In 1995, Steven Emerson got into a Washington taxi and noticed on the seat an Arabic-language newspaper bearing his picture with a bull's-eye superimposed on it. Shortly thereafter, with death threats from Islamic militants multiplying, Emerson went underground. He changed apartments, varied his routes and stayed away from windows.
This is a routine he continues to this day, although since Sept. 11 he has sharply increased his profile. It is rare to turn on a cable news program devoted to Islamic extremism without being confronted with Emerson. After a decade of relative obscurity, he now enjoys the status of a prophet no longer without honor. Since the early 1990's, Emerson, who began as a newsmagazine and television reporter and now runs an independent research project on militant Islamic activities, has been asserting that Muslim extremists are a growing danger to Americans. They are a collection of loosely linked, well-rooted groups coordinating and flourishing in places like Oklahoma City, Tampa and Brooklyn. He has warned that if we fail to intervene in this abuse of American freedoms, the groups will carry out brutal attacks against us.
In a 1993 Op-Ed page article in The New York Times, for example, Emerson complained that the World Trade Center bombing earlier that year had been wrongly dismissed by the F.B.I. as the work of local amateurs without links to external groups. Instead, he wrote, the bombing "is evidence of a more frightening development: Hundreds of radical operatives live in the U.S., making up a possible loose terrorist network that includes highly trained Islamic mercenaries." This was the message of a documentary Emerson produced called "Jihad in America," which was broadcast on PBS in late 1994. Now comes "American Jihad," a book that tells how he stumbled on militant Islam in America, saw things that others refused to see and was vilified for it.
In truth, it is hard even now to know exactly what to make of Emerson's contentions. He was certainly right that the first World Trade Center bombing was not the work of a few freelancers, and he was also right that there has been greater coordination between militant groups than was long officially acknowledged. But he has not yet been vindicated in his larger claims. The Sept. 11 attacks were the work of foreign-based terrorists, and there is hardly any evidence of links between the September hijackers and the Islamic charities and centers in this country that Emerson believes are terrorist fronts. Nonetheless, there is no longer any question that his concerns and data deserve serious attention. The government's decision to place some of the groups he identifies on lists whose assets are to be frozen is evidence of newfound respect.
Emerson was never exactly lonely -- conservatives and some Jewish organizations took him quite seriously. But many others dismissed him as an obsessive crusader. This was especially true after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which he initially suggested was the likely work of Muslim radicals. Islamic groups, activists of the left and some journalists derisively dismissed him, labeling him a bigot and a tool of the Jewish right. "American Jihad" brings together his research, predictions and accusations, those that have been shown to be essentially true and those about which the jury is still out. It is no masterpiece of prose but it gets the job done. It even offers, on occasion, real insights.
For example, Emerson recounts how a year ago he took part in a government seminar in Washington that focused on worst-case terrorist scenarios. One participant put forward the possibility of a Chinese nuclear attack, and many thought this likely. Emerson said he expected a low-level attack by Islamic militants. Few supported him. He gloomily sent an e-mail message to a friend saying, "There is an underlying assumption that we are such good people that nobody would ever want to attack us here." He was right. He also tells us about his early focus on the "Afghan Arabs," the mostly Middle East fighters who helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and then searched for the next goal of their jihad.
We also learn about how he believes Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, has raised money in the United States. Using groups like the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, he says, Hamas has held conventions and fund-raising drives that make no distinction between charity for schools and clinics in the Gaza Strip and money to "carry out operations to escalate the intifada on behalf of the Hamas movement." This, Emerson says, very likely included arms purchases and suicide bombings. By gathering the videos and newspapers of the groups and recording speeches at their conventions, Emerson makes a pretty convincing case that they have been promoting a vicious anti-Israel agenda and raising money for groups that engage in terrorism. His footnoted accounts tell of videos showing terrorists boasting of their killings plus interrogations of "collaborators" just before their executions at the hands of Palestinians. He quotes what he heard at the meetings, lines like "Jews are the enemies of humanity even before they are the enemies of Muslims, therefore it is necessary to remove them from power." In December, the assets of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development were frozen by presidential order.
Emerson also seeks to show that an engineering professor at the University of South Florida near Tampa used a research group and a nonprofit organization as a base for the American leadership of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a sister organization to Hamas. Again, Emerson cites some troubling evidence -- speeches, letters, visiting professors who later engaged in terrorism against Israel. Sami al-Arian, the professor in question, is fighting dismissal from the university in what has become a celebrated case. Oddly, the university has not publicly focused on Emerson's accusations, only on its contention that al-Arian's presence has "disrupted" the campus. Based on the evidence in this book, al-Arian owes an explanation. Emerson cites one videotape in which he says al-Arian refers to Jews as "monkeys and pigs."
But other evidence requires an explanation from Emerson. In October 2000 an immigration judge issued a 56-page report concluding that there was no evidence that either al-Arian's research group, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, known by the acronym WISE, or his nonprofit group, the Islamic Concern Project, was a front for terrorists. Moreover, in seeking to show that the two groups were essentially identical organizations, Emerson refers to the matchup in leadership between them. He states, for example, that Khalil Shikaki was an executive member of both and adds, "Shikaki, one of the first directors of WISE, was also the brother of Fathi Shikaki, secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."
This is unfair. Khalil Shikaki is indeed the brother of the founder of Islamic Jihad and did spend a year as a fellow at WISE, although he says he was never a director and never had anything to do with the Islamic Concern Project. One might view this as merely a dispute between interested parties except that Shikaki is one of the most widely respected independent scholars of Palestinian politics today. A frequent guest of Israeli universities and moderate pro-Israel groups in the United States, he is quoted often by the Israeli news media and has never shown the slightest inclination toward Islamic militancy. To suggest that his being the brother of Fathi tells you where his loyalties lie is so misleading as to raise questions about Emerson's general reliability. There are other, small errors in the book -- like describing the site of a 1995 attack in Riyadh as a barracks when it was a training center and asserting that Hamas calls its military wing the Abdullah Azzam Brigades when it is the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. The chapter called "A Brief History of Islamic Fundamentalism" is scattered and uninformative.
Emerson may not be a scholar, and he may sometimes connect unrelated dots. He may also occasionally be quite wrong. But he is an investigator who has performed a genuine service by focusing on radical Islamic groups in this country. His information should be taken seriously -- just not at face value.
Ethan Bronner is assistant editorial page editor of The Times.