform.
"We don't have good empirical data on the real views of the vast majority of Muslims in the United States…There were disturbing figures (from a study by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in 2007 on Muslim Americans and the War on Terror). One is that a third of all young Muslims justified suicide bombings," he said.
Emerson's right. The Pew study states, "…Younger Muslims in the U.S. are much more likely than older Muslim Americans to say that suicide bombing in the defense of Islam can be at least sometimes justified."
The study also notes, however, "…absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world."
"In early December, there became concern over five missing American men who were later found in Pakistan. What is the background on the five men and what was their alleged plan?"
This he answered assuredly.
"The five men were going on Jihad and they were going to join up on a Jihad group one way or another. Either among the Taliban or al-Qaeda and apparently their credentials were not burnished enough that they weren't accepted immediately," he said. "There was a recruiter in the United States…but we don't know what the role was with ICNA—the Islamic Circle of North America—which also was a large feature of their personal lives in…going to the center. So, when ICNA expressed shock that they were going on Jihad…The expression of shock was a little bit disingenuous…So far, ICNA has supported Jihad in the past and is closely identified with Jemaah Islamiya in Pakistan."
The U.S. Department of State lists the Jemaah Islamiya organization as a foreign terrorist group.
Naeem Baig, vice president for public affairs and the executive director for the Council of Social Justice at the Islamic Circle of North America, denied the organization is linked with any foreign group.
"ICNA is an American Muslim organization and we don't have ties with any kind of organization outside the U.S.," he said.
Baig said ICNA did have contact with the five men—Umar Farooq, Waqar Khan, Ahmed Minni, Aman Hassan Yemer and Ramy Zamzam—before they left for Pakistan.
"We won't say we don't know them," said Baig. "These five young men were from the area (Washington, D.C.) and ICNA has a center in that area where they were regular participants in the prayers."
He said they were not members of the organization and did not know if they expressed interest in becoming members.
"You mentioned terrorism has hit home in the United States. Would you classify the Fort Hood shooting under this same category?"
"Fort Hood certainly was an act of terrorism. The fact that the shooter, Major Hasan, expressed the belief that infidels should be killed. The fact that he yelled, 'Allahu Akbar.' The fact he wore the white robes as a martyr and expressed views of a Jihadist. It was an act of Islamic terrorism. I'm rather shocked the DOJ (Department of Justice) has refused to categorize it as an act of terrorism, thereby preventing the PATRIOT Act from applying. That has frustrated prosecutors."
He continued. "The FBI wasn't paying enough attention to his communiqués and e-mail interaction with Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who was tied to the Sept. 11 hijackers. And there were 19 messages going back and forth and they focused on only three of them," he said. "And the reason they were interested is because they were focused on Hasan's research as a psychiatrist, when, in fact, these were questions from a Jihadist seeking out permission to carry out Jihad."
A report obtained by National Public Radio shows that supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center expressed concern over Hasan's behavior and recommended his termination. Read the report here.
Emerson said al-Awlaki was trying to step into the breach for Western-educated Muslims. His English was impeccable and he knew the lingo of Jihad. He has a widespread following and people can buy his sermons on many Muslim-American Web sites, and his calls for Jihad are structured in such a way that he appealed to young Muslims. Since this interview, however, al-Awlaki was allegedly killed in a Yemen airstrike supported by U.S. intelligence, Dec. 24, in the Shabwa province, according to reports.
No sources would comment on who might step up in al-Awlaki's place if he is, in fact, dead. Officials stated on Jan. 1 that Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, the suspect in the Christmas Day bombing attempt on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, had direct contact with al-Awlaki.
And, as for predications on the rise of domestic terrorism in 2010, following Abdulmatallab's attempt, Emerson simply said, "I try not to make predictions in baseball or terrorism."