The grounded imams incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has been a public relations coup for the imams, their supporters and their claims that the group's only suspicious activity was saying evening prayers.
US Airways continues to defend its crew's decision to pull the imams off a plane last month, saying they took the seating configuration used by 9/11 hijackers, requested seat-belt extensions that could be used as weapons and otherwise raised concerns.
Who are the parties involved here, who seem so interested in linking airport security with racial bigotry?
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the imams' legal representative, is an organization that "we know has ties to terrorism," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in 2003. And the Muslim American Society, which is also supporting the imams? It's the American arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the Chicago Tribune, which called it "the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group."
How about Omar Shahin, the imams' spokesman and also president of the North American Imams Federation? He is a native of Jordan, who says he became a U.S. citizen in 2003. From 2000 to 2003, Shahin served as president of Islamic Center of Tucson (ICT), that city's largest mosque.
The ICT is well known. The mosque has "an extensive history of terror links," according to terrorism expert Steven Emerson, who testified about terrorist financing before the Senate Banking Committee in July 2005.The Washington Post described these links in a 2002 article. "Tucson was one of the first points of contact in the United States for the jihadist group that evolved into al Qaeda," the Post reported. And the ICT? It held "basically the first cell of al Qaeda in the United States; that is where it all started," said Rita Katz, a terrorism expert quoted by the Post.
ICT members have included high-profile terrorists. Wael Hamza Jelaidan, the mosque's leader in the mid-1980s, was identified by the U.S. government as a "-co-founder" of al Qaeda and its logistics chief," the Post reported.
Another former member, Wadi Hage, served as Osama bin Laden's personal secretary after leaving Arizona, the Post said, attributing it to government sources. Hage established a bin Laden support network in Arizona and "this network is still in place," Emerson wrote in his book "Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S.," citing a 2002 Senate Intelligence Committee Report. In 2001, Hage was convicted of plotting the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The best-known terrorist with apparent (according to the Post and Emerson) connections to the ICT is Hani Hanjour, who piloted the plane that flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. Hanjour took aviation lessons in Tucson in the late 1990s.
Shahin has downplayed the ICT's connections to terrorism. The mosque should not be held accountable for former members who may have engaged in terrorism after they left Arizona, he told the Post in 2002. Al-Qaida nests in America? "All of these, they make it up," he told the Arizona Republic shortly after 9/11.
But dubious activity continued when Shahin became ICT president. For example, the mosque raised thousands of dollars for an Islamic charity called the Holy Land Foundation in 2001, and Shahin served as the charity's Arizona coordinator, according to the Associated Press. Holy Land "collects funds for widows and orphans and needy people," he told the AP.
In December 2001, the Treasury Department froze Holy Land's assets, citing its funding of the terrorist organization Hamas' efforts to recruit suicide bombers.
Shahin also told the Arizona Daily Star in 2001 that he would permit the Global Relief Foundation to raise funds at the ITC. In 2002, the U.S. government froze that organization's assets because of its support of bin Laden, Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Another incident of interest occurred during Shahin's tenure at ITC. On June 13, 2003, the FBI arrested Muhammad Al-Qudhai'een, who was active at the mosque, and transported him to Virginia to testify as a material witness before a federal grand jury investigating 9/11.
Earlier, the FBI had investigated Al-Qudhai'een's involvement in a 1999 incident. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Al-Qudhai'een and Hamdan al Shalawi, a fellow Saudi, were removed from an America West flight after engaging in what the flight crew considered suspicious activity. The crew asserted that Al-Qudhai'een had twice attempted to open the plane's cockpit door. After 9/11, FBI agents in Phoenix considered whether the incident had been a "dry run" for the attacks. The 9/11 Commission noted that Al Shalawi had reportedly trained in Afghan terrorist camps in November 2000, learning how to conduct "Khobar Towers"-type bombing attacks.
The America West incident attracted national attention in 1999. In 2000, the two Saudis filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by the airline. "What happened to us was based on racial and religious discrimination," al Shalawi told the Arizona Republic. CAIR hired the Saudis' attorney for them, and urged a boycott of the airline. America West won the lawsuit. Al-Qudhai'een was later deported to Saudi Arabia.
Shahin left ICT in June 2003. Subsequently, he became a fundraiser for KindHearts, another Islamic charity. But the Treasury Department froze KindHearts' assets on Feb. 19, 2006. "KindHearts is the progeny of Holy Land Foundation and Global Relief Foundation, which attempted to mask their support for terrorism behind the facade of charitable giving," according to the Treasury Department.
Shahin has evidently helped raise money for all three of these organizations.
Ten days ago, Shahin expressed ignorance of KindHearts' terrorist connections. "When they shut down, I had no clue what they were doing," he told the Washington Times.
So was the Flying Imams incident an instance of bigotry? Or was it part of a larger script? If so, whose script is it, and what's the final act?
I'll consider those questions in Thursday's column.