Chris Christie is rising in New Hampshire polls, thanks to tough talk on fighting terrorism and ISIS — but some national security critics say he has a weak record as New Jersey's governor in confronting Muslim extremism.
"This issue definitely has the potential to hurt his credibility on national security in the presidential campaign without a doubt," Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst for the Clarion Project, told Newsmax in an interview. Clarion monitors Islamic extremist groups and their supporters in the U.S.
Mauro has written extensively on Christie's strong ties to the Muslim community, a growing force in New Jersey politics with an estimated 3 percent of the state's population.
Christie has been close to some questionable New Jersey Muslim leaders, including Mohammad Qatanani, an imam who has been fighting deportation by the Department of Homeland Security for not disclosing that Israel convicted him of being a member of the Hamas terrorist group.
And one of Christie's judicial appointees, Sohail Mohammed, represented the imam and a Muslim group whose leader has voiced support for the terrorist organization.
Qatanani, whom Christie praised at a 2012 Ramadan event at the governor's mansion, and three other Islamists sit on a Muslim Outreach Committee Christie formed in the wake of reports that New York City police were investigating Muslims in his state for possible ties to radical Islam.
"Christie has honored imams with either terrorist ties or who have sympathies for radical Islam," Susan Rosenbluth, the long-time publisher and editor of The Jewish Voice, told Newsmax.
Published in Englewood, New Jersey, the influential Jewish Voice has covered Christie's tenure as U.S. attorney and governor.
She said Christie wasn't anti-Israel. "He just doesn't seem to know the difference as to who can be dangerous and who isn't."
Mauro said Christie has "a poor record" in confronting extremist Muslim leadership in New Jersey, and, in some cases he "has chosen to become close to" them.
In 2013, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) named Christie to their "Best List," identifying him as one of the most outstanding public officials in the nation for his work to enhance relations between Muslims and other Americans.
Mid-East Expert Daniel Pipes, writing in National Review, says CAIR has ties to terrorist groups, and has even been banned by the United Arab Emirates for its ties to such organizations.
Pipes argues that CAIR has declined to denounce terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the campaign trail and in the recent CNN Republican debate, Christie repeatedly cited his record as a "federal prosecutor" after the 9/11 attacks in dealing with terrorists. Christie was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from January 17, 2002, to Dec. 1, 2008.
Here are some examples of Christie's comments or activities that have security experts worried:
- In 2008, as a federal prosecutor, Christie defended Qatanani, who was undergoing DHS deportation hearings for not disclosing on a green card application that he had been convicted by Israel in 1993 for being a member of Hamas.
Christie defended the imam in an agency court filing as a "man of great goodwill" and had sent Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna to the hearing as a character witness.
Qatanani was granted legal permanent residency, but it was later reversed. The case is still pending.
He came to the United States in 1996 to head up the Islamic Center of Passaic County, a mosque based in Paterson, in the northern part of the Garden State.
- Shortly after becoming governor in 2010, Christie invited Muslim leaders to break the daily Ramadan fast at his official residence.
He has since hosted other Ramadan gatherings, including one in July 2012 in which the governor pointed out Qatanani in the audience and praised him.
An attendee posted video of Christie's remarks on YouTube, but it was removed, Mauro told Newsmax.
- Christie has attended several events sponsored by the American Muslim Union, also based in Paterson.
In 2001, the group's president, Mohamed Younes, slammed the United States as hypocritical for condemning Hamas but not Israel.
Mohammad El-Mezain, who has raised money for Hamas, addressed the AMU in 1994. Other members have ties to radical Islam
- In August 2010, Christie slammed Republicans who opposed plans to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He also warned GOP legislators against tarring "all of Islam with the Mohamed Atta brush," referring to one of the 9/11 hijackers. Christie later advised against demagoguery regarding immigration reform.
- In 2011, Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim lawyer, to a Superior Court judgeship in Passaic County.
Mohammed was general counsel to the American Muslim Union, and he represented Qatanani during his deportation hearings.
Christie exploded when Republicans resisted Mohammed's appointment, implying that he might be influenced by Shariah law.
Christie called Mohammed an "extraordinary American" — labeling any concerns about Shariah "crap" and bashing attackers as "crazies."
- In 2012, after news reports that the New York Police Department had Muslims in his state under surveillance, Christie slammed authorities for overstepping their boundaries.
He also established a Muslim outreach committee headed by the New Jersey attorney general.
Qatanani, Younes, and two other Muslims with Islamist ties are on the panel — and it has met several times with top law-enforcement, even obtaining information on how to secure Homeland Security grants slated for nonprofit organizations.
The four remain on the committee, despite a Clarion Project report in November 2012 on their Islamist affiliations.
"You don't want the leaders who are praised and upheld to be individuals linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and a history of extremist rhetoric," Mauro told Newsmax.
- In September 2013, the fallout over the NYPD controversy led Christie to sign legislation requiring law-enforcement agencies outside his state to inform New Jersey state police and prosecutors about surveillance plans in counties 24 hours before entering their borders.
The law also requires Garden State officers or agencies that learn of out-of-state counter-terrorism investigations to inform county prosecutors.
"We must protect and maintain civil liberties, especially those of the citizens in New Jersey's Muslim community," Christie said.
- In March 2014, Christie upset some potential donors at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas:
"I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day," he said.
After he spoke, Morton Klein, head of the conservative Zionist Organization of America, approached Christie and suggested that he use a "more accurate" term like "disputed territories" or "West Bank."
"Christie responded brusquely and dismissively with a scowl and a non-answer," Klein said online after the incident. "I asked him again if he would use one of the more appropriate terms.
"He again responded with the same non-answer refusing to say he misspoke," he said.
Later, Christie did, however, say that he "misspoke" after meeting with Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who heads the coalition.
Many 2016 GOP candidates are courting the mega-donor, seeking his support.
"What the governor didn't say is that he sincerely apologizes, or that he now understands Israel has a legitimate claim to this land, or that Jews have every right to live there," Klein said in the post. "He only said that he 'misspoke' after speaking to a major donor whose support he was seeking."
Christie spoke earlier this month at the Republican Jewish Coalition's meeting in Washington.
Mauro told Newsmax that he doesn't believe that Christie's Muslim ties reflect any anti-Israel sentiment, but that "it's not enough to identify the enemy as radical Islam and say that's your strategy."
"He claims to be pro-Israel but at other times hugs Obama," Rosenbluth said.
She suggested that Jewish voters and those concerned about security issues would be "silly" to back Christie. She noted his unusual anger that in the wake of Sept. 11 New York City Police were monitoring extremists in nearby New Jersey.
"Why in the world would he oppose that?" she asked.
The Christie campaign declined to offer comment for this report.