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PolitiFact VA: GOP Attacks Spanberger on "Terror High"

Abigail Spanberger
A new series of Republican ads is reviving old criticisms of Rep. Abigail Spanberger's (D-Glen Allen) time as a substitute teacher. (Photo: Ezra Deutsch-Feldman/CC-SA 4.0)

Republicans have resurrected a two-year-old negative ad campaign focusing on Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s substitute teaching stint at a Saudi-funded Islamic school in Northern Virginia.

Spanberger, a Democrat, taught English in 2002-03 at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria while she was awaiting exhaustive security clearances that would allow her to work as a postal inspector and then join the CIA.

“It’s been called Terror High,” says a TV commercial sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee, noting that some students who attended the school later joined Al Qaeda.

The ad sounds a pulsating beat and flashes grainy videotape of broadcasters using the phrases “teaching children radicalism,” “convicted of joining Al Qaeda,” and “plotting to assassinate the president.” It ends with a narrator saying, “Abigail Spanberger: What she doesn’t tell us that should frighten us all.”

This fall, Spanberger is being challenged by Republican state Del. Nick Freitas in one of the nation’s most closely watched House races. Spanberger faced a nearly identical ad barrage in 2018 - launched by the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund - when she defeated incumbent Republican Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th District congressional race.

Here’s a refresher on the allegations.

In 2002, Spanberger had received a conditional offer to work for the CIA and, while awaiting lengthy security clearance, worked as a waitress. A coworker told her about an opening at the Islamic Saudi Academy to fill in for an English teacher going on pregnancy leave. Spanberger taught at the school for two semesters in 2002-03, and revised her security forms to include the gig.

The school became notorious when its 1998 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in 2005 of plotting with Al Qaeda operatives to kill President George W. Bush and hijack airplanes. Abu Ali, whose picture is shown in the ads, received a 30-year prison sentence.

The ads also show the picture of a 2003 graduate, Raed Abdul-Rahman Alsaif, who was arrested in 2009 for trying to board a plane in Tampa, Fla. with a concealed butcher knife.

Spanberger has said she knows neither man. She noted that Abu Ali graduated before her stint at the school and says she did not teach Alsaif. She told USA Today two years ago that the students in her classes “to my mind, were normal kids.”

The ads say that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the school a “breeding ground” for terrorists. Schumer used that phrase in 2005, after Abu Ali was indicted for plotting to kill the president. Schumer called for the school to be investigated to determine “to what extent it may be serving as a breeding for anti-American sentiment - and possibly, even terrorist activities.”

Two years ago, however, Schumer issued a statement accusing Republicans of twisting his words to hurt Spanberger.

“My comments about ISA were made in 2005, immediately following my earliest concerns about graduates of this school,” he said. “I strongly condemn anyone using those comments about this school as a way to attack an upstanding patriot and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, who had left the school years before and had absolutely nothing to do with my concerns.”

This year’s commercial and the one in 2018 accuse Spanberger of concealing her work at the school, which brings us to the controversial origins of the ads.

Spanberger didn’t mention her stint at the academy in 2018 campaign biographies. It was revealed that August after the U.S. Postal Service improperly released Spanberger’s security clearance forms to GOP operatives. The forms, which include medical histories and other personal information, are protected by federal privacy laws.

The Postal Service received a freedom-of-information request for the documents from American Rising, a Republican opposition research company. The Service said an employee in a new position made an unintentional mistake in releasing the information.

American Rising, in turn, gave Spanberger’s file to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely connected with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. The PAC disclosed Spanberger’s job at the academy in a news release and, a week later, the in TV ad.

Outraged that her personal files had been released, Spanberger threatened legal action and demanded - to no avail - discontinuation of the ad. Then she reacted in the same way she’s responding this year: airing Her own TV ads in which former CIA colleagues lauding her overseas work in counterterrorism.

“Abigail put her life on the line to save our country,” says John Sipher, who worked in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, in an ad this fall. “...To suggest somehow she’s unpatriotic is not only absurd, it’s disgusting.”

Sources

National Republican Campaign Committee, “Terror High ad,” Sept. 22, 2020.

Congressional Leadership Fund, “Terror High” ad, Sept. 6, 2018.

The New York Times, “Student From Virginia Is Convicted of Plotting With Al Qaeda to Assassinate Bush,” Nov. 23, 2005.

The New York Times, “American is sentenced to 30 years in terror case,” March 30, 2006.

USA Today, “How a CIA veteran-turned candidate got branded with terrorist claims,” Sept. 20, 2018.

The Washington Post, “Saudi school dominates TV ads in race for suburban Richmond congressional seat,” Sept. 11, 2018.

Abigail Spanberger, “Again” TV ad, Sept. 29, 2020.