In the sorry tradition of shooting the messenger, the Pentagon is cashiering its top expert on Islamist doctrine, Stephen Coughlin. Some members of Congress are now contemplating hearings to ask why. Along with drawing attention to Coughlin's research, now circulating on the Internet, the growing controversy has thrown a spotlight on Coughlin's alleged nemesis at the Pentagon, a top aide named Hesham Islam — whose tale deserves closer attention. Not least, as a reporter for the Armed Forces Press Service observed last year, it would make a great Hollywood blockbuster.
Certainly there are subplots here that seem made for the movies, including tales of Islam, in his youth, living through an air raid in Egypt, a ship sinking in the Arabian Sea, and now, years later, this scuffle under the Pentagon rug over how to deal with the chief threat to America today — Islamic extremism.
Hesham Islam is a native Arabic speaker, a Muslim, born in 1959 in Cairo and schooled in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In 1980 he immigrated to the U.S. From 1985-2005 he served in the U.S. Navy, rising to the mid-level officer rank of commander. At some point after former defense-industry executive Gordon England joined the Bush administration as secretary of the Navy, in 2001, Islam went to work on his staff. In 2005, when England, after a stint in Homeland Security took over from Paul Wolfowitz in the Defense Department's number two slot of deputy secretary, Islam came with him.
In England's office, Islam's official title is special assistant for international affairs. In that capacity he pops up as a man-about-town in Washington, making the rounds of embassies. But Islam also works as England's point man for Pentagon outreach programs to Muslim groups. These include organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, with whom Islam and England have forged ties — attending ISNA conventions, and hosting ISNA delegations at Pentagon events, and in England's office.
That's alarming to some, such as terrorism expert Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, who, for more than a decade, has been tracking Islamic extremist networks in the U.S. In a recent appearance on Fox News, Emerson described Hesham Islam as, in his view, "an Islamist with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bent who has brought in groups to the Pentagon who have been unindicted co-conspirators."
Emerson was apparently referring to ISNA, named last summer by the Department of Justice as a member of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood and an unindicted co-conspirator in the case of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity indicted in 2005 in Dallas federal court for allegedly providing millions of dollars to the terrorist group Hamas (itself an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). ISNA, in a press statement, says it "remains unjustly branded by the government as an unindicted co-conspirator." (The Holy Land Foundation case resulted in a mistrial last fall, and is expected to be re-tried).
But whatever Emerson's worries, Islam's boss, Gordon England, apparently can't praise Hesham Islam and his work enough. In public statements over the past year, England has described Islam as "my personal close confidante," "my interlocutor," a man who "represents me to the international community," and "assists me in my own outreach efforts." Photos taken on the Washington's diplomatic reception circuit show England and Islam side-by-side, chatting up contacts. Last October, England described Islam to a Pentagon in-house reporter as a man with "wonderful friendships and relationships" which allow Islam to "give me extraordinarily good advice in dealing with countries and people." England added, "I take his advice, and I listen to him all the time."
As for the Pentagon's soon-to-be-evicted Stephen Coughlin, who sits well below Islam on the Defense totem pole — he is a lawyer by training, and a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. On contract with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Coughlin made it his mission to set aside the feel-good assumptions about Islam which have been guiding U.S. strategy, and take an unblinkered look at facts.
In a thesis accepted last year by the National Defense Intelligence College, entitled "To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad," Coughlin came up with heavily documented findings that Islamic law, to a dangerous extent, supports the global spread of Islamic extremism, through both violent and non-violent means. In presentations to the military, based in part on court documents connected to the case of the Holy Land Foundation, Coughlin warned of Muslim Brotherhood plans to subvert the U.S. system via front groups, and "destroy western civilization from within."
And then, Coughlin got the shove. Earlier this month, he was told that his contract with the Joint Chiefs of Staff will not be renewed when it expires in March. Why? According to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, who on Jan. 4 broke the story of Coughlin's ouster, Coughlin ran afoul of a Pentagon "key aide" named Hesham Islam. Attributing his information to unnamed "officials," Gertz, who in a series of subsequent articles has stood by his story, alleged that Hesham Islam at a Pentagon meeting late last year sought to have Coughlin soften his views, and called him a "Christian zealot or extremist ‘with a pen'" — or words to that effect.
Pentagon officials say it never happened. In England's office, the special assistant for public relations, retired Navy Captain Kevin Wensing, says he was at the meeting, but that there was no confrontation, and Islam had nothing to do with Coughlin's ouster. Wensing also forwarded to me a statement put out by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "Mr. Coughlin will have successfully completed the terms of his contract. Therefore, there was no need to exercise the option to extend or renew the contract."
Who's right? A request to the Defense Department press office to interview Coughlin runs straight into a brick wall. A press officer says that under terms of his not-quite-expired contract, Coughlin is "prohibited from speaking to the media."
Hesham Islam appears to be under no such constraints. He gave an interview last year to ABC News, in which he talked about the hardships of being a Muslim in the military, saying that "Since 9/11, I no longer have a land line. I only work with my cell phone, because I got a lot of hate messages on the phone."
For this article, however, Islam — according to a spokesman — was "not interested in an interview." Nor would England's office provide anyone willing to answer any detailed questions about Hesham Islam for direct attribution. Instead, after some discussion, an arrangement was finally offered in which a "Pentagon spokesman" would field questions, forward them to Islam, and relay any replies.
For more information, the spokesman recommended a profile of Islam, released October 15, 2007 by the Armed Forces Press Service under the headline: "Senior Advisor to Deputy Secretary Focuses on Relationship Building." Still available on the Defense web site, the article includes an interview with Islam, some of the praise from England quoted above, and a photo of Islam, flashing a tight smile, seated in his shirtsleeves at his Pentagon desk, next to a bulletin board decked with diplomatic invitations.
But this Pentagon-endorsed profile raises more questions than it answers. It begins: "If Hesham Islam's life story was translated into a screenplay — and it's got all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster — the director would be hard-pressed to come up with a more compelling chain of events landing him as a top adviser to the deputy defense secretary."
As told by Islam to the reporter, "The movie would open with Islam as a young boy growing up in Cairo, Egypt, huddling in terror as Israeli bombs came raining down, demolishing much of the building around him and his family."
There's one problem with this scene. As far as I have been able to discover, Israel during Hesham Islam's entire lifetime has never bombed Cairo. Asked to explain this, the Pentagon spokesman duly conferred with Islam, and relayed to me by phone that Islam says this building-wrecking bombing raid took place during the 1967 Six-Day War. But as for details that might substantiate the when and where in Cairo of this graphic scene, Islam "Doesn't remember. He was seven years old."
It is of course possible that Islam was privy to a piece of history with which expert historians on the region are not acquainted. But if this tale is based solely on the unsubstantiated impressions of Islam as a seven-year-old, then what is it doing on the U.S. Defense Department website? Queries I have made to a number of experts in Tel Aviv, the U.S., and Cairo itself all get the same reply: It didn't happen. According to Michael Oren, author of the extensively researched Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Israel during the Six-Day War struck the Cairo airport, but "Israel did not bomb any residential areas of Cairo."
The profile continues: "Next would be the scene of the teenager who moves to Iraq when his Egyptian naval officer father is transferred to help establish the Arabian Gulf naval academy Islam would later attend."
That family move to Iraq came as Saddam Hussein was consolidating his Baathist rule, though neither the Pentagon profile nor Hesham Islam's Pentagon biography any makes mention of that context. In answer to questions, the Pentagon spokesman says Islam's father was invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein, but the spokesman doesn't know when: "It was in 1971-1973 time frame." Surely with Pentagon background checks, more exact information would be easily available? "It's available," says the spokesman, but "I don't have his C.V. kind of thing."
The profile goes on to describe young Hesham Islam as a "merchant mariner adrift for three days in the Arabian Sea after an Iranian torpedo sunk his 16,000-ton cargo ship, drowning all but Islam and four of his crewmates."
That sounds memorable. But after more than a week of my repeated requests made by phone and e-mail, the Pentagon spokesman — despite being presumably in touch with Islam himself — was either unable or unwilling to provide such basic information as the name of the ship, or the date of its sinking. He just kept saying he was "looking into it." But no answers.
Before I began the marathon requests for specific information, the spokesman had speculated earlier, based on conversations with Islam, that the ship might have been called the Ibn Khaldoon, which might have been registered to the Iraqi merchant marine, and might have sunk sometime in 1979. A check with the U.K.-based Lloyd's Register turns up two cargo ships registered in Iraq during that time and under that name, but no record that either was ever sunk, either in the 1970s, the 1980s, or beyond. One is still in service; the other was broken up — and not by a torpedo — only a few years ago.
As for records of any incident fitting the generic description of a 16,000-ton cargo ship, under any flag, torpedoed by the Iranians and sunk in the Arabian Sea before Islam immigrated to the U.S. sometime in 1980 (the Pentagon spokesman can't or won't say exactly when in 1980), after searching news archives, shipping records, and consulting a number of naval historians, I have yet to come across anything that corroborates Islam's Iranian-torpedo-in-the-Arabian-Sea story. There were ships sunk by the Iranians in 1980, as the Iran-Iraq war broke out — but that was happening in the Gulf, around the Shatt-al-Arab, on the other side of the Straits of Hormuz, hundreds of miles from the Arabian Sea.
It is of course possible that this torpedoing, ship sinking, and rescue took place exactly as described in the Defense profile. But having showcased the scene for public consumption, why won't Gordon England's office provide basic factual information that could confirm this story? Does Hesham Islam not remember that, either? Does no one at Defense have it on file?
In 1980, according to the profile, Islam immigrated to the U.S. to get married, being suddenly love-smitten after receiving a photo of an American pen pal with whom he had been corresponding sight-unseen for more than three years. For the next five years he worked in what the spokesman describes as the "food services" industry. In 1985 he joined the Navy as an electronics technician in the submarine service. According to his Pentagon biography, he went on to serve on a number of ships, in largely technical and operational posts, before hooking up with Gordon England and finally arriving at his current job in the Pentagon.
So, what qualifies Islam to serve as an adviser to whom Gordon England listens all the time, and whose advice England takes? According to Kevin Wensing, England's pubic-affairs aide: "Mr. Islam brings 20 years of experience in the U.S. Navy and international relations to his current assignment."
This includes an M.A. in national-security affairs, awarded in 1992 at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. For this degree, Islam wrote a 139-page thesis about the Middle East, entitled "Roots of Regional Ambition." In it, he devoted dozens of pages to lambasting Israel, and the influence of American Jews on U.S. politics. He deplored "Israeli activities which have detrimentally affected U.S. objectives but which have continued with impunity." He argued that U.S. support for Israel "has negatively affected the attainment of U.S. objectives in the Middle East." He blamed the influence of American Jews on U.S. policy for a host of ills, ranging from Arab "retaliation" against Americans, to jobs lost overseas, to hampering sales of "defensive arms to friendly Arab states."
Whether Gordon England (or Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for that matter) considers such views a relevant qualification for Islam's current duties is unclear. But what's emerging at the Pentagon is a landscape in which Stephen Coughlin's insistence on crafting doctrine based not on politically correct assumptions, but on facts, is apparently deemed a bridge too far. Meanwhile, from the office of Deputy Secretary England, Hesham Islam continues his bridge building. The question isn't just whom to believe, but who's running this show?
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.