Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on April 29 about the terror threats facing the United States.
According to Emerson, the FBI has been “very successful” in combating lone wolf “freelance self-anointed ISIS-al Qaeda type” terrorists like those that carried out a spate of recent attacks in Paris. “The ISIS threat is greater in Europe because that’s where more European Muslims have volunteered [to join ISIS abroad] and returned to,” but even in the U.S. there have been “about 1,300 open investigations of ISIS related terrorist activities in the United State at any one time in the last two years” by his estimation, the vast majority of which the public is blissfully unaware.
More problematic is the FBI response to the “much more sophisticated operations” of U.S. groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah that promote terrorism through fundraising and indoctrination. “To legitimize their operations, they wrap it around a social mission,” such as humanitarian aid or civil rights advocacy. By and large, these organizations are coddled by the media, which is eager to “claim that the right wing supremacist threat is the greatest threat we’ve ever faced and downplay the Islamist threat … even legitimizing radical Islamist groups that have connections to terrorist organizations,” a bias Emerson attributes to the rise of “progressive inter-sectionalist ideology.”
Under Emerson’s auspices, the IPT was active in exposing these groups in the wake of 9-11, providing the White House with open-source evidence on 20 front groups that raised money for such terror organizations as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al Qaeda. This open-source intelligence, which the IPT had been collecting for more than a decade, enabled the government to shut down many of these groups and freeze their assets. The leaders of some groups, notably the Holy Land Foundation, were given heavy prison sentences.
Today, however, there are still groups in the U.S. with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status that raise money to launder funds used for overseas terror organizations. “[T]here is a real weakness in the system … anybody can apply for a nonprofit status under any name,” said Emerson, and the Treasury division that approves or rejects those applications does “not do the sophisticated background, counterintelligence, counterterrorism investigations” that would be required to accurately assess the threat they pose.
The problem is compounded by lack of communication among federal agencies. After the Holy Land Foundation was shut down, a new group emerged with a different name but a similar mission. Despite the legitimate names and addresses used by the new group, the IPT discovered they were actually the relatives of the foundation’s jailed leaders. Although the Treasury Department would not have investigated the group, other agencies should have.
“[T]hat’s always been a problem in the U.S. government of different divisions within departments not even connecting the dots. It was one of the reasons why 9-11 occurred.” Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the divisions that vet people coming into the U.S. from overseas and the division that vets those within the United States often “don’t communicate with one another.”
An egregious example of this disconnect was that of an applicant to the FBI whose name was brought to Emerson’s attention. The applicant’s name was similar to an associate of the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the operator behind the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Emerson knew Abdel-Rahman’s associate had been killed before the bombing occurred, and upon further investigation, discovered the applicant was the son of the deceased. The son, who “still believed that his father and the blind sheikh were innocent.” had traveled to Egypt, returned to the U.S., and applied for the FBI job. Despite those red flags, the applicant not only was accepted into the FBI but was made head of a counterterror division.
Emerson holds the former Obama administration liable for weakening the system to protect America from Islamic terrorism. A recent Inspector General report reviewed six major domestic Islamist terror attacks that occurred under Obama’s administration — none of which were referred to as jihadi attacks by U.S. officials, who instead used euphemisms like “workplace” violence to disguise their ideological motivations — and found that in all six cases the FBI had investigated the attacker(s) months before they carried out their rampages, but “closed out those investigations.”
Another Obama administration misstep derailed an investigation that began during the Bush administration in 2002 into the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Northern Virginia. The Saudi-connected group was tied to a “multibillion-dollar labyrinth of different groups” that funded Islamist violence throughout the world. A counterterrorist criminal investigation into IIIT spanning ten years produced “demonstrable, unimpeachable evidence” for indictments against several IIIT leaders. However, Assistant Attorney General for National Security under Obama, David Kris, declined to prosecute the case because he “didn’t want to alienate Islamic groups.”
Eagerness to avoid offending Muslims also led the Obama administration to interfere in the training of FBI agents. As Emerson recalled,
They took away … every single book, every single PowerPoint, every single pamphlet, every single piece of literature that was considered “offensive to Muslims.” I fault them for murderously redacting, destroying and censoring the educational-based requirements needed to investigate radical Islam. Period, end of story.
Although Emerson credits the Trump administration with improving efforts to dismantle Hezbollah fundraising networks at home and around the world, much of the damage done to U.S. counterterrorism policy under the Obama administration has yet to be fixed. Disappointingly, the current director of the FBI, Christopher A. Wray, “hasn’t reversed any of the bad decisions made by [Robert] Mueller under Obama” and in particular “hasn’t restored the educational material on radical Islam.”
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.
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