One Man's War on Terror
by Zachary Block
Brown Alumni Magazine
December 1, 2002
ON A HAZY SUMMER DAY in late July, more than 250 police chiefs, county sheriffs, FBI agents, military officers, and private security consultants gathered in lower Manhattan for a counterterrorism summit. The event—part educational seminar, part pep rally—was held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, just two blocks southeast of the sixteen-acre crater that was once the World Trade Center. "We want to give you the information you need to prevent acts of terrorism," New York governor George Pataki told the assembled crowd in a videotaped address, "as well as respond to acts of terrorism after they have occurred."
The day's speakers included some of the state's top law-enforcement officials as well as the former police chief of Oklahoma City, an expert on Al Qaeda from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, and relatives of terror victims. Also on the roster was Steven Emerson, a former journalist turned terrorism investigator, who was scheduled to address the topic of terrorists operating in the United States—the "sleeper cells" that have become part of the post–September 11 lexicon.
Emerson's presence at the summit marked a vindication of sorts for a man who has spent the past decade fighting to be taken seriously and fending off charges of racism and anti-Muslim bias. Emerson first gained national attention with his 1994 PBS documentary Jihad in America, which argued that Islamic militants, supported by prominent Arab- American and Muslim groups, were exploiting constitutionally protected civil liberties to train and organize and to plot acts of terror. The film won a George Polk award as the year's best television documentary, and Emerson was applauded for exposing the threat posed by Islamic radicals. "Remember that in the matter of terrorism," A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times in February 1995, "it was an American journalist whose skill, determination and risk-taking (physical and professional) helped shake government awake." He was talking about Emerson and Jihad in America.
But not all viewers were convinced: critics accused Emerson of exaggerating the terror threat and smearing mainstream Muslims with the brush of terrorism. "It is the kind of explosive piece that could make the Muslim around the corner suddenly seem like a dangerous and nefarious person," Eleanor Randolph, now a member of the Times editorial board, wrote in a 1994 Washington Post review.
Emerson was not deterred. "The U.S.—both abroad and at home—will be subject to increasingly more murderous attacks, using whatever available technology is available to the terrorists," Emerson told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995. He warned the senators of plans for "a kamikaze-style airplane attack on the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia."
Then came September 11. Suddenly reporters and policy makers couldn't get enough of Emerson. The Weekly Standard dubbed him "the Cassandra of terrorism," after the Greek goddess cursed with the ability to divine the future but whose prophesies no one believed. Last fall Emerson testified regularly before committees in both houses of Congress. He briefed the FBI, the justice department, and the National Security Council. He became NBC's terrorism analyst and a regular pundit on the twenty-four-hour cable news channels.
Emerson's schedule on this summer day had become typical: before the counterterrorism summit, he had spent the morning at the Pentagon briefing intelligence officers on the profile of potential terrorists. After flying from Washington to New York, Emerson was delivered by police escort to the Federal Reserve just as the chiefs and sheriffs were finishing lunch. Dressed in a navy blue suit and red tie, his rust-colored hair slightly gray at the temples, the forty-eight-year-old Emerson carried a few folders, a videotape, and several books under his arm. As he walked past the state troopers providing security for the summit, he picked up a program listing the day's speakers and discovered he wasn't scheduled to speak for four hours. "This is going to be boring," he said. "I don't know why I'm here at this hour."
Emerson briefly debated going for a jog to pass the time, but instead he waded into the crowd of law enforcement officials now waiting for the start of the afternoon session. Soon he was greeted by James Kallstrom, the former head of the FBI's New York office, who briefly led the state's antiterrorism office after September 11. Kallstrom asked Emerson to sign a copy of his 2002 best-selling book, American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, which chronicled Emerson's efforts to track Muslim terrorist groups operating in the United States. Kallstrom put a meaty hand on Emerson's shoulder and gestured around the room filled with police chiefs. "What I want to do is get these guys into the minds of the terrorists," Kallstrom instructed him, "to understand who these fuckers are."
EMERSON'S OBSESSION with militant Islam dates at least to Christmas Day in 1992, when he was in Oklahoma City on assignment as a correspondent for CNN. While searching for a place to eat, he says, he came upon a group of men in traditional Middle Eastern garb standing outside the city's convention center. Intrigued, Emerson wandered inside and soon realized he had stumbled upon a meeting of the Muslim Arab Youth Association. Emerson sat through the conference, stunned by what he heard: declarations of "Kill the Jews" and "Destroy the West" and speeches by the heads of Hamas and other Islamic militant groups. The day's rhetoric stuck with him, and when terrorists exploded a van packed with explosives in the basement of the World Trade Center the following year, Emerson knew he was on to something. He quit his job at CNN to work full-time on the story. The more he learned about Islamic radicals in the United States, he says, the more convinced he became that the country faced a serious threat from within its own borders.
Jihad in America aired on PBS in November 1994. The film showcases home videos of Muslim clerics calling for a blood-soaked holy war against "the enemies of Allah." The speeches are at mosques and gatherings in such places as Atlanta, Detroit, and Kansas City. "Fight the idol worshipers where you find them," the head of a Brooklyn "refugee center" declares in one tirade. "Pursue them and finish them off." Also seen in the film, which is narrated by Emerson, are documents linking radical Muslim groups abroad to nonprofits in the United States. The speeches and documents, along with interviews with retired government officials, provide the main support for Emerson's view that Islamic militants, learning from their U.S.-assisted defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, "found that the United States was the best place to raise funds, disseminate propaganda, and build up their political organizations." Although the clerics' rhetoric is frightening in both its content and location, especially when coupled with the first World Trade Center bombing, the documentary provides little other hard evidence to support Emerson's claim. Still, the film bristles with language that is now all-too-familiar in the post–September 11 world. "The very freedoms that allow [Islamic militants in the United States] to function and to operate are what they despise," a retired FBI official tells Emerson at one point in the film.
Jihad in America may have cemented Emerson's credentials as a terrorism investigator, but it also made him a marked man. Not long after the documentary aired, Emerson says he was riding in a cab in Washington, D.C., when he noticed an Arab-American newspaper on the front seat. The front page featured a photograph of him with a bull's-eye superimposed on it. Later, Emerson claims, after Jihad in America was broadcast in South Africa, a militant Muslim group dispatched a "death squad" to assassinate him. Emerson says the threat drove him to move out of his new condo and to start checking the underside of his car for bombs. Even such mundane activities as jogging, one of the few things Emerson seems to enjoy outside work, took on elements of spycraft. "I had to develop a hundred different ways of leaving my apartment and winding through different streets in inconspicuous clothing in order to maintain my daily exercise," he writes in American Jihad.
Emerson continues to live in an undisclosed location, and visitors to his office in the Washington, D.C., area are often blindfolded to protect its location and the identity of Emerson's dozen or so staff, which includes a recently retired FBI agent. To this day Emerson remains on edge when he speaks in public. "I'm always looking out for someone who goes quickly into his jacket," he writes in American Jihad.
Emerson's detractors claim he exaggerates the threats against him to inflate his importance. "He likes to cultivate this aura of shadowiness," says Hussein Ibish, the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "[He] likes to claim [he's] under constant stress."
FOR EMERSON life begins at Brown. At least he refuses to discuss his life before coming to the University, in the belief that the less his enemies know about him the better. "There's no need," he says, "to do extra work for the people tracking me."
According to Brown records, though, Steven Abram Emerson grew up in Lawrence, New York, the son of a salesman and a teacher. At Brown he earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in urban studies. He says he doesn't remember what activities he was involved in; nor is he in contact with college friends. "I was bookish," he says. "I don't remember at all being extroverted."
After graduation Emerson secured jobs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a speechwriter for the late Senator Frank Church. He quit to become a freelance writer and in 1985 published The American House of Saud: The Secret Petrodollar Connection, which details the influence of Saudi money on American politics. He joined U.S. News & World Report in 1986, where he worked as a senior editor and cowrote two more books, one on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the other on U.S. covert military operations. He jumped to CNN in 1990, then quit in 1993 to make Jihad in America.
Left with hundreds of hours of videotape and thousands of documents from producing the film, Emerson established a kind of think tank to function both as a repository for the material and as a vehicle for continuing what was now a full-fledged fixation on Islamism. Over the years the Investigative Project, as he named the organization, became a clearinghouse for information on Islamic militants and terrorists. Unencumbered by federal rules restricting investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies, the group has freely gathered information on American citizens and domestic groups. Until May, for example, when justice department rules were revised, FBI agents were prohibited from attending public rallies or surfing the Internet for information unless they were investigating a specific crime. Emerson's staff, by contrast, could attend any event and monitor any Web site it wished. Not surprisingly, Emerson calls the Investigative Project "the largest intelligence and data-gathering center in the world on militant Islamic activities."
Emerson describes the group's work as a mix of investigative journalism and public-policy research. Clients include law-enforcement and intelligence officials working to identify potential terrorists and terrorist sympathizers—"It's about getting information to operators to prevent attacks," he says—but its main users are journalists. "I'm probably sitting on 300 front-page stories in the New York Times," he says.
A confessed workaholic, Emerson operates on no more than five hours of sleep a night and fuels himself with coffee, Diet Coke, and a seemingly endless supply of breath mints, which he plucks from his jacket pocket every few minutes. He says that stacks of documents and manuscripts litter his apartment and bed. It's a driven and lonely life. Emerson admits that he can't help thinking about all that he is missing, about the ordinary life he glimpses in his frequent car rides between airports and hotels. "This lifestyle of working 24/7," he says, "is not something that I want to look forward to."
American Jihad works best when Emerson writes in a similar vein about the impact of his work on his personal life. The book also documents how the Palestinian group Hamas raised money through charity fronts, including the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which had its assets frozen last year. In many ways, however, the book—175 double-spaced pages, not including appendices, and featuring material recycled from Jihad in America—feels as if it was rushed to print to capitalize on post–September 11 interest in Islamic extremism. The chapter on militant Islam's infiltration of higher education in the United States, confined to a discussion of the University of South Florida (USF), which Emerson describes as "the center of the American Jihad movement," particularly seems like a stretch. Emerson does present some damning evidence, such as the fact that a former USF adjunct professor went on to head the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He also points to a 1991 speech by engineering professor Sami Al-Arian—whom the school has suspended and is attempting to fire—calling for "Death to Israel," as well as an FBI affidavit detailing an Al-Arian letter soliciting funds for "the Islamic movement in Palestine." What Emerson does not mention, however, is that two years ago an immigration judge determined there was no evidence that either Al-Arian or the research group and nonprofit he headed raised money or operated as fronts for terrorists. Emerson says the judge's ruling was in "total error" because it excluded classified evidence. "The fat lady has not sung," Emerson told CBS's 48 Hours in January. "This is not over yet."
SEPTEMBER 11, 2002 , found Emerson in New York City working the talking-head circuit amid a blur of Lincoln Towncars, green rooms, tired-looking buffets, and makeup artists covering cover-up with more cover-up. He had plenty to say as the networks and cable news outlets offered nonstop coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks. A year earlier he'd been sitting in his office when news that a plane had crashed into the trade center's north tower reached him. He was watching TV when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower.
After spending much of this anniversary morning at a private memorial service and on the phone with reporters, Emerson headed to NBC's Rockefeller Center studio for an appearance on the Today show. As he sat with host Matt Lauer waiting to go on the air, Lauer asked him about a CBS radio report that an Al Qaeda–affiliated Web site had announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. Emerson hadn't heard anything about it.
Later, en route to Court TV, Emerson frantically fielded calls on his cell phone from his staff, who had discovered a similar claim on a second, more credible Web site. The U.S. government had for weeks been blocking the site, and today it had finally reappeared. "You need to do a translation of the relevant material immediately," Emerson ordered a staffer. "Do they say why they're releasing this information now? I want you to find out where the domain is registered. I want you to find out how this site is related to Al Qaeda."
As he limped to his next guest slot—he'd aggravated his Achilles tendon jogging in Central Park—Emerson continued to work his staff. Finally, while waiting to tape an interview on CNBC, Emerson was informed by an assistant that the communiqué referred to a bin Laden all right, but not to Osama. A mistake had been avoided.
Critics, however, charge that Emerson is not always so cautious, that his preoccupation with militant Islam often clouds his judgment. In 1995 he told CBS that the Oklahoma City bombing "was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait." Emerson says his remarks merely reflected the thinking of law-enforcement officials at the time, although he regrets the mistake.
Emerson's work has also earned him a reputation for over-aggressiveness. In 1999 he was forced to issue an apology and pay $3,000 to a journalist and frequent critic, Reese Erlich, after Emerson wrote, incorrectly, that Erlich was charged in a 1960s conspiracy to commit violence in support of the Black Panthers. Another reporter has accused Emerson of passing off as an FBI memo a document that Emerson had authored himself. Emerson responded with a libel suit against the reporter and against the editor of the Florida-based alternative paper that published the accusations. The suit is still pending.
Emerson's take-no-prisoners approach, as well as the withering accusations of racism surrounding him, led most journalists to shun him like a smoker at an American Lung Association convention—until September 11. "Little did I know how many people thought I was a crackpot," Emerson says. A year ago, he adds, reporters weren't taking his calls. Now, he says, he can't handle all their requests for information.
If journalists ostracized him, law-enforcement and intelligence officials did not. Between 1994 and 2000, Emerson testified a dozen times before congressional committees. Still, the irony that his rehabilitation is largely rooted in tragedy is not lost on him. "My information didn't change," he says. "The situation changed. The tragedy is that it took 3,000 people being murdered."
His critics see it differently. "He was rehabilitated by our sheer bad luck," Ibish says. "He's an unintentional and indirect beneficiary of our collective misfortune."
ALTHOUGH EMERSON CAN'T point to any terrorist attacks that his work has foiled, his influence is clearly felt around Washington. New Jersey Republican Congressman Christopher Smith told the Washington Post in November 2001 that Jihad in America, which was distributed to members of Congress after September 11, 2001, "played a real role" in the House passage of the Patriot Act antiterrorism legislation.
"I think of Steve as sort of the Paul Revere of terrorism," says former National Security Council counterterrorism director Richard Clarke. Clarke, who is now President George W. Bush's top cyber-security adviser, credits Emerson with repeatedly warning of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States. He adds that he would attend Emerson's speeches whenever possible because "we'd always learn things we weren't hearing from the FBI or CIA, things which almost always proved to be true."
Robert Blitzer, who retired in 1998 as chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism section, says of Emerson, "He had a lot more access than we did. He gathered information that we couldn't get."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew C. McCarthy, who prosecuted the original World Trade Center bombers, says Emerson was helpful in preparing to cross-examine defense witnesses in that case. "I don't want to suggest that he's gone out and gotten evidence for us," McCarthy says. "But he's a valuable source of information and knowledge. And in terms of trying to find places to look for evidence, he's a very good person to talk to. He's got a lot of insight."
Even some who question Emerson's accuracy commend him for his dedication. "Emerson may not be a scholar, and he may sometimes connect unrelated dots," New York Times assistant editorial page editor Ethan Bronner wrote in a March review of American Jihad. "He may also occasionally be quite wrong. But he is an investigator who has performed a genuine service by focusing on radical Islamic groups in this country. His information should be taken seriously—just not at face value."
Major Arab-American and Muslim civil rights groups, however, dismiss Emerson altogether. They argue that, rather than validating Emerson's work, the September 11 attacks carried out by foreign terrorists disprove his theory of an American Islamic terror network. Drawing the fiercest objections has been Emerson's contention that mainstream Arab-American and Muslim cultural groups provide verbal and financial support for Middle Eastern terror groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) calls Emerson a "Muslim basher" with a "long history of defamatory and inaccurate attacks on the Islamic community in this country." Ibish calls Emerson "a fraud and a charlatan" who has worked "to stigmatize Arab Americans and Muslims in the U.S. generally."
Not all Muslims agree. Tashbih Sayyed, the publisher of the Los Angeles–based newspaper Pakistan Today and one of the few Muslims willing to voice public support for Emerson, says that Emerson is anti-extremist, not anti-Muslim. "People like Steve Emerson should be strengthened and helped," Sayyed says.
But UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who has criticized American Muslim leaders for their failure to combat Islamic fundamentalism and promote democracy, says that Emerson's interpretation of jihad gives the impression that observant Muslims are walking time bombs. "This is the type of prejudicial, dangerous talk that one sees Europeans engaging in before the Holocaust," El Fadl says, "this talk about the inherent nature of Jewish beliefs."
While Islamic groups are Emerson's chief adversaries, his detractors also include such non-Muslims as Salon senior writer Eric Boehlert, who says Emerson overstates the threat posed by Muslim militants inside the United States. "Emerson is grossly inadequate as a guide to this field, which requires skilled analysis and an appreciation of complexities," Boehlert wrote in March in a critique of American Jihad. "Emerson, whose obsessive, sledgehammer approach makes his reporting seem an afterthought to his conclusion, possesses neither."
The not-so-subtle subtext underlying the verbal warfare between Emerson and the American Muslim community is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Emerson's writing on the subject brought condemnation from Muslim groups even before Jihad in America, and Emerson draws strong support from pro-Israel groups.) CAIR calls Emerson "the attack dog of the extremist wing of America's pro-Israel lobby." Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, says Emerson "tries to do a hatchet job on Muslim organizations and leaders to divert people's attention from the real issues," including the root causes of terrorism and the Middle East conflict.
While Emerson refuses to discuss his religion and won't say who funds his work, he says he doesn't take money from religious or foreign groups or government entities of any nationality. "I am not, nor have I ever been, a spy for the Israelis," he says, "other than having sources among the Israeli intelligence community, among thirty other intelligence communities." He says similar accusations were leveled against murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
"These groups don't like being outed for being supporters of terrorism or outed for being extremists," Emerson says, arguing that the accusation that he is anti-Muslim is about as credible as the anti-Italian charge sometimes leveled against organized-crime investigators. He says that in every speech he points out that Muslim radicals represent a minority of the religion's faithful. "The total number of terrorists in the U.S.," Emerson writes in American Jihad, "is but a fraction of the total number of Islamic extremists, which itself is but a tiny fraction of the total number of American Muslims."
A year after the September 11 attacks Emerson says he thinks law enforcement is doing a better job of identifying potential terrorists, pointing to recent arrests in Oregon and Upstate New York. Still, Emerson says, no one can guarantee that tomorrow or the next day won't bring another attack. "The fact that we can't protect ourselves," he says, "shows us we've got a real long way to go."
One solution Emerson doesn't support is a federal department of homeland security, which he views as "totally unwieldy." Instead, he proposes a new intelligence agency that would gather and analyze all domestic and foreign intelligence collected by U.S. government sources. He supports Attorney General John Ashcroft's rollback of guidelines restricting FBI investigations and says that, just as the Customs Service has begun searching "high risk" shipping containers, so should we be scrutinizing visitors to the United States based on their nationality and travel patterns.
Ultimately, though, Emerson recognizes that the difficulty of distinguishing between a bigot spewing hateful rhetoric and a terrorist in waiting means the United States may never be able to protect itself fully. "I think there is an inherent conflict that will never be solved," he says, "between the need for security and the needs of an open society."
BY THE TIME EMERSON'S turn came to address the counterterrorism summit in July, the crowd of police chiefs and other law enforcement agents had shrunk considerably. But this was a friendly crowd: there were no protesters or charges of racism from this group.
Emerson praised President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism but faulted him for failing to name the true problem. "President Bush says it's a war against terrorism, period," Emerson said. "It's a war against militant Islam." The solution, he added, is not to ban or imprison all Islamic militants in the United States but to understand their motivation—and the ideology driving them. And he warned the audience to beware of Islamic radicals "masking themselves as moderates."
"You need to hear them renounce jihad as a holy war," he said, "hear them renounce Hamas and Hezbollah." He urged his listeners not be fooled by "the equivocation that they support Hamas but not terrorism."
After he finished, he was quickly surrounded by a small crowd of balding men in blue and gray suits.
"I like you," said John Scanlon, the director of the New York State Office of Public Security, which had sponsored the summit. He handed Emerson his business card. "You're not constrained like some of these guys."
Next, Madison Square Garden senior vice president Michael Julian approached. He wanted to see if the names of job candidates could be run through Emerson's terrorist database—"just for background purposes." He offered to fly Emerson back to New York to discuss the proposition.
Finally, Jesse Peterman, the newly installed director of security at the Empire State Building, slipped his card into Emerson's palm. He was eager to talk about the 1997 shooting there that had killed two, including the gunman, and wounded six. Emerson had mentioned the shooting in his speech, criticizing the FBI for failing to label it an act of terrorism.
"I want to give you a call and talk about that shooting," Peterman told him.
"I did an investigation on that," Emerson replied. "There were things that the Bureau never pursued."