The Muslim Student Association (MSA) is comprised of hundreds of chapters at universities and colleges across the U.S. and Canada. Founded in 1963, with its roots in the land grant universities of the American Midwest, it now boasts chapters in every state in the country and is unquestionably the largest Muslim student group in American higher education.
The MSA, however, has repeatedly come under scrutiny by law enforcement and the media following 9/11. But political pressure has been placed on these same law enforcement agencies to stop looking at MSA chapters as “radicalization incubators.”
Now, in at least one current court proceeding, former MSA leaders stand accused of using their campus group to recruit fighters for ISIS.
Another MSA chapter president was recently indicted for sending money to al-Qaeda in Syria. And yet another MSA chapter has seen two of its past presidents recently convicted of terrorism support. That same chapter later openly raised money for the terrorist group Hamas.
In August 2010, I published an article here at PJ Media including a lengthy list of MSA leaders who have been charged in cases related to Islamic terrorism. The list included al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who previously served as president of the MSA chapter at Colorado State University. He was killed in a September 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen.
Two past national MSA presidents were also named, including Abdurahman Alamoudi, who is currently serving a federal prison sentence for his role in a Libyan intelligence plot to use al-Qaeda operatives in the assassination of the Saudi crown prince.
In the eight-plus years since that article, new cases of MSA leaders being charged with terrorist crimes have emerged:
Awso Peshdary and Khader Khalib have both been charged in Canadian courts on terrorist charges related to an ISIS recruiting cell in Ottawa. According to court documents, both men and their associates were leaders of the Algonquin College MSA chapter, where they successfully conducted their terror recruiting. Peshdary is currently on trial, while Khalib was charged in absentia and is believed to be a member of ISIS in Syria. Phone intercepts produced during Peshdary’s trial show that the Algonquin College MSA president, secretary, and at least two other MSA members were prepared to go fight in Syria.
Alaa Mohd Abusaad was arrested in Toledo, Ohio in October 2018, and charged by federal prosecutors with directing an undercover operative on how to send money to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. She directed the operative on how to send the money to one of her contacts in Turkey, giving specific direction on how to conceal the transaction to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. Her LinkedIn profile identifies her as the president of the University of Alabama MSA chapter.
Salman Ashrafi was one of the early ISIS recruits, who conducted a dual suicide bombing targeting troops at an Iraqi base north of Baghdad in November 2013, killing 46. Ashrafi had obtained a degree in management from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, where he was president of the school’s MSA chapter, and he had a well-paying job in the energy sector. He was part of a larger terror cell operating in Calgary. His death was eulogized by ISIS and used as a tool to recruit other foreign fighters to the terrorist group.
Sultane and Asif Salim are brothers who were charged in November 2015 with sending thousands of dollars to al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The money supported al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s campaign to wage terror against U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the world. Both Sultane and Asif served as president of the Ohio State MSA chapter while attending the university. One of their indicted conspirators delivered $22,000 to an associate of Awlaki, with $15,000 coming from Sultane and $2000 from Asif. The brothers plead guilty last year. Asif was sentenced to six years in federal prison, and Sultane was sentenced last month to five years.
These cases fall into a long-term pattern of MSAs being directly involved in terror support prior to the 9/11 attacks.
For example, immediately following 9/11, the Associated Press reported that the National MSA website had a donation link to a charity website operated by an aide to Osama bin Laden. Just prior to the attacks, the MSA chapter at the University of Southern California hosted a March 2001 event featuring Taliban spokesman and senior adviser Syed Rahmatullah Hashimi.
The Wall Street Journal published an account in December 2003 of University of Tennessee student Mustafa Saeed, who claimed that he had been recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood through the school’s MSA chapter. He said he was taken to conferences featuring extremist speakers, and ended up soliciting funds for Islamic charities later implicated in terrorist financing.
There have also been a number of cases of MSA members (as opposed to MSA leaders) being charged with terror-related crimes. For example:
- Muhammad Dhaklalla (Mississippi State)
- Syed Hashmi (Brooklyn College)
- Zachary Chesser (George Mason University)
- Muhammad Junaid Babar (St. John’s University)
- Adis Medunjanin (Queens College)
Perhaps most prominent among MSA members who turned to terror is Adam Gadahn. The al-Qaeda spokesman was responsible for a number of official video statements by the terror group. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2015. Gadahn’s testimony on converting to Islam was posted on the USC MSA website.
Case Study: Ohio State University
It may be no coincidence that one of the ISIS-inspired terror attacks in the U.S. occurred at Ohio State University, carried out by Somali refugee and third-year logistic management student Abdul Razak Ali Artan on November 28, 2016. The Ohio State MSA may be one of the most consistently radical campus chapters in the country.
I noted above that Sultane Salim and his brother, Asif Salim, both of whom served as president of the Ohio State MSA, pleaded guilty to sending money to Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. During Sultane Salim’s term as president, the group ran the online news service MSA-NEWS that served as the clearinghouse for statements by Islamic terror groups around the world. MSA-NEWS was also the go-to source for fatwas by Osama bin Laden calling for war against the United States. During Ramadan celebrations in 2000, MSA-NEWS encouraged followers to purchase a video by Azzam Productions entitled “The Martyrs of Bosnia” which encouraged jihad.
For this reason, the Ohio State MSA came under law enforcement scrutiny after 9/11. British and German authorities shut down Azzam Productions websites in response to the 9/11 terror attacks.
In October 2002, while Asif Salim was involved with the group, the Ohio State MSA chapter hosted the Third National Conference on Palestinian Solidarity. Palestinian Islamic Jihad executive committee member Sami al-Arian was the keynote speaker. Al-Arian was subsequently jailed by federal authorities and deported following his release.
Several years later, four students — including Ohio State MSA president Mohamed Soltan — participated in a Hamas support convoy to Gaza sponsored by disgraced UK politician George Galloway and Viva Palestina during December 2009-January 2010. During the convoy, the participants met with senior Hamas officials, including Mousa Abu Marzook — a U.S. designated terrorist.
Clashes between convoy members and Egyptian authorities resulted in the killing of an Egyptian policeman.
After that incident, MSA president Mohamed Soltan was interviewed (see 10:37 mark) by Iranian state network PressTV, where he denounced U.S. policies and the refusal of Egyptian authorities to permit their entry into Hamas-controlled Gaza.
This convoy occurred after the March 2009 convoy staged by Galloway, in which — on live TV — Galloway handed a duffel bag full of cash to Hamas social minister Ahmed Kurd, who is also a U.S. designated terrorist. Galloway pronounced that he was knowingly defying international sanctions. He later met with Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh, giving $38,000 to the terrorist leader.
The money raised during Galloway’s U.S. tour was delivered to Hamas officials in July 2009.
One would think that a student organization openly supporting U.S.-designated terrorists might get the attention of law enforcement authorities. This, however, occurred during the beginning of the rollback on terror finance designations and prosecution under the Obama administration.
Willful Blindness: The NYPD Radicalization Report
In 2007, the NYPD issued a report on radicalization that noted the role of MSAs in terrorist radicalization. In fact, several of the subsequent terror plots targeting New York City involved MSA members.
The report immediately came under fire. Leaks to the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD had kept an eye on MSA groups in the Northeast during 2006-2007, collecting publicly available information. That was translated by the media and far-left advocacy groups as “spying on Muslims.”
Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed those complaints. But following the election and inauguration of his successor Bill de Blasio, support for the NYPD’s information gathering and incorporating MSA activities into their threat matrix withered. Despite pleas from the New York Post to keep the radicalization report available online, the de Blasio administration ordered a purge of the document and agreed to a settlement promising to remove the report from the NYPD’s website.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) continue to observe the activities of MSA groups, given evidence from security officials that eleven high-profile jihadists and terror suspects have been associated with the MSA. The Canadian Parliament continues to receive testimony about the role MSAs play in terrorist radicalization. With the example of the role that the Algonquin College MSA played in ISIS recruiting in Ottawa, Canadian authorities have reason to worry.
Given the escalation of radicalization and new cases of MSA leaders being convicted on terror-related charges since my initial article in August 2010, it would seem prudent for the Justice Department to again maintain awareness of what is occurring in MSA groups that have an established record of promoting extremism. As the NYPD noted in its report, MSAs have been shown to be the perfect “radicalization incubators.”
And as these recent cases I’ve documented show, the NYPD concerns about the Muslim Student Association were entirely right.