This spring, Harpercollins released Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America. The author was “Anonymous” — the reason for her shielded identity obvious from the subtitle. Just prior to the book’s release, 60 Minutes did a segment on the book, with “Anonymous,” going into some alleged terror fronts the author had found in the U.S., among other things. In a subsequent lawsuit filed by some of those accused groups, Anonymous was revealed as Rita Katz, director of the Site Institute, an international terrorist-investigation and information group. (Katz has written for NRO, here and here and here.) Katz, born an Iraqi Jew, recently talked to NRO about her book, the lawsuit, the war on terror, Iraq, and her terrifying job, among other things.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You are the “anonymous” “Terror Hunter.” Did you expect to be outed when you decided to write the book? Where you prepared for it?
Ritz Katz: Writing the book was a decision I had made after long deliberation, a significant part of which was considering the possibility of being outed. I had hoped that by publishing it as “anonymous” and by altering some identifying details about myself, I would be able to deliver my message without being exposed. Anonymity was important as many of the things I did and wrote about in the book can enrage many radicals and will surely make me quite a few enemies. But the importance of getting my message across outweighed the risks, and I decided to go ahead and write the book in spite of the potential danger. I knew for certain that most journalists — usually the people who try to expose an anonymous author — would not do so in my case. Some journalists have used me as a source before and understood the importance my anonymity. Yes, I did hope that I would remain anonymous, but I also took certain precautions in case I was exposed, and I now continue to work on a number of things to ensure my safety.
Lopez: Some of the groups you pinpoint as terror fronts are taking those claims to court. Do you stand by everything in your book, everything you have said and written (including on 60 Minutes, which is being sued)? Are the Heritage Education Trust, SAFA Trust, and Mar-Jac Poultry terror fronts? And do you have the evidence to make those accusations hold?
Katz: I cannot at this time discuss the specifics of the lawsuit or the individual plaintiffs, but as I had noted in a press release in response to this lawsuit, I stand firmly behind what I wrote in Terrorist Hunter and what I said on 60 Minutes. I will gladly guide any judge or jury through the mass of information I compiled before writing my book. I will explain how my research led me to the doors of 555 Grove Street in Herndon, Virginia. As for the groups affiliated with 555 Grove Street, I describe in my book in great detail how I first learned about them, how I gathered evidence relating to them over the years showing that they are linked to various front groups for terrorist organizations, and how my information led the government to conduct the raid and the ongoing investigation on the 555 address and the organizations and individuals tied to it. To assume that the government raided this address just because I said so would be utterly preposterous. The agents who conducted the raid, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, obviously had very good reasons to do so. Some of the evidence supporting my statements about 555 Grove is mentioned in the book itself. This, and other pertinent material that I have, I will provide to the court to prove how what I wrote was accurate.
Lopez: When did you start to and how did you get involved in the undercover-dangerous-terror investigations?
Katz: Little could I imagine when I responded to an employment ad in a paper, just over five years ago, that my career would evolve the way it did. It all started by pure chance; I was looking for a job, responded to an ad, and was hired to work for a Middle-East research institute. I wasn’t trained or instructed there, but rather on my own initiative and quite accidentally I started to study a certain charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), and I realized that this was a front group for Hamas. After a few months, I wanted to get to know in person the people I studied so closely, so I went to a fundraiser of theirs dressed as a Muslim woman. Soon thereafter I was attending conferences, visiting mosques, participating in rallies — and the more I did, the more I discovered the enormity of the problem of radicalism on U.S. soil.
Lopez: Can you still do what you have been doing, now that people know who you are?
Katz: Of course! The lawsuit brought against me, I believe, is an attempt to shut me up and slow down my investigations. It will achieve the exact opposite. I am more enthusiastic now about my fight against terror than ever before. I will certainly continue with my work, I will continue to consult with the government on counterterrorism investigations, and I will continue to provide information on terrorists and their supporters and financiers to the media and to anyone who might need it to stop terrorists from attacking us again. My message to the bad guys is that nothing will stop me from monitoring them, preventing them from attacking us, and helping to bring them to justice.
Lopez: It must be downright frightening, sometimes, going to work. In one point in your book, you are pregnant, wired with a recorder, at a jihadist conference (where you hear, among other things, the usual calls for “Death to Jews”) and someone else-possibly a journalist — gets into a confrontation for doing what you were doing-recording, taking notes. Did you ever think, “No, I can’t do this anymore?”
Katz: Frightening is an understatement. During certain times, such as the widely televised lynching of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, attending some of these meetings, particularly the smaller ones, was terrifying. Being a Jewish woman among inflamed Muslims calling for jihad against Jews and death to Jews, I knew that I would face grave consequences if I were exposed. Other difficult experiences I had were actually in open, public rallies, where various people told sob stories about how they were abused because they were Muslims or Arabs. Some of these stories were really heartbreaking. But then came the leaders of the Muslim community and expressed their views, and that put me back on track. One such example was with Abdurahman al-Amoudi, who was considered by many a moderate Muslim leader and, as such, was a regular visitor to the White House. In a public rally he stated his support for Hamas and Hezbollah, two designated terrorist organizations. I recorded him, gave the videotape to the media, and this in fact brought an end to his lobbying career with the administration. But in spite of the danger, I never had a point where I wanted to quit. Whenever the going got tough, I had successes such as exposing al-Amoudi, deporting terrorists, preventing the government from unwittingly funding front groups for terror, and many others I describe in the book, to invigorate me.
Lopez: What do your kids and the rest of your family think of what you are doing?
Katz: For quite some time, my kids knew very little about what I do. But there’s only so much you can hide from your kids. So now that they know exactly what their mom is doing, they — as well as my husband — do their best to support me. They all believe in what I do, they believe in me, and I think that they are very proud.
Lopez: What do you hope people come away from the book with?
Katz: Although my book is a story, my story, and not a textbook on terrorism per se, I wrote it mainly to deliver two important messages through this story. One is to reveal the gravity and the extent of Islamic fundamentalism in America. Even now, after 9/11, many believe that radicalism is something that is prevalent only in the Middle East or in Afghanistan. From what I’d learned by attending mosques, conferences, and rallies, fundamentalism is a major problem right here, in our own backyards. I give numerous examples in my book of statements that I had recorded, some of which are blood chilling, and of others that openly call for jihad. I wanted my book to demonstrate that and to explain how we have to fight this phenomenon in order to be able to eradicate terrorism. The other point I make in Terrorist Hunter is that although many in the American public believe that now, after 9/11, government agencies all work together as one to fight terrorism, unfortunately, this is not the case. I give several examples in Terrorist Hunter of how certain government agencies fight amongst themselves, how they hide information from others, how they try to take over investigations, how they even deliberately slow down terrorism investigations. All this is happening now, almost two years after 9/11. I wanted the American public to know that, because knowing about it is the necessary first step toward fixing what is wrong.
Lopez: You grew up a Jew in Iraq. What was that like?
I grew up in a rich family, surrounded by love and by servants who took care of all my needs. We lived in a huge mansion and went to a private school. We were happy. I had no idea that we were sitting on a ticking time bomb until my father was suddenly taken by Saddam’s people and accused of spying for Israel. Since that day, our world fell apart. We suffered terrible abuse, all of us, until we were able to leave Iraq.
Lopez: When and why did you leave Iraq?
Katz: My father was tried in one of Saddam’s kangaroo courts and hanged in broad daylight, in Baghdad’s central square, to the cheers of a half a million spectators. My family and I we were held under house arrest in a small hut in Baghdad, and we suffered additional abuse and other tragedies, until my mother was finally able to orchestrate a daring escape. My father was hanged in 1969, and we escaped two years later, through Iran, to Israel.
Lopez: Have you been back to Iraq since liberation? If not, do you hope to?
Katz: No, I have not been to Iraq yet after we left it three decades ago, but I would definitely go there when it becomes possible. I would very much like to try to retrieve my father’s remains and bring them to a decent burial in Israel. That could finally bring closure for me, and even more so for my mother. And although it is a very long shot, I would also like to try to find some documents that might reveal what exactly happened and why my father was chosen as a scapegoat by Saddam’s people. There are many questions in my mind that remain unanswered, and perhaps I will be able to retrieve something in Iraq to help me learn what actually transpired there.
Lopez: What are your thoughts about the current state of things in Iraq?
Katz: The situation in Iraq is complicated by a number of factors. One is the conflict between Iraqi Shiites, the majority of the population, and the Sunni minority that ruled the country until the regime was recently overthrown. Into this already tumultuous powder keg come in countries with strong interests in the region, causing serious tensions in the Muslim and Arab world. The Sunnis, mainly Saudi Arabia and Syria, on the one hand, and the Shiites — Iran — do not want to lose control of the region. Another important factor is the current movement of Muslim terrorist organizations into Iraq, into parts that are becoming no man’s land, perhaps similarly to Afghanistan, as operatives from al Qaeda, Jihad, and al Gamaa are moving in to fight the Americans. Some of the most ferocious battles our soldiers had to fight in Iraq were against non-Iraqis. Lastly, being a country that never had the privilege of democracy, it may be a long process before a stable regime can be established there.
Lopez: You do a lot of consulting with government intel and law enforcement. Is that a sign of U.S. intelligence shortcomings still?
Katz: I do work with government agencies on counterterrorism investigations, but this is not a sign of the government’s shortcomings. On the contrary, this is a very positive development. As I describe in the book, my research is based mostly on public records: old publications, tax documents, trial transcripts, and so on. I compile the information I find, I connect the dots, and then give my conclusions as leads to the government. As I have studied many Islamic terrorist organizations, their front groups, and their financiers in great depth, and as I understand their mentality and their language well, I could assist the government in such investigations. However, I do not provide “intel” information per se. The government gets its intel by recording, wiretapping, surveillance, etc. Before 9/11, I tried to give the government important leads, but many of these leads weren’t taken seriously. These same leads of mine, and, of course, many others, were picked up by the government after 9/11 — and a large number of investigations stemmed from them.
Lopez: What would you consider our most important successes in the war on terror?
Katz: One important achievement is the freezing of assets of terrorist financiers and shutting down large sources of money to terrorist organizations. Without proper funding, terrorist attacks cannot take place. Another significant blow to al Qaeda and to the global network of terrorists that had evolved out of that organization was, at least to some extent, the war in Afghanistan. It had destroyed several of al Qaeda’s training camps and hampered its ability to train new recruits. The war made it more difficult for al Qaeda to orchestrate a major, sophisticated attack in the scope of 9/11. But the success in Afghanistan resulted in only a temporary setback for the terrorists. It didn’t crush them completely, but rather scattered them around the globe. This results in the large number of attacks we have seen recently on “soft targets” such as in Bali, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. As for the apprehension of major al Qaeda leaders, such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Abu Zubayda, and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, while indisputably important, it will never suffice as a single measure, not even when Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are caught or killed. For every such operative, ten other volunteers are already standing in line to join al Qaeda. The war has to be more comprehensive and to target the causes, the financing, and the education for jihad. And that is why I think that our most important achievement thus far is the profound change in the general perception of the global threat of Islamic fundamentalism to America and the West. What used to be considered a nuisance before 9/11 is now properly deemed a major threat to the free world. That conceptual change is demonstrated in various ways. One example is the enactment of the Patriot Act, that may assist government agencies in the war on terror. Another is the increased collaboration with other countries, such as Germany and Britain, in that war. And thirdly, the government had finally realized that there is no distinction between terrorist organizations. I give, for instance, several examples in the book of how al Qaeda, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad all work together and share operatives, training, and financing. Now that our government had understood that, it has declared war on terrorism rather than on a specific organization. This conceptual change is the first and most important step in comprehending the threat and being able to learn how to combat it.
Lopez: Since the terror attack in Riyadh last month, do you have any reason to believe progress has been made vis-à-vis our relationship with the kingdom and the kingdom itself cracking down on al Qaeda and other terror groups within?
Katz: Saudi Arabia plays an important role in educating and funding Islamic radicalism and worldwide terrorism. I explain in my book why the Saudis want jihad and what their reasons are to finance worldwide jihad. I give examples of the radicalism they teach in their schools, and I give examples of how the Saudi government funds terrorist organizations, both directly and indirectly. The Saudis claim now that they are our allies in the war on terror. This is not unlike their claim that they have been “cracking down” on terrorism funding during the last decade. But in reality nothing has changed in Saudi Arabia in that respect. The recent attacks in Riyadh were not targeted against Saudi Arabia, but against the West. Claims that the Saudis have suffered too, even if it is only via collateral damage, are nonsensical; Bin Laden himself responded to a question about the embassy bombings in Africa, when he was asked about the hundreds of Muslims who perished in the attack, by saying that they all went to heaven. For the terrorists who attacked in Riyadh, the target was the West. In their twisted minds, the collateral damage — including their own lives — is only paving those people’s path to paradise. And thus, to eradicate Islamic terrorism and radicalism, the U.S. government has to apply pressure on the Saudis to stop educating for jihad and funding terrorists. Only then could a new generation grow in Saudi Arabia that will be willing to hear the moderate voice, which now is non-existent there.
Lopez: There are miles to go yet, though, as you tell vividly in your book. What have been our (the U.S.) biggest mistakes? What must be addressed if we are ever to win the war on terror?
Katz: Changes need to be made both in strategy and in tactics. As for the latter, the short-term fight needs to include the capture of al Qaeda operatives and the destruction of their infrastructure. To do that effectively and to be able to prevent another attack on us, law enforcement agencies have to correct some critical operational flaws. The most serious, in my view, is the competition between agencies and the way some agencies refuse to cooperate with others in the war on terror. I give a number of very disturbing examples demonstrating that pattern in my book. Another problem is that certain law-enforcement agencies approach Islamic terrorism as if it were a criminal investigation: find the culprits if you can, put them in jail, end of story. But Islamic terrorism is different from organized crime on several levels and it needs to be confronted accordingly. For terrorists, money is not a goal, but rather a means. Islamic terrorists, unlike other criminals, have no value for life, not even their own. Without understanding their motives and way of thinking, they cannot be defeated. Therefore, Islamic terrorism needs to be studied in depth, and it needs to be addressed as a global, long-term problem. Which brings me to the strategic planning of the war on terror. The only way we can win this war is if we, the West, will force countries, governments, and organizations that educate, preach, and fund jihad to stop what they are doing. As long as radical Muslim clerics will preach for jihad, and as long as Saudi textbooks will teach their youngsters that we, the “infidels,” will always be their enemies, Islamic terrorism will not be eradicated. Through political pressure, diplomacy, sanctions, and similar measures, the West, spearheaded by the U.S., has to force governments such as that of Saudi Arabia to stop spreading this incitement and to engender a new generation that does not have that blind, vicious hate against the West and everything it represents. And then — in a generation — we will be able to win this war once and for all.