In the sorry tradition of shooting the messenger, the Pentagon is cashiering its top expert on Islamist doctrine, Stephen Coughlin. Some members of Congress are now contemplating hearings to ask why. Along with drawing attention to Coughlin’s research, now circulating on the Internet, the growing controversy has thrown a spotlight on Coughlin’s alleged nemesis at the Pentagon, a top aide named Hesham Islam — whose tale deserves closer attention. Not least, as a reporter for the Armed Forces Press Service observed last year, it would make a great Hollywood blockbuster.
Certainly there are subplots here that seem made for the movies, including tales of Islam, in his youth, living through an air raid in Egypt, a ship sinking in the Arabian Sea, and now, years later, this scuffle under the Pentagon rug over how to deal with the chief threat to America today — Islamic extremism.
Hesham Islam is a native Arabic speaker, a Muslim, born in 1959 in Cairo and schooled in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 1980 he immigrated to the U.S. From 1985-2005 he served in the U.S. Navy, rising to the mid-level officer rank of commander. At some point after former defense-industry executive Gordon England joined the Bush administration as secretary of the Navy, in 2001, Islam went to work on his staff. In 2005, when England, after a stint in Homeland Security took over from Paul Wolfowitz in the Defense Department’s number two slot of deputy secretary, Islam came with him.
In England’s office, Islam’s official title is special assistant for international affairs. In that capacity he pops up as a man-about-town in Washington, making the rounds of embassies. But Islam also works as England’s point man for Pentagon outreach programs to Muslim groups. These include organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, with whom Islam and England have forged ties — attending ISNA conventions, and hosting ISNA delegations at Pentagon events, and in England’s office.
That’s alarming to some, such as terrorism expert Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, who, for more than a decade, has been tracking Islamic extremist networks in the U.S. In a recent appearance on Fox News, Emerson described Hesham Islam as, in his view, “an Islamist with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bent who has brought in groups to the Pentagon who have been unindicted co-conspirators.”
Emerson was apparently referring to ISNA, named last summer by the Department of Justice as a member of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood and an unindicted co-conspirator in the case of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity indicted in 2005 in Dallas federal court for allegedly providing millions of dollars to the terrorist group Hamas (itself an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). ISNA, in a press statement, says it “remains unjustly branded by the government as an unindicted co-conspirator.” (The Holy Land Foundation case resulted in a mistrial last fall, and is expected to be re-tried).
But whatever Emerson’s worries, Islam’s boss, Gordon England, apparently can’t praise Hesham Islam and his work enough. In public statements over the past year, England has described Islam as “my personal close confidante,” “my interlocutor,” a man who “represents me to the international community,” and “assists me in my own outreach efforts.” Photos taken on the Washington’s diplomatic reception circuit show England and Islam side-by-side, chatting up contacts. Last October, England described Islam to a Pentagon in-house reporter as a man with “wonderful friendships and relationships” which allow Islam to “give me extraordinarily good advice in dealing with countries and people.” England added, “I take his advice, and I listen to him all the time.”
As for the Pentagon’s soon-to-be-evicted Stephen Coughlin, who sits well below Islam on the Defense totem pole — he is a lawyer by training, and a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. On contract with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Coughlin made it his mission to set aside the feel-good assumptions about Islam which have been guiding U.S. strategy, and take an unblinkered look at facts.