At a packed news conference on February 15 at the National Press Club, the relatives of a Christian family slain in New Jersey asked for help from the national media to identify and track down the killers. Despite the emotional pleas, most of the Big Media turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the event. It appears that some journalists fear they could come under attack by the Muslim lobby if they examine circumstantial evidence that the murders were motivated by Islamic rage.
Many in the press are treating the murders as a local or regional story, perhaps a case of robbery by some local thugs, when supporters of the family and terrorism experts are saying that the horrific slayings resemble a ritual jihadist act and could therefore constitute terrorism on American soil.
Despite the presence of many television cameras at the event, the news conference was ignored by Big Media, including the evening news programs of CBS, ABC and NBC, and The New York Times and Washington Post.
A spokesperson for the family told AIM the press conference did not receive national broadcast attention and they believe it is worthy of “much more air time.”
Subsequently, Fox News interviewed retired New York City police detective Patrick Brosnan about the case on February 21. However, he was ambiguous, saying there was evidence for either theory―that the motive for the killings was robbery or religion.
It appears the family is trying to walk an uneasy socially-imposed politically-correct line by not voicing any theories about Muslim radicals being behind the crime, even as supporters of the family point to terrorism as the likely factor.
The bodies of the Coptic-American family, including father Hossam Armanious, 47, his wife Amal Garas, 37, and daughters Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were found bound and gagged with their throats slashed or punctured in their New Jersey home on January 14. The youngest daughter Monica had apparently tried futilely to escape and hide in a first-floor bathroom.
Robbery as Motive?
Hudson County prosecutors are said to be exploring several possible motives for the slayings, including retaliation by terrorists against Hossam Armanious, described as an outspoken advocate for Coptic Christian religious freedom in Egypt and a well-known leader of an online ministry to the Muslim-American community.
On February 20, Ricardo Kaulessar of the Jersey City Reporter reported that prosecutors have now ruled out the terrorism theory for the murders and that they still hold to “the idea that robbery was a motive for the killings.” Axcess News also quoted Guy Gregory, Hudson County first assistant prosecutor, as saying that because the investigation is ongoing, he could say little. Despite the systematic and gruesome fashion of the murders, Gregory said, “There is nothing to indicate yet that this is a hate crime.”
The Garas family, relatives of the slain family, traveled to Washington, D.C. on February 15 in order to speak out on the subject for the first time and address “erroneous reports circulated by some national and foreign media outlets.” The relatives refuted theories of robbery or an “old country vendetta.” Jewelry was left at the scene, they said, and the family lived modestly. In addition, the practice of “old country vendettas” ceased decades ago in Egypt.
The family was joined by friends of the Coptic-American community, including representatives of NGO’s and human-rights organizations. It was obvious the family was hoping to generate significant media coverage. However, despite their trip to Washington D.C. and a theory terrorists may have carried out the murders, the story is still being mainly treated as a local event.
Their reticence to speculate publicly about possible perpetrators may be due to increased community tensions. ABC-7 in New York reported that fighting erupted at the funeral. Reporters said anti-Muslim protesters included one man who shouted, “Muslim is the killer! Muslim is the killer!” He was dragged away by police. ABC also reported that a cousin of the slain family has been a translator working for the prosecution in the trial of Lynne Stewart. Stewart is the radical lawyer recently convicted of enabling messages from imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to be smuggled to a terrorist group. According to reported FBI transcripts of taped conversations, the messages included an order to end a cease-fire and the command to “fight the Jews and kill them wherever they are.”
The Coptic community is offering a $500,000 reward for any information leading to the people responsible for this brutal crime.
The Terror Motive
While the family was cautious in its public statements, supporters discussed the possibility of a terrorist motive more freely. When questioned by the press, U.S. Copts Association President Michael Meunier did say the manner of the slayings was consistent with passages in the Koran that describe how to kill an infidel. The family stressed it is waiting for the investigation to play out. Regarding the possibility the slaying was a jihadist act, family uncle Emile Garas told AIM afterward, “We’re not ruling anything out.”
One of the members of the Paltalk website that the slain father frequented told a New York newspaper that shortly before the murders, he saw a posted message in a chat room that someone was going to track Armanious down like a chicken and kill him―a Middle Eastern reference to slitting the throat.
A chaplain contacted AIM with information of the same sort. She wrote, “I have had a ministry in the Christian groups section of [internet chat service] http://www.paltalk.com  since October 2000 and have been coming to paltalk since August 2000. I know many Christians who have felt called to minister in the Muslim rooms at paltalk. Those that have, have often received death threats by the Muslims in those rooms. When paltalk was notified, at first they reported it to the FBI. Now, I am told that paltalk basically, even in violation of their own rules, is now having more in actuality a “hands off” type policy regarding any such problems in the rooms.”
She added, “I would strongly suggest to anyone investigating these murders as hate crimes, to look into paltalk and the Muslims who frequent the rooms there. It is highly possible that someone this father was in contact with within the paltalk chatrooms might very likely have decided to contact and put out a religious hit on this family.”
Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick, Washington representative of Christian Solidarity International and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, released a statement at the press conference. He said that Hudson County is pursuing a number of theories related to the motive and nature of the crime. But he contended that public statements by that office indicate that theories related to robbery have been given precedence over a possible hate crime as a motive. “By stressing that there are no facts substantiating a religious motivation to this crime, the confidence of the family has been eroded that the local investigation will lead to a resolution,” he said.
Allyson Gall, the New Jersey Area Director of the American Jewish Committee, sent a letter to the Hudson County Prosecutor stating in part, “We cannot stress enough that the current heightened sense of fear in the Coptic community must be squarely addressed.”
Family members also met with the FBI and local lawmakers to try to persuade them to get involved in the case.
Camera crews from local news stations in New Jersey and New York were present and the U.S. Copts, speaking for the family, said they were pleased with that coverage. In addition, they found the Associated Press article by Donna De La Cruz “unbiased.” That article ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Allentown Morning Call, and Long Island Newsday.
Not Pointing a Finger Yet
However, showing the sensitivity of the case, the U.S. Copts spokesperson expressed “disappointment” with a New York Post article by Ian Bishop titled, “Jersey City Massacre Kin Seek Feds’ Help.” The spokesperson objected to the use of the term “hate-filled Muslim extremists.” The phrase was used in the opening sentence: “Relatives of the Christian Egyptian immigrant family butchered in their Jersey City home lobbied federal officials yesterday for help in unraveling the crime?which they believe was committed by hate-filled Muslim extremists.” The spokesperson said that the crime details also corresponded to a possible “racial hate crime” and that the family “doesn’t want to assign blame to any particular group.”
Despite the objection to the New York Post story, the U.S. Copts website carried articles that discussed the Islamic terrorism theory in great detail. For example Maria Sliwa’s freelance article stated in part, “Many Copts fear that New Jersey officials are caving in to pressure from Islamic lobby groups and the Egyptian government in order to ‘whitewash’ this investigation. One of them, Rafique Iscandar, told me that he is fearful that investigators will discount the possibility that the murders were committed by radical Islamists who want to intimidate Christians in the United States, as they do in Egypt.”
They also approved Joel Mowbray’s “Jersey Jihadists” for posting. That article details how the press has expressed more enthusiasm for framing the story in terms of potential bias against Muslims rather than taking a closer look at the religious factors that may have led to the crime.
The Islamic Angle
The group also posted an article detailing discoveries by Robert Spencer of JihadWatch.com that the family had been threatened online with slaughter by what appear to be Islamic radicals. Spencer’s article details conversations with family members and the manner of the executions. After their throats were slit, the killer(s) ‘drilled’ holes at the base of the victims’ necks. Why is that significant? Because the method is similar to “executions that are shown on al-Jazeera,” Spencer wrote. “The American public is not aware of this because the details of the executions are not often described in news accounts.”
The details of the jihad theory have been left to “citizen journalists” and online websites to explore. These include Little Green Footballs, Jihad Watch, The Jawa Report, Frontpagemag.com, and CNS News.
Writing on CNSNews.com, veteran Middle East commentator and terrorism expert Daniel Pipes denounced the “shameful denial” by authorities of what appear to be the obvious signs of a ritual slaying: “[J]ersey City has a record of Islamist activism and jihadi violence; and that an Islamist website carried multiple threats against Hossam Armanious (“we are going to track you down like a chicken and kill you”). Law enforcement seems more concerned about avoiding an anti-Muslim backlash than to finding the culprits.” His commentary, “When Authorities Deny Terrorism,” cites a “pattern” of denial―13 cases where he says authorities have previously ignored evidence of terrorism in other crimes.
While the U.S. Copts desire this story to receive wider and national coverage, often local crimes do not. However, since the distinct possibility exists this was a terrorist act, similar to Theo Van Gogh’s murder in Amsterdam, the media should stop tip-toeing around this issue and address it head-on in the national press.
Help from Media?
In that case, Van Gogh, who had made a film attacking domestic violence against Muslim women, was shot six times and nearly beheaded, and had a declaration of holy war impaled in his chest in broad daylight in Amsterdam last November 2. AIM commented at the time: “The case has been covered by the U.S. media, but the unanswered question is, could it happen here?” After a slow start, Van Gogh’s murder received bold, sustained international coverage.
Intensified media coverage in the New Jersey case will translate into pressure upon politicians to aid in the swift investigation and prosecution of this crime. Follow-up reporting may generate leads critical to solving the case and preventing more such brutal killings.