The Magazine

Jihad in Jersey City?

From the January 31, 2005 issue: The murder of a Coptic family raises disturbing questions.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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DEPENDING ON THE OUTCOME OF the investigation, a recent grisly murder in Jersey City, New Jersey, may be a sign of things to come in our domestic war on terror.

On Friday, January 14, 2005, police discovered the bodies of a family of four Egyptian Copts slain in their home. Hossam Armanious, 47, his wife, Amal, 37, and their daughters Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, had been bound, gagged, and their throats slit.

The motive for the quadruple slaying has not yet been established. FBI agents are assisting with the investigation. Hudson County prosecutors say the killers refrained from taking expensive jewelry, but Armanious's wallet had been emptied and his pockets turned out.

"We know that money was taken," said prosecutor Edward De Fazio. "Whether that was the primary motivation, we don't know. To think that someone would commit this type of crime for a small amount of money does not make sense."

According to friends and relatives, the family was not particularly wealthy. Hossam Armanious was a headwaiter and his wife a postal clerk. Interestingly, assistant prosecutor Guy Gregory said, "It doesn't appear to be random. It appears to be a specific act. Someone was able to gain access without forcing entry."

Another possible motive that is being reviewed is religious hatred. Armanious was active in Internet chat rooms defending the Copts against Islamic extremists. The Coptic church, whose presence in Egypt goes back nearly 2,000 years, has suffered persecution off and on over the centuries, intensifying in the last 10 years. Armanious had reportedly received a death threat online: "We will hunt you down . . . and kill you." Investigators have taken a computer from the children's bedroom. And according to the New York Post, a relative of Jersey City mayor Jerramiah Healy said there was information the murders were "religion-related."

Additional disturbing details point in this direction. First, the brutality and methodology of the crime do not fit the profile for simple robbery but rather call to mind the Islamist killings of Western hostages like Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and Nick Berg in Iraq.

In addition, the investigators acknowledge that a relative of the victims had helped prosecutors in their case against lawyer Lynne Stewart, currently on trial in Manhattan for allegedly carrying messages for her imprisoned client, the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks including the United Nations building.

The investigators downplay a possible connection between the Armanious case and the Stewart trial. What remains suggestive, however, is that the Armanious murder occurred in what some nickname "Terror City" because of its history of Islamic extremist activity.

Jersey City gained this reputation after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, on February 26, 1993, which was carried out by a local terrorist cell. The van used in the attack was rented in Jersey City, the bomb was built in several Jersey City apartments, and the perpetrators frequented the Jersey City mosque presided over by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Indeed, Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack, made contact with followers of the blind Egyptian sheikh upon his arrival in the United States. Through the mosque, he met Mohammed A. Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, and Mahmud Abouhalima, all of whom participated in the attack.

According to terrorism expert Steven Emerson, Alkhifa, a precursor to al Qaeda, had one of its main offices in Jersey City. Soon after September 11, in November 2001, a reporter from the Canadian daily National Post, Marina Jimenez, visited the Jersey City mosque undercover. In an article entitled "The radicalization of U.S. Muslims," she noted the stern warning posted in front of the mosque: "Those who do not belong to this Muslim community will be prosecuted for trespassing." The mosque's Egyptian-born imam, Sheikh Mohammed, she reported, called for a show of loyalty not to the United States, but to oppressed Muslims around the world, especially in Chechnya, Palestine, and Afghanistan, echoing Osama bin Laden's message.

Whatever the motive turns out to have been for the horrible Armanious murders, they have sparked fear among Copts in the United States. Fred Ayed, the deacon at St. George and St. Shenouda Church where the victims attended services, said, "I am concerned for the safety of our community." Moheb Ghabour, publisher of a local Coptic newspaper, added, "People are scared because one family was slain like cows."

If it turns out that this violent crime had a religious motivation, then--like the Dutch after the brutal murder last November of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for sharply criticizing Islam--we will be forced to recognize that major attacks such as September 11 are not the only way that terrorism can strike us here at home.

Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in Islam and Europe.