You Read It Here First

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A little less than a year ago, in the February 2007 issue, I introduced in these pages the story of Derrick Shareef, an African-American convert to mainstream Islam who was arrested on December 8, 2006, for plotting an attack on the largest shopping mall in the Rockford area during the height of the Christmas shopping season.  Shareef was arrested in the parking lot of one of the five local Wal-Marts, when he tried to trade a pair of stereo speakers for a 9 mm handgun and four grenades.  On the face of it, the arrest seemed ludicrous—how seriously can we take a terrorist who has to barter for a handful of weapons?—and, not surprisingly, the media (local and national) and other observers were quick to downplay the danger posed by Shareef and to assure everyone that, even if he were personally dangerous, Shareef was a “lone wolf,” unconnected with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist network.

The “lone wolf” theory, as I have pointed out in the past, would have been cold comfort to anyone who might have been injured or killed, had Shareef succeeded in pulling off his plot.  But from the beginning, there was always reason to suspect that this case was about more than one unstable clerk from a video-game store.  On the day that Shareef was arrested, federal prosecutors released an affidavit, signed by an FBI agent, detailing the role played by a “confidential source” in befriending Shareef and bringing his plans to the attention of the FBI.  The most interesting element of the affidavit, in fact, did not concern Shareef; it was the revelation that the confidential source was “known to” the FBI; in other words, he had worked with the Bureau before.

It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the FBI had been keeping tabs on Shareef; or on the mosques where Shareef worshiped, in Rockford and DeKalb (home of Northern Illinois University, which has an active Muslim Student Association); or on both.  Surprisingly, outside of Chronicles, no one in the media seemed to notice the significance of the confidential source.

Which explains why both the local and national media were caught flatfooted again, on March 7, 2007, when the FBI arrested Hassan Abujihaad on charges of transferring classified information to Azzam.com, a jihadist website.  Born Paul R. Hall, Hassan had legally adopted the name Abujihaad—“father of jihad”—after his conversion to mainstream Islam.  (Like Shareef, Abujihaad is an African-American.)  His conversion and name change occurred before Abujihaad entered the U.S. Navy, a fact that raises questions in its own right.  As a signalman on the U.S.S. Benfold in early 2001, Abujihaad allegedly sent classified documents concerning naval battlegroup movements to Azzam.com, which was based in Connecticut but run by Muslims from Great Britain.  Abujihaad also purchased jihadist videotapes (which he had sent to his mother’s home address) from the website, including graphic footage of Muslims in Chechnya torturing and beheading Russian soldiers.

Correspondence with the website’s operators that federal authorities claim was written by Abujihaad praised the October 12, 2000, attack on the U.S.S. Cole.  The documents that Abujihaad allegedly sent to the website detailed the formation that the naval battlegroup would be in as it passed through the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf on April 29, 2001, as well as information about the capabilities of each ship and the general weakness of the group.  Thankfully, the information was not acted upon (at least not successfully).

After Babar Ahmad, one of the operators of the jihadist website, was arrested in Britain in August 2004 at the request of the United States, a search of his computers revealed the classified information.  Digging deeper, federal authorities found the e-mail address from which the information had been sent—Abujihaad’s address—and were able to establish that it had, indeed, come from the U.S.S. Benfold.  Proving that Abujihaad himself had sent the e-mail, however, was not so easy.  After his honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in January 2002, Abujihaad had moved to Phoenix, where he went to work for UPS.  There, federal authorities kept an eye on him, trying to obtain enough evidence to justify a warrant for his arrest.

How did they ultimately do so?  The answer lay hidden deep in the initial stories of Abujihaad’s arrest.  It seems that a confidential source, who, three months earlier, had assisted in the arrest of one Derrick Shareef in Rockford, Illinois, had managed to get Abujihaad to talk—on tape.  The occasion of the conversation, in fact, was the arrest of Shareef.  In the few hours between Shareef’s arrest and the announcement of the arrest, federal authorities apparently obtained information from Shareef that the confidential source was able to use to gain Abujihaad’s confidence and, allegedly, to get him to reveal that he had sent the e-mails from the U.S.S. Benfold.

Shareef had been Abujihaad’s roommate in Phoenix in 2004 and (federal authorities allege) was present when Abujihaad read a Washington Post story about the arrest of Ahmad.  Before his own arrest, Shareef had introduced Abujihaad to the confidential source, thus setting up the conditions that would allow the confidential source to contact Abujihaad in the hours after Shareef’s arrest, and to use the stress of the occasion to obtain information from Abujihaad that federal authorities had been unable to obtain themselves.

By now, enough pieces of the puzzle were available that any semi-diligent reporter should have been able to put them together and begin to see the bigger picture.  Derrick Shareef may have been a lone wolf, at least as regards his plot to wage “violent jihad” at CherryVale Mall; but his arrest was clearly part of a broader FBI/Homeland Security action aimed at hauling in some much bigger fish.  But again, outside of Chronicles, no one publicly made the connection.

No one, that is, until Wednesday, November 28, 2007, when two separate hearings in two separate federal courthouses almost 900 miles apart converged.  In downtown Chicago, Derrick Shareef pled guilty in U.S. District Court on federal charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.  Shareef had previously pled not guilty, and his trial had been scheduled to begin on December 10.  With his guilty plea, he now faces 30 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on March 14.

Meanwhile, in New Haven, Connecticut, an evidentiary hearing was taking place concerning the use of secret documents and tape recordings in Abujihaad’s trial.  As the Connecticut Post reported, prosecutors intended to make their case for the use of the evidence by tying Abujihaad to Shareef through “FBI recordings and a cooperating witness” (the confidential source common to both the Shareef and Abujihaad cases).  While prosecutors in the Shareef case were not able to reach a plea agreement with Shareef, his guilty plea makes the case against Abujihaad even more convincing.

Since the initial charges were entered against Abujihaad, he has also been accused of plotting with Shareef and others to attack a military-recruitment center in Arizona and a military base in San Diego, California.  He is scheduled to go on trial in federal court in New Haven on February 25.

If Abujihaad is from Arizona, why is he being tried in Connecticut?  The charges were entered there because that is where Azzam.com was hosted.  With Shareef’s guilty plea, the pressure increases on Abujihaad to make an agreement that will help federal prosecutors expedite the extradition of Babar Ahmad.  Even Abujihaad, it appears, is a small fish in the jihadist sea.  The case against Ahmad has the potential to unearth records of a broader jihadist network and to validate the federal government’s claim that Muslim extremists have been using the internet to plan terrorist attacks.  Indeed, federal authorities believe that Ahmad is tied to a network that extends from the United States into Europe and the Middle East, and which raised money for Al Qaeda front groups and Islamic rebels in Chechnya.

Suddenly, some of the mainstream media have caught on—at least to part of the story.  The headline that the Washington Post placed over an AP story on Sunday, December 2, 2007, says it all: “FBI Informant’s Role Emerges in Court Hearing.”  Of course, Chronicles readers read about the informant’s role back in the May 2007 issue, in an article written eight months before the one from the AP.

I wish that I could claim that we scooped the national news organizations because of some special insight or reporter’s instinct or even my own confidential source.  Instead, we got this story right from the beginning for the same reason that Aaron Wolf and I came away from the Muslim school and mosque here in Rockford in February 2002 with a very different story from the puff pieces published earlier in the Chicago Tribune and the Rockford Register Star: We kept our eyes open, and we knew what to look for.  Even after September 11, reporters have tended to approach stories involving Islam the way that they approach the local Lutheran church bake sale: Take the “facts” from the press release; interview a couple satisfied customers; snap a few pictures; and write the story according to the human-interest template they picked up in journalism school.

The amazing thing, perhaps, is not that other members of the media took so long to piece together the story, but that some are actually getting the story now.

Or rather, as I said earlier, part of the story.  Even the AP reporter who has zeroed in on the role played by the confidential source does not seem to have comprehended fully the fact that this is not simply a story about one informant involved in two cases, but multiple cases that are part of a larger pattern.  If what prosecutors allege is true, Shareef was part of a network centered on Abujihaad, but his attempt at “violent jihad” in Rockford was not.  Abujihaad was allegedly building a network, including snipers who could help him attack the military base in San Diego; but the network that federal authorities believe was centered on Babar Ahmad’s jihadist website was separate from anything that Abujihaad was planning.

What is emerging is a complicated picture involving both concentric and overlapping circles.  The primary connection, however, between all the men involved in all three of these cases is simply militant Islam.  Motivated by an ideology of violence and hate, like gravitated to like.  And if, as a recent Pew Research Center study indicates, 26 percent of American Muslims under the age of 30 believe that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is often or sometimes justified, that same dynamic may be playing out across the country—in mosques, through the internet, and even on military bases—more often than we would like to think.

When the national media finally put all of the pieces together, these interlocking cases will make greater waves than the case of José Padilla.  When that happens, just remember: You read it here first.

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