By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard Online
Oct 12, 2006
How radical Islamic charities exploit their access to the prison system.
BEFORE ENTERING THE COUNTERTERRORISM FIELD, I worked for a radical Islamic charity called the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation. In this capacity, I gained some familiarity with the kind of Islamic extremist literature that often finds its way into the U.S. prison system and thus influences inmates’ religious education. I was, after all, one of the people responsible for distributing this literature. It’s a serious problem for American society and homeland security. But first, some background on Al Haramain.
THE INTERNATIONAL AL HARAMAIN ORGANIZATION was originally formed as a private charity in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1992. It was devoted to fostering Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere brand of Islam. When I worked for the group, it had offices in more than 50 countries and an annual budget of between $40 million and $50 million. Today, however, Al Haramain no longer exists as a stand-alone entity. It was merged into the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad.
Al Haramain’s terrorist connections begin with the Ashland, Oregon, branch, for which I worked. The Ashland branch has been designated a terrorist sponsor by the Treasury Department. Two directors were indicted for their roles in a money-laundering scheme that involved smuggling roughly $130,000 in traveler’s checks out of the country without declaring them. Federal investigators believe that this money funded the Chechen mujahideen.
The U.S. Treasury has designated Al Haramain offices in Kenya and Tanzania as sponsors of terrorism for their role in the 1998 embassy bombings. The designation lists multiple connections between Al Haramain and the bombings, including the offices’ involvement in planning the attacks, funding by a wealthy Al Haramain official, and a former Tanzanian Al Haramain director’s role in making preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings. The Al Haramain branch office in the Comoros Islands was also designated because it “was used as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators of the 1998 bombings.”
These were not Al Haramain’s only connections to terrorism. The Afghanistan office was designated for supporting the bin Laden-financed Makhtab al-Khidemat terrorist group, and for its involvement with a group training to attack foreigners in Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled. The Albania office was designated because of its ties to al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The Bangladesh office was designated after an official sent an operative to conduct surveillance on U.S. consulates in India. The branch in Ethiopia was designated because of its support for al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a terrorist group that has carried out attacks on Ethiopian defense forces. The Indonesia office was designated for its ties to the Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda terrorist groups. The Pakistan office was designated for supporting the Taliban, Lashkar e-Taibah, and Makhtab al-Khidemat. And so on and so forth. The extent to which Al Haramain was compromised is as disturbing as it is undeniable.
AL HARAMAIN had a prison dawa program that was ideally structured for terrorist recruitment. Dawa is Islamic evangelism. And although the program wasn’t used to recruit terrorists, it had enough potential for terrorist recruitment that federal investigators were immediately intrigued when they learned about it.
Prisoners would initiate contact with the U.S. branch of Al Haramain by writing to request Islamic literature. Afterwards, they were sent a number of pamphlets and a questionnaire. The questionnaire asked a variety of informational questions, including the inmates’ names, prisoner numbers, release dates, and address outside of prison. It also included questions designed to determine the inmates’ level of Islamic knowledge. When the prisoners returned the questionnaires, they were graded on their answers.
It is what happened next that caught investigators’ interest. All of the information–the inmates’ names, their prisoner numbers, the facilities where they were held, their release date, the address they would be released to–was entered into a massive database that contained over 15,000 names.
The contours of the database are significant because of the potential for terrorist recruitment. Several individuals involved in past terrorist plots experienced critical religious development while imprisoned. The most dramatic example is the plot hatched in a California state prison by Kevin James, the inmate who founded the Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, a secretive organization designed to promote his radical interpretation of Islam. On August 31, 2005, a six-count indictment charged Kevin James and his co-conspirators with plotting to attack military and Jewish targets in the Los Angeles area. Richard Reid, who was arrested in December 2001 after attempting to blow up an airplane with explosives hidden in his shoe, grew in his faith under the tutelage of a radical imam in a British prison.
So a database such as the one boasted by Al Haramain caught the interest of investigators because it was perfectly designed to allow follow-up with prisoners–and potentially to allow for terrorist recruitment. Prisoners’ release dates were known, as were the addresses to which they planned to return. Al Haramain could have worked with ideologically sympathetic organizations to make sure inmates stayed in touch with radical groups after their release.
THE CORNERSTONE of Al Haramain’s prison dawa program was the literature the group distributed to inmates. At the heart of any concerted Islamic literature program is distribution of the Koran. Al Haramain distributed a Wahhabi/Salafi translation, known as the Noble Koran, that was translated into English by Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan. This version was known for containing numerous interpolations not present in the original Arabic. Although ostensibly designed to explain the verses, these interpolations pushed the meaning in a radical direction suffused with contempt for non-Muslims, and which was dedicated to fostering the global jihad.
A representative example is found in an early footnote in the translation, which states:
Al-Jihad (holy fighting) in Allah’s Cause (with full force of numbers and weaponry) is given the utmost importance in Islam and is one of its pillars (on which it stands). By Jihad Islam is established, Allah’s Word is made superior, . . . and His Religion (Islam) is propagated. By abandoning Jihad (may Allah protect us from that) Islam is destroyed and the Muslims fall into an inferior position; their honour is lost, their lands are stolen, their rule and authority vanish. Jihad is an obligatory duty in Islam on every Muslim, and he who tries to escape from this duty, or does not in his innermost heart wish to fulfill this duty, dies with one of the qualities of a hypocrite.
This passage thus rules out nonmilitary interpretations of jihad by insisting on “full force of numbers and weaponry.” It also endorses jihad as a means of propagating Islam, and specifies that it is required of “every Muslim.”
Most chilling is a 22-page appendix that was included in the translation that Al Haramain distributed to prisons. This appendix, written by former Saudi Arabian chief justice Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, was entitled “The Call to Jihad (Holy Fighting in Allah’s Cause) in the Koran.” It is little more than an exhortation to violence.
Bin Humaid argues at length that Muslims are obligated to wage war against non-Muslims who have not submitted to Islamic rule. He explains,
Allah . . . commanded the Muslims to fight against all the Mushrikun as well as against the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) if they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizyah (a tax levied on the non-Muslims who do not embrace Islam and are under the protection of an Islamic government) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.
Mushrikun refers to all nonbelievers who are not classified as people of the Scriptures; bin Humaid thus advocates war with the entire non-Muslim world. And the appendix appeals to the reader to volunteer for jihad, stating that “it is the best thing that one can volunteer for.”
The Wahhabi/Salafi translation of the Koran was not the only piece of radical literature Al Haramain distributed to prisons. Another widely-distributed volume was Muhammad bin Jamil Zino’s Islamic Guidelines for Individual and Social Reform. Like the radical translation of the Koran, one of the themes in Zino’s book was jihad. Zino instructs his readers that children should be indoctrinated in the glories of jihad from an early age:
Teach your children the love of justice and revenge from the unjust like the Jews and the tyrants. Consequently our youth would know that Palestine should be freed and Jerusalem must be of the Muslims. They have to learn about Islam and Jihad as per the Qur’an and that the holy fighting for justice is supported by Allah the Almighty.
Virulent anti-Semitism and hatred of non-Muslim governments are also recurring themes. On a page headed “Act upon these Ahadith,” Zino’s first injunction reads: “The Last Hour will not appear unless the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”
Zino also denounces “belief in man-made destructive ideologies such as . . . secularism” as nullifying an individual’s adherence to Islam. This is in keeping with the views of another writer whose works Al Haramain sent to prisons: Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips. In The Fundamentals of Tawheed (Islamic Monotheism), Philips describes acquiescence to non-Islamic rule as an act of idolatry and disbelief. “Un-Islamic government,” he writes, “must be sincerely hated and despised for the pleasure of God.”
Al Haramain’s literature wasn’t subjected to a significant degree of scrutiny. I know of only a few instances in which prisons rejected it–and that was never because of the content. In one instance, a chaplain refused to distribute a pamphlet that outlined the differences between the Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam because of its potential for causing conflict between Islamic sects in the prison. In another case, literature was rejected because it was sent in a large manila envelope with a metal clasp. The screeners wouldn’t allow the package because they felt the clasp could be used as a weapon.
But little question was raised about the message in the literature. We were able to forge relationships with a number of Muslim prison chaplains who willingly distributed Al Haramain’s literature and questionnaires. Of course, the fact that they did so doesn’t necessarily mean they were radical. Some chaplains may just have been happy that there was a Muslim charity willing to send literature, and may not have screened its contents. But at least some chaplains were on the same page as Al Haramain ideologically and were supportive of the worldview that the group fostered.
FORTUNATELY, Al Haramain’s database was never used for terrorist recruitment, although investigators are still puzzled as to the reasons why not. One was surely resource constraints. Although Al Haramain was a massive operation, the U.S. headquarters was fairly small. There were only three full-time employees during my time there, and all of us had other responsibilities beyond prison dawa. A second and more complex reason involves Al Haramain’s motivations. While jihadist views are displayed in Al Haramain’s literature, this was the pre-9/11 world. At that time, support for jihads in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, or Uzbekistan wouldn’t necessarily translate into a desire to recruit terrorists from U.S. prisons.
But we no longer live in the pre-9/11 world. In 2006, the United States is undeniably the focal point of the global jihad. And this requires more vigilance than we have shown in the past. We may not be so fortunate next time around.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for Gerard Group International and author of the forthcoming book My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin). This essay is adapted from testimony that he delivered before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on September 19, 2006.
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