Born in the West Bank town of Nablus in 1961, Fawaz Abu Damra attended law school in Jordan and then immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s.
From 1986 to 1990, Damra served as the Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Brooklyn, New York-based Al Farouq Mosque, an institution frequented by several of the men who would later be implicated as conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing. Damra himself was an unindicted co-conspirator in that attack.
During his time in Brooklyn, Damra was also associated with the local Al Kifah Refugee Center, which served as the American-based affiliate of Mekhtab al-Khidemat (MK), a forerunner to al Qaeda. Co-founded by Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, MK served as a fundraising/recruiting organization for the Afghan war effort against the Soviets during the 1980s.
In December 1989, Damra was a guest speaker at the 2nd Annual Conference (in Chicago) of the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), an organization headed by his confidante Sami Al-Arian. At that event, Damra unambiguously advocated the use of violent jihad to “liberate” Palestine from Israel: “The first principle is that terrorism, and terrorism alone, is the path to liberation…. The second principle is that ‘settlement is decided by the sword.’ That which finalizes the matter — struggle for the cause of Palestine — is the military solution.… [I]f what they mean by jihad is terrorism, then we are terrorists!”
When Damra left the Al-Farooq Mosque in 1990, he was succeeded as Imam by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Damra went on to serve (from 1991-2005) as head of the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland, where, under the auspices of ICP, he raised funds for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which was likewise headed by Sami Al-Arian. At an April 7, 1991 fundraiser, Damra introduced Al-Arian as “an eloquent Islamic herald concerned with the affairs of the Palestinian community and the Islamic community in general.” He also declared that “the active arm of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine” was the Islamic Committee for Palestine, which, “for security reasons,” had been given a benign-sounding name that was unlikely to arouse the suspicions of law-enforcement officials or the public at large. “Donate to the Islamic Jihad” and to “the Intifadah,” he exhorted those in attendance, instructing them to direct “all the rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation, and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews.”
Because Damra was careful to represent himself to the American public as a peaceful moderate who opposed violent extremism of any kind, his radical views were entirely unknown to those outside of the Muslim jihadist community. Indeed he engaged in numerous outreach efforts to Jewish and Christian groups, a number of which invited him to be a guest speaker at post-9/11 unity dinners and town hall forums; he drew praise from religious and civic leaders alike.
Damra’s veneer of moderation was penetrated, however, in late September of 2001, when a Cleveland television station aired a leaked videotape of his disparaging 1991 remarks about Jews. In response, Damra pointed out that when he had spoken the offending words, PIJ was not yet officially recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. Moreover, attributing his incriminating statements to prejudices he had developed as a youngster growing up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he issued a public apology in The Cleveland Plain Dealer: “The person who made those comments had absolutely no interaction with the Jewish/Christian community, or have [sic] any idea what extraordinary people they are, as I now do. As all of us go through evolution in our life, intellectual and spiritual, so did I, and I will now do everything in my power to continue to show the community that I am the peacemaker they have come to know me as.”
On January 13, 2002, Damra was arrested and charged with having failed to disclose, on his U.S. citizenship application, his association with PIJ, his affiliation to the Alkifah Refugee Center, and his 1989 arrest for an assault against a security guard at JFK airport. A federal grand jury in Akron convicted Damra of these charges on June 18, 2004. In January 2006, a judge with the Executive Office of Immigration Review issued an order of deportation for Damra, which the defendant did not appeal. In January 2007 Damra was deported from the United States to the West Bank.
Further Reading: “Profile: Imam Fawaz Damra” (PBS.org, 7-7-2006); “Profile: Fawaz Damra” (InvestigativeProject.org); “Imam Indicted, Feds Charge He Hid Terror Ties” (Cleveland Jewish News, 1-14-2004); Fourth Symposium of the Islamic Committee of Palestine (December 22-25. 1989); “Fawaz Damra Fundraising for Jihad” (InvestigativeProject.org, 4-7-1991); “Al-Arian’s ‘Active Arm’” (InvestigativeProject.org, 4-7-1991); “The Leftist Love Affair with the Muslim Brotherhood” (by Jamie Glazov, April 2011); “ICE Deports Former Cleveland Imam Who Lied to Gain U.S. Citizenship” (InvestigativeProject.org, January 2006).