At the end of April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a permanent memorial to MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. Officer Collier was gunned down by the Boston Marathon bombers, Chechen refugees Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, three days after they blew up the Marathon.
It is painful to learn that in the late 1990s, there were students at MIT who helped recruit for the Chechen jihad and raised funds for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in the Tsarnaevs’ homeland. It is even more painful that the man who led this fundraising effort was still on MIT’s staff when Officer Collier was gunned down.
Suheil Laher had been MIT’s Muslim chaplain for almost 20 years. Today he continues to preach at the Islamic Society of Boston, the extremist mosque founded by MIT students near campus, where the Tsarnaevs worshipped during their radicalization.
Americans for Peace and Tolerance have just released a mini-documentary, “Al Qaeda’s Base at MIT,” showing how MIT Muslim chaplain Suheil Laher used his leadership of the MIT Muslim Students Association as a vehicle for raising money for Al Qaeda causes around the world. We especially focus on the Al Qaeda affiliate in Chechnya, which Laher and his associates lionized, even as MIT trusted him to be its Muslim students’ spiritual guide.
Suheil Laher came to MIT as a student in 1990 and by 1998, he became the MIT Muslim chaplain. By the year 2000, he also became president of a Muslim charity based in Boston called Care International, which was founded by Osama Bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam and was originally called “Al Kifah Refugee Center.” Care International was, in essence, a fundraising vehicle for mujahideen. After the leader of Al Kifah in Brooklyn, “the Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rehman, was convicted for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Boston’s Care International took over as Al Qaeda’s main base in the United States. Laher, then, was quite an important figure in Al Qaeda’s leadership here. His perch at MIT meant that he had easy access to the best American Muslim minds – and their world-class technical skills.
As a religious scholar and an engineer, Laher was both the spiritual and technological leader of Care International. He pioneered the Jihadist use of the new Internet medium to fundraise and recruit for Al Qaeda causes online. Laher’s personal website prominently featured Abdullah Azzam’s notorious call to Jihad, a tract called “Join the Caravan:”
Beloved brother! Draw your sword, climb onto the back of your horse, and wipe the blemish off your ummah. If you do not take the responsibility, who then will?
That same Jihadist tract was found on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s computer.
When the Muslim lands are being attacked, and the Muslims are being raped and killed, the only solution prescribed by Allah is jihad. Jihad is for all times. […] Jihad does not stop. Those of us who have not yet managed to go and physically help our brothers and sisters should support […] our mujahidin brethren with prayer, with money, with clothes, by taking care of their families, and at some point in person. Otherwise, we must face the wrath of Allah.
One of the MIT students who answered Laher’s call to join the Jihad in person was a bright young biologist named Aafia Siddiqui. She started out as a passionate and prolific fundraiser for Care International, but by the time she was arrested by the FBI in Afghanistan in 2008, she was known as “Lady Al Qaeda” and had become the most wanted woman in the world. She is now serving an 86-year prison sentence for attempting to kill the FBI agents arresting her. Her belongings upon arrest included two pounds of cyanide and plans for mass casualty attacks on New York using chemical and biological weapons, as well as literature about the Ebola virus.
While Laher’s sermons preached the general Islamic obligation to do Jihad, Care International’s website along with its newsletter “Al Hussam” (“The Sword”) promoted what Laher and his fellow Care leaders saw as the concrete performance of that responsibility. In the late 1990s, Care International focused its fundraising activity on the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya. Specifically, Care International backed the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists under the leadership of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
Basayev can arguably be described as one of the cruelest Islamic terrorists in modern Jihadist history. Our documentary recounts one of his cruelest acts: the Beslan School Massacre. On September 1, 2004, during a ceremony marking the first day of school, Basayev’s men surrounded the school in the town of Beslan in southern Russia and took over 1,100 people hostage, nearly eight hundred of them children. They murdered several people on the spot in front of the children and herded everyone into a sweltering gymnasium, where the hostages were kept without food or water for three days as bombs were hung up from the rafters and basketball hoops above them. On the third day, the terrorists started setting off the bombs and Russian security forces stormed the school as shell-shocked children ran the other way and were shot in the back by the terrorists. Three hundred and eighty five people were murdered, among them one hundred and eighty six children. Subsequently, Shamil Basayev bragged about his “success” at Beslan and the fact that the attack only cost him 8,000 Euros to launch. He was killed by Russian security forces in 2006.
Care International raised huge amounts of money for jihad around Boston, $1.7 million according to Federal authorities. A large portion of this money came through checks that were specifically earmarked for “Chechen Muslim fighters.” Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Care International hosted dispatches and communiques from Basayev and his forces in the field. A Care International “Al Hussam” newsletter praised a previous Basayev hostage operation against a Russian hospital’s maternity ward:
Minute by minute the whole world watched with agony, as some of the Mujahideen (not exceeding 80), under the leadership of Mujahid Shamil Basyev took 1500 Russians […] We cannot depend on anybody’s help; we have to fight evil with evil. The operation of the Mujahid Shamil Basayev is perfect proof.
How could MIT’s Muslim chaplain have led a group that applauded and funded such a savage?
In 2003, the FBI began investigating Care International for terrorism financing. At the same time, Basayev and his organization were designated as foreign terrorists. The flow of money from Boston to Chechnya stopped. After the Beslan Massacre, Basayev complained that the lack of funding prevented him from seizing more schools in Moscow and Leningrad. Because Basayev was not officially considered a terrorist before 2003, there was little the FBI could do to prosecute Laher and his fellow activists. Three Care leaders, including the group’s treasurer, received minor sentences for tax evasion. After being questioned by the FBI, Laher walked free and continued to influence students at MIT for more than another decade. His successor as MIT’s Muslim Chaplain, Hoda Elsharkawy, is herself closely linked through her husband to Laher and to Islamic extremism in Boston, which will be the focus of our future reporting.
While Laher officially stepped down from his post as MIT chaplain in 2014, he continues to preach at mosques in the Boston area, including the Tsarnaev’s own mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston – giving a sermon there as recently as May 1, 2015. The ISB was founded by MIT students who purchased a building just down the street from campus and Laher regularly preached there. Beyond this, there is no evidence to indicate that Laher influenced the Tsarnaevs directly. Nevertheless, the legacy of radicalism at the Tsarnaevs’ mosque is very much tied to MIT and the Jihadist ideology that Laher preached as its Muslim Chaplain.
We hope that our documentary will serve as a warning to moderate Muslim parents of students at MIT and other Boston universities, as well as the moderate Muslims who attend ISB and other mosques throughout the Hub. Jihadists like Laher prey on Muslim youths, and even prestigious and seemingly immune institutions like MIT cannot guarantee a safe space from their influence.
Ilya Feoktistov is research director and Charles Jacobs is president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance.