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Protests and Protesting

Amid campus protests, organizers with past ties to Hamas support also emerge

On Day 7 of the pro-Palestinian protests on the Columbia University campus, Osama Abuirshaid stopped by the student encampment.

The executive director of American Muslims for Palestine walked through the tent city, then made a fiery speech to the gathered crowd. 

“This is not only a genocide that is being committed in Gaza,” Abuirshaid said. “This is also a war on us here in America.” 

Forty-eight hours later, Abuirshaid appeared at another campus — George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he delivered another speech.  

Osama Abuirshaid at a protest event at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., April 26, 2024.

Campus protests, which swept the country this spring, emerged as an outcry over the civilian death toll of the military campaign Israel launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Most student protesters have sought to distance themselves from Hamas, which the United States designated as a terrorist entity in 1997. 

But top members of Abuirshaid’s organization have complex connections to the campus protest movement. And Abuirshaid and others from American Muslims for Palestine were once employees or officials at another group tied to direct financial support for Hamas, USA TODAY found. 

From 2002 to 2004, Abuirshaid ran the internal newspaper for a pro-Palestinian media organization called Islamic Association for Palestine. The group’s sister fundraising organization, the Holy Land Foundation was designated a terror group in 2001, investigated by the FBI and indicted by the Department of Justice. Ultimately, the foundation’s leaders went to prison for supporting terrorists, and a federal judge later found both groups responsible for funding Hamas. 

An array of pending civil lawsuits alleges that Abuirshaid’s current group also has close Hamas ties, though these claims remain unproven as the suits work their way through the judicial system. 

American Muslims for Palestine denies any Hamas ties, or even a close link to the previous groups. 

“There have been many allegations and insinuations against American Muslims for Palestine and whether it has connections to Hamas, supports Hamas, or in any way, shape or form aids Hamas. The answer to all of those is simple and clear: No,” said Christine Jump, an attorney who represents AMP.  “No, it does not.”

While campus protesters across the country have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, individual protests have also showcased moments of more overt support for Hamas or for violence: At Stanford University, officials alerted the FBI after a man at a campus protest was seen wearing a headband resembling those worn by Hamas fighters. At Columbia, students chanted “Hamas, we love you. We support your rockets too.”

Amid that kind of rhetoric, the involvement of a group like Abuirshaid’s is troubling, said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, a leading independent scholar on Hamas who has been studying the group’s activity in the U.S. for 25 years. 

“Unless you believe Hamas is a good organization, I think there's reason to be concerned,” Vidino said. “There is a long history of Hamas networks strategizing about how to create a presence in the U.S. that is influential well beyond their little cluster.”

Multiple experts interviewed by USA TODAY stressed that they don’t believe Abuirshaid’s organization, or any Hamas-connected groups or individuals, are driving the overall protest movement. 

Student protest groups, moved by images from Gaza, “see a sense of justice” in their actions, said Ghaith al-Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who previously held positions within the Palestinian Authority. “Even those who say things which are unpalatable are often coming from ignorance rather than malice." 

But al-Omari said seeing occasional images of campus protesters flying Hamas and other militant groups’ flags is “certainly disturbing in terms of supporting what is truly unsupportable.”

Past group funded Hamas 

In October 1993, three top leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine attended a now-infamous meeting at a Marriott near the Philadelphia airport. Present were about 20 members of the “Palestine Committee,” an umbrella organization committed to supporting the activities of Hamas in the United States, which at the time was not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

Also listening in to the meeting, however, was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

FBI investigators had wire-tapped the meeting room and recorded most of what was said over the next three days. In one notable exchange, they captured audio of participants discussing how they should describe Hamas, and the group’s broader cause, to the American public.

“If someone asked you if you want to destroy Israel, what are you going to say on TV?” asked Omar Ahmed, then-president of the Islamic Association for Palestine. “If you give an inconclusive response which is like you didn't answer the question, someone will come to you and tell you that you have forsaken your principles.” 

A key decision came out of the meeting: A plan to use a newly created charity, the Holy Land Foundation, as a front. Federal prosecutors would later detail how the foundation funneled money to Hamas under the guise of providing charitable contributions. 

Four years after the Philadelphia meeting, the U.S. government declared Hamas a foreign terrorist organization, and the Department of Justice later brought an unprecedented prosecution

Holy Land Foundation and its leaders were ultimately found guilty of providing more than $12 million to support terrorism. Islamic Association for Palestine was listed as one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the case; prosecutors said both groups had been created to support Hamas.

Working for the Islamic Association for Palestine at the time of the investigation, and running its internal newspaper Al-Zaytouna, was Abuirshaid. 

The prosecution remains the country’s largest-ever terrorist financing investigation, experts said. Several of Abuirshaid’s colleagues went to prison for decades for their roles in the scheme. Neither Abuirshaid nor the Islamic Association for Palestine was charged with any crime.

By 2004, both organizations were shuttered and claimed to have no assets. 

A new group emerged in 2006: American Muslims for Palestine. Four years later, Abuirshaid became a board member. He has been its executive director since 2019. 

Jump, the attorney who represents AMP, dismissed any connection between the organization Abuirshaid leads today and the previous groups that were investigated or prosecuted. Linking them through Abuirshaid has been overblown, she said. 

He was “not greatly involved with” Islamic Association for Palestine, Jump said. “He ran the newspaper, because he's a journalist, and he was paid to operate the newspaper, and he was paid by IAP,” she said. “He was not a decision maker for IAP.”

Abuirshaid and others at AMP did not respond to repeated interview requests by email and social media messages. Jump told USA TODAY that she would answer questions on their behalf, but that no one from the organization would be made available for an interview.  

American Muslims for Palestine today 

Osama Abuirshaid of American Muslims for Palestine speaks at the National Press Club in Washington in 2017. He has been the group's executive director since 2019.

Today, American Muslims for Palestine is organized as a nonprofit group under the name AJP Educational Foundation.  

Abuirshaid isn’t the only common thread between the old and the new entities. Abdelbaset Hamayel, who also worked at IAP until its demise, preceded Abuishaid as director of American Muslims for Palestine and still volunteers for the organization. 

And another former employee at the current organization, Rafeeq Jaber, served as the Islamic Association’s president before it was shuttered. Hamayel and Jaber, through Jump, also declined interview requests. 

Historically, the most powerful Palestinian American groups have operated a form of “musical chairs,” Vidino said – forming and reforming new organizations, often with innocuous-sounding names that result in a confusing alphabet soup of acronyms.

“We’re talking about a very small cluster of people who have known each other for a long time,” Vidino said.  

Civil lawsuits have long alleged that American Muslims for Palestine is closely tied to the older groups.  

One was filed by the family of David Boim, a 17-year-old American student who was shot and killed by Hamas gunmen at a West Bank bus stop in 1996. The Boims sued both the Islamic Association for Palestine and Holy Land Foundation, along with others, in 2000 under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows families of terror victims to seek damages from terrorist organizations and their supporters in the United States.  

The family won a judgment against the groups for $156 million in 2004. Attorneys say they were only able to collect a small portion of that from the foundation, and a used van from IAP.

So, in 2017 the Boims sued the newer group, American Muslims for Palestine, claiming it is the legal “alter ego” of the older group and therefore should be held responsible for the remaining payment. Those claims have persisted through years of legal filings and are still pending. 

“If avoiding or evading the Anti-Terrorism Act is as simple as … stopping doing business under that name and starting business under another,” said Daniel Schlessinger, attorney on the Boim case, “then the act has no teeth.” 

Abuirshad’s work history was also a sticking point when he applied to become an American citizen. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services initially denied his application, court records show, because he had not acknowledged his association with the old Islamic Association for Palestine.  After years of delays, Abuirshaid eventually sued USCIS, claiming he had been wrongly blacklisted. He was ultimately granted U.S. citizenship in 2017 and his lawsuit was dismissed.

The new organization, American Muslims for Palestine, appears to be flourishing under Abuirshaid. Federal tax records show the group has drawn about $1.5 million in donations annually in recent years. 

Its work also focuses on an initiative that has drawn newfound scrutiny: student outreach.  

Student protest groups say they're independent

During the recent round of demonstrations on the UC Berkeley campus, 170 colorful tents dotted the storied Sproul Plaza.

Standing at the Mario Savio steps – named after a student who launched the Free Speech Movement – Hatem Bazian drew inspiration. “Salaam Alaikum,” Peace be with you, he began.

Like Savio, and like students who protested apartheid South Africa who were later thanked by Nelson Mandela, Bazian promised they too would not be part of the “dustbin of history.” 

Bazian invited them to chant in call-and-response: “Free free Palestine.”

“Students made history,” Bazian said to the crowd. “Go out and make history.”

Bazian has a long history in campus activism. Today, he also is the board chairman of American Muslims for Palestine.

Hatem Bazian speaks at UC Berkeley as hundreds of Pro-Palestinian protesters and students gather at the UC Berkeley encampment area outside of Sproul Hall.

More:Who attacked UCLA protest? New reports unmasking the violent counter-protestors

In recent months, at Berkeley and dozens of other campuses, student groups have organized protests using the name Students for Justice in Palestine. 

More than 30 years ago as a Berkeley student himself, Bazian helped found the first chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, The New York Times reported last year. 

That account has recently been disputed by Bazian himself, according to court records, and by his attorney. “He had nothing to do with creating the founding documents, he did not draft them. He did not submit the application to get it approved,” Jump told USA TODAY. 

But both Bazian and his attorney acknowledge he was an early participant in the group, and a speaker at its first events – well-known on campus as the head of a graduate student association. 

“For those of us involved in UC Berkeley in 1993, Students for Justice in Palestine was an effort to organize for Palestine outside of the old patterns and structures of the Palestinian factional organizing that dominated the work up to that point,” Bazian wrote on Medium. 

While many local student protest organizations use the name Students for Justice in Palestine, it’s not clear how or whether they are connected to one another, or to the entity’s amorphous national organization. 

On its main website, the National Students for Justice in Palestine states it supports “over 350 Palestinian solidarity organizations.” The group’s goal is to “develop a student movement that is connected, disciplined and equipped with the tools necessary to achieve Palestinian liberation.”

Student members of SJP chapters interviewed by USA TODAY at UCLA, the University of Texas in Austin, New York University and Vanderbilt University all said they operate autonomously.

“There’s local chapters and the national group,” said Ezri Tyler, a 20-year-old student protester, and member of SJP at Vanderbilt University. “Each state is essentially independent, and each chapter is essentially autonomous. Obviously we’re grounded in the same core principles, and the national group supports us.”

“Students are not being controlled in any way,” Tyler said. As for Abuirshaid’s group, Tyler said, “I don’t think we’ve worked with them. … We operate on our own.” 

But University of Texas student Ammer Qaddumi, a steering member of the local SJP chapter called the Palestine Solidarity Committee, described the national SJP as “a guiding body.” 

Qaddumi said the University of Texas group is autonomous, and that the national SJP is made up of former students who were once members of local chapters. 

Qaddumi said he was aware of American Muslims for Palestine, but believed it had only collaborated on events like last year’s national march on Washington. He said he had heard of Bazian but did not recognize the name Osama Abuirshaid.

“The people who had these protests are people of conscience who are seeing the destruction in Gaza, the horrible conditions,” he said in an interview. “Someone's not telling us to do that. We just won't stand for it.”

SJP representatives at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and George Washington University declined to be interviewed. 

Jump, the attorney for Abuirshaid’s group, said she was aware that there is a national SJP steering committee, composed of current students who are SJP members across the U.S.

Jump said she could not say whether current staffers at American Muslims for Palestine had been members of the SJP committee. 

The national SJP does not appear to have ever organized as a nonprofit or have filed tax documents. Its membership appears to be anonymous. 

Another document using the name National Students for Justice in Palestine, circulated widely after Oct. 7, has drawn further criticism.  

The ‘toolkit’ document

The morning of Oct. 7, Hamas fighters infiltrated southern Israel in a sea, air and ground assault that ended in the slaughtering of 1,200 people. More than 240 were taken hostage into Gaza; as of this week, 128 are believed to be held by the militant group. 

Immediately after the attack, as many Jewish students in the U.S. were holding vigils, a shared document called a toolkit appeared online, saying, “National Students for Justice in Palestine is calling for a national day of resistance on college campuses” Oct. 12.    

“Resistance comes in all forms,” it reads, including “armed struggle.” 

“Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea,” it said. The document provided a guide for protests, suggested messages, even images to be used on posters, which featured the paragliders Hamas fighters had used in the attack.

A new lawsuit, filed in federal court in Virginia on behalf of several Oct. 7 victims’ families, cites the toolkit in its claim against the student group – and against American Muslims for Palestine, the group Abuirshaid runs. 

The suit, filed May 1, alleges that Abuirshaid’s group founded Students for Justice in Palestine. It alleges both groups provide “crucial ongoing public relations services to Hamas to generate support for its ongoing terrorism.” It also claims that the groups “disseminated” and “enacted” the toolkit on college campuses.

Jump denies those claims. 

“AMP never disseminated the referenced toolkit, and while I'm unclear what the plaintiffs mean by ‘enacting’ it – AMP did not have anything to do with the drafting, creation, circulation or any other involvement of NSJP's toolkit,” Jump told USA TODAY. The rest of the allegations in the federal lawsuit, Jump said, “are more of the same with little to no basis in fact.” 

In addition, Jump said AMP had no connection whatsoever to the toolkit. “I asked Dr. Bazian, his response to that is that he saw the toolkit on Fox News the first time,” Jump said.

Abuirshaid’s group has also received scrutiny from at least one prosecutor.

At the end of October, Virginia's attorney general announced that his office was launching an investigation into American Muslims for Palestine. His office declined to speak to USA TODAY saying it does not comment on open investigations.

AMP issued a statement calling the state probe defamatory and dangerous. 

A shifting paradigm 

Taher Herzallah runs the outreach program at American Muslims for Palestine, acting as a liaison with campus groups nationwide and coordinating “grassroots organizing,” according to the organization’s website. 

Herzallah has been involved in campus activism since at least 2010, when, as a student in California, he was arrested during a protest at UC Irvine. 

In this file photograph, college students convicted of unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the U.S. in Irvine, California, listen to the judge during sentencing, Sept. 23, 2011. At center is Taher Herzallah. His conviction in the Irvine case raised his profile; he now runs the outreach program for American Muslims for Palestine.

In a December speech to a San Diego mosque, Herzallah said, “This is the time to agitate to make Zionists feel very uncomfortable on campus – we're not here for their comfort.”

Matthew Levitt, an author and adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, says student outreach is part of a larger strategy for pro-Palestinian groups, which have aligned their cause with other progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQ+ community. 

“It's part of this investment that groups have done over time,” Levitt said, “building, creating, not just bridges and relationships, but this conceptual framework.” 

Herzallah also teaches at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. During a visit to the pro-Palestinian protest encampment there last month, he remarked on where he saw the cause in the larger arc of activism. 

There are some who believe that this movement will fizzle out after finals next week, Herzallah said. No, the protesters shouted back. 

“The irony,” Herzallah said, as he took in what was becoming an iconic scene of a campus protest, “is that in 15 years, this university will be using this picture on their recruiting pamphlets.” 

The crowd erupted in cheers. 

Contributing: Sam Woodward, Deborah Barfield Berry, Bayliss Wagner from the Austin-American Statesman and Angele Latham from The Tennessean.

Will Carless is a national correspondent covering extremism and emerging issues. Follow him on X, @willcarless. Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is USA TODAY's White House editor and a former international correspondent. Follow her on X, @RominaAdi.

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