At the urging of a subordinate, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England scheduled at least two meetings with foreign emissaries in direct contradiction of U.S. policy at the time. The meetings date back to 2005. They involved a Lebanese ambassador considered a proxy for the Syrian government and a leading member of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
U.S. policy at the time was not to engage in talks with either man, because they represent groups with whom the United States was not to communicate. The meetings were organized by England's special assistant for international affairs, Hesham Islam.
An invitation to Muslim Brotherhood official Husam al-Dairi was canceled in late 2005 after a senior State Department official heard about it and insisted it not take place. That official, J. Scott Carpenter, told IPT News he was shocked that such an invitation was issued, let alone that it was done without anyone consulting the State Department.
Carpenter was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs at the time and knew the meeting went against U.S. policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
"I said, ‘what are you talking about?'" he remembered in an interview last week. "It was a bad idea."
Without due deliberation, it is easy to send the wrong message "broad and near," Carpenter said. "If something like that were to come up and be blindsided … it's not just a procedural foul up. It could unwittingly create bigger problems for the United States government."
"When you have somebody who has a controversial background," Carpenter added, "you don't want to give the impression that the United States government is standing behind them."
Two discussions should have taken place, he said. One would debate whether the meeting should take place at all. If it was agreed it should, the next question should determine the level of government appropriate to meet someone from the Brotherhood. Deputy Defense Secretary is far too high, Carpenter said.
After Carpenter relayed his concerns to England's office, a staff member called back. She told him it would be "a huge hassle to postpone it" and if that happened, England's office would make it clear this was the result of the State Department "putting its foot down and [saying] the meeting should not take place."
Carpenter said that was fine by him. The episode, including the serendipitous way he learned about it, made him wonder whether other meetings like that took place without State Department consultation, he said.
"When the United States is meeting with dissidents, it is important to know who those dissidents are and what message we send by meeting with them. It is incredibly important that the wrong signal not be sent," Carpenter said.
That may have happened earlier in 2005, when England met with Farid Abboud, a Lebanese ambassador to Washington. Viewed as a proxy for the Syrian government, Abboud was frozen out by U.S. government officials working to isolate Syria, especially as tensions rose following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The attack is widely suspected of having been orchestrated by Syria.
David Schenker, a former adviser in the Secretary of Defense's office on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs, described Abboud's influence in Washington in an article column published last March in the Weekly Standard. Schenker described Abboud as "unabashedly pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah" and explained his diplomatic isolation resulted from that perception.
"Essentially, Abboud has spent the last six years of the Bush administration largely isolated, having little or no contact with executive branch personnel. Since 2003 Abboud has met with only one senior administration official--then Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate Gordan England--but the meeting happened only because of negligence on the part of one of England's junior staffers. As a matter of policy, the administration has treated Abboud as a Syrian official and has studiously avoided contact."
Schenker declined to discuss the controversy in England's office or Hesham Islam. But he confirmed that Islam is the "junior staffer" referenced in his article.
U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said news of the invitations was a cause for concern.
"You have to wonder, what do you have, freelancers out there?" Hoekstra asked. "Clearly it's sending a conflicting message to some of these groups. When you have a lack of clarity it always creates problems."
Islam has become embroiled in a power struggle of sorts within England's office. Late last month, Army Reserve Major Stephen Coughlin, who also reports to England, was told his contract would not be renewed. Allies consider Coughlin the Pentagon's lone specialist on Islamic law, especially as militants use it to justify terrorism. That was the subject of Coughlin's thesis for the Joint Military Intelligence College completed last year, titled "To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad."
In addition, Coughlin issued a memo in September analyzing evidence in the Texas-based trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). The foundation and five of its officials were charged with illegally funneling money to Hamas.
Evidence released at the HLF trial implicated, among other Islamist groups, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) as part of a Muslim Brotherhood network in the U.S. Coughlin concluded that the Department of Defense should cease its outreach programs with ISNA. Yet England has met repeatedly with ISNA officials, including an April 2007 luncheon at the Pentagon.
The Washington Times reported Coughlin's ouster was rooted in a disagreement with Mr. Islam over the tone of Coughlin's writings. In one meeting, the Times reported, Islam referred to Coughlin as "a Christian zealot with a pen." Pentagon officials maintain Coughlin's contract was not renewed due to basic budgetary concerns.
Whatever the cause, Coughlin's pending departure from the Pentagon has generated concern on Capitol Hill. U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-NC, indicated she may try to organize an inquiry by the bipartisan House Anti-Terrorism Caucus.
The Pentagon appears reluctant to address questions about Coughlin or Mr. Islam.
On Jan. 25, Claudia Rosett challenged a series of key components in Islam's biography.
An October profile published on a web site called Defense Link was removed from the Department of Defense website by the next business day. Rosett reported that no one responded to her requests for an explanation. The profile can still be seen here.
The DOD public affairs office did not respond to numerous telephone messages and e-mails seeking information about the article's removal, the two invitations from England's office or more information about Hesham Islam. The Washington Times quoted a top Pentagon spokesman Friday saying the profile was "taken down in an attempt to reduce the rhetoric and the emotion surrounding this issue while we try to determine the facts."
Geoff Morell went on to say that the facts he referred to related to whether Islam called Coughlin "a Christian zealot with a pen" and not about the questions regarding Islam's life story.
Reportedly, Deputy Secretary England has a great deal of confidence in Mr. Islam, especially when it comes to Islamic issues. "He's my interlocutor," England said in the Islam profile recently removed from the DOD website. "He represents me to the international community. He assists me in my own outreach efforts, and he's extraordinarily good at it." Mr. England added that he is hardly ever in disagreement with Mr. Islam's advice. "After all," he said, "if you have a good doctor, you listen to your doctor, right?"
While the U.S. government continues to debate the merits of talking with the Muslim Brotherhood, England's "doctor" has prescribed a steady diet of Brotherhood-connected outreach. The Brotherhood's ideology is what gives government officials pause. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is a global Islamist movement with a stated long-range objective of a global Islamic state with Shariah law "the basis controlling the affairs of state and society." As stated by Hasan al-Banna, the Brotherhood's founder, "It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet." That helps explain the Muslim Brotherhood's motto: "God is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations."
It has provided the ideological underpinnings for almost all modern Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda may all be independent terrorist groups, but in 2003 testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, former counter terror adviser to the National Security Council Richard Clarke points out: "The common link here is the extremist Muslim Brotherhood - all of these organizations are descendants of the membership and ideology of the Muslim Brothers." The Hamas Charter states that the terrorist organization "is one of the wings of Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine. Moslem Brotherhood Movement is a universal organization which constitutes the largest Islamic movement in modern times."
In his thesis, Coughlin argues Muslim Brotherhood ideology is not far removed from bin Laden's. And he casts doubt on the Brotherhood's claim that it parted ways with its violent rhetoric. As an example, Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi in 2004 labeled all Americans in Iraq as combatants acceptable for targeting. "The abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq is an obligation so as to cause them to leave Iraq immediately." Coughlin writes:
Of note, although attempting to reposition as moderates, the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to reject any portion of its historic mission as stated above. As the citation string of Muslim Brotherhood leaders indicates, "extremists" have a coherent message that is consistent and specifically defined in Islamic terms that include jihad. As both al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood examples indicate, choosing not to look to Islam for answers becomes the decision not to understand the threat.
As for the American branch of the Brotherhood, ISNA was founded in 1981 by Muslim Brotherhood members in North America. It is the first organization listed among "A list of our organizations and the organizations of our friends" in a secret Muslim Brotherhood internal strategy memo dates May 22, 1991. The memo was entered into evidence last summer during the HLF trial.
That memo also laid out the Brotherhood's (Ikhwan in Arabic) long-range strategy in the U.S.
The process of settlement is a "Civilization-Jihadist Process" with all the word means. The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and "sabotaging" its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions. Without this level of understanding, we are not up to this challenge and have not prepared ourselves for Jihad yet. It is a Muslim's destiny to perform Jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny except for those who chose to slack. But, would the slackers and the Mujahedeen be equal.
ISNA was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the HLF trial, which ended in a mistrial in October. Prosecutors are preparing to retry the case.
In addition to the invitations to Abboud and al-Dairi, Mr. Islam arranged for Deputy Secretary England to be a featured speaker at ISNA's 43rd Annual Convention in September 2006. England reciprocated by hosting an ISNA delegation at the Pentagon on April 25, 2007. According to ISNA's publication, Islamic Horizons, Hesham Islam also attended the meeting, along with Abuhena Saifulislam, the U.S. Navy chaplain trained by ISNA's Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS).
ISNA also has a long history of sympathy and sometimes open support for terrorist organizations and their objectives. That including speaking out against the detention of Hamas deputy political director Mousa Abu Marzook. US authorities arrested Marzook in 1995 after Israel requested his extradition to face murder charges. Hamas already had been designated a terrorist group by the US government. The November/December 1995 issue of ISNA's Islamic Horizons magazine described Marzook as "[a] member of the political wing of Hamas, disliked by the Zionist entity for its Islamic orientation."
Marzook wound up deported to Jordan in 1997. He later thanked ISNA, writing that the group supported him through his "ordeal." Marzook wrote that ISNA's efforts had "consoled" him.
In his Sept. 7, 2007 memorandum on the HLF evidence, Coughlin urged caution in conducting outreach ventures "in the face of credible information that seeming Islamic humanitarian or professional non-governmental organizations may be part of the global jihad with potential for being part of the terrorist or insurgent support system."
The memo concludes intelligently and prophetically:
The [Brotherhood] Memorandum identifies ISNA as an element of the Muslim Brotherhood that the Justice Department already designated as an unindicted coconspirator that Congress has given formal notice that it has knowledge. Outreach as an end in itself can cause those responsible for its success to so narrowly focus on the outreach relationship that they miss the surrounding events and lose perspective. This could undermine unity of effort in Homeland Security, lead to potential for embarrassment for the USG and legitimize threat organizations by providing them domestic sanctuary. In light of unfolding events, disregarding a Congressional request to suspend attendance at the ISNA conference may result in some uncommonly uncomfortable public testimony. (italics added)