(photo credit: Courtesy)
When he was 16, says Walid Shoebat, he was recruited by a PLO operative by the name of Mahmoud al-Mughrabi to carry out an attack on a branch of Bank Leumi in Bethlehem.
At six in the evening he was supposed to detonate a bomb in the doorway of the bank. But when he saw a group of Arab children playing nearby, he says, his conscience was pricked and he threw the bomb onto the roof of the bank instead, where it exploded causing no fatalities.
This is the story that Shoebat, who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1993 and has lived in the United States since the late 1970s, has told on tours around the US and Europe since 9/11 opened the West's public consciousness to the dangers of Islamic extremism.
Shoebat's Web site says his is an assumed name, used to protect him from reprisal attacks by his former terror chiefs, whom he says have put a $10 million price on his head.
Shoebat is sometimes paid for his appearances, and he also solicits donations to a Walid Shoebat Foundation to help fund this work and to "fight for the Jewish people."
The BBC, Fox News and CNN have all presented Shoebat as a terrorist turned peacemaker, interviewing him as someone uniquely capable of providing insight into the terrorist mindset.
Now he and two other former extremists are set to appear along with US Senator Joe Lieberman, Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor and other notables at an annual "Christians United For Israel" conference in Washington in July.
The three "ex-terrorists" have appeared previously at Harvard and Columbia universities and, most recently, at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, in February, at a conference whose findings, the organizers said, would be circulated at the Pentagon and among members of Congress and other influential figures.
Last year, Shoebat spoke to the BattleCry Christian gathering in San Francisco, which drew a reported 22,000 evangelical teenagers to what the San Francisco Chronicle described as "a mix of pep rally, rock concert and church service."
The paper described Shoebat as a self-proclaimed "former Islamic terrorist" who said that Islam was a "satanic cult" and who told the crowd how he eventually accepted Jesus into his heart.
However, Shoebat's claim to have bombed Bank Leumi in Bethlehem is rejected by members of his family who still live in the area, and Bank Leumi says it has no record of such an attack ever taking place.
His relatives, members of the Shoebat family, are mystified by the notion of "Walid Shoebat" being an assumed name. And the Walid Shoebat Foundation's working process is less than transparent, with Shoebat's claim that it is registered as a charity in the state of Pennsylvania being denied by the Pennsylvania State Attorney's Office.
Shoebat's claim to have been a terrorist rests on his account of the purported bombing of Bank Leumi. But after checking its files, the bank said it had no record of an attack on its Bethlehem branch anywhere in the relevant 1977-79 period.
Shoebat told The Jerusalem Post that this could be because the bank building was robustly protected with steel and that the attack may have caused little damage.
Asked whether word of the bombing made the news at the time, he said, "I don't know. I didn't read the papers because I was in hiding for the next three days." (In 2004, he had told Britain's Sunday Telegraph: "I was terribly relieved when I heard on the news later that evening that no one had been hurt or killed by my bomb.")
Shoebat could not immediately recall the year, or even the time of year, of the purported bombing when talking to the Post by phone from the US. After wavering, he finally settled for the summer of 1977.
The Sunday Telegraph described Shoebat as a man who "for much of his life... was eager to commit acts of terrorism for the sake of his soul and the Palestinian cause."
In that interview he described how he and his peers were indoctrinated as children "to believe that the fires of hell were an ever-present reality. We were all terrified of burning in hell when we died... The teachers told us that the only way we could certainly avoid that fate was to die in a martyrdom operation - to die for Islam."
But an uncle and a cousin of Shoebat, who still live in Beit Sahur in the Bethlehem area, where Shoebat grew up, said that Shoebat's education was rather mild ideologically, and that religion did not play a dominant role.
The uncle, interviewed at his home, said he remembered little about his nephew, because Walid left for America at the age of 16, and because his American mother always kept a distance from the rest of the family. The uncle and his wife both said firmly that there was no attack on Bank Leumi.
When questioned on this discrepancy, Shoebat was adamant that he did carry out such a bombing, and that his relatives deny it to cover up for another cousin who was with him during the attack and still lives in Bethlehem.
Shoebat evinced no particular surprise that his family could be tracked down simply by asking Beit Sahur locals where they lived, even though his Internet site claims that his is an assumed name.
Shoebat describes his conversion to Christianity as a transformation "from hate to love." He told the Post that he believes "in a Greater Israel that includes Judea and Samaria, and by this I mean a Jewish state."
He argued that Israel should retake the Gaza Strip and rehouse Jews there, regarding Gaza as Jewish by right. "If a Jew has no right to Gaza, then he has no right to Jaffa or Haifa either," he said.
He advocates that the government of Greater Israel introduce a law providing for the exiling of anybody who denies its right to exist, "even if they were born there."
He has little sympathy for the PLO or Hamas. "The Palestinians have not met a single demand from Israel," he said, and added, "Both the PLO and Hamas have not given up the goal of destroying Israel."
"The Jews are not aware of the true threat," Shoebat said. "They are still fighting dead Nazis. It is easy to fight dead people. But they don't have the will to fight the living Nazis, the Islamic radicals."
He told the Post he had set up his Walid Shoebat Foundation to educate Americans as to why the US should support Israel. Shoebat said the foundation had reached out to over 450 million people. He said it held events where he and others like him - whom he called "ex-terrorists" who have become Zionists - spoke about their views to Jewish, Christian and secular audiences.
A New York Times report last month on the Air Force Academy event, headlined "Speakers at Academy Said to Make False Claims," noted that "Academic professors and others who have heard the three men speak in the United States and Canada said some of their stories border on the fantastic, like Mr. Saleem's account of how, as a child, he infiltrated Israel to plant bombs via a network of tunnels underneath the Golan Heights. No such incidents have been reported, the academic experts said. They also question how three middle-aged men who claim they were recruited as teenagers or younger could have been steeped in the violent religious ideology that only became prevalent in the late 1980s."
The Times quoted Prof. Douglas Howard, who teaches the history of the modern Middle East at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as saying after he heard Saleem speak last November at the college that he thought the three were connected to several major Christian evangelical organizations.
"It was just an old time gospel hour: 'Jesus can change your life, he changed mine,'" Howard said.
The professor told the Times that his doubts about the authenticity of the three grew after he heard stories like that of the Golan Heights tunnels, "as well as something on Mr. Saleem's Web site along the lines that he was descended from the grand wazir of Islam. The grand wazir of Islam is a nonsensical term."
The newspaper said Arab-American civil rights organizations have questioned "why, at a time when the United States government has vigorously moved to jail or at least deport anyone with a known terrorist connection, the three men, if they are telling the truth, are allowed to circulate freely."
A spokesman for the FBI, the paper reported, said there were no warrants for their arrest.
The Times said the three men were to be paid $13,000 for the Air Force Academy event.
Visitors to Shoebat's Internet site are encouraged to make a donation to his foundation to enable him to disseminate his message. However, a notice on the page states that for "security reasons," the money will not be debited to his foundation, but rather to a company called Top Executive Media. The name Top Executive Media is used by a greetings card firm from Pennsylvania called Top Executive Greetings, a company with an annual turnover of $500,000. When one makes a donation through the Shoebat Internet site, the Web address changes to topexecutivegreetings.com/shoebat.
This seems to be the only active page for the company; its homepage is blank.
Asked by the Post whether the Walid Shoebat Foundation is a registered charity, Shoebat replied that it is registered in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania State Attorney's office said it had no record of a charity registered under this name.
Questioned further, Shoebat said it was registered under a different name, but that he was not aware of the details, which are handled by his manager.
"I remain separate to the running of the charity so that I am not constrained by church rules," he explained, adding that the organization's connection to certain churches meant it would be difficult for him to speak to secular audiences if he became too involved in running it.
Dr. Joel Fishman, of the Allegany County Law Library in Pennsylvania, expressed doubts about this donation process. If the money were being given to a registered charity, the charity would have to make annual reports to the state and federal government on how it was being spent, he noted.
Shoebat insisted donations were not being misused, however. "I survive by being an author," he said. "I only get paid for being an author. All the money that is donated gets put back into events."
If the Bank Leumi bombing claim is unfounded, it is unclear why Shoebat would have wanted to manufacture a terrorist past. True or not, however, it has plainly brought him some prominence and provided him with a means to speak in favor of Israel and be paid for doing so.
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