Jihad youth retreat shut down due to threats after bloggers expose speaker's Al Qaeda ties - organisers call it "a disaster"
January 1, 2006
Blogs, threats force Muslim meeting to relocate
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
But after bloggers alleged that the event was a thinly veiled terrorist indoctrination, anonymous callers bombarded the Muslim American Society of Tampa with death threats and curses
The director of the Lithia church camp that was to host the event decided to close the camp for the weekend after she, too, received threats.
So when Carnes finally faced a small audience of adults in a block building in Temple Terrace on Saturday, there was an urgency to her words.
"Since everything that's happened, this is the right time for me to talk about who we are," Carnes told the group. "There are a lot of people out there who want to define who we are for us."
* * *
On Dec. 27, blogger Joe Kaufman began writing about an event he called "a jihad retreat for children."
Over the course of the week, he wrote that Carnes was "well known in the radical Islamist American community."
He wrote that the retreat's other speaker, Mazen Mokhtar of New Jersey, was linked to al-Qaida.
Other bloggers quickly picked up the theme.
"You gotta start your kids on the road to martyrdom early, or there'll be no one left to murder," a blogger known as "Ace of Trump" wrote about the retreat.
On Dec. 29, Kaufman appeared on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto to talk about the retreat. On the air, he said that Mokhtar "should be behind bars, and in shackles."
In fact, federal agents searched Mokhtar's New Jersey home in 2004 after another man was arrested in London for running a Web site that helped fund terrorist groups.
An identical site was found registered under Mokhtar's name. But he was never arrested.
This week, Mokhtar said that he sold server space to host other people's Web sites. He never knew about the content of that particular site, he said.
"It is not now nor has it ever been my position that a Muslim should ever partake in an attack on an innocent person," he said on Friday.
He said the theme of his lectures at the retreat would be the story of Joseph, which the Koran has in common with the Bible.
"You can read Joseph in many ways, but the primary message is that God's power is everything and patience and perseverance pay off," he said.
"Joseph went through so many trials, but he continues to stand up for what he believes in."
* * *
In Chicago, Carnes worried.
What if her father saw what Kaufman wrote? Her own family had been upset when she converted to Islam. What would they think now?
"I go skiing, I play soccer, I listen to Nickelback," she said. "That's me, the big ol' "radical."'
Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, she said.
But for the Muslim American Society of Tampa, this had happened before.
An earlier paintball outing for Muslim youths was painted as terrorist training by conservative bloggers, said Rania el-Sioufi, whose husband Mohamed Moharram is the society's president.
Bloggers interpreted a lecture about the afterlife as preparation for suicide bombing, she said.
"If you go to one of these Web sites, you'll be surprised how much they're watching what Muslims are doing, and how much they're twisting it," she said.
Still, this was the first time blog posts had sparked threatening calls and e-mails.
Moharram said he tried to argue with each caller. He tried to explain that the purpose of the retreat was to teach the "true Islam" - the moderate, mainstream Islam.
"We're trying to help," he told them. "Let us do this."
Meanwhile, calls were also coming in to Cedarkirk camp and conference center in Lithia, where the retreat was to be held.
The Rev. Debbie Bromkema, a Presbyterian minister who runs the Cedarkirk center, called the Sheriff's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigations to ask if there was any truth to the allegations against Carnes and Mokhtar.
"They informed us there was nothing about the scheduled speakers or this group that would not allow (them) to come on retreat," she said.
But after the calls became threatening, she contacted the Sheriff's Office and the FBI again, to make a complaint about the threats.
And she decided to close the camp for the weekend.
On Saturday, retreat participants showed up to a block hall on the grounds of a mosque in Temple Terrace. It was the alternate location that Moharram had found at the last minute.
"It's a disaster," said Moharram. He had e-mailed the new venue to all the participants, but some still had gone out to Lithia instead, he said.
By noon about 20 people had shown up. Inside the hall, they sat quietly listening to a Koran recitation.
Many were college students. They were black, white and Arab. Some had grown up in Islam; others had converted. The men sat on one side and the women on the other.
When the recitation ended, Carnes took the floor to speak.
"We're going through a lot of challenges," she said. "Islam is still considered a foreign religion."
She pointed out that the structural design of the Sears Tower, in Chicago, was the work of a Muslim engineer. The ice cream cone, she said, was invented by a Muslim.
"Islam is a part of American society," she said. "We're a part of everything that is going on here."
As she spoke, she moved her hands. Under her white head scarf, her eyes shone.
She told the audience that as Muslims, they had to reach out to the greater American society around them.
Then, she said, people would know who Muslims were. They wouldn't hate them. They wouldn't fear them.
"Inshallah," she said - as God wills it - "in time, people will start to see who we are."
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 813 661-2442 or email@example.com
Muslim retreat sparks threats
A retreat for young Muslims was to be held at a Presbyterian camp, until a blogger alleged a speaker was linked to al-Qaida.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
LITHIA - Death threats have closed a church camp where a Muslim youth retreat was planned this weekend, after an Internet blogger alleged that a scheduled speaker was linked to al-Qaida. Mohamed Moharram, president of the Muslim American Society of Tampa, said the three-day event at Presbyterian Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center was supposed to teach young Muslims leadership skills as well as the core tenets of Islam.
Then, four days ago, the threatening phone calls and e-mails began.
"We got threats to be burned, to be destroyed," he said. "It's appalling."
The Rev. Debbie Bronkema, Cedarkirk's director, said she also received threats.
Some were severe enough that she called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the FBI, and decided to close the center for the weekend.
On Friday, Moharram said the retreat would go forward at an alternate site. But he wouldn't give the address, citing security concerns. The retreat is for about 50 young adults, ages 18 and up, organizers said. Cedarkirk Camp is a conference center in a nature setting in rural eastern Hillsborough County.
What sparked the threats?
Apparently, articles about the upcoming retreat began to appear on right-wing blogs around Christmas, including americansagainsthate.com and frontpagemag.com. The most-linked blog article alleged that one of the scheduled speakers, Mazen Mokhtar of New Jersey, had ties to al-Qaida. Other bloggers picked up the theme.
"Nothing rings in the new year like bringing your kids to hang out with a bunch of terrorists," one blogger wrote on a site called Ace of Trump.
Another posted an obviously doctored photo showing a masked terrorist standing in front of the Cedarkirk sign.
On Thursday, blogger Joe Kaufman appeared on Fox News' show Your World with Neil Cavuto to talk about the retreat.
On the air, Kaufman said that Mokhtar had run a Web site to recruit al-Qaida fighters.
"I don't believe this person should be teaching any children," he said. "This person should be behind bars in shackles."
In fact, federal agents searched Mokhtar's New Jersey home in 2004, after a man in London was arrested for using a Web site to fund terrorist groups.
An identical Web site was registered under Mokhtar's name. But he was never arrested.
On Friday, Mokhtar, a computer programmer, said he ran a business selling server space to host Web sites. He never knew what was contained on the site in question, he said.
On his Fox News program, Cavuto also read what he said was a quote from Mokhtar: "Suicide bombing should be encouraged because it's an effective way of attacking the enemy."
Although Cavuto did not say where the quote was from, a 1996 post on the online discussion forum Usenet, signed with Mokhtar's name, contains the words "effective method of attacking the enemy" in a discussion of whether suicide bombing is prohibited by Islamic law.
Mokhtar said Friday that he did not remember writing those words.
"It is not my position now nor has it ever been my position that a Muslim should ever attack an innocent person," he said.
He said he was frustrated at having to proclaim his innocence.
"It's really, really sad that I have to keep repeating this," he said.
"The fact that people flew planes into buildings in New York has nothing to do with me. I wasn't one of them. I don't belong to that school of thought."
The Rev. Bronkema said that when the allegations against Mokhtar surfaced, she called the FBI and the Sheriff's Office to ask if she should cancel the retreat.
"They informed us that there was nothing about the scheduled speakers or this group that should cause us to not allow (them) to come on retreat," she said.
"That was before the threats," she added.
After receiving threats, the contents of which she would not specify, she called the FBI and the Sheriff's Office again - this time to file a complaint.
Meanwhile, Moharram said, he tried to explain to each angry caller that his organization was nonviolent. He also responded to every abusive e-mail, he said.
"I'm exhausted," he said Friday. "I took calls until midnight last night, replying to e-mails: "What are you guys doing? This is totally a mistake. This is totally out of context."'
With one caller, he said, "I told him we are trying to help the government and the U.S. citizens, the average people, to keep them from witnessing another disaster like what happened in 9/11.
"We're teaching the youth and the young kids the real Islam, the true Islam. Not the extremist Islam."