The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs came under fire earlier this month for inviting to a conference on terrorism three men who make questionable claims to being former terrorists, and whose message was more about religious conversion than counterterror strategies.
Claiming to be reformed Muslim jihadists who have since embraced evangelical Christianity, the three men are being criticized for telling a gathering of cadets and other students that one way to fight terror is by converting the planet’s Muslim population—about a fifth of the world’s people—to Christianity.
Among the surprised recipients of that message were 18 New York–area college students, some from Columbia University.
Omar Khalifah, a Columbia student who is studying Asian and Middle Eastern languages and culture, was among more than 200 international students and Air Force cadets who attended the four-day conference. Khalifah, who is from Jordan, says he was shocked and offended by the proselytizing he saw. “We left our study for one week to try to find solutions, not to listen to a person who is speaking as a preacher, as if he is in a church,” Khalifah says.
Critics question whether the three speakers—Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem, and Zachariah Anani—really engaged in the terrorist activities they claim. Shoebat says he’s a former PLO operative who terrorized Jews, gave his ex-wife “Muslim-style beatings,” and planted a bomb in a bank. Saleem, a Christian minister, says he was a PLO child soldier who transported weapons into Israel via underground tunnels. Anani says he’s killed at least 223 people and was “almost beheaded” in Lebanon for converting to Christianity.
The three were paid $13,000 to explain the terrorist mind-set at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the American Assembly, a policy forum affiliated with Columbia University. But instead of educating their audience, Khalifah and other grad students say, the speakers denounced Islam and promoted Christianity.
Khalifah and other New Yorkers say they were initially annoyed at the trio’s alarmist rhetoric, including claims that jihadist ideology is being taught in 90 percent of American mosques, and the characterization of Islam as an inherently violent religion. But they were truly offended by Shoebat’s announcement that converting Muslims to Christianity was a good way to defeat terrorism.
Columbia law student Ernest Jedrzejewski compares the presentation to a Christian tent revival. “All we needed was a light from above and someone to suddenly get over an incurable illness,” he says.
After the speakers left the stage, Khalifah approached Saleem and challenged statements that he considered offensive and inaccurate. Saleem claims that Khalifah went even further, addressing a death threat to him in Arabic: “You are an enemy of Islam and you must die.” Police questioned Khalifah but didn’t charge him. “All the allegations were proved to be unsubstantiated, and I was free to go,” Khalifah says. But it didn’t end there.
Once the contentious presentation made national headlines, the self-proclaimed ex-terrorists put out a press release about Khalifah’s supposed death threat and the “smear campaign” orchestrated against them by Muslim groups and the “liberal media.” The three have also vehemently denied accusations by journalists and Muslim groups that they are “stooges of the Christian right,” saying that they were explaining their personal experiences in the jihadist underground, not proselytizing. “We are terrorism experts coming in to talk about terrorism. . . . Christianity worked for us, but that was not the theme of the speech,” Shoebat tells the Voice. “It’s racist to say a Christian is not allowed to be an expert on terrorism.”
But questions about the credibility of the three men’s terror claims aren’t going away. The New York Times pointed out that the FBI is actively seeking anyone with a history of terrorist activity in the U.S., but the Times called the bureau and confirmed that there were no warrants out for any of them. But even if law enforcement doesn’t appear to be taking their claims very seriously, that hasn’t kept Shoebat, Saleem, and Anani from being in demand as speakers on CNN and Fox, and at universities and synagogues.
Muslim groups have repeatedly complained about their rhetoric. The Council on American-Islamic Relations accuses them of inciting hatred against Muslims. Last year, Shoebat’s speaking engagements prompted protests by student groups at both the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin. When Columbia University hosted Shoebat and Anani in 2006, university officials were so afraid of protesters that they barred 100 guests from the auditorium where the two men spoke. Shoebat’s spokesman says he has also spoken at Yeshiva University and has recently been courting NYU to host him.
Academics have challenged several of Saleem’s claims, including his statement that he is a descendent of “the grand wazir” of Islam, which is a nonsensical title. (Saleem says he made up the term “grand wazir” to obscure, for safety reasons, the real title and location of the cleric that he’s actually related to.) In Canada, where Anani lives, a terrorism expert has publicly expressed doubt that Anani could have been a Muslim terrorist in Lebanon in 1970 or 1971, since the fighting there didn’t begin until 1975. Shoebat’s claim that he belonged to a U.S. sleeper cell in the early 1980s, described in his book Why We Want to Kill You, has also been challenged by both academics and his own cousin, Kamal Younis.
In response, the men have spent significant time trying to prove that they actually did kill people, and that they used to hate Jews as much as the next Muslim extremist. “I planted a bomb in a bank!” insists Shoebat, whose handler, Keith Davies, has threatened a libel suit against The Times over the article that questioned his claims.
As the controversy waxed last week, Columbia University’s American Assembly distanced itself from the whole affair. “They did not come across to me as credible representatives of anything,” says Megan Wynne, program coordinator at the American Assembly. She called the choice of speakers a “giant failure of oversight” by the Air Force Academy.
Meanwhile, some of the New York students continue to wonder how it is that the three alleged former terrorists are still at large, without being brought to account for any of their past crimes. “When I was listening to them, the only thing I could think of is, ‘Why are they not in jail somewhere? Why are they out?’ ” says Haider Hamza, a New School student of global security. “I thought it was really inappropriate to bring us halfway around the world to sit down and make us listen to men who [claim to have] killed hundreds of people, and listen to them tell us what is right and wrong.”