CBNNews.com - COLUMBUS, Ohio - One traditional Middle Eastern grocery is painted to match the distinctive red, white, black and green of the Palestinian flag. Over the meat counter hangs a flag often flown at rallies for the terrorist group Hamas.
But this grocery store isn't located in Gaza or the West Bank. It's in Hilliard, Ohio: a sleepy suburb of Columbus. It seems an unlikely battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but support for the Palestinian cause runs deep.
"We are critical of our government policy in the Middle East, and its blind support of Israel," Mahmoud El-Yousseph, a local columnist said.
A Palestinian native, El-Yousseph writes about Muslim issues. He says many Muslims in Columbus feel the U.S. has neglected the Palestinians.
He said, "Our foreign policy in the Middle East, it stinks. It needs a tune up, and we're going to speak about it, whether people like it or not."
El-Yousseph served 20 years in the U.S. military. His son is serving in Iraq now. He says patriotism isn't an issue for this Muslim community.
"We are God fearing, law abiding American citizens," El-Yousseph said. "We love this country. We want to work together for the common good of our national defense."
A Jihad Hotbed?
Patrick Poole isn't so sure. A writer and consultant on terrorism-related issues, he returned to the Columbus area recently after a ten year absence.
"After a decade away, to come back and see all the changes that Hilliard had gone through and then to find out that we are essentially a center of jihad -- one of the hottest centers of jihad in the country -- was just mind blowing," Poole said.
Columbus is no stranger to Islamic radicalism. Members of an al-Qaeda cell attended a local mosque. Two of the men were convicted on federal terrorism charges. One plotted to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge. Another planned to blow up a local shopping mall.
Federal law enforcement officials say other members of the cell are still on the loose.
That al-Qaeda cell was one of the largest yet discovered in America. El-Yousseph says he and other local Muslims condemned those involved.
But Poole says support for two other terror groups is widespread among Columbus Muslims.
"Hamas and Hezbollah and everything going on in Israel are really the linchpin issues of radicalization here in Columbus," Poole said.
According to Poole, there's a budding Hamas support network in the area. He says much of this network leads back to one man -- Dr. Salah Sultan.
Poole said, "I discovered that Dr. Salah Sultan --a very prominent international cleric who's closely associated with Yusuf Qaradawi -- was living right around the corner from my own home."
Sultan's relationship with Qaradawi is the first thing that caught Poole's attention. Qaradawi is listed by the U.S. as a specially designated global terrorist. He's openly advocated suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. He's also called on Muslims to fight U.S. troops in Iraq.
A Closer Look
Terrorism expert Steven Emerson has followed Sultan and Qaradawi's activities closely.
"Sultan is an acolyte of Qaradawi," said Steven Emerson, of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "And Qaradawi is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has called for killing Americans and killing Jews"
Their relationship is so close that Sultan joined in honoring Qaradawi at a reception this summer.
Emerson said, "The fact that Sultan is hanging out with these men indicates exactly where he stands."
Qaradawi is a leader of The Muslim Brotherhood, a jihadist movement that seeks to establish worldwide Islamic law. A exclusive interview with Sultan was featured on the Brotherhood's Web site last year.
El-Yousseph told CBN News that Sultan is a Muslim scholar. He says Sultan's views aren't extreme, and that he even supports women's rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Sultan's views on 9/11 are more problematic. He told Saudi TV the attacks were planned by the U.S. government.
"The entire thing was of a large scale and was planned within the U.S., in order to enable the U.S. to control and terrorize the entire world," Sultan said.
Sultan recently left his home in an affluent Columbus suburb and now lives in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.
His application for U.S. citizenship was denied after he appeared at a Hamas rally in Turkey last summer. But he's still allowed to enter the U.S. and move around freely.
Sultan agreed to a phone interview with CBN News, but later cancelled.
Poole says Sultan continues to be influential in the Columbus area's Muslim community.
"Dr. Sultan was insulated into all of the major Islamic institutions here in Columbus," Poole said. "The Islamic Society of Greater Columbus, Sunrise Academy -- the private islamic school -- the Al Noor center, he was preaching at several other mosques. He was all over the place and integrated into all those institutions."
For example, one site that used to be Hilliard's public library is now home home to Sunrise Academy, a K- 8 Islamic school. Sultan lectured there on a regular basis. Siraj Wahhaj also appeared there recently. He's an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
El-Yousseph says Sultan and other Muslims in Columbus have been singled out unfairly since 9/11.
He said, "Most Muslims I know are professional here. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, grocers, schoolteachers who love this country, who left overseas because of religious persecution. They want to be here for a better life. They're not here to betray America and stab it in the back."
Emerson says that's exactly the case with Sultan.
"Salah Sultan has made incredibly incendiary comments about Jews, about jihad." he said. "This is not someone we want in the United States."