To those who worry about the extremism that Saudi influence can foster here in the United States, the joint Muslim community at Washington State University and the University of Idaho?just nine miles apart?might provide a classic case study.
It also happened to be the home of detained National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, aka Amir Talhah, when he converted to Islam five years ago.
Anderson, who was nabbed while allegedly trying to pass secret information on to al Qaeda through an Internet chat room, graduated from Washington State University in 2002. Though the strength of his ties to the local Muslim community is unclear, there is no denying that it could have provided the perfect breeding ground for a radical Islamist.
And perhaps not coincidentally, there is a strong Saudi influence.
Last year, the FBI made several arrests while investigating alleged terror activity in Pullman, Washington (home to WSU) and Moscow, Idaho (home to UI). Because of the close proximity and the relative small numbers of Muslim residents (fewer than 200 total), the two towns have essentially a single Muslim community, according to many local Muslims.
Four people total were arrested. Two were affiliated with WSU and two with UI. Three were arrested as material witnesses and have since been released.
Still at large, though, is Saudi national Abdullah Aljughaiman, who was a lecturer at UI and received his religious training King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Investigators have been unable even to speak with him, however, because he is most likely in Saudi Arabia, where he?s off-limits to U.S. authorities.
At the probe?s center was Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a graduate student and computer whiz at UI who was also seen as a leader in the local Muslim community. The Saudi national, who goes to trial this spring, is charged with visa fraud, making false statements, and providing material support of terrorism.
The terrorism charge does not seem to have adversely affected al-Hussayen?s popularity in the local Muslim community. Several Muslims in the Pullman-Moscow area contacted by phone spoke favorably of the alleged abettor of terrorism. One who had attended the preliminary hearings opined, ?The evidence against him doesn?t seem that strong.?
In addition to allegedly designing web sites for two radical sheikhs with direct contact with Osama bin Laden, al-Hussayen is charged with handling financial and administrative functions for supposed charities that allegedly supported terrorism.
The most chilling part of the indictment, though, is a section describing an e-mail group managed and edited solely by al-Hussayen, in which an appeal was made for information from Muslims in the U.S. military that would aid terrorist attacks on American personnel, including the murder of a ?specifically identified high-ranking American military official.?
Although the charges do not tie the Saudi national to 9/11, some evidence surrounding al-Hussayen is troubling. Reportedly found on his computer hard drive were thousands of photos of the World Trade Center, both before and after September 11.
Then there?s the family connection.
According to court documents, al-Hussayen?s uncle traveled to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and ?stayed in the same hotel in the Herndon, Va., area as three of the Sept. 11 hijackers of Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.?
Though northern Idaho or eastern Washington might seem like a strange destination for students from the Middle East, roughly one-half of the Muslims in Moscow, Idaho and one-fourth in Pullman, Washington are Saudis, according to estimates of several local Muslims.
The Saudi ties appear to be longstanding. When the mosque at WSU was built in the late 1970?s, most of the funding came from the Gulf?principally from Saudi Arabia?according to a longtime Muslim resident in the area.
What remains uncertain at this point is what role the local Muslim community had in impacting Anderson?s Islamic development. Several local sources claim he was a member of the Muslim Students Association, whose national organization was Saudi-created and funded. (Al-Hussayen was president of Idaho?s MSA chapter.)
Several members of Washington State?s MSA deny that Anderson was an active member, however, including past MSA president Irshad Altheimer. Altheimer said that he accompanied Anderson to mosque services for a month during Ramadan in 2000, but that he never saw much of the now-detained National Guardsman after that.
Investigators are not ruling out a connection to the local Muslim community in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney?s office in Boise, Idaho said that no ties have yet been found, but quickly added, ?Our investigation is still ongoing.?