When we called Nine Eleven Finding Answers, a peninsula-based nonprofit with investigators stationed smack in the midst of terror hot spots around the world, the response was somewhere along the lines of, "How did you get this number?"
What at first may come off as obfuscation turns out to be the kind of suspicion one might expect in a line of work where you're talking about — and talking to — international terrorists. But after four years in the shadows, a City Paper inquiry has opened the group's doors.
"We were nowhere yesterday," says NEFA president Michelle Hayes. Today, they're here.
In February '04, Hayes was approached by families of 9/11 victims who wanted an easier way to collect and disseminate information on terrorists without waiting for the government to parse what it considers to be "too sensitive." Hayes, a novice herself, took a look around and saw the appeal of a repository for terrorist information and analysis.
"If you were going to look up 'terrorists' on the internet, where would you start?" she asks.
A main focus for the group is to pull information from court documents and other sources, collecting the salient points and offering up their own independent analysis.
"One of the reasons we were created was to offer an archive to people where they could go and understand the information," Hayes says. "It's not doing anybody any favors not to understand what the goals of the Islamists are."
NEFA's collection of deconstructed court filings, interviews, and terrorist communiques include recent interviews with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, along with terror training camp videos and other high-ranking terrorist messages that have been used by NBC and ABC. Pulling from mountains of court documents, NEFA has highlighted buildings on the East Coast recognized by terrorists as potential targets and the decades-long U.S. presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, an alleged radical group with aspirations for a holy war in the states.
Through a corporate gift and other donations of more than $5 million, according to tax filings, NEFA has put together a handful of analysts and renowned investigative journalists to analyze court documents, internal terror organization messages, and exclusive interviews with terrorists. Their ranks include U.S. Justice Department veteran Jeff Breinholt, former Washington Post investigative reporter Doug Farah, and terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann.
"We knew a research organization could be wildly successful with the right players," Hayes says. "I would argue there's not a team like ours out there."
The information presented on the website is almost academic in its straightforward approach, falling somewhere between a niche international news service and a counterterror think tank.
"We try to stay analytical and stay with the facts," says co-founder David Draper. "We feel the factual information speaks for itself."
Draper was an international banker and real estate developer before he found his calling in counterterrorism after watching the Twin Towers fall. In the years following 9/11, Draper saw a way he could use his private sector experience to assist in the hunt for terrorist financing.
"These things that would be obvious to anyone in banking weren't so obvious to law enforcement," he says.
Groups like NEFA provide a new and necessary dimension in the hunt for terrorists, Draper says
"The government has limited resources like any other group," he says, including funding, training, and personnel. With all the information out there, including things the government might not even know to look for, NEFA provides an extra pair of eyes. And, Draper says the group has provided intelligence that brings down senior terror leaders (that Drayton wouldn't elaborate on for security reasons) and other material information on terrorist activities. "There's a whole element we're not public about," he says.
While investigators are out in the field in Washington, London, Italy, and the Middle East, day-to-day operations at the NEFA office involve mostly administrative work.
"We make the sexy jobs sexy while we're nose deep in reports," Hayes jokes before turning serious. "This is not work. Not to one of us. This is a cause."
NEFA isn't alone in targeting terrorism from the shores of the Cooper River. Just over the water — literally — Mt. Pleasant law firm Motley Rice has amassed its own terrorism database. The firm has used it in several suits representing the families of victims of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Though Draper did contract work for Motley Rice before NEFA, Hayes says the two efforts aren't tied together.
"You've got people going on parallel paths toward the end of the same race," she says. "But you're all doing your own thing."
Unlike Motley Rice's high-profile suits, NEFA has stayed out of the spotlight, garnering recognition almost exclusively from their particular corner of the counterterrorism community.
Andrew Cochran, a terrorism and homeland security consultant who has worked on Capitol Hill for Motley Rice, created counterterrorismblog.org with more than two dozen experts providing voluntary analysis and commentary that has been rated one of the top blogs on the subject by the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report. He's linked to NEFA's documents and praises the group for its ability to get information on its website, nefafoundation.org, that isn't disseminated by the mainstream media or the government.
"Let 1,000 good websites bloom," Cochran says.
But Michael Radu, who has worked in terrorism and counterterrorism with the Foreign Policy Research Institute for two decades, wasn't aware of NEFA until the City Paper asked him to take a cursory look at the group's website. While he praised NEFA for compiling a commendable list of experts, he noted much of the information can be found elsewhere.
"It's a bit redundant," he says. "I don't think they're bringing anything significantly new."
Similarly, Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert with the Brookings Institute, says he hasn't heard of NEFA.
While NEFA's Kohlmann contributes regularly to NBC News and Farah contracts out work with newspapers, there's barely a mention of the group in their reporting or anywhere else in the mainstream media.
It's evident by their apprehension, in this story and elsewhere, that NEFA isn't looking for attention. Hayes says the group gets the information in the hands of those who are looking for it, and both she and Draper stress that, in the end, it's about the work.
"We have a name recognition where we've wanted it," she says. "The people who need to find us find us."
Even though he was unfamiliar with NEFA, Radu welcomed the additional outlet for information.
"In a way, they're doing a good job because they are offering people access to direct sources," he says. "Participation should always be encouraged."
The group's anonymity may soon change as NEFA's profile rises. Kohlmann has stopped posting to his own popular website and directs traffic to NEFA. The group is also preparing a fund-raising drive and is looking to update its website with a more searchable database and additional subscriber content to help keep the lights on and the doors open.
"If there's a more expensive business, I don't know what is," Hayes says.
The 21st-century fight against terrorism has a rather nebulous finish line. Terror organizations have arms numbering in the dozens, some in the hundreds. While NEFA's broader goal is to take on the beast, Draper says the group is also focused on keeping the fight on the front burner.
"A big part of this is to provide a legacy for the victims of terrorism," Draper says.
Between Motley Rice's private collection and NEFA's nonprofit work, that legacy could be postmarked "Charleston."