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Separating the Fact From the Fiction In Islamic Extremism

ON Feb. 26, 1993, four men associated with Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman set off a bomb under the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring thousands. For the first time, Americans saw they weren't exempt from the kind of terrorism, often tied to Islamic radicals, they saw overseas.

In a New York court two weeks ago, as Sheikh Abdel-Rahman was sentenced to life in prison on charges of seditious conspiracy for a second bombing plot, he called the US an "enemy of Islam." Days later, an Egyptian militant group said, "All American interests [are] legitimate targets" until the sheikh is released.

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Some experts say a holy war pitting Islam against America and the West is growing. Others say such talk of jihad is a tragic misreading. They say Islamic fervor is a populist, political movement not aimed at the US.

As the debate shakes out, the question over how much of an Islamic fringe element exists in the US continues to reverberate.

The discussion deeply chills American Muslims. They say political causes abroad that deal with local grievances should not be linked with the practice of Islam, or Muslims in America.

Moreover, American Muslims are concerned that US policymakers will so demonize Islam overseas as the main post-cold-war enemy that they will provoke a violent response, either here or abroad.

Terrorism is an issue so wrapped in fear and controversy, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Few Americans, for example, are aware of Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics dating to 1980 showing that only two of the 170 acts of terror on US soil by foreign nationals were committed by Islamists. Some 77 of the acts were by Puerto Ricans. Radical Jewish groups accounted for 16. The rest were assorted Irish, Latin American, Croatian, Russian. Only two American Muslims have ever been convicted for terrorist acts.

Moreover, despite warnings, there was only one incident of Iranian terror on US soil during the Ayatollah Khomeini's reign, one case of Libyan terror, and no Iraqi cases after the Gulf war.

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Still, the severity of the New York bombing and the anti-Western sentiments of some Islamists abroad have raised the stakes in recent years. New York City's security was revolutionized after the bombing. American airports have been on alert for five months following rumors of a terrorist plot. The State Department told members of Congress last spring that cooperation between overseas and US intelligence agencies is on the rise.

Another key response - and one that has been controversial in the Muslim community - has been the anti-terrorism bill before Congress that would restrict residents from associations with overseas groups and increase surveillance.

Some radical Islamists do live on US soil, though the number is believed to be small. Last fall, for example, Muslims in Tampa, Fla., and professors at the University of South Florida were shocked to see their colleague, Ramadan Abdullah Shalla, a mild-mannered, British-educated economics professor, suddenly show up in Syria as the new leader of Islamic Jihad. The militant Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for bombing civilian targets in Israel.

The question is whether radical Islam is on the rise here. For now there is little evidence to show a growing Islamic conspiracy on US shores, say official and unofficial sources.They cite many reasons: the ending of the 1988-93 Palestinian intifadah ; Yasser Arafat's election as Palestinian president; little to no support in the US Muslim community for predatory Islam; and fear of retaliation, like the US bombing of Libya in 1986.

One other major reason: Most of the radical Islamists, such as Abdel-Rahman, were originally associated with the CIA-sponsored "pipeline" that supplied guns and training to Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s. Pressure from law-enforcement and immigration officials along with the court trial of the sheikh has scattered this group.

Even most of the work of controversial writer Steven Emerson, whose documentary "Jihad In America" asserts a growing network of Islamic terrorists in the US, relies on speeches and events in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mr. Emerson insists the jihad continues.

One senior US official who tracked intelligence on Islamic groups told the Monitor, "There's a lot of talk but little evidence of a real conspiracy. There's a problem of support for the groups, and a problem of exposure. To launch and sustain a campaign of terror takes enormous resources and funding. You can be exposed on the phone. You can't trust anyone. You can be traced by checks, credit cards, licenses, ATM withdrawals, shopping-center receipts. People warn of terrorism here, but it rarely surfaces."

The principal source of Islamic terrorism had been rooted in the decades-long tension between Israelis and Palestinians. That conflict dates to the creation of a Jewish state in 1948, and Israel's military eviction of Palestinians from hundreds of villages a year later. By the early 1990s, US politicians and media depicted the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip, as one of the most likely sources of terror in the US - despite Hamas's statements to the contrary.

In 1993, for example, nine members of Congress and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York made allegations that Hamas presented a threat in the US, particularly through its funding potential. "Hamas [is] no longer confined to the Middle East, but organized enough to strike downtown America," wrote Reps. Jim Saxton (R) of New Jersey and Peter Deutsch (D) of Florida in a letter distributed to Congress.

But both the FBI and State Department issued statements in 1993 saying they had "no evidence" that Hamas had or was directing terrorist operations in the US.

Sources contacted inside groups sympathetic to Hamas, such as the Muslim Arab Youth Association in Indianapolis; the Islamic Association of Palestine in Dallas; and the Islamic Committee for Palestine in Tampa, Fla. told the Monitor that fund-raising was difficult and that their operations had shifted to local concerns, like building Islamic schools. All cited the Oslo peace accords of 1993 as the reason for diminished activity.

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