Terrorists and their supporters are doing their best to weave themselves into the political fabric of American society, say specialists in homeland security. They are operating front groups and charities to finance their operations, and they are running influence operations to weaken federal antiterrorism laws under the guise of protecting civil liberties.
The Feb. 20 arrest of an alleged leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), operating what the FBI calls a Tampa-based terrorist cell under cover as a professor at the University of South Florida (USF), has exposed one suspected operation. In doing so it has turned media focus on political groups that had been working in Washington with the accused, Sami Al-Arian, and set White House officials pointing fingers at one another about how the alleged terrorist managed to be included in the administration's controversial Muslim-outreach program.
That outreach effort, with its roots in the George W. Bush 2000 presidential campaign, has provoked controversy among the United States' growing Muslim and Arab-American communities, as well as among security-minded supporters of the president. Critics allege favoritism toward a small but vocal cadre of groups they say support terrorism. Mainstream Muslim and Arab-American organizations that were shut out of the liaison effort tell INSIGHT that extremists spent large sums trying to buy access in an effort to hijack the Bush administration's initiative, obtaining repeated meetings at the White House and with the president himself to acquire political cover and claim legitimacy.
The FBI's arrest of USF professor Al-Arian illustrates the problem. According to federal law-enforcement sources, Al-Arian was a principal organizer, trainer and coach for lobbying campaigns designed to eviscerate federal antiterrorism laws that had a particularly damaging effect on terrorist-support activities inside the United States. He was, say the sources, an architect of a years-long effort to repeal federal laws permitting prosecutors to use highly classified information in the arrest and detention of foreigners suspected of terrorist ties, without permitting the suspects to know the evidence. The law is intended for terrorist cases where the suspect's knowledge of extremely sensitive evidence could, among other things, result in the murders of Muslims and others who helped law-enforcement officials identify and build cases against terrorist operations.
Decrying the "secret-evidence" laws as unfairly "targeting" all Muslims and ethnic Arabs, Al-Arian portrayed their abolition as a civil-rights issue, appealing to liberal civil-liberties groups, libertarians and small-government conservatives to join forces against Big Brother. The same groups, an INSIGHT investigation shows, worked after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda airliner attacks to gut the Bush administration's tough new antiterrorism package--the very laws the FBI eventually would use to take down Al-Arian, whom it had been watching for years, and the PIJ's network inside the United States.
Count No. 42 of the 50-count federal grand-jury indictment of Al-Arian and other defendants alleged that the PIJ "would and did seek to obtain support from influential individuals in the United States under the guise of promoting and protecting Arab rights." Al-Arian worked with several Washington-based groups, including the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Islamic Institute, as part of his alleged influence operations. He was the first speaker at the lobbyist-training seminars at the AMC's 2000 and 2001 national conventions. He coached council members and others on lobbying Congress to influence legislation and statutes designed to give federal authorities the legal tools necessary to build cases against his and other alleged terrorist-support activities and to use that evidence in a court of law to try to put Al-Arian and his alleged jihadists in prison for the …