If you went to the New York Times homepage on Thursday, May 22, you would’ve been greeted with a large pull-out ad proclaiming: “Still here. Still free. But for how long?”
The ad — which also appeared in the print version of the paper to mark the opening of New York’s 9/11 memorial — warns of a continued jihadist threat, one that “is [still] as real as it was then, if not more so.” The ad belongs to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a 501(c)3 nonprofit headed by Steve Emerson, a former journalist and Islamic terrorism expert with a now-tarnished reputation. The organization claims to have “become a principal source of critical evidence to a wide variety of government offices and law enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. Congress and numerous public policy forums.” Its head, Steve Emerson has a quirky background. He left his gig as at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1986 to be a professional journalist. Nine years later he dropped a career in media to found IPT.
But who is Emerson? And why is his organization paying for a full-page ad — which, depending on the placement can cost over $ 100,000 — in the Times to warn Americans about the “ever-present” danger of Islamic terrorism?
For years, Emerson was lauded as a “guru” when it came to Islamic terrorism. Robert Blitzer, former FBI counterterrorism chief, wrote in 1999 that Emerson “is better informed in many areas of terrorism than we were in the government.” IPT’s website is decorated with quotes praising Emerson’s contributions and knowledge, some from the likes of Richard A. Clarke, A.M. Rosenthal, Eli Lake and a smattering of U.S. politicians.
Yet, Emerson’s credibility has taken several hits in the past few decades, in part due to what is arguably an “obsession” with Islamic terrorism. In one of his most notable gaffes, he claimed on CBS that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing had “a Middle Eastern trait” because it “was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible.” Emerson’s contract with CBS wasn’t renewed.
These “traits” appeared to Emerson too during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings: Ball bearings, he announced, should’ve signaled to law enforcement that the perpetrators were taking cues from Muslim suicide bombers. Echoing his 1995 statement, he noted that the Boston bombings had the same Middle Eastern “flair,” which was to cause as many fatalities as possible. But, as journalist Ali Gharib wrote in the Daily Beast,
Just as Tim McVeigh and Anders Breivik might have been surprised to learn that only Middle Easterners seek to “inflict as many casualties as possible,” so too would Ted Kaczynski (an anti-technology zealot known as the Unabomber) and David Copeland (a British neo-Nazi known as the Nailbomber) be surprised to learn that putting nails in bombs as shrapnel qualifies them as “jihadists.” And actual terrorism expert Will McCants Tweeted a 2011 case where white supremacists had used ball bearings in a bomb.
Emerson even went so far as to identify a possible suspect, a “person of interest” — a young Saudi national injured in the explosion. When later reports discredited this claim, Emerson capitulated, but stuck by his “Middle Eastern trait” comment.
These inherent biases are reflected in IPT’s fundraising efforts. A Center for American Progress report, Fear, Inc., identifies IPT as one of eight major recipients from seven foundations that provide the bedrock for the anti-Islamism movement. Other controversial recipients include as the Center for Security Policy, the Middle East Forum, Jihad Watch, and Stop Islamization of America.* While everyone else stumbled through an economic downturn, the anti-Islamic business is booming. From 2001 to 2009 eight organizations received $ 42.6 million in funding. All eight organizations paint a picture of America under an imminent Islamist threat, albeit to varying degrees.
And that’s where Emerson’s full-page New York Times ad comes in: It’s not just an appeal to American to take Islamic terrorism seriously — it’s meant to stroke post-9/11 fears of Islam and Islamism. Radical Islamist terrorists are described as a “real” threat, perhaps even a bigger one than 13 years ago. A “radical Islamist ideology” is the motivation behind attacks from Fort Hood to Nigeria, Madrid to Kenya, London to New York. But despite all this violence, the most devilishly subtle threat comes from within. “Islamist groups, masquerading as ‘civil rights’ groups,” who “have embarked on a bullying campaign to censor the world ‘Islam’ when discussing Islamic terrorism,” are trying to avert our eyes from the danger these extremists pose.
These institutions don’t just threaten our national security, IPT continues. They are seeking to crush “one of our most sacred freedoms”: free speech. That is,
Those who dare talk about jihad as holy war, or invoke the term Islamic terrorists, or discuss the religious motivation behind Islamist group [sic] are slandered as “Islamaphobes” or bigots. The courageous Muslim voices who dare criticize radical Islam find themselves scurrilously attacked and slandered by national Islamist groups as turncoats — “Uncle Toms” — when these moderates should be lauded as heroes.
By appealing to “sacred freedoms,” IPT paints the fight between Western values and Islamists/Islamist sympathizers as its own holy war of sorts. Attacking America’s spirit by aging a war on our “sacred” ideals, IPT warns, is much more dangerous and sinister than a traditional national security threat. Brick and mortar can be replaced, but once an idea is destroyed, it’s much harder to revive. Bin Laden understood this when he chose the World Trade Center as a target. Americans understood it when developing a counterinsurgency doctrine that focused on the “hearts and minds” of Afghanis in order to destroy the Taliban.
Thus, the “trait” that Emerson saw in 1995 and 2013 had nothing to do with how the construction of bombs and how many people the attacks were meant to kill. The “trait” was terror, terror that was meant to go beyond visceral concerns and awaken deep seated existential fears. Only when your boogieman is “Islamist” does it take on a “Middle Eastern” flavor.
*Has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.