NEW YORK — It began like any other good news story—an e-mail and a prayer.
It was early December and The Klaxon had recently launched with a meager staff of mixed emergency managers and journalists.
"Googling" became the dominate story-searching method. We would develop ideas that were somewhat lame and often not interesting—the kinds of stories that people shrug off and ask why newspapers would run it front page.
During one search, however, while investigating domestic terror campaigns in the United States, we came across an organization known as the Investigative Project on Terrorism. The Project, headed by a man named Steven Emerson, is a research think-tank that focuses intelligence on "…the operations, funding, activities and front groups of Islamic terrorist and extremist groups in the United States and around the world."
Stories plastered our search with secretive files and thoughts of a swanky, martini-sipping man came to mind more quickly than pulling the trigger of a Walther PPK.
More research revealed, though, that Emerson is a man who has had a target on his back since the release of his documentary, "Jihad in America" in the early 1990s.
Every radical Islamic terrorist organization reportedly wants Emerson and the Project destroyed because of their work, according to those familiar with the organization.
Research even found that visiting Emerson included a blindfold en route to what his employees refer to as "the bat cave."
Nonetheless, every source identified this man as the foundation of domestic intelligence within the shadows of these terrorist groups and whose consultation makes its way to the White House, National Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Justice Department, both sides of Congress and other intelligence agencies.
"In a pioneering congressional testimony delivered in 1998, he (Emerson) specifically warned about the threat of Osama Bin Laden's network," according to Emerson's Web site. "Nearly every one of the terrorist suspects and groups first identified in his 1994 film have been indicted, convicted, or deported since 9-11."
Meeting with Emerson was a long shot—but we sent e-mails to the single contact listed on the site: [email protected]
"I'm working on an article about suicide bombers and the profiles of them—if they even fit one. This is an in-depth look into what motivates suicide bombers, who they target, why they choose certain targets and if they can be prevented … This story is for The Klaxon, a new emergency management and disaster news Web site. The site is www.theklaxon.com … I hope to talk with you soon."
And next, we waited.
The following day was an unusually warm Sunday for December, the kind of mild-tempered day where bicyclists and runners dominate New York's Central Park for one last run before winter covers their tracks.
At 2 p.m., the phone rang. An unlisted number showed on the caller ID and the thought was, "Those damn telemarketers."
"Hello, this is Steve Emerson," a somewhat raspy, but calmed individual said on the other line.
The initial thought was that this voice is not the one that matches photos of a slick, tie-wielding expert.
"Hello, Mr. Emerson. Do you mind if this conversation is recorded?"
He agreed. Questions began, focusing upon the previously e-mailed topic: suicide bombers.
"Is there such a thing as a 'typical' profile for a suicide bomber?" we asked.
"Typical? No," he said assuredly. "It depends geographically and ethnicity. You can talk about a typical profile in Israel. You can talk about a typical profile in Iraq, but you couldn't…there isn't a typical profile of a suicide bomber worldwide. They vary because of the conflict, because of the region, because of the military dynamics, because of the religious divisions in the country."
Emerson became more intently interested as the topic spread to the sects in the Middle East.
"In Iraq, suicide bombers have been targeting each other right now, as opposed to U.S. troops…so, the suicide bombers target military and either Shiites or Sunnis. Same in Pakistan where suicide bombers target the same three (military, Shiites and Sunnis). And in Israel, you have an interethnic suicide problem of Palestinians attacking Israelis because they're Israelis," he continued. "You don't see suicide bombings inside Palestinian society itself. The suicide bombers in Israel tend to be married, educated—gone to college. The stereotype of a typical suicide bomber being a teenager or someone of lower class who never went to school is not borne out to studies done in Israel. This differs from the suicide bombers in Pakistan who tend to be uneducated and much more lower class."
"How are suicide bombers chosen among the group or is it something they volunteer for?" we asked, with intent to delve into an unfamiliar category based solely off Hollywood fiction.
"They can either be selected or they can volunteer," he said with a few pauses. "If they're selected, it's usually after a very intense indoctrination by the imam or the Islamic leader in charge of the mosque. You enter the mosque, you get indoctrinated and then as a second tier in indoctrination, you get people who are considered to be potential suicide bombers."
Next came the sole question on the staff's mind: "With the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trials set for New York, is there any inkling of a plot or the use of suicide bombers likely?"
Emerson seemed very cautious to answer, but did so with a 50/50 split—maybe, maybe not.
"I don't think they have the capability of carrying out such an attack at this point. The FBI has been pretty good at interrupting or infiltrating these types of organizations. Of course, they can't stop individual loners like the Fort Hood shooter or the Little Rock, Ark., shooter…but they were not conspiracies; they were one-man operations," he said. "Could we see some of that in New York? Yes, it's possible that would occur by Jihadists that are inflamed by the trial, or who get carried away with the rhetoric that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed undoubtedly will use his open mic platform and venue to urge terrorist strikes against the United States…I don't think it's likely."
His answer was somewhat of a relief, but still a concern, as he said that certain terror cells in the U.S. could carry out such an attack.
"Certainly somebody who subscribes to al-Qaeda ideology would be likely to use it (suicide bomb). Hezbollah supporters might be tempted to use it; they've shown an evidence of using surrogates overseas to strike against their enemy. Though, they might just carry out a terrorist attack period," he said. "…Or there's someone who's radicalized by going on the Web and reading the excerpts of al-Qaeda readings to carry out bombings. And it could be someone unsuspecting, but becomes radicalized."
The conversation trickled following that question, but Emerson seemed enthused in a knowledgeable way that whets the palette of any domestic intelligence spy.
Intrigue sparked the next question: "Would you be willing to do an in-person, in-depth interview?"
He seemed hesitant at first, citing security issues regarding himself and the Project, but agreed.
The following day, we received nondisclosure agreements to sign, informing us not to discuss details concerning the Project once we arrived at a secret location outside Washington, D.C.
We immediately launched our own investigation into every outlet possible on Emerson and the Project.
We discovered interviews, scripts, clippings, background information and testimonials on Emerson and the Project from congressional employees, former FBI counterterrorism chiefs and additional sources.
Armed solely with a camera, the Internet, telephones and pens, we booked Amtrak tickets, continued inquiries, and sat ready for an unknown and unexpected interview that would open the doors to secrecy of the American Jihad.