Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Pentagon yesterday ordered a review of how it recruits military chaplains, particularly Muslim clerics endorsed by two groups with ties to radical Islam.

Pentagon officials yesterday informed senators of the review as Sens. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, announced upcoming hearings on whether the radical Wahhabi sect has infiltrated the U.S. military chaplain corps.

The sudden, intense scrutiny of how the Pentagon picks Muslim chaplains came after the FBI arrested Army Capt. James Yee. The chaplain is being held on suspicion of committing espionage while he tended to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at the detention center at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Air Force has arrested a second Guantanamo staffer, Senior Airmen Ahmad al Halabi, and charged him with 32 criminal offenses centering on espionage. At least one and perhaps two other persons who worked at Guantanamo are also under investigation.

“My subcommittee is continuing to examine what is clearly an ongoing and systematic effort by the radical Wahhabi sect to infiltrate and recruit terrorists within the United States, focusing primarily on chaplains in the prison systems and in the U.S. military,” said Mr. Kyl, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security.

The two Pentagon-approved groups that endorse military Muslim chaplains are the American Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America. The Islamic Society-approved chaplains often receive religious training at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Studies in Leesburg, Va.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) accused Mr. Kyl and Mr. Schumer of exploiting the arrests for political gain.

“They are misusing their public position,” Mr. Hooper said. “Both of them have a history of trying to marginalize the American Muslim community.”

As far as the Wahhabi followers he said, “No Muslim on the face of the Earth calls himself a Wahhabi. Most would be insulted. We don’t name ourselves after people.”

Wahhabism is named for Mohamed Abd Al Wahhab, an 18th-century fundamentalist whose interpretation of Islam is followed by Saudi Arabia’s rulers.

After lawmakers this week criticized the Pentagon for its accreditation process, spokesmen said there was no review under way, either by the Defense Department inspector general or by anyone in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Yesterday however, officials changed course. They said a review is under way, although a spokesman said he did not know when it began and who was doing it.

“We have been reviewing the DoD policy regarding appointment of chaplains in the military departments,” the spokesman said. “This policy includes the requirements for individual applicants for the chaplaincy and the requirements for the religious organizations that certify religious ministry professionals for the chaplaincy.”

The Pentagon group that would have picked the two Muslim-endorsing groups is the Armed Forces Chaplains Board.

Capt. Yee, a 35-year-old West Point graduate, is confined to the Naval Consolidated Brig at Charleston, S.C., while the Army and FBI investigate accusations of espionage. He received his religious training in Damascus, Syria, before returning to the United States and rejoining the Army.

There are currently 12 Muslim chaplains on active duty, ministering to some 4,200 Muslim military personnel.

Lawmakers contend all three Islamic groups listed in a Pentagon policy statement on chaplain accreditation have links to radical Islam.

U.S. agents last year raided the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, accusing it of ties to al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terror group.

The American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, which endorsed Capt. Yee, is designated by the American Muslim Foundation (AMF). The government raided the foundation as well as the graduate school.

Neither the AMF or the Graduate School of Islamic Social Sciences has been charged since the raid.

The Islamic Society of North America, the second endorsing group, has on its board Siraj Wahhaj. He was named in 1995 by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White as one of more than 100 possible “unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators” in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and attempts to blow up New York monuments.

Mr. Wahhaj also served as a character witness for convicted terrorist leader Omar Abel Rahman, but himself was never convicted of a crime.

“There is a real lack of understanding in this country of who the enemy is.” Mr. Kyl said yesterday at a Capitol Hill press conference. “It is remarkable that people who have known connections to terrorism are the only people to approve these chaplains.”

Qaseem Uqdah, executive director of American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, joined Mr. Hooper in criticizing the senators.

“Senator Schumer is taking advantage of this situation,” he said. “The greatest harm now is that these elected officials are taking advantage of the situation. Schumer is playing into this by dehumanizing Muslims.”

He said his link to the American Muslim Foundation is simply a paper one. The group, he said, allowed him to use its tax-exempt status to file with the Department of Defense to become an endorser.

“I do not go to their meetings, I do not do anything with them,” Mr. Uqdah said. “If I had known about any of this other stuff, I never would have used them.”

Mr. Uqdah, a former Marine, called Capt. Yee a “good officer before this and I think he still is.”

Leaders at the American Muslim Foundation were out of the country, a receptionist said yesterday, and will return at the end of the month.

Mr. Kyl said his Oct. 14 hearing will focus on exactly who allowed the two groups, along with the Islamic Foundation of North America, to become the determining bodies for chaplains.

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