A Muslim School Used by Military Has Troubling Ties

FAIRFAX, Va. -- When the Defense Department wanted to hire a qualified imam for leading Friday prayer for Muslim employees at the Pentagon last year, it posted a notice at the nearby Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America.

Nestled in an office park here, the institute was a logical place to look. Since the mid-1990s, it has helped train at least 75 people as Islamic religious advisers for Muslim-American troops world-wide. These Islamic lay leaders, as the Pentagon calls them, are soldiers and civilian employees who volunteer to provide spiritual guidance when paid Muslim chaplains aren't available.

But the Defense Department's reliance on the Islamic institute has a potentially troubling side. There are signs that the school, an arm of the Saudi Arabian government, disseminates the intolerant and anti-Western strain of Islam espoused by the Persian Gulf kingdom's religious establishment.

The institute's published curriculum calls for studying the ruinous effect of Christian beliefs. Lecturers at the institute have included a cleric who congressional investigators say was a spiritual adviser to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. And the Muslim-American activist who helped arrange for the institute to train Muslim lay leaders, Abdur Rahman Alamoudi, was indicted in October for taking from Libya money that prosecutors suspect was intended to finance terrorism.

Saudi officials have denied the view -- widely held among U.S. government and private terrorism experts -- that the strict Saudi version of Islam has helped provide an ideological justification for violence against the West. But lately, the kingdom has begun to reform its educational and religious establishments. Officials with the Islamic institute say it is avidly pro-American, peace-loving and religiously moderate.

Whatever the school's official philosophy, it's clear the Pentagon has done business with an operation with worrisome associations. The Defense Department, which says it no longer uses the school, now acknowledges it didn't look closely at the outside groups helping mold its Muslim programs. The military stays out of the business of approving religious organizations in deference to the constitutional separation of church and state, Charles Abell, the Defense Department's deputy undersecretary for personnel, told a Senate subcommittee in October.

Some officials at the Islamic institute are formally affiliated with the Saudi Embassy in Washington and enjoy diplomatic status, according to the U.S. State Department. On several recent occasions, cars bearing Saudi diplomatic license plates occupied staff parking spaces outside the institute's offices. But a Washington spokesman for the Saudi government, who asks not to be named, says Saudi diplomats know little about what the institute does. After a series of inquiries about the institute, the spokesman adds that the Saudi government has now decided to close the school for unspecified reasons. Institute officials say they know of no such plans.

The Pentagon's programs for Muslim soldiers have come under intense scrutiny since the arrest in September of an Islamic chaplain accused of violating military secrecy while working at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case, and the arrest of two Arabic translators accused of secrecy violations at Guantanamo, have prompted congressional hearings and an espionage investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Pentagon has released the Muslim chaplain, who was sponsored for his position by Mr. Alamoudi's group, while the case against him continues. It isn't known whether the chaplain or any Muslim lay leaders at Guantanamo were trained at the institute. Meanwhile, military officials are reviewing the two Muslim organizations they have used to certify a dozen or so Islamic chaplains in the wake of accusations that those organizations have links to terrorism.

What has gone unnoticed during this controversy is the role of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America in training the far-bigger network of Muslim lay leaders, who are in a position to influence the religious views of large numbers of U.S. soldiers. The institute, part of Saudi Arabia's state-run university system, is funded and controlled by the kingdom's Ministry of Higher Education.

Saudi government-backed religious charities, schools and wealthy Saudi individuals have long promoted the Wahhabi version of Islam. Wahhabism is named for Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century Islamic purist who advocated returning to the Islam practiced in the seventh century by the Prophet Muhammad and his initial followers. As espoused in recent decades, Wahhabism condemns all Western influence on the Muslim world, and its tenets have been invoked by Osama bin Laden, among other terrorists.

Muhieldin Saleh, a dean at the Islamic institute in northern Virginia, says, There is no way the institute will allow or tolerate anyone to come here and send a message of hate or intolerance.

Dawud Alyasa, a Muslim convert who served as a military lay leader in the late 1990s and received training at the institute, agrees. The classes were geared to basic principles of Islam, understanding who Allah is, prayer, some of the issues soldiers may have, such as fasting, and related matters, says Mr. Alyasa. He left the military in 2000.

Spiritual Needs

Until the 1990s, the Pentagon did little to tend to the spiritual needs of its growing Muslim ranks, now estimated at between 4,000 and 10,000. For Christian and Jewish troops, it has long maintained a world-wide network of more than 3,000 ordained chaplains and thousands of additional lay leaders, who back up the chaplains. But Muslims in uniform largely went without official religious attention.

About 10 years ago, Mr. Alamoudi, the Muslim-American activist, approached the Pentagon and offered to help. A naturalized American citizen, he was born in Eritrea but is a member of a large and influential Saudi business clan. As head of the American Muslim Council, a Washington lobbying group, he rubbed elbows with politicians in both parties. His organization had contacts within the Muslim community that not many other institutions had, says Herman Keizer, a minister with the Christian Reformed Church in North America who then headed the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, which oversees military religious activity.

Mr. Alamoudi's entreaty resulted in the Pentagon setting up two programs: one to recruit Muslim clerics as chaplains and another to train troops and employees as Muslim lay leaders. An offshoot of Mr. Alamoudi's American Muslim Council began certifying chaplains and worked with the Islamic institute to train lay advisers.

There was some concern about the connections between [Mr. Alamoudi's organization] and countries in the Middle East, says Rev. Keizer, who left the military-chaplain board in 1994. But he declines to elaborate on this concern and confirms that it didn't stop the Pentagon from relying on Mr. Alamoudi and his group.

Recently, that reliance has become problematic. In October, Mr. Alamoudi was indicted on charges of illegally taking from Libya hundreds of thousands of dollars that federal prosecutors say they suspect was intended for delivery to terrorists in the Middle East or anti-American fighters headed for Iraq.

Prosecutors say Mr. Alamoudi is also at the center of a network of northern Virginia-based Islamic groups that are under federal investigation for possibly financing terrorism. Mr. Alamoudi was denied bail in October after prosecutors presented evidence in court that he expressed his support for terrorism and repeatedly transferred money to terrorists, including the Palestinian group Hamas and front groups affiliated with al Qaeda. U.S. investigators have quoted him in court documents as discussing terrorism with an unidentified informant, and saying, I prefer to hit a Zionist target in America or Europe.

Mr. Alamoudi has pleaded innocent to the Libya-related charges and hasn't been charged in the Virginia investigation. His lawyer, Stanley Cohen, says the accusations against his client are part of an attempt to intimidate influential Muslims. There's a lot of smoke and huff and puff, but there's nothing there, the lawyer said. Mr. Cohen added that his client has had only limited involvement with the institute.

Pentagon spokesman James Turner declines to comment on the charges against Mr. Alamoudi. Mr. Turner says the military no longer uses the institute to train Muslim lay leaders, but he declines to elaborate or explain whether another group is doing such training. The last of five plaques commemorating the sessions in the institute's lobby is dated 2000.

Training Sessions

Beginning in 1993, the institute, working in conjunction with the offshoot of Mr. Alamoudi's American Muslim Council, held at least five training sessions for Islamic lay leaders. Mr. Turner estimates that 75 to 100 Islamic lay leaders went there for training during the 1990s.

The five-day training sessions, provided free of charge, taught general concepts of Islam that are important in field situations where no cleric is available, Mr. Saleh, the institute dean, says. He offers an example: If a Muslim dies, and they do not know how to bathe the body, it is a problem.

Military officials last year asked the Muslim lay leader who works at the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va., to post the notice seeking to hire an imam, or prayer leader, for the Pentagon, according to Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd. The institute was only one of several places where the notice was put up, Ms. Rudd says.

The posting was written by Zadil Ansari, a technician who works on contract for the Defense Department and serves as the Pentagon's Muslim lay leader. Mr. Ansari also served as an advisory board member on Mr. Alamoudi's American Muslim Council. Mr. Ansari declines to be interviewed, but through Ms. Rudd says he had only slight involvement with the council.

Mr. Alyasa, the former lay leader who attended institute classes, says that as an enlisted man in the Army, he began attending training sessions in the mid-1990s at a U.S. base in Landstuhl, Germany. The sessions were organized by the offshoot of Mr. Alamoudi's group, the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, he says. In 1996, he says the Alamoudi armed-forces council arranged for him and about 60 other soldiers to travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca that every devout Muslim is expected to make at least once. The trip was financed by the Saudi government, he says.

After he transferred to an Army base in Fort Belvoir, Va., where he worked as a hospital lab technician, Mr. Alyasa got involved in organizing religious activities for Muslims there. In 1998, the Alamoudi armed-forces council arranged for him to attend training sessions at the Islamic institute in Fairfax, he says. He was able to attend only a few of the classes because of his military duties, but he describes the training as addressing such issues as making sure that soldiers are able to follow Muslim dietary rules. In addition to helping arrange training sessions, the Alamoudi armed-forces group asked lay leaders to gather information on where Muslims served in the military, according to records from the group gathered by the Investigative Project, a Washington nonprofit.

Mr. Alyasa says that he is aware that the Saudis and their religious organizations, including the institute, adhere to an orthodox form of Islam, but he says he doesn't think that it fosters extremism. Saudi scholars over there are the ones trying to warn people about doing these crazy things, he says.

The Islamic institute's Web site says that it presents Islam peacefully and moderately. After Sept. 11, 2001, the site said the terrorist attacks constitute clear violations to the teachings of Islam. Omar Alsabti, the institute's deputy director, adds in an interview: A real Muslim cannot accept this kind of behavior. How can you kill 3,000 innocent people?

For a seminar at the institute sponsored by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and president of the school's board of trustees, the institute published several academic papers promoting U.S.-Saudi ties. It's a straightforward academic institution, and we do not tolerate any kind of activities whatsoever that are against the spirit or rules or laws of the countries we practice in, says Mr. Saleh, the dean.

The school's 30 employees occupy a spacious two-story building containing offices, a library and a large room for prayer with separate entrances for men and women.

The library, where the imam-wanted notice was still posted as recently as October, has a limited selection focused mainly on books and magazines that espouse the Saudi religious establishment's anti-Western strain of Islam. I basically went through the whole library. The only books that were there are Wahhabi books, says Ali al-Ahmed, head of the Saudi Institute, an independent Washington group that promotes civil-rights reforms in the kingdom.

The magazine rack in the library includes only a handful of English-language periodicals, all of which promote fundamentalist Islam. One is the official journal of the Saudi government religious agency responsible for international proselytizing, the Muslim World League. Islamic terrorism is merely a figment of imagination, said an article in the September issue. The hallucination of the Islamic terrorism created by Western manipulators and the Zionist zealots is gradually breaking down.

Some Arabic-language books the school carries and distributes denounce other religions, according to Mr. Ahmed, head of the Saudi Institute. Mr. Ahmed has translated parts of one book the institute has distributed at conferences and seminars titled The True Religion, which condemns Judaism and Christianity as deviant.

Regarding Christianity, the Islamic school's curriculum calls for studying the ruinous effect of these beliefs on the innate human disposition and the modern situation.

Anwar al-Aulaqi, the former imam at a mosque in San Diego, also has lectured at the institute. A congressional report on Sept. 11 released this July said Mr. Aulaqi counseled two of the hijackers while they stayed in San Diego and then transferred to a mosque that both hijackers attended in northern Virginia shortly before the attacks. Mr. Aulaqi, who is now believed to be in Yemen, has denied knowing of the hijackers' plans.

Islamic institute officials say they aren't responsible for lecturers' controversial views. It is an open society we have here, Mr. Saleh says.

Write to Glenn R. Simpson at glenn.simpson@wsj.com

 

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