In the think tank community in Washington, DC, experts are a dime a dozen. You want someone to speak on Islamic radicalisation in prisons? Boom. That same person can also talk to you about Afghan reconciliation, and the entire Middle East region from Iran to Egypt. In some cases, the expert of choice seen pontificating on the topic du jour may have actually last visited the region over five years ago. But in many cases, these experts do continue to study the region, albeit from a safe distance, and are knowledgeable or experienced enough to be believable.
Up until fairly recently, Walid Shoebat was considered to be an expert who actually knew what he was talking about.
This is how Shoebat describes himself on his website: “I used to be a radicalised Muslim willing to die for the cause of jihad until I converted to Christianity in 1994. As a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) I was involved in terror activity, and was imprisoned in Jerusalem for three weeks. In prison, I was recruited to plant a bomb in Bethlehem as a result of which, thank God, no one was injured. My mother was an American and my father a Palestinian Arab.”
As a convert from what he describes as a violent ideology, Shoebat certainly didn’t mince his words when talking about Islam and its adherents.
From mainstream religious figures such as Imam Feisal Rauf (founder of the Cordoba initiative, more popularly known as the man behind the Ground Zero mosque) to organisations such as the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Shoebat has accused all and sundry of supporting terrorism.
He has not just appeared on mainstream media organisations as an expert, but also at conferences sponsored by the US Government, where he has earned thousands of dollars for his speaking appearances. For many ratings-hungry channels competing against each other in an age of televised terror, Shoebat was the go-to man.
So far, there’s nothing that really separates him from the countless terror experts that grace TV screens and seminars, except for his ‘experience’. And, of course, the fact that he’s most likely a complete fraud.
While many organisations had repeatedly drawn attention to Shoebat’s dubious credentials, it took a while before the mainstream American media caught onto the scam that they themselves had fallen victim to.
In July this year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper finally investigated Shoebat’s claims, finding no evidence of him being a terrorist, nor did Shoebat’s relatives, who were interviewed for the investigation, support his claims. More damningly, CNN’s Jerusalem bureau reported: “The Tel Aviv headquarters of Bank Leumi had no record of a firebombing at its now-demolished Bethlehem branch. Israeli police had no record of the bombing, and the prison where Shoebat says he was held ‘for a few weeks’ for inciting anti-Israel demonstrations says it has no record of him being incarcerated there either.”
Ironically, the Israeli media had caught the scent of deceit as early as 2008. In an interview, they grilled Shoebat over his claims and the fact that the purported bombing attempt was never reported in the media at the time. Cornered, Shoebat answered that he wasn’t aware of any coverage as he had “been in hiding for the next three days”. This is despite the fact that in 2004, he had told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that he “was terribly relieved when [he] heard on the news later that evening that no one had been hurt or killed by [his] bomb.”
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, calls Shoebat a scandalous outrage. In a telephone interview, Weinstein said that they had been tracking Shoebat for over two years, and in the process of the investigation, contacted CIA, Mossad and other organisations, “No one had ever heard of him.”
“It’s an absolute outrage. Shoebat says that Islam must die…it’s old school racism and prejudice.” Weinstein expressed anger at the fact that not only had Shoebat been paid with federal tax payer funds for his speaking appearances, but that he had also been present at an event organised by the Department of Defense. It seems that CNN’s and Mr Weinstein’s research in this case was better than that of the US government itself.
And it doesn’t seem like much has changed either. In May this year, CAIR sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, condemning the Department of Homeland Security’s move to invite and pay $5000 to Walid Shoebat to address an event organised by the department. In its statement, CAIR complained that “the speaker, Walid Shoebat, claims ‘Islam is the devil’ and that President Obama is a Muslim. The use and funding of Islamophobic private trainers harms our nation’s safety and security and contradicts both DHS policy and your public statements on improving relations with the American Muslim community. Promoting anti-Muslim hostility only serves to tear down hard-won trust and spread unjustified fear and suspicion. The fact that repeated calls for government investigations of this disturbing trend have gone unanswered sends a very negative message to American Muslims and to the larger society. Islamophobic trainers are undercutting your efforts and those of President Obama, who repeatedly states that our nation is not at war with Islam or Muslims.”
In a telephone interview with the Express Tribune, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says, “We’re specifically going by the two-part investigation by CNN’s Anderson Cooper that exposed him as a complete fraud.”
Walid Shoebat, on his website, calls CAIR “The number one radical Islamic organisation in the USA, which needs to be probed and shut down for sponsoring terror.” Hooper laughs at the accusation, “Naturally when scam artists are exposed as frauds they try to go after the messenger instead of dealing with the facts.”
So are there more Walid Shoebats out there?
“There is an entire industry of these people going around,” claims Hooper, “and they are training law enforcement personnel including FBI agents on how to distrust Muslims and hate Islam. We have asked the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the White House, Congress, CIA , Customs and Immigration…we’ve approached them about this matter, but we haven’t had a positive response. We have heard some vague indication that there will be a reappraisal of a process of hiring trainers but we haven’t seen anything yet.” A request sent to Walid Shoebat to respond to allegations levied against him went unanswered.
Terrorism analysis is now quite literally a global industry, and as with any other money-making business, has its share of frauds, conmen and snake-oil salesmen. While this is to be expected what is disturbing is that it seems that in this case even the US government didn’t do its homework, wasting not only US taxpayer money but damaging its own credibility in the process.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2011.