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‘Terrorist hunter’ describes her life undercover
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‘Terrorist hunter’ describes her life undercover

Rita Katz has long maintained that radical Islam cannot be understood without firsthand observation.

Apparently she practices what she preaches.

“I went to fund-raisers, conferences, mosques, and rallies dressed as a Muslim woman,” Katz said. “I did have a few close calls, as I briefly describe in my book. After certain incidents, such as the widely televised lynching of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, attending some of these gatherings, particularly the smaller ones, was unsettling. With some close to me calling for jihad against Jews and Israelis, of course I was anxious.

“Nonetheless, I never got to a point where I wanted to quit.”

The result of her clandestine research is Terrorist Hunter (HarperCollins), which tells, as the subtitle explains, The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America.

Katz will be the featured guest speaker at the Spring Luncheon and Raffle on behalf of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks Women’s Philanthropy. The event will be held Thursday, May 3, in Lawrenceville.

Katz is one of the founders and currently serves as director of SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Institute, a nonprofit based in the Washington, DC, area. Through her work at SITE, she has provided information on radical Muslim groups operating in the United States to the FBI, prosecutors, corporate security, and numerous media outlets, including The New York Times and Washington Post.

“My motivation has always been to stop terrorists from attacking again,” she said. “It is immensely gratifying to be able to contribute to our mission at SITE, which is to fight terrorism on the one hand and to educate about the dangers of radicalism on the other. We help those charged with defending us to understand the threat we are facing more accurately and help them to put measures in place to mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack as much as possible.”

The seeds of Katz’s lifelong commitment to antiterrorist work were planted before her seventh birthday. She was born in Basra, Iraq, to a well-to-do Jewish family in 1963. Her father was a prominent businessman in the large, thriving Jewish community of Iraq’s second-largest city. However, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, life became increasingly difficult and dangerous for Jews in Iraq. In 1969, her world was shattered when her father, along with eight other Iraqi-Jewish men, was imprisoned on false charges of “spying for Israel.” The family’s property was confiscated by the state. In spite of international pleas, he and the others were executed by hanging in the central square of Baghdad later that year before crowds of cheering Iraqis.

Shortly thereafter, with the help of friendly Iraqi Kurds, Rita Katz, her mother, her baby sister, and two older brothers made a daring escape from Iraq over the border into Iran and then made their way to Israel. Growing up in Israel, fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Katz received her degree in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. Together with her husband, a research physician, and her children, she immigrated to the United States in 1997.

Since 1998, she has worked in the field of counterterrorism, monitoring extremist websites, translating jihadist sermons and communiques, and sharing the information with clients and subscribers.

When Terrorist Hunter was released in the spring of 2003, its author was listed as “Anonymous.”

“I decided to write the book in spite of the potential danger, because I wanted to deliver two important messages,” Katz said. “One was to reveal the gravity and extent of Islamic fundamentalism in America, in our own backyards, a concept that is now more known but was completely incomprehensible to most people at the time I wrote the book.

“The other point I wanted to make was that government agencies at the time did not work together as one to fight terrorism, and, to the contrary, fought among themselves, hid information, tried to take over terrorism investigations from one another, and in general, as a consequence, not enough was being done by the U.S. government to combat the sources of terrorist danger.”

Terrorist Hunter received glowing reviews from specialists in counterterrorism, as well as criticism from some who question her motives or feel she exaggerates terrorist threats. The book was translated and released in several languages, including Dutch, Japanese, Hebrew, French, and Spanish.

“Since the time I wrote the book, much has changed in the war on terror,” Katz said. “Al Qaida’s infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been disrupted to a large extent, and many of the pre-9/11 training camps are gone. In addition to Osama bin Laden, many of the group’s senior leaders and ideologues have been killed or captured.

“At the same time — and in part due to these changes — much of the terrorist activity has shifted onto the Internet…. Today, the propaganda, recruitment, and training of terrorists occur to a large extent on the Internet. This trend required a shift in the way counterterrorism activities are being conducted. To this end, our work at SITE includes monitoring of jihadist websites and other activities on the Internet.”

Katz said she has seen “significant improvements” in how counterterrorism is handled around the world, but there are gaps, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Ever since she read Terrorist Hunter, Rebecca Sarett of Princeton has been hoping for the opportunity to see and hear the author in person.

“Rita Katz led such an incredible life, from childhood through adulthood, and has overcome all sorts of obstacles,” said Sarett, who is cochairing the Spring Luncheon along with Staci Wilson of Pennington and Merrye Shavel Hudis of Princeton. “This is a woman who was willing to go into the trenches to fight terrorism. The risks she has taken both professionally and personally are difficult to even comprehend. I’m extremely excited to hear what she has to say.”

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