King of the hill changes his tune

Sat, Feb 19, 2011, 00:00

NOT SO many years ago the BBC banned him from the airwaves for his terrorist sympathies, a judge threw him out of a Belfast court because he was a “collaborator” with the terrorists on trial, and the FBI was opening his mail because of his views. The US secret service once listed him as a threat during a presidential visit to his neighbourhood.

These days there are few more fiery and outspoken opponents of terrorism than the New York Republican congressman Peter King. Now, however, the terrorism he opposes with such zeal is of the jihadist variety, whereas the terrorism he once championed so fervently was of the Irish republican kind, specifically that of the Provisional IRA.

In the wake of the Republican midterm election victories last November, King was propelled into the chairmanship of the homeland security committee in the US House of Representatives. The Long Island congressman is now employing his loathing of terrorism to make himself a national figure, but he also finds himself facing a slew of embarrassing stories from the past.

Last month King announced plans to hold special hearings into the “radicalisation” of the American Muslim community, particularly in relation to what he claims is the refusal of Muslim leaders to co-operate in the hunt for jihadist extremists. His move was welcomed by the hard right in the US but generated, as the Washington Post put it, “a wave of panic” in the Muslim community, which is already on edge following last year’s furore over plans to build a mosque close to the site of New York’s World Trade Center.

King’s plans also prompted some to delve into the dusty archives to dig up discomfiting stories from his past, particularly those chronicling his close ties to the Provisional IRA during its most violent and bloody years. With his Muslim hearings due to begin next month the American news media are again accusing the congressman of hypocrisy. What he accuses Muslims of doing, say some, pales in comparison with the acts of the IRA he supported. So far, King seems determined to ignore such charges.

As with many Americans it was the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda that prompted his ire. Within weeks of the destruction of the twin towers King was urging the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. He claimed that 85 per cent of mosques in the US were the domain of extremist imams implicitly sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. A linked claim that Muslims will not help in the fight against terrorism is at the centre of his plan to hold hearings.

“When I meet with law enforcement they are constantly telling me how little co-operation they get from Muslim leaders,” King said in December 2010. As evidence he cited the case of a Queens man plotting to bomb the New York subway system, who was tipped off by his imam that he was under FBI surveillance.

Muslim activists counter that the evidence points also in the other direction. They refer to a plot to bomb Times Square last year, which was foiled by an alert Senegalese Muslim immigrant vendor, and also to the Nigerian bomber who planned to blow up an aircraft over Detroit but who was turned in by his own father.

The vast majority of jihadist plots uncovered in the US since September 2001 have had no links at all to al-Qaeda. Most were the result of FBI operations and involved alleged agents provocateurs, some of them criminals, hired to infiltrate mosques and recruit people to carry out bombings, often for money. That crucial detail is overlooked in much of the debate about US Muslims.

Islamic advocacy groups and liberal opinion-makers have united to accuse King of a new kind of McCarthyism, with Muslims rather than communists the target.

“He basically wants to treat the Muslim-American community as a suspect community,” says Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. During the current revolution in Egypt, King echoed conservative paranoia in the US about the Muslim Brotherhood and called on the Obama White House to make sure it was excluded from power.

THAT KING IS NOWmaking his name as the scourge of foreign terrorism is full of irony, as it was his support for other foreign terrorists, ones based in Ireland, that helped get him into the US Congress in the first place.

He became, as he once put it himself, “the Ollie North of Ireland”, a reference to the Reagan aide who helped the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua and who made this role his springboard into politics.

King’s dalliance with the Provisional IRA began in 1980 during a visit he made with other US politicians to Belfast. When the 1981 hunger strikes happened he became involved with Noraid, the IRA’s support group in New York, speaking regularly at its events, where he would heap praise on the IRA. On one occasion he described the IRA as “the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland”; on another he called Garret FitzGerald “the Marshal Pétain” of Ireland.

The years following the prison protest were Noraid’s glory days. The hunger strikes mobilised and angered Irish America like nothing since the War of Independence. Thousands of people turned out to its rallies, and its coffers overflowed with dollars. By the early 1980s Noraid’s political clout in New York was significant, nowhere more so than in the selection of the grand marshal of the annual St Patrick’s Day parade down Fifth Avenue.

In 1985 Noraid supported King for the job, and he got it. He received a huge amount of publicity and was soon a rising star in the city’s Republican party, which nominated him to run a year later for state attorney general. He was then elected comptroller of Nassau County in Long Island. When a congressional vacancy in the district arose, he easily won the Republican nomination and the subsequent election.

Much of King’s relationship with the IRA is in the public record and, to his credit, he has never denied or attempted to minimise it. In an interview with this writer in 2005 he expanded on the connection.

Although his name is often linked with that of Gerry Adams he didn’t actually meet the Sinn Féin leader until 1984, four years after his relationship with the IRA began. His contacts with the organisation prior to that were at the gunman level. One close friend in Belfast eventually became the IRA’s operations officer in the city, responsible for organising IRA violence in Belfast. King would socialise in the Felons Club on the Andersonstown Road, a drinking haunt whose membership is confined to people who have served time for the cause.

He also befriended the family of Bobby Sands and, through his sister, Bernadette, got to know her partner and later husband, Michael McKevitt, the IRA’s then quartermaster general and subsequently a founder of the breakaway Real IRA. He would often stay in the Sands-McKevitt home in Co Louth and came to be on first-name terms with other members of the IRA army council.

When King was finally elected to Congress, virtually the first thing he did afterwards was to catch a plane to Belfast to visit Gerry Adams and then to travel to Co Louth to dine with McKevitt and Sands. It would be hard to find more convincing proof of his ties to, and affection for, the Provisionals.

That was then, but this is now.

The peace process made King respectable in Washington. He is no longer friends with the Sands-McKevitt family, and as he prospered politically in Washington his affair with the IRA was quickly forgotten. When his hearings begin in March, however, it will be surprising if his colourful past with the IRA does not figure in testimony.

Also forgotten is the fact that, not that long ago, King once called himself a friend of the Muslims in his congressional district. He supported Clinton’s military intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, and won the gratitude of the Islamic Center of Long Island. But recently King singled out the centre as a hotbed of radical Islam, to the consternation of its members.

“He used to come to our weddings,” the mosque’s president, Habeeb Ahmed, told the Washington Post. “He ate dinner in our homes . . . I don’t understand it.”

Go-between: Peter King, Gerry Adams and Bill Clinton

The fact that congressman Peter King is now making his name as the scourge of foreign terrorism is full of irony, as it was his enthusiastic support of the IRA that helped to kickstart his political career

The Northern Ireland peace process reshaped Peter King’s life like nothing else could have done. When president Bill Clinton decided to support the process he cast around for people who knew something about the IRA. King was the only figure in Washington on first-name terms with IRA and Sinn Féin leaders and who knew Gerry Adams well.

Clinton had him round to the Oval Office to pick his brains, and King was soon a White House fixture, often ferrying private messages between Adams and the president. King advised Clinton to give Adams an American visa in 1994, advice that was acted upon. When Clinton was later threatened with impeachment, King returned the favour, breaking with his party and voting for the president.

During the Bush presidency, King again played a middleman role on behalf of Gerry Adams. The Sinn Féin president has so far not commented on King’s controversial plan to investigate American Muslims for disloyalty.