DC Area’s ‘Terror High’ Still Under Suspicion

Terror High School More than six years after the 9/11 attacks, the debate over whether a Saudi-sponsored school operating in the National Capitol Region is preparing students for jihad continues.

Its most virulent critics have dubbed it ”Terror High” and 12 U.S. senators and a federal commission want to shut it down.

The teachers, administrators and some 900 students at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County have heard the allegations for years – after the Sept. 11 attacks and then a few years later when a class valedictorian admitted he had joined al-Qaida.

Now the school is on the defensive again, with a report issued last month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom saying the academy should be closed pending a review of its curriculum and textbooks.

Abdalla al-Shabnan, the school’s director general, says criticism of the school is based not on evidence but on preconceived notions of the Saudi educational system.

The school, serving grades K-12 on campuses in Fairfax and Alexandria, receives financial support from the Saudi government and its textbooks are based on Saudi curriculum. Critics say the Saudis propagate a severe version of Islam in their schools.

But al-Shabnan said the school significantly modified those textbooks to remove passages deemed intolerant of other religions. Among the changes, officials removed from teachers’ versions of first-grade textbooks an excerpt instructing teachers to explain ”that all religions, other than Islam, are false, including that of the Jews, Christians and all others.”


The academy opened in 1984 and stayed out of the spotlight until the Sept. 11 attacks. Criticisms were revived in 2005, when a former class valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was charged with joining al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia. He was convicted on several charges, including plotting to assassinate President Bush, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Most recently, the religious freedom commission – an independent federal agency created by Congress – issued its report, saying it was rebuffed in its efforts to obtain textbooks to verify claims they had been reformed. The commission recommended that the academy be shut down until it could review the textbooks to ensure they do not promote intolerance.

Since the commission’s report, the academy has given copies of its books to the Saudi embassy, which then provided them to the State Department. The commission is waiting to get the books from the State Department.

On Nov. 15, a dozen U.S. senators, including Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., wrote a letter to the State Department urging it to act on the commission’s recommendations. And on Tuesday, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to write the commission’s recommendations regarding the academy into law.

Michael Cromartie, the commission’s chairman, said he does not question the character of the student body or the faculty, most of whom are Christian. The commission is focused specifically on the textbooks, and has legitimate concerns given the problems that have been endemic in the Saudi curriculum, he said.

The D.C. metropolitan area is home to numerous mosques and schools sponsored by Saudi Wahabbists. Steve Emerson and others have been writing about them for years.

The degree to which any of them, let alone this particular one, is teaching jihadi philosophy is beyond my expertise. (Despite, incidentally, the school being less than two miles from my house.) The fact that only one student has been pointed to as having joined al Qaeda, though, is enough to give me some pause.

Still, one would think our government could have completed its investigation and taken appropriate action by now, no? Surely, in a Patriot Act world, the FBI and others could have looked into the activities of the most obvious potential terrorist training facilities in the six-plus years since the 9/11 attacks? One would think the arrest and successful prosecution of one of this particular school’s graduates in a major terrorist plot would have put it at the head of the line, no? Indeed, one would think that the investigation of Abu Ali would have included a rather significant look into the school’s activities?

What’s taking so long?

Story via Memeorandum. Photo credit: Saudi Islamic Academy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Since the Saudis have put their entire textbook collection online (Saudis Put School Curriculum On-Line), it oughtn’t be difficult to verify what’s there or not.

    The Washington Post wasn’t particularly taken with the US Commission’s report on the school: Washington Post on the Saudi Academy.

    The methodology of the study–which did not include bothering to get the current textbooks, relying instead on older books, many of which my office collected from the Ministry of Education in Riyadh in 2003–suggests that the study was actually just a polemic. A popular polemic perhaps, but not having much to do with reality.

    BTW, I’ve had e-mails and comments questioning the statement that most of the Academy’s students are Christian. I can’t prove it either way.

  2. NoZe says:

    I wonder how many private Christian schools in the U.S. teach that their religious beliefs are true, while those of Moslems, Jews, etal. are false?

    My son has attended American schools overseas…I’d hate to establish the precedent in the U.S. of the government shutting down foreign-sponsored schools because they aren’t sufficiently American. It seems to me that that would invite retaliation in kind toward American schools overseas.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I wonder how many private Christian schools in the U.S. teach that their religious beliefs are true, while those of Moslems, Jews, etal. are false?

    Most of them, presumably. The allegation here, though, is that the school is fomenting a Wahabbi-style radicalism.

  4. neocon says:

    “The allegation here, though, is that the school is fomenting a Wahabbi-style radicalism.”

    As opposed to the much more rational neo-con rapture-style radicalism.