The story is unfolding like a Tom Clancy thriller. Events since the August bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have provided new insights into the presence of international terrorist organizations in the United States. Federal indictments handed down by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York charging Osama bin Laden and five other individuals with terrorist acts committed against the United States outline the activities of a well or-ganized, well financed, fanatical international terrorist ring known as “Al Qaeda” (“the Base”), which is dedicated to waging war on its enemies around the world. By virtue of its own pro-nouncements, we know that Jews and Americans are most prominent on Al Qaeda’s list of enemies. The indictments also give us a picture of an organization that is truly international in scope, with locations in Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan — and yes, Brooklyn and Texas, USA.
Al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group in America. The sad truth is that many such groups have some sort of support apparatus in the United States, ranging from secret operational cells (as seems to be the case with Al Qaeda) to organizations that propagandize and raise funds on their behalf. And such activities are by no means limited to Al Qaeda or to Arabs and Muslims.
Immigrant groups and their progeny in America frequently do not leave their wars, hatreds and hostilities behind. Over the years there have been acts of violence within our country carried out by groups that have no quarrel with the United States; they simply use America as a battleground for their terrorist war against enemies who happen to be located here.
It is important not to use the presence of Middle East-based terrorist organizations in the United States as a pretext for stereotyping Arabs and Muslims. Jews, with a long history of be-ing victimized by stereotyping, need not be reminded of this. The vast majority of Arabs and Muslims living in this country are decent and law-abiding people who offer no support to terrorism and indeed abhor the violence committed in the name of their people and faith.
Steven Pomerantz is a former Assistant Director of the FBI and chief of its counterterrorism sec-tion. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the American Jewish Committee. Which returns the subject to Osama bin Laden, his organization, and their presence in the United States. According to the indictments, bin Laden, along with Muhammed Atef, also named as a defendant, formed a terrorist organization in 1989 dedicated to opposing non-Islamic governments with force and violence. This organization grew out of a group known as the “mekhtab al khidmat” (the “Services Office”) which maintained facilities in various parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. The U.S. group was located at the Alkifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.From 1989 until 1991, Al Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It then relocated to Sudan and returned to Afghanistan in 1996. The organization maintained its interna-tional character throughout. According to the indictments, Al Qaeda opposed the United States for a variety of reasons. It branded Americans as “infidels” because of our non-Islamic form of government and our support for other “infidel” nations. It also criticized the U.S. for its alleg-edly “interventionist” role around the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, bin Laden expressed hatred towards the United States as a result of the conviction of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is characterized in the indictment as the leader of a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda. (Rahman was convicted for his leadership role in the bombing of the World Trade Center as well as for his participation in a broader terrorist conspiracy.)
The statements and fatwahs (rulings on Islamic law) issued by the organization provide insight into the mind of bin Laden and the nature of the activities planned by Al Qaeda. Beginning in 1992 the “fatwah committee” of Al Qaeda advised its members and associates that United States forces stationed on the Saudi Arabian peninsula should be attacked. Beginning in the same year, fatwahs were issued calling for attacks on U.S. troops in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia. Building on this base of religious thought, bin Laden, in August 1996, signed and issued a Declaration of Jihad (holy war) against “the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques; Expel the Heretics from the Arabian Peninsula.” Finally, in February 1998 bin Laden endorsed a fatwah under the banner of the “International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders” stating that Muslims should kill Americans, including civilians, wherever they might be found.The most spectacular and devastating terrorist acts that followed the establishment of Al Qaeda, and for which bin Laden and his followers are charged, include the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Casualties number in excess of 200, with the names of the victims, African and American, going on page after sad page. Bin Laden and his associates are also charged with a variety of other crimes, including conspiracy, perjury, and making false statements.In the immediate aftermath of the Embassy bombings, suspicion was directed at bin Laden as the perpetrator. When the official allegations came in the form of a grand jury indictment, few were surprised at the identity of those named as defendants. What shocked many observers however, were the revelations concerning Al Qaeda’s presence, a terrorist infrastructure, within the United States.If the reports are to be believed, Wadih El Hage, most recently a resident of Arlington, Texas, was an unremarkable fellow. Employed at a suburban tire shop and living a modest life style, he blended in nicely. But such anonymity is exactly what is required for a successful ter-rorist operating in a foreign country. Nobody who knew him suspected that he was a terrorist. According to the federal indictment, El Hage was not only a member of Al Qaeda, but for a time served as a personal assistant to bin Laden himself. El Hage allegedly was a very active member of this criminal conspiracy. He is charged with helping establish bin Laden’s organization in Africa, as well as carrying out other assignments on behalf of the group. In a court proceeding in September 1998, a federal prosecutor asserted that El Hage was being investigated for his role in attempting to obtain chemical weapons for the Al Qaeda organization.
The indictments single out one location in the United States for its significance in the development of bin Laden’s organization, the Alkifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn. This establishment has an interesting history. According to media reports it began in the 1980’s as an operation which supported the Afghan Mujahedeen fighters in their struggle against the former So-viet Union. Many of those who participated in that conflict, including Osama bin Laden, became committed to the radical Islamic fundamentalist cause. The Center has certainly played host to a varied cast of characters from the world of international terrorism, including Sheik Rahman, Mahmud Aboulhalima, also charged in the World Trade Center case, and Wadih El Hage. At a certain point, internal political disputes seem to have overcome the Center. Indeed, its founder, an Egyptian national, was the victim of a still unsolved homicide.
One more piece of the puzzle has been revealed. The New York Times has reported on the arrest of Ali Mohammed, characterized as an operative for bin Laden. Mohammed served in the U.S. Army in the 1980’s, where he picked up skills and knowledge valuable to terrorists. He allegedly participated in the training of terrorists, and revealed classified information to unau-thorized individuals. The charges against Mohammed have not yet been made public, a clear indication that the investigation is continuing, but at some point the government will have to go public with what it knows.
As the investigation continues, and especially as the action shifts to the Federal District Court in New York, we can expect to learn a great deal more about the specific charges leveled in the indictments. We will also gain a much clearer picture of the nature of the Al Qaeda or-ganization and its operations in the United States. An indictment, which is all we have seen so far, is merely an allegation. It is tantalizingly and purposefully short on detail. Typically, the government only reveals what it has to in order to bring charges against the defendants. There undoubtedly is much more to come.
What, then, does all this tell us? Without question, great credit is due to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its recent efforts have been in the best tradition of that organization and have produced remarkable results in a short time. The FBI’s response to the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya was immediate, comprehensive, and well coordinated. The ability to successfully deploy an adequate investigative force on extremely short notice, to deal with not one but two catastrophic events so far from home, is an extraordinarily difficult task. I suspect that we will never fully appreciate the obstacles that had to be overcome.The FBI did not do this by itself. There was certainly a great deal of both interagency and international cooperation on display. It is clear that both the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community played major roles. The amount of data available to the FBI about bin Laden and Al Qaeda, some of it detailed in the indictments, attests to the prior work of U.S. intelligence agencies. It is the nature of intelligence work in our country that agencies charged with these responsibilities, particularly the CIA, rarely get credit for the excellent work they do. In the real world they regularly gather information that leads to the prevention of terrorist incidents, or, as in this case, provides substantial assistance in the investigation of terrorist events. It is unrealistic and unfair to criticize them for their inability to prevent all terrorist incidents. That is simply not possible.
Taken together, these accomplishments, not to mention the military retaliation that took place shortly after the bombings, demonstrate that the United States can combat even the most dedicated and violent terrorist organizations. While America cannot stop terrorists every time, or bring every single terrorist to justice, we can make the price for terrorism so high that individu-als, groups, and nations will reconsider their contemplated actions in light of the probable conse-quences. What our government has too often demonstrated in the past, however, is a lack of political will to sustain the kind of effort required to achieve success.
Another important element implicit in the bin Laden investigation and indictment (as well as in previous investigations such as that of the World Trade Center bombing) brings to mind a scene from an old horror movie. A little girl is sitting in front of a TV and, in response to the sight of shadowy images on the screen, she says, “They’re Here!” In the sequel to that movie, when faced with the same situation, she says, “They’re Back!” As for the Middle East terrorist organizations and their operatives and supporters in the United States, we could add the following: “They Never Left.”Once again we have been presented with solid information of a terrorist organization’s presence in our country. We should ask how this came to be. What do we do to prevent foreign terrorists from infiltrating our shores? How well do we monitor their activities if and when we learn about them? Are we effective in deporting them once their identities and activities in furtherance of international terrorism become known? Given the danger that we face today, these are all relevant questions. We might not like all the answers. According to published reports, this past February an FBI executive noted that 419 student visas were issued to new and returning students from Iran, which is identified by the U.S. State Department as a nation that sponsors terrorism. The FBI executive then testified as fol-lows: “A significant number of these individuals are hard-core members of the pro-Iranian student organization known as the Anjoman Islamie, which is comprised almost exclusively of fanatical, anti-American Iranian Shiite Muslims.” This official then went on to say that the An-joman Islamie “provides a significant resource base which allows the government of Iran to maintain the capability to mount operations against the United States, if it so decided. “Why would we knowingly grant access to our country to individuals described as a terrorist “resource base” by the agency responsible for our internal security? (Remember, these are Iranian students, selected to come here by a government that the State Department has singled out as the principal state sponsor of international terrorism, the very same government that the United States alleges has ties with bin Laden and Al Qaeda.) The Iranian student issue is only one symptom of a larger problem. Sheik Wagdi Gho-niem was one of the speakers at a rally at Brooklyn College in New York on May 24, 1998. The New York Post described the proceedings as “a day long verbal jihad, during which speaker after speaker regaled an audience of 500 with hate filled calls for a holy war against the Jews.” Gho-niem, an Egyptian citizen, also spoke at a rally in Detroit last December where he was quoted as follows: “The hour will come when the Muslims will kill the Jews. With Allah’s help … we will find all of the Jews and we will kill them.” Some time after making this speech Ghoniem tried to enter Canada through Detroit. Based on his terrorist connections, he was denied entry to that country and went back to — naturally — the United States.
One final example: Twelve years ago, when I was serving as FBI Chief of Counter-terrorism, 10 immigrants were detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Cali-fornia for their activities in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), one of the most vicious Middle East terrorist groups active at that time. They were not charged with any crimes in this country. The government merely wanted them to leave, to go home. Given their activities in support of an organization with the agenda and history of the PFLP and their status as guests in the United States, this did not appear to be an unreasonable position for our government to take. Yet 12 years have passed and they are still here. Just last month their case was heard by the Supreme Court.
There is clearly a need for urgent review of our immigration policies and practices, as well as an analysis of the capabilities of the INS. The capability to identify and deny entry to our country to foreign terrorists and their supporters, or to expeditiously deport them when they are discovered here, must be a cornerstone of our defense against terrorism. Nothing we do in this regard need conflict with our democratic values or our tradition as a nation that welcomes hon-est, law-abiding immigrants. What can we as individuals and as members of the American Jewish Committee do to protect ourselves, our families, our people, and the country we love from the horrors of terror-ism? As citizens of the greatest democracy in the world, we have the ability to affect our gov-ernment’s policy by making ourselves heard. We should demand that our elected leaders devote adequate resources and attention to the issue of terrorism on a sustained, comprehensive and continuing basis. U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been sporadic, linked to the most recent incident, and then neglected or discarded over time. That is not the way to win this war, and only the continuing interest of an aroused and involved citizenry will bring about the necessary cor-rective action. Because of the respect it has gained on a wide range of issues, the American Jewish Committee will be heard, and our reasonable demands will be seriously considered.
Finally, we should recognize that while terrorism is a very serious matter, we need to maintain our perspective when considering remedies. We should never give up the rights and liberties that we hold so dear in order to fight against terrorism. That would be giving the terror-ists the very victory that we strive so hard to deny them. We can beat back terrorism without en-dangering our democratic institutions. It will take time, resources, and, most of all, the will to stay the course.