The son of the blind sheik is now in custody. As we consider what to do with Ahmed Abdel Rahman–should he be the test case for the Bush administration’s military tribunals?–it would be politic of us to have him transferred to a holding center within the Muslim world. A prison in Turkey would seem about right.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman has been described as a key recruiter for Al Qaeda, the highest-ranking officer in the terror network to be taken prisoner. (That description is accurate as of Nov. 30; ensuing days and continued military success may have made it inoperative by the time you read this.) He’s the son of Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian national and Muslim clergyman who moved to Jersey City in the 1990’s to pursue a notable variation of the great American immigrant dream–despite his handicap, he worked day and night at his chosen trade, which was preaching death and destruction upon the land of his exile. He continued in this line of work, gaining no small bit of fame, until federal agents charged him with inciting terrorism in and around New York in 1993. He now resides in a federal correctional facility in Minnesota, but he still inspires his fellow travelers: Osama bin Laden’s courses in Terrorism 101 feature inspirational selections from the elder Rahman’s canon of anti-American literature.
The blind sheik, as he became known, was at the center of a terrorist conspiracy that hid in plain view in a mosque in Jersey City. He was able to do this–indeed, he was granted entry to this country–despite his hardly hidden role as the “spiritual advisor” to the Egyptian militants who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, and who would dearly like to consign Hosni Mubarak to a similar fate.
Sheik Rahman was accused but never convicted of terrorism in Egypt, even though he was held under house arrest after Sadat’s murder. When Time magazine asked him several years ago if it was true that he’d issued a fatwa against Sadat, he replied that a fatwa wasn’t necessary, since Sadat had made a mockery of Islam. The sheik should have taken up law.
This spiritual advisor to our enemies was able to make his way to the land he hates because U.S. consular officials in Egypt neglected to check his name against a list of suspected terrorists. If he got in with such ease, imagine how many less conspicuous terrorists may be among us.
Recent headlines tell us that, of the 1,200 or so people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks, “only a handful”–the precise words in a New York Times headline–are thought to have any links to Al Qaeda. “Only” a handful? The word suggests that somebody thinks the effort was hardly worth the trouble. Of course, another way of looking at the roundup is this: If the feds hadn’t busted these 1,200 people–dozens of whom will be charged with a variety of crimes–a handful of people with links to Al Qaeda would still be on the street, perhaps sizing up more targets and plotting more mass murder.
With any luck, the next batch of 1,200 detainees will produce another handful of Al Qaeda sympathizers or agents. (Actually, with better luck, the next batch will turn up none, meaning that we will have caught them all.) That sounds like pretty good police work, especially when you consider that the terrorists within our borders are doing their best not to stand out à la the blind sheik. They’re not spewing on a street corner or giving fiery speeches in a mosque; they’re working in low-level jobs, drawing cash from Al Qaeda’s A.T.M.’s, avoiding attention and waiting to strike. If a pretty minor sweep can produce a handful of Al Qaeda types every time, well, what is John Ashcroft waiting for?
No doubt innocent people will be detained. That is regrettable, inevitable and no different from any other criminal investigation. Are we profiling? We sure are, and why not? We have yet to uncover an Anglo-Saxon cell of Al Qaeda members.
Some civil libertarians complain that we are profiling people of Middle Eastern descent, which is true. But we are also profiling by gender–an issue that doesn’t seem to excite the enforcers of politically correct criminal justice–and by age. Women, children and older people from Middle Eastern or other Islamic countries are not being hauled in, nor are men who came here at around the same time the blind sheik set up shop in Jersey City. We’re on the lookout for young men from Islamic countries who came here on temporary visas in the last few years. Some of them–perhaps many of them–have overstayed their visas and are here illegally.
Only a handful of them may have terrorist connections. But, as we have seen, a murderous outrage requires only a handful.