Student Activists Draw Federal Scrutiny

In the office of UCLA's Muslim student magazine, a Palestinian flag shares space with an anti-Zionism poster, fund-raising fliers and handbills for a rally against U.S. retaliation on Afghanistan.

Al-Talib's latest issue features a full-page color ad for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, whose assets were frozen for allegedly funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas, responsible for suicide bombings against Israel. Similar ads urge donations to the Global Relief and Benevolence International foundations, groups whose assets also were frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department because investigators suspect them of funding Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist organization.

"If it goes to families of those who have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I don't see anything wrong with that," insists publisher Mohammad Mertaban, 20, a University of California, Los Angeles, junior from suburban Chino Hills. "I don't understand how people can label Palestinians terrorists."

He and other student activists around the nation find themselves increasingly at odds with their government as it supports Israel, isolates Iraq and cracks down on terrorism after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Before the attacks, university fund-raising campaigns, rallies and publications that often feature fiery rhetoric attacking Israel and U.S. policy in the Arab world drew little notice. In the post-Sept. 11 world, that may have changed.

Though no direct connection between student activities and terrorism has been demonstrated, some experts and law enforcement officials are calling for more scrutiny of university-affiliated groups.

"You're going to find law enforcement being very aggressive in going in and looking at what's going on" at college campuses, said George Vinson, California's new homeland security adviser and a 23-year FBI veteran who headed two West Coast counterterrorism task forces. "In light of 5,000 people being killed, shame on law enforcement if we didn't do this."

Some examples of the connections of these students groups include:

— The national branch of the Muslim Student Association urges donations to groups including the Canada-based Human Concern International, a group whose operation in Afghanistan is run by Ahmad Sa'id al-Kadr. The Bush administration labeled al-Kadr an aide to bin Laden when it froze his assets in October. The MSA's national president, Altaf Husain, called suspicion about the charities' possible ties to terrorists post-attack "hype."

— Ohio State University's Muslim Student Association produces and distributes MSA NEWS, which publicizes events featuring controversial speakers and has included news releases from terrorist groups such as the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations Americans are forbidden to support or finance, and the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist political party banned in Algeria.

— During last year's Ramadan fast, MSA-NEWS urged campus groups to purchase a videotape called The Martyrs of Bosnia and show it to Muslim-only gatherings. The video was sold by London-based Azzam Productions, which featured articles on its Web site like "Taliban: Allah's Blessing on Afghanistan," and solicited funds there for the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. The site, and a related German site, were shut down by the British and German governments as part of their Sept. 11 response.

— University groups often sponsor speeches by the president of the Islamic Association for Palestine, a Richardson, Texas, educational group that Israel has labeled a front for the militant Hamas movement. Its records have been subpoenaed as part of the federal government's investigation into Hamas connections to U.S. organizations.

Former State Department counterterrorism director Larry Johnson, now a consultant to the federal government, said he advises investigators to begin monitoring university-affiliated groups' telephone calls, bank accounts and fund-raising the same way they are tracking some of the charities the groups endorse.

Steve Berry, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, said he could not comment on whatever action the agency may be taking relative to these groups.

Before Sept. 11, "I think a lot of these groups were seen as trash-talking and not doing anything," said Johnson. "Anybody who's talking 'Death to Israel' and 'Death to America,' that goes beyond freedom of speech. ... People do not have the right to incite violence."

In addition to Al-Talib's fund-raising ads, for instance, UCLA's Muslim Student Association sponsored a rally in March featuring a fund-raising officer for Islamic African Relief Agency. The group, now known as the Islamic American Relief Agency, last year lost federal funding for national security reasons.

The Muslim Student Association's national president, Altaf Husain, blamed the federal probes on post-Sept. 11 "hype that any group raising money for Muslims is funneling money to terrorists," and said his group has no plans to stop raising money for groups unless federal authorities crack down.

"We are as American as anyone else. Why should we be the ones looking for all these so-called 'sleeper cells' or whatever?" Husain said. "There are oversight authorities who should be following these dollars to the end."

The anti-terrorism law President Bush signed in October makes it illegal to provide material support or resources to terrorist organizations. It also permits deporting aliens who knowingly solicit funds or membership or provide material support to a terrorist organization.

But that's "a very difficult case to make," said L. Paul Bremer III, President Reagan's ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism and chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism that concluded its work last year. "It's easy for a person to say, 'I didn't know it was going to that organization."'

The U.S. investigation of Muslim charities strikes at one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, said members of the UCLA Muslim group.

"If the Red Cross gives aid to somebody who subsequently drives a truck into a mosque, nobody would blame the Red Cross," said Mujtaba Ali, 20, a junior from Fremont, near San Francisco.

"Afghanistan is like the scapegoat of the month," said Ali, joining others, all native-born Americans, in arguing that the United States' assault on Afghanistan is a mistake that — like its isolation of Iraq — is mostly harming innocent civilians.

Al-Talib argued in a 1999 editorial that alleged Sept. 11 mastermind bin Laden is not a terrorist, but "a freedom fighter, one who has forsaken wealth and power to fight in Allah's cause and speak out against oppressors."

That was before bin Laden condemned himself by endorsing the World Trade Center attacks, said former editor Ahmed Shama.

"Not only do we condemn the killing of innocent civilians in New York, but we condemn the killing of innocent civilians anywhere in the world — including Afghanistan," said Shama, echoing current editor Mostafa Mahboob.

Some critics of campus Muslim activism point to a 1995 case at the University of South Florida, where the director of a controversial campus think tank on Islamic studies left, only to surface in Syria as leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. On Wednesday, university trustees recommended firing another think tank member, computer science professor Sami al-Arian, for disrupting university operations.

"Universities in general have had an extremely benign view of militant Islam," said Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes, himself a university professor who once served in the State and Defense departments. When challenged, "universities immediately yell that their academic freedom is being trampled upon."