Tears, anger as terror hearing becomes political

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., center, one of two Muslims in Congress, becomes emotional as he testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on the extent of the radicalization of American Muslims, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2011.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In a hearing marked by tears and anger, Congress dug into a raw, emotional debate over American Muslims who have committed terrorist attacks in the name of their religion.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was clear from the beginning he opposed the premise of the hearings: that most Muslims in America have anything to do with terrorism.

"This committee's approach to this particular subject, I believe is contrary to the best of American values and threatens American security, or could potentially," he said.

He worried aloud that the committee was ignoring other forms of political violence such as right-wing extremism, to focus only on Muslims.

And he said the choice of witnesses -- a collection of relatives of those tied to Islamic extremism along with the Sheriff of Los Angeles County -- didn't show enough breadth.

"Why weren't Minneapolis law enforcement invited to testify about the effective counter-terrorism work going on in Minneapolis today? I invite and would welcome such an invitation," he said.

And then in the most emotional moment of a long and heated hearing, Ellison told the story of a young Muslim American who died while working as a first responder in New York during the September 11th terror attacks. Immediately after the attacks, the man had been accused of being one of the plotters before his name was cleared.

"Muhammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave his life for other Americans," he said.

Ellison was followed by a number of witnesses, including Minneapolis resident Abdirizak Bihi, who's been critical of Ellison in the past. Bihi's nephew was one of about two dozen young Somalis who according to the FBI returned to their native country to join the terrorist group Al Shabbab. Bihi accused extremist imams of shutting down discussion of radicalization within Minneapolis's Muslim community.

"We are isolated by Islamic organizations and leaders who support them," he said.

But leaders of the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis, where Bihi's nephew and many of the other young worshiped, said after the hearing that Bihi was misrepresenting the facts. They denied ever trying to intimidate the families of the young fighters.

Bihi said law enforcement and the media pay too much attention to the role of the Internet as a tool for terrorist recruitment.

"I do not believe that there's a kid who gets up in the middle of the night and logs blindly into a computer, logs onto to a jihadi or al-Qaida website or al-Shabab and decides the next day to fly in and explode themselves," he said.

Instead, Bihi said, radicalization takes years and requires recruiters on the ground to brainwash victims like his nephew.

Later in the hearing, freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack -- who represents northeastern Minnesota -- questioned Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who's led extensive outreach to that city's Muslim community.

Cravaack started by repeating an allegation that's popular in the conservative blogosphere: that the influential Council on American Islamic Relations was a front for terrorist groups such as Hamas. He asked Baca why his sheriff's department cooperated with the Council.

"Basically you're dealing with a terrorist organization and I'm trying to get you to try to understand that they might be using you sir, to implement their goals," Cravaack asked.

"Well, thank you for asking me that question but it sounds more like a possible accusation, me being misused by an organization, that, quite frankly..." Baca responded. "Well let me just answer it this way, I'm an elected official as you are. If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forward and try them in court and deal with it that way."

Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, then promised that today's hearing would be the first of many.

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