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February 2010

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The Palestinian Islamic Jihad U.S. Cell
[1988-95]: The Ideological Foundations of its Propaganda Strategy

Reviewed by Norvell DeAtkine

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Tally Helfont:  The Palestinian Islamic Jihad U.S. Cell [1988-95]:  The Ideological Foundations of its Propaganda Strategy.  Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; December 2009, 57 pp. Found  at www.fpri.org/pubs/2009/12/ Helfont.PalestinianIslamicJihadUSCell88-95.pdf

The author, an FPRI research fellow who also helps train members of the U.S. armed forces, states that she aims  “to analyze the content of the U.S. cell’s propaganda and identify its ideological foundations…” This monograph does so but it is much more than an analysis of the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).  In fact the author readily admits that as a movement the PIJ has not captured the support of most Palestinians or other Arabs.  Rather the study is importantly a cautionary tale of the problems and issues associated with U.S. anti-terrorism policies and attitudes. It is also harbinger of what we may expect in the future given the openness of our society and its slow recognition of the dangers radical Islamist terrorism presents.  In an oblique manner, the study also offers a revealing critique of the naïveté of much of the American academic community, our government’s control of visitors to the U.S., and how domestic politics influences U.S. anti-terrorism policies.  Helfont does not push the inferred conclusions in the reader’s face, allowing the reader his own conclusions.  The lessons learned, however, seem obvious.

The author begins with a section on the ideological influences of three individuals, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Ayatollah Khomenei.  Al-Banna, an Egyptian Islamist and theological source of the Muslim Brotherhood, advocated an internal purification of Islam and ejecting the British and French from Islamic lands.  After ejecting the imperialists, al-Banna then concentrated on the near enemy, repressive Arab regimes.  He did not reject violent jihad but advocated the internal cleansing of the Muslim community as the first priority.

The second ideological source of inspiration, Sayyid al-Qutb, was also an Egyptian and a disciple of al-Banna, but he emphasized the concept of the Islamic world caliphate and jihad against enemies of his brand of Islam, particularly the Pan-Arab socialist regimes.  In so doing he incurred the wrath of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser who ultimately executed him.

The third influence is that of Sayed Ruhollah Khomenei who espoused the pan-Islamic view, integrating his Shi’a roots and beliefs, particularly that of martyrdom, adding a particularly virulent anti-Zionist and anti-Judaic ideology combined with hatred of Western culture and colonialism.  Although both al-Banna and Qutb were anti-Zionist, neither had the visceral hatred of Judaism that characterized the speeches and pronouncements of Khomenei.  This was manifested in two ways:  first the Zionist state itself was a manifestation of continued Western imperialism in a different form, and secondly the Jews were depicted as historical and implacable enemies of Islam, dating back to the early days of Mohammed the Prophet as he began his mission of spreading Islam.

An additional influence and one that brought the focus of the PIJ to Palestine was the early hero of the Palestinian struggle against the expanding Zionist entity, Izz ad-Din al-Qassim, an early leader of an anti-Jewish terror organization called the “Black Hand.”  Al-Qassim viewed the Palestinian conflict in explicitly religious terms, involving the concept of the fida’ii (one who sacrifices himself) and his organization as latter day defenders against a continuing Western crusade in the Islamic East.  Killed in a skirmish with British troops, he became identified as an early martyr.

 It was at this point that nationalist pan-Arab ideology became part of the fabric of the ideology inherited by the founders of the PIJ.  The foundation of the PIJ was the culmination of several historical trends and the fervent Islamist-nationalist ideological currents extant in the universities of Egypt which were absorbed by the many Palestinian students studying in Egypt.  Particularly two of them -- both from Palestinian refugee families living in Gaza, Fathi Ibrahim Abd al-Aziz al-Shiqaqi and Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Awda, broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood, citing a lack of Brotherhood focus on regaining Palestine.  Upon their return to Gaza they founded the PIJ with much of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology embedded within their founding charter, but also with the expressed goal of “liberating” Palestine.  Within this goal of dismantling Israel was the desire to install an Islamic regime and topple “infidel” regimes, i.e., those that cooperated with the West.

This goal of installing Islamic rule over Palestine by violent jihad was to be accomplished by creation of a state of terror among the Jewish population, eradicating any possibility of coexistence.  Overarching this goal of an Islamic Palestine was the eventual creation of a pan-Islamic empire, similar to that of the seventh century Omayyad Empire.  Integral to this goal, given the influence of Ayatollah Khomenei, was an ideology that tended to avoid Sunni-Shi’a conflict, viewing Shi’ism as simply a fifth school of Islamic law.  Admiration of Khomenei throughout the Islamic world at the time made the obfuscation easy to accomplish.  The Ayatollah’s view of Judaism and Jews particularly appealed to PIJ founders.  Concurrently with their embrace of Khomeneism was a parting of the ways with the Muslim Brotherhood.  While the Brotherhood espoused the view that Israel would be destroyed once the Islamic world was established, the PIJ looked for the destruction of Israel as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate.

Cogent to U.S. security is Helfont’s chapter on the U.S. cell of the PIJ.  It conveys many lessons for today’s anti-terrorism programs.  Primarily it is the saga of Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-born professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida, who functioned as leader of the U.S. cell of the PIJ, as well as other posts in the international structure of the organization. Two other educators assisted al-Arian’s efforts: Gaza-born Ramadan Abdullah Muhammad Shallal and Egyptian-born Bashir Mohammed Nafi.  Both taught at universities in the United Kingdom and both spent extensive time in the U.S.  Eventually Nafi was deported for visa violations and Shallal moved up to an international position to replace al-Shiqaqi, who was reputedly killed by Israeli agents in Malta.  Following a modus operandi that entailed incorporating fundraising for the terror organization with educational and charitable foundations, they were able to create a tax-exempt non-profit organization which was used to channel funds to the PIJ.  Because of its charitable façade, it was able to conceal its spending records.  Using a bogus educational foundation, al-Arian established relationships with U.S. university think tanks.  Using these credentials, al-Arian sponsored several “conferences,” which in reality were used as recruiting vehicles from Muslim communities in the U.S. and as fundraisers.

Rhetoric of the speakers at these conferences is detailed in later chapters of the monograph.  Featured were hair-raising vitriolic attacks on Jews and exhortations to jihad, extolling terror attacks on Israelis.  Appearing as guest speakers were a number of Islamic extremists, including Sheikh Umar abd al-Rahman, who, along with nine other radicals, were convicted for involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which actually involved a plot to blow up a number of targets, including the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, etc.  Numerous Islamist agitators came and went, apparently without hindrance, all with legitimate American visas, displaying the laxity of our border controls and laxity in granting visas to well-known hate mongers and verbal supporters of terror.

The worst and most appalling was yet to come.  This concerned the lengthy incarceration and trial of Sámi al-Arian, which ended with a humiliating defeat for federal prosecutors and the Bush administration’s war on terror. The trial also provided tremendous favorable press for al-Arian, and additional ammunition for Islamist propaganda that American society is Islamophobic.  Helfont is content to relate that after a five month trial al-Arian was found not guilty on eight counts and that the jury was unable to agree on nine others.  According to the author, despite months of evidence proving that al-Arian was “deeply involved in the PIJ,” the jury deemed the evidence inconclusive.  There was much more the author did not include.  As one jury member told the Tampa Tribune, using what has become a stock phrase for intelligence failures, the government “failed to connect the dots.”

The statement reminded this reviewer of his experience as a witness at the 1995 World Trade Center bombing trial.  While being questioned by the defense attorney presenting documentation in the same courtroom to be used for the upcoming trials of Guantanamo-housed terrorists, I noticed many of the jury were bleary-eyed and some dozing off.  The prolonged introduction of complicated wiretaps, bank transfers, etc. is very difficult for the average citizen to  absorb.  That is why I shudder at the confidence of the present Attorney General that conviction is assured in  future civil trials.

In the course of the trial al-Arian became a latter day hero to many.  Websites were dedicated to his defense, and much of the Arab and Islamic world saw him as a victim of American malice toward Muslims.  Quoting American sources, Al Ahram, an influential Arab periodical in its English version, decried the “Islamophobia,”  Domestically,  political enemies of the Bush administration, exhibited shadenfraude at the final verdict.  In summary, it was a disaster for U.S. attempts to contain Islamic radicalism within the U.S.  One wonders why the promised trials in New York City will be any different.


Author Norvell B. DeAtkine is a retired Colonel, a graduate of West Point with an M. A. from the American University of Beirut in Arab Studies. His extensive overseas service includes combat service in Vietnam, an assignment in Korea, and 8 years in the Middle East. Among his positions held were as an artillery battalion commander and deputy commander of a Corps Artillery. Following his military service he taught for 18 years as the director of Middle East studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

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