Excerpted from Dallas Morning News: When the main Syrian opposition group speaks, it is often through a longtime U.S. resident whose ties to Islamist extremists were detailed in a 2010 Dallas Morning News report.
The Syrian-born man, Louay Safi, has made big news twice recently. Last month, at a coalition news conference in Turkey, he accused Syria’s government of using chemical weapons. A few days ago, he called President Barack Obama’s consultation with Congress about attacking Syria a “failure of leadership.”
Safi used to work occasionally on U.S. Army bases, teaching soldiers about his Islamic faith. But as we reported in 2010, he was suspended shortly after the Fort Hood massacre and subjected to a military criminal investigation.
Authorities said these actions stemmed from a complaint about the alleged terrorist connections of Safi’s main employer at the time, the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA. Thirteen members of Congress asked the Defense Department to “stop any lecturing by Louay Safi or ISNA affiliated speakers.”
Details of the military investigation have never been released publicly. But Safi’s suspension remains in effect, military officials confirmed this week.
Here are some other takeaways from our 2010 report:
1) On a wiretapped 1995 phone call, Safi and a terrorism suspect mocked a U.S. order that banned dealings with foreign terrorist groups. They also said that Jews controlled the White House. The suspect, a Florida professor named Sami al-Arian, later pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Prosecutors named Safi an unindicted co-conspirator in that case.
2) In early 2002, counter-terrorism agents raided the International Institute of Islamic Thought and related entities in the Washington, D.C., area. Safi was research director for the institute, which funded al-Arian. A man who’d worked for one of the institute’s affiliates was later convicted on a terrorism charge.
3) Safi denounced the raids as a “campaign against Islam.” That’s jihadist rhetoric, experts say. Similar language was later used by Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan and a radical imam he corresponded with before the massacre. (The imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, once led an ISNA-affiliated mosque outside Washington. He left the U.S. after the FBI questioned him about his dealings with some of the 9/11 hijackers. The government later tied al-Awlaki to other al-Qaeda plots and killed him in Yemen.)
4) In 2004, Safi became a top staffer at ISNA, the nation’s largest Muslim group. It was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the government’s largest terrorism financing case: the successful 2008 prosecution of Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
Safi and his employers were never criminally charged. They have denied wrongdoing and publicly denounced terrorism. U.S. officials from both major parties have consulted ISNA for years, calling it a partner in the fight against extremists. Muslim leaders’ mere association with radicals doesn’t necessarily signal support for them, intelligence experts say.
ISNA raised money for Fort Hood survivors that Safi gave to a military-affiliated charity. The charity’s regional leader told me that Safi portrayed the killer not as a religiously motivated extremist but as “someone who just lost it that particular day and did some bad things.”
Early this year, Safi successfully endorsed longtime Collin County telecom executive Ghassan Hitto to lead the Syrian National Coalition, the main group of opposition exiles. Hitto quit after a few months – amid complaints, The New York Times reported, “that he was a favorite of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and of its main foreign backer, Qatar.”
The coalition’s connections have led some in Congress to question Obama’s call for a military strike on Syria. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, said the U.S. might inadvertently aid al-Qaeda. Secretary of State John Kerry said extremists make up 15 to 25 percent of those seeking to topple Syria’s regime.
Hitto helped found and lead Dallas-area Muslim organizations such as Brighter Horizons Academy. Staffers there included Nabil Sadoun, a Jordanian who was deported in 2010 for concealing Hamas ties on immigration paperwork. (Sadoun was on the national and local boards of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which also was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case).