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Friends in high places

Sami Al-Arian isn't the only prominent Muslim leader who posed for chummy pictures with President Bush. Many conservative Republicans are uneasy at the way GOP power broker Grover Norquist curries support from the Muslim community.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2003


WASHINGTON -- The rumpled, balding figure was spotted darting into the offices of Republican power broker Grover Norquist last July. When Sami Al-Arian emerged more than two hours later, someone was waiting for him.

Conservative activist Frank Gaffney, whose think tank on national security issues has offices on the same floor, was eager to confirm a tip that the suspected Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative was next door.

Best known for his high-profile campaign for a "Star Wars" national missile defense system, Gaffney for months had been quietly pursuing another project: trying to convince the Bush administration to more closely scrutinize the Muslim activists whom Norquist was bringing into the president's orbit.

As part of Norquist's well publicized strategy to mine the Muslim community for GOP votes, Al-Arian had campaigned for Bush in 2000, posed for a photo with the candidate at Plant City's Strawberry Festival and boasted publicly that Muslims in Florida may have tipped the close presidential election to Bush.

Now, Al-Arian was visiting the Islamic Institute, a Muslim outreach group cofounded by Norquist and housed within his office suite.

And so Gaffney found a reason to be in the hallway when Islamic Institute chairman Khaled Saffuri walked a man Gaffney recognized as Al-Arian to the elevator. Saffuri said goodbye, then headed for the bathroom.

Gaffney followed. Taking a place at the next urinal, he said, "So, Khaled, was that Sami Al-Arian getting on the elevator?"

Saffuri made a gagging sound, Gaffney said, then fell into a long silence. "No, I don't think so," Saffuri finally answered, according to Gaffney.

Saffuri was not available for comment. But in a written statement, he called Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, "bitter for his lack of access to some important 'political circles,' particularly the White House."

Saffuri added: "I believe that Mr. Gaffney is very irritated by the fact that a Muslim group has better access than he does. However, I truly believe that he dislikes Muslims and Islam because of religious bigotry."

Norquist, chairman of the GOP interest group, Americans for Tax Reform, declined to comment.

Squat, bearded and famous for his temper, Norquist's power derives from his partnership in the early 1990s with then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

In 1994, Norquist helped his friend become Speaker of the House by assembling a coalition of libertarians, gun rights activists, business groups and religious conservatives who helped provide the votes and money for the GOP's historic takeover of Congress.

Once the leader of a cranky cabal of out-of-power Republicans, Norquist after 1994 became a political gatekeeper. Candidates sought his advice, and dark-suited lobbyists clamored to attend weekly strategy meetings Norquist held for Capitol Hill aides and GOP activists in his offices each Wednesday.

Those in Norquist's favor sit at the conference table in the middle of the room. The others stand, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Among those with a regular seat at the table, participants say, is the Islamic Institute's Saffuri.

Norquist and Saffuri founded the Islamic Institute in 1999 with seed money from Qatar, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern sources. Among the contributors, records show, was Saffuri's former boss, a Muslim charity director and founder of the American Muslim Council, Abdurahman Alamoudi.

The records show Alamoudi gave at least $35,000 to the institute, although Alamoudi said in a written statement he did "not recollect having been quite that generous."

Also funding the institute were two Virginia-based nonprofit organizations. The Safa Trust donated at least $35,000, and the International Institute of Islamic Thought gave $11,000, the records show.

Last March, federal authorities raided those groups and others in Operation Greenquest, a major assault on suspected terrorist financial networks.

Among the more than 50 targets of the raid were people and organizations connected to Norquist and the Islamic Institute. They included Sami Al-Arian, a charity associated with Alamoudi, Safa Trust and the International Institute for Islamic Thought, or IIIT.

In addition to financially supporting Norquist's institute, the IIIT also had funded Al-Arian's think tank at USF, which the FBI shut down in a 1995 raid, and the school Al-Arian founded, the Islamic Academy of Florida.

The American Muslim Council had long been viewed with suspicion by federal investigators, terrorism experts and Jewish groups.

Although it preached tolerance, its co-founder, Alamoudi, had been videotaped at a pro-Palestinian rally outside the White House in 2000 exhorting the crowd: "We are all supporters of Hamas ... I am also a supporter of Hezbollah."

In his written response, Alamoudi said: "I regret that I made an emotional statement in the heat of the moment and I retract it."

Still, a few months after the rally in Washington, Alamoudi was photographed in Beirut at a conference attended by representatives of the terror groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

Today, Alamoudi is under investigation for his role in another Virginia charity, the International Relief Organization, suspected of being part of a Saudi-connected terror money laundering operation.

Alamoudi said he is cooperating fully with investigators. "I expect the investigation will end favorably," he said.

After Norquist's Islamic Institute began trying to woo Muslims to the GOP in 1999, then-candidate Bush began popping up in photographs with various politically connected Muslims.

The only problem was, many of these same prominent Muslims were also under scrutiny by federal investigators for links to terrorism.

"In some ways he's very naive about people," conservative activist Paul Weyrich said of his friend and some-time political rival, Norquist. "I don't blame him for pushing whomever he thinks is going to help him with his political objectives. But somebody on the inside (of the administration) has to say no."

In 2000, then-candidate Bush was photographed at the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, with Alamoudi, Saffuri, and American Muslim Alliance founder Agha Saeed.

Saeed appeared often on panels with Al-Arian at conferences of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a group Al-Arian cofounded that federal investigators have linked to Hamas.

At an IAP conference in Chicago on Dec. 29, 1996, Alamoudi said: "I think if we were outside this country, we can say, 'Oh, Allah, destroy America,' but once we are here, our mission in this country is to change it ... You can be violent anywhere else but in America."

In June 2001, Al-Arian was among members of the American Muslim Council invited to the White House complex for a briefing by Bush political adviser Karl Rove.

The next month, the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom -- a civil liberties group headed by Al-Arian -- gave Norquist an award for his work to abolish the use of secret intelligence evidence in terrorism cases, a position Bush had adopted in the 2000 campaign.

For a time, the point person at the White House arranging the Muslim groups' access was Suhail Khan, a former director of the Islamic Institute.

Conservatives were suspicious of Khan because his late father had been imam at a mosque in Santa Clara, Calif., which once hosted Osama bin Laden's second in command, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Former White House speechwriter David Frum, in his best-selling book, The Right Man, said Norquist's aggressive courting of suspected radicals like Al-Arian was making many conservatives uneasy.

"That outreach campaign opened relationships between the Bush campaign and some very disturbing persons in the Muslim-American community. Many of those disturbing persons were invited to stand beside the president at post-9/11 events," Frum wrote.

One example of the White House's poor judgment, conservatives say, was inviting an imam named Muzammil Siddiqi to preside over an interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Twelve days after the service, Bush was photographed in the White House with Siddiqi, apparently unaware that the imam is a key figure in Saudi-funded organizations that have spread the harsh fundamentalist brand of Saudi Islam known as Wahhabism.

Agha Jafri, a Shia Muslim leader in New York, called Siddiqi part of a Saudi-backed "mafia" intent on crushing moderate Sufi and Shiite Muslims in the United States. "They hate us," Jafri said of Siddiqi's ideological compatriots.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

At a meeting of the Conservative Action Political Conference last month, Gaffney gave his view that radical Islamists were trying to penetrate Washington political circles.

Norquist responded on Feb. 6 by dropping a letter in Gaffney's office formally barring him from Norquist's prestigious Wednesday meetings. "The conservative movement cannot be associated with racism or bigotry," the letter said.

Gaffney and American Conservative Union President David Keene, the conference organizer, accused Norquist of employing "Stalinist tactics."

Writing in the congressional newspaper The Hill, Keene said: "The problem is that moderate Muslims control few organizations and have virtually no voice. Most of them, in fact, know better than to challenge the Wahhabis."

Conservative leader Weyrich agreed.

"I do think the White House needs to be more sensitive to who gets invited there, because these people turn around and use that access to boast that they have influence. Their ability to collect money is greater if George Bush has his arm around them," Weyrich said.

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