Images in Conflict - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Images in Conflict

About the Series

In the war on terror, a prominent local Muslim organization is a strong voice advocating peace. The Islamic Society of North America calls itself a mainstream organization committed to fighting the distortion of their religion. But the Eyewitness News Investigators found ISNA also has connections to some groups and individuals that critics say are tied to terrorism. ISNA says its associations are all innocent and should not be misconstrued, but one expert in particular takes issue with that. Eyewitness News decided to take a look at the conflicting views on ISNA's mission.

This story was prepared by reporter Angie Moreschi, photographer/editor Bill Ditton and producer Gerry Lanosga.

Part One

Tucked away on the farmland of rural Plainfield, Indiana, are headquarters to one of the largest Islamic organizations in the country – the Islamic Society of North America.

Its charismatic leader, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, promotes ISNA as a mainstream organization of American Muslims. He preaches family values, unity and acceptance of all religions.

"Here we are Muslims, young and old, men and women," he said in a Friday prayer service earlier this year. "We respect Christianity. We respect Judaism…. America should be proud of this community."

It's talk that is worlds away from the beliefs of Islamic extremists.

But although ISNA is a well-respected Islamic organization that's received accolades from Indiana's late Governor and even grant money from the federal government, some charge it is a supporter of extreme ideology.

A national terrorism expert, Steven Emerson, mentioned Indiana specifically while testifying before Congress about terrorism fundraising last March.

"Portland, Washington, Plainfield, Indiana, Buffalo, New York – I could go on," Emerson said.

Emerson, author of the bestselling "American Jihad: The terrorists Living Among Us," dedicated an entire section of his book to ISNA as a supporter of militant Islamic groups.

Emerson says ISNA's popular annual conventions, attended by thousands of Muslims, serve as gathering places for some Islamic extremists to raise money and share ideas.

"I think ISNA has been an umbrella, also a promoter of groups that have been involved in terrorism," Emerson told Eyewitness News. "I am not going to accuse ISNA of being directly involved in terrorism. I will say ISNA has sponsored extremists, racists, people who call for Jihad against the United States."

In fact, we found about a dozen charities, organizations or individuals under federal scrutiny for possible ties to terrorism that are linked in some way to ISNA – ties sources tell us have also placed ISNA under the federal microscope.

ISNA has provided convention booth space and helped raise money for a number of Islamic charities later linked to terrorism by the federal government – groups like the Holy Land Foundation.

The U.S. government accuses Holy Land of funneling dollars to support suicide bombings carried out by the militant group Hamas. Holy Land's assets, along with those of several other Islamic charities, are now frozen pending further investigation.

At an ISNA conference in Chicago last April, Syeed talked with Eyewitness News about the charity issue. Syeed acknowledged ISNA is active in providing direction for Islamic charities, holding workshops and offering advice at its conventions. But he said the ties stop there.

"We have helped in the past to establish these charities and relief organizations," he said. "They are not legally part of us."

Syeed said support for Holy Land was innocent support for what the organization believed was a good cause.

"We were donating money according to the claims they were making," he said.

Asked if he believed the donations might have been diverted to militant activities, he responded: "I have no personal knowledge. That's why we are dependent on the system."

ISNA has also supported Hamas leader Mousa Marzook, who was deported from the U.S. in 1997 and is on the State Department's designated terrorist list. Marzook thanked ISNA in an open letter of appreciation for support of his legal defense fund.

"It doesn't hurt it you give a few words of support or if you give a few words of sympathy," Syeed said. "The issue is, do I get involved in some major campaign? Then it would be a problem."

Emerson said ISNA took Marzook on "as their poster child."

"Go ask ISNA whether Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are terrorist groups," he said.

When we asked, Syeed said: "That's not us."

But does he condemn the groups?

"We will condemn anywhere there is hate, whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jew or whatever."

So why associate with militant groups at all? Syeed says that if he never opens the door to people with more radical views, he will never be able to influence them and bring them more into the mainstream.

Emerson is best known for an award-winning documentary called "Jihad in America" that exposed militant Muslims recruiting and calling for war against Americans right here in the U.S. He has testified before Congress 19 times and is a frequently-used terrorism expert on MSNBC.

But Emerson, too, is controversial. His critics say he jumps to conclusions to create a sensation. For instance, he falsely speculated after the Oklahoma City bombing that it had the trademarks of Islamic extremism. That and other gaffes provoked the ire of many American Muslims and hurt Emerson's standing with some media outlets.

"Every Muslim knows him," Syeed said. "He has dedicated himself to the demonization of Muslims….

Syeed said Emerson is nothing more than a Muslim-basher.

"There are people like him. There are others who are enjoying and wallowing in this kind of dirt. It's very unfortunate, what can we say?"

But Emerson said that's a diversionary tactic.

"That's exactly the M.O. of radical Islamic groups – to hide under the charge and accusation that those who criticize them are Muslim bashing," Emerson said.

Part Two

Arrested University of South Florida professor Sami Al Arian. An Islamic charity called the Quranic Literacy Institute. An Islamic think-tank known as Triple I-T.

These are among a dozen individuals and organizations under federal scrutiny for possible ties to terrorism that are linked in some way to the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield. The ties, sources tell Eyewitness News, have also placed ISNA under the federal microscope.

ISNA's Secretary General, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, said he invites any investigation. He agreed to talk at length about the organization and its connections to questionable organizations or individuals.

Syeed said he was brought in almost 10 years ago to redirect the vision and direction of ISNA. He said he's succeeded in making it a well-respected, mainstream Muslim organization.

"If there are any questions, people should ask us questions, because we are an open organization," Syeed said. "I mean, whatever is happening we should be able to explain."

Recently indicted University of South Florida professor Sami Al Arian is one controversial figure ISNA supported. In a federal indictment, Al Arian is accused of heading the U.S. front for the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The department of Justice links him to the death of 100 civilians overseas, including two Americans. When Al Arian was arrested, ISNA issued a statement critical of the government.

Syeed downplayed the action.

"Sometime we might have said that so-and-so should not be targeted just because he's a Muslim," he said. "But once you know there's a definite case in court, ultimately it will be the court that will decide. No one else will decide."

Before coming to ISNA, Syeed was a long-time employee of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, an Islamic think tank in Virginia known as Triple I-T. Federal authorities executed a search warrant there last year. The reason - major donations made, while Syeed was there, to an organization founded by Sami Al Arian.

"It was a surprise for me, a shock for me," Syeed said.

He said he no longer has any ties to Triple I-T. But according to the group's website, Syeed is still on the advisory board of its journal. Triple I-T leaders say they have no ties to terrorism, and no charges have been filed.

Some of ISNA's own members have raised concerns on another issue: large donations from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia follows an extreme version of Islam known as Wahhabism, and questions continue to swirl around Saudi connections to terrorism, including the attack on 9-11.

A videotape obtained by Eyewitness News shows a 1994 ISNA convention where one member questioned why the organization accepted more than $500,000 dollars in Saudi donations.

"I don't think Saudi Arabia is a good model for one of the largest organizations in the U.S.," the member said. "I am concerned whether we are under their dictates or not."

Syeed said the money in question consisted of individual - as opposed to governmental - Saudi donations. He said the money never came from Saudi extremists and did not buy influence at ISNA. Even so, the organization no longer accepts money from Saudi donors.

"I can tell you, for the last three to four years… it was exactly a big zero," Syeed said.

The Quranic Literacy Institute, an Islamic charity founded by a past president of ISNA - Dr. Ahmed Zaki Hammad - is also under federal scrutiny. The government froze more than $1 million in QLI assets because of suspected ties to terrorist fundraising.

Syeed acknowledged ISNA made a donation to QLI - and was questioned about it by federal authorities - but said that's as far as the connection goes.

"Our records are very clear," he said. "We are not on their board. I have never visited them."

As for Hammad, Syeed said he was expelled from ISNA on bad terms.

"He might not have been sharing the same vision that this organization has," he said.

What exactly is that vision? Some people in the Muslim community say they are confused. Many are hesitant to talk about their concerns publicly, saying ISNA is a powerful and influential organization. But privately, several former ISNA members and people in the national Muslim community say some of ISNA's connections send the wrong message.

Syeed, however, insists the organizations practices what it preaches.

"A statement here, a few words here - that doesn't mean anything," he said. "What you have to see is how aggressively we are opposing terrorist activities, how aggressively we are opposing misinterpretation of religion (or) hijacking of religion."

Does ISNA need to be more careful about who it's associating with? Said Syeed: "Yeah, naturally, everybody has to be careful. Yeah, no doubt. That's the final advice."

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