Justice Abruptly Cancelled 'Muslim Outreach' Event

The Justice Department this summer abruptly cancelled a high-profile "Muslim outreach" event featuring Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after discovering that one of the invited guests was an officer of an organization just named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a major terrorism case.

The scheduled event was slated to take place in the main department auditorium known as the Great Hall of Justice on June 27--with Gonzales billed as the keynote speaker. The program was titled "Securing America: Law Enforcement Partnerships with American Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian Communities," according to the official invitation, which went out to scores of groups and individuals last spring.

But after the invites went out, aides to Gonzales suddenly became alarmed that it could create a new embarrassment for the embattled attorney general. The reason: one of the featured speakers was a prominent Northern Virginia imam who serves as vice president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which had just been branded by federal prosecutors in court papers as a U.S. branch of the Muslim Brotherhood--the international movement, based in Egypt, dedicated to the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. ISNA, which has not been charged with any crime, was among more than a hundred organizations and individuals who were listed in late May as "unindicted co-conspirators" in the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation--the Texas-based group now on trial in Dallas for allegedly conspiring to funnel funds to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

The discovery created tensions among officials of the department's civil-rights division (which organized the event) and the criminal division's counterterrorism section (which is overseeing the prosecution). It prompted Justice officials to hastily "postpone" the event, calling up and e-mailing the invited guests in early June and informing them that the attorney general had a "scheduling conflict."

"There was some concern in DOJ over this," said one of the senior officials. "The political math was that this could lead to stories about the attorney general sitting down with bad guys and that was going to become an embarrassment."

"It is not unusual for tentatively scheduled DOJ events to be postponed due to any number of reasons," said Brian Roehrkasse, the Justice Department's chief of public affairs, when asked about the cancellation. He pointed out that Gonzales was on a nationwide speaking tour that week and did not return until the evening of the day the event was scheduled. A Justice official (who asked not to be identified talking about upcoming scheduling issues) said the department was planning "a couple of similar events" for later in the year, but declined to say "who will or won't be invited."

The snafus over the June 27 event was fraught with ironies and illustrates both the jitteriness at Justice over Gonzales's political standing as well as the pitfalls that sometimes plague the department's Muslim outreach programs. Most law-enforcement officials consider those programs, designed to foster better cooperation with the Muslim-American community, to be critical efforts to identify and prosecute terrorists inside the country.

The very same day as the postponed Justice event, for example, President Bush conducted a similar Muslim outreach event, giving a major speech at the rededication of the Islamic Center in Washington. In the address, the president announced the administration's plans to appoint a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference--the first time the U.S. government has ever done so. Among the invited guests at that event was Northern Virginia imam Mohamed Magid, the vice president of ISNA, and the very same official whose scheduled presence at the Justice event triggered concerns that it could cause problems for Gonzales. Also invited to the Islamic Center event--and cleared by the White House for attendance--was Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), another organization recently branded by prosecutors as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and named to the unindicted co-conspirator list in the Holy Land case.

In fact, Justice officials readily acknowledge they have no evidence that Magid is linked to terrorism or committed any crime--and one senior official pointed out that the Sudanese-born imam did not even become an officer of ISNA until last year, well after the events at issue in the Holy Land case. Although it has sometimes been derided by critics for promoting a conservative Wahabi brand of Islam, the Plainfield, Ind.-based ISNA describes itself as a nationwide group aimed at "supporting Muslim communities" and "fostering good relations with other religious communities."

In a brief telephone interview with NEWSWEEK Wednesday, Magid pointed a reporter to an e-mail statement saying that the ISNA was seeking an immediate retraction of the government's "unfounded allegations" in the Holy Land case. "ISNA is not now and has never been involved in any covert or illegal activity and has never supported any terrorist organizations," the statement read. "Rather, ISNA is an open and transparent membership organization that strives to be an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization … ISNA hereby reaffirms its unqualified condemnation of all acts of terrorism."

Hooper, the CAIR spokesman, also denounced the listing of his group as an "unindicted co-conspirator" of the Holy Land Foundation, calling it "completely unjustified." He added: "When you're named in this way, you have no legal recourse."

According to one senior law-enforcement official (who asked not to be named talking about an ongoing case), the listing of ISNA, CAIR and other groups as "unindicted co-conspirators" was largely a tactical move by the government. By listing the groups, the official said, it makes it easier for prosecutors to introduce documents, tapes and other evidence mentioning them and which relate to what the government charges is a wide-ranging conspiracy to raise money in the United States in support of Hamas. (Even though Hamas leaders last year won elections and now effectively run Gaza, the group remains a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.)

As outlined in recent court papers filed in the trial, prosecutors claim that the alleged conspiracy was run by a "significant" and "well-organized" Muslim Brotherhood infrastructure inside the United States that included a vast array of Muslim groups--such as CAIR and ISNA--that facilitated the Holy Land's activities even though the entities themselves did not directly commit any crimes. One apparent government goal in the trial (which is now under way) is to show the common Muslim Brotherhood roots of Holy Land and the other U.S. Muslim organizations--a potentially significant point to make to the jury, given the government's claim that Hamas itself is the "Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood." Holy Land lawyers are contesting all of the government's charges and claim that Holy Land and its officers were simply raising money for social-welfare programs to benefit Palestinians, not terrorism.

All this begs the question of whether the Brotherhood and its alleged affiliates are, or in any way should be, suspect. The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership in Egypt has officially renounced terrorism and violence, prompting some U.S. officials, especially in the State Department, to argue that the U.S. government should reconsider its longtime position of refusing to talk with members of the organization.

But many law-enforcement and intelligence officials remain suspicious--and they are likely to find support for their view in the mother lode of documents now being introduced into evidence in the Holy Land case. One such document, a 1991 memorandum written by an apparent Muslim Brotherhood activist, is titled "Understanding the Role of the Muslim Brother in North America." It states: "The Ikhwan [Brothers] 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." In a recent blog post, terror researcher Douglas Farah (coauthor with Stephen Braun of the new book "Merchant of Death") called the document "the smoking gun … on the Muslim Brotherhood's multifaceted plan to convert the United States to an Islamic nation."

Justice officials are not about to publicly endorse such a dark view of the Brotherhood--much less condemn all of the group's alleged affiliates in the United States. Indeed, they say their understanding of the web of relationships among U.S.-based groups linked to the Brotherhood is murky at best--and needs to be further investigated. That was one reason why they were concerned about the event with Gonzales at Justice even while others--including senior officials of the FBI--contend those investigations will never get anywhere without more effective "Muslim outreach."