Investigative journalist J. M. Berger profiles numerous fighters, including some who joined al Qaeda and others who chose a different path. In these pages he portrays, among others, Abdullah Rashid, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan; Mohammed Loay Bayazid, who was present at the founding of al Qaeda; Ismail Royer, who fought in Bosnia and Kashmir, then returned to run training camps in the United States; Adam Gadahn, a California Jew who is now al QaedaAÆs chief spokesman; and Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni-American imam with links to 9/11 who is now considered one of the biggest threats to AmericaAÆs security.
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About the Author
J.M. Berger is the author of Extremism (MIT Press, September 2018) and a research fellow with VOX-Pol. An analyst studying extremism, terrorism, propaganda and social media analytical techniques, Berger's previous works include ISIS: The State of Terror, with Jessica Stern, and Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.
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JIHAD JOEAMERICANS WHO GO TO WAR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM
By J. M. BERGER
Potomac Books, Inc.Copyright © 2011 J. M. Berger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Early Years
Islam has been a significant part of the American fabric since at least the days of the slave trade, when African Muslims were forced from their homes and brought to the United States to labor in the fields. Perhaps one in ten slaves was Muslim—maybe more, maybe less. No record was made. Most Muslim slaves lost their traditions; some were forced to convert under duress.
Bilali Muhammad was one such Muslim slave, captured in North Africa in the late eighteenth century, who tried to keep the traditions of Islam alive on the Sapelo Island plantation where he was enslaved in Georgia. He wrote about the Islam he remembered, using the Arabic alphabet but not the Arabic language, and kept the document close to his heart until he died. Although he did not ultimately succeed in preserving the religious tradition he had chronicled, traces of Islam pervade the Christian and cultural practices of his descendants. Black churches on the island face east toward Mecca.
"We were Christian by day and Muslim by night," one former Sapelo slave told her daughter.
Other traces of Islam lingered like a half-forgotten dream. The "Levee Camp Holler," an early blues song whose roots stretch back to slave music in Mississippi, is strikingly reminiscent of the Islamic call to prayer, which sounds five times a day from minarets around the world. For the most part, however, the memory of original Islam faded over decades of slavery and Christianization.
Yet those origins influenced the shape of Islam in America for many years after the Civil War. Although orthodox Sunni Islam was represented by a few individuals and small, isolated congregations in the young United States, the dominant expression of Islamic thought in the twentieth century came from African American communities, whose interpretations often differed greatly from the original traditions.
The Moorish Science Temple, founded in New Jersey and later established in Chicago, was one of many early groups claiming to be part of an Islamic tradition. In reality, it was a barely recognizable amalgamation of theosophical beliefs revolving around a book called the Seven Circle Koran, which was derived from the incipient New Age movement.
Later, the Nation of Islam channeled Black Nationalism through a filter of Islamic rhetoric, making significant alterations in the process. Malcolm X led many African Americans into a more orthodox understanding of Islam after completing the Hajj—a ritualistic trip to the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that all Muslims are required to make at least once if they are able.
Starting in the 1960s, these indigenous Islamic communities were joined by increasing numbers of orthodox Muslim immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The immigrants initially organized under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood and established a beachhead on college campuses, where many of its members were students.
Around the same time, the Saudis began to take an interest in American Islam. With its de facto control over Hajj pilgrims and a massive reservoir of oil money, the Saudi government had struck a long-time deal with its extremely conservative clerical establishment. In exchange for political backing from the religious authorities, the government would provide all of the support needed to spread the Saudi interpretation of Islam to every corner of the world.
The primary vehicle for this support was the Muslim World League (MWL), founded in 1962 with help from several major Brotherhood figures. One of the league's founders and at least one other member of its leadership council were also CIA intelligence assets. The MWL was richly subsidized by the Saudi government, and it passed along that subsidy to Islamic organizations around the world, including those in the United States. Of course, the support came with strings attached.
The MWL's scholars were out to "correct" Muslims whose practices did not fall in line with the ultraconservative beliefs of the Saudi establishment, often referred to as Wahhabism, after its founder, an eighteenth-century cleric named Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab. Starting in the mid-1970s, the MWL began an aggressive campaign to take control of American Islam under the guise of "coordinating" the Islamic work. The league directly hired top leaders away from American-based groups such as the Muslim Students Association and used a variety of means to install Saudi-influenced imams in mosques around the country.
The Saudis were especially concerned with reforming the beliefs of African American Muslims under the influence of the Nation of Islam and eventually pulled its leader, W. D. Muhammad, into their orbit. The group's internal political struggle gradually splintered the Nation of Islam along fault lines that dated back to the assassination of Malcolm X.
Factions emerged, which aligned at various points on the spectrum between religious and Black Nationalist orientations. Sometimes these conflicts broke out in violence. In January 1973 members of the Nation of Islam from Philadelphia brutally executed seven relatives of Khaliffa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the African American leader of a Sunni-oriented breakaway sect who had written scathing letters attacking the character and religious beliefs of NOI leaders. Four of Khaalis's young children—one just a baby—were among the victims.
Unsatisfied with the justice of the courts, Khaalis and several followers responded by laying siege to Washington, D.C., in March 1977, killing one person, wounding several more, and taking more than a hundred hostages. Khaalis demanded that the men who had killed his family, by then in prison, be delivered to him for execution, along with prominent members of the national Nation of Islam who had no clear connection to the case.
Khaalis also demanded that movie theaters boycott the film Mohammad, Messenger of God, a biographical drama directed by Syrian American Moustapha Akkad. Although widely considered respectful of Islam, the film's depiction of Muslims offended Khaalis's sensibilities.
It is difficult to look at the unthinkable tragedy that devastated Khaalis's family and conclude that the siege was primarily an act of religiously motivated jihad. Yet the protest against the movie foreshadowed later controversies, and Khaalis framed much of his rhetoric in terms of broad Islamic principles. The siege was broken during its second day, and Khaalis and his accomplices were arrested and imprisoned. Today the incident is largely forgotten.
Such moments of high drama were relatively few. The unfolding tension between NOI and the growing Sunni-influenced African American community simmered but seldom boiled over. The Saudis patiently and steadily supported the conversion of Black Nationalist Muslims into Sunni Muslims, equipping many communities with imported Egyptian and Saudi imams.
In 1978 the Muslim World League sponsored a massive convention in Newark, New Jersey, attended by virtually every Muslim organization with an address in the United States, including several members of the American branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Speakers at the convention urged the participants to take part in the Saudi desire to "coordinate the Islamic work" in North America and dangled financial enticements for those who would take part. The Saudis also paid to fly prominent African American converts to Saudi Arabia for extensive religious indoctrination.
At the end of 1979, three events in the Islamic world coalesced into a multifaceted crisis that would reverberate for decades. In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power after months of political crisis, transforming the secular government into an Islamic republic and displacing the Shah of Iran, who had been installed in power and supported for decades by the United States. Because of America's support for the Shah, anti-American sentiment quickly built to a fever pitch and culminated in the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November. Sixty-six American hostages were captured, launching an international crisis that would eventually bring down the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Within a few short weeks of the embassy disaster, a group of several hundred armed militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, in the middle of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The Saudis were already tense. Khomeini—a Shi'ite Muslim—had inspired an exciting new fervor for Islamic revival that threatened the Saudi-Sunni dominance of Islam around the world.
When news broke that militants had seized the Grand Mosque, many in both Saudi Arabia and the West assumed the attack must be the work of Iran, but it quickly became clear that the threat was homegrown. Most of the militants were from Saudi Arabia, but the group included Egyptians, Kuwaitis, Yemenis, Iraqis, Sudanese ... and at least two African Americans.
The Americans had been brought to Saudi Arabia through one of the exchange programs specifically targeting African American Muslims. One American was killed during the siege, Faqur Abdur-Rahman, about whom little is known except his name. The second was captured by the Saudis after French commandos stormed the mosque on the government's behalf. He was later released and repatriated. The name of the second American remains unknown.
The story was covered up by both the Saudis and the United States. At the beginning of the two-week siege, the Iranian government fired off a scathing accusation that the United States was behind the assault. Rumors of American involvement sparked rioting and a mob attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Any credible evidence that Americans had been involved in the attack—even acting on their own initiative—would have dramatically escalated the situation.
The militants, led by a radical Saudi named Juhayman Al Otaibi, were a motley crew of messianic believers trying to act out a prophecy regarding the Islamic version of Armageddon, which included the start of an apocalyptic war against Christians and Jews. Otaibi's writings had a strident anti-Western, anti-Christian tone, and they condemned the Saudi regime as well for a perceived failure to enforce the original traditions of the Prophet Mohammed.
In some ways, Otaibi's message foreshadowed the thinking of the not-yet-imagined al Qaeda. The parallel may be the result of both groups following similar traditions and sources, but there may be more to it. Otaibi's group preached on the grounds where Osama bin Laden attended college, at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and the group's members were known in bin Laden's social circle.
Otaibi's followers were not the first terrorists or even the first jihadist-terrorists, but they were the vanguard of the modern age of terrorism, foreshadowing what would follow in both tactics and message.
The third event of the winter of 1979 would spread an evolving, radicalized vision of Islam on the wind like a puff of breath dispersing dandelion spores.
At the end of December, a few days before the Mecca siege ended, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Muslim world was infuriated by the invasion, and within weeks, the Saudis were calling on Islamic nations to unify their efforts to support the country's Muslim freedom fighters, known as the mujahideen.
From the Saudi perspective, the invasion couldn't have come at a better moment. For years, the Saudis had bought into their own mythology, coming to see the kingdom as a perfected Islamic state where crime, radicalism, and evil in general could hold no sway.
That assumption had been undermined in the most dramatic way possible, with an assault on the country's most precious asset—its religious credibility. The Saudis were not merely the masters of the Grand Mosque; they were its protectors, and they had failed spectacularly.
In the aftermath, the leaders of the security apparatus took a hard look at what they had wrought and began to worry that it could happen again. One possible solution would have been to steer their religious program into a more moderate zone. Instead, they took a quicker and easier route: if the kingdom was plagued with angry, religiously fervent young men, the kingdom would simply send them away ... to Afghanistan.
The Saudi decision to support the Afghan mujahideen was based on a complex stew of foreign and domestic concerns and was supported by both the political and religious establishments. The American decision to do the same was a much simpler Cold War calculation. As National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told President Carter, "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war."
Cold warrior Ronald Reagan would up the ante. Calling the mujahideen "freedom fighters," he embarked on a campaign of support that included covert arms and training. The State Department's United States Information Agency produced hours of propaganda films promoting the mujahideen and their struggle, which the videos sometimes referred to as "jihad." The videos even showed mujahideen operations against the Russians, a style of presentation that jihadists would soon emulate.
One American government video showed Afghan children in school being indoctrinated into the jihadist lifestyle. Ironically, those children would reach prime fighting age just in time for U.S. forces to arrive twenty years later, and they would remember the lessons that the United States had forgotten.
VOICEOVER: In the towns and the camps of the 3 million [Afghan refugees] is a generation born with this national holy war burning in their hearts and minds. Their own number is in the hundreds of thousands, and they all learn one thing more important to them than these word drills. The Afghan has never been conquered. Afghanistan can be destroyed, but the Afghan will never submit. CHILD: Right now, of ten brothers, only two brothers are left. And they have gone to jihad. VOICEOVER: How many sisters? CHILD: I had three sisters, and all three are dead. VOICEOVER: When you grow up, what will you do? CHILD: I will go on jihad.
The Reagan administration also turned a blind eye to a parade of fire-breathing Islamic clerics and Afghan fighters who toured the United States seeking support from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Virginia-based World Anti-Communist League, a right-wing organization, sponsored mujahideen leaders on tours of the United States and helped provide money and aid supplies. Delegates from the Anti-Communist League met with top officials from the Muslim World League at a summit in Malaysia just one month after the Soviet invasion and agreed on a "joint effort ... to combat all atheistic cults and movements."
The fight against communism made for strange bedfellows. Mujahideen leaders would sometimes share the podium with Nicaraguan contras at WACL events, cheered on by the future leaders of right-wing, antigovernment militia groups.
Support from the American Muslim community ultimately proved to be more significant. During the course of the Afghanistan war, the Muslim World League and its American affiliates sent emissaries to encourage contributions, financial and otherwise, to the Afghanistan jihad. The most persuasive of these speakers was the man in charge of coordinating all the Arab volunteers who traveled to Afghanistan as volunteer fighters: Abdullah Azzam.
Azzam was a Palestinian Islamic scholar who had made a new home in Saudi Arabia, teaching in the universities there and studying in Egypt, where political and religious forces also fostered such committed jihadist thinkers as the "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and a young firebrand named Ayman Al Zawahiri. Even before the Afghanistan war broke out, Azzam was a familiar figure to American Muslims, having traveled during the late 1970s to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he met with MWL-linked figures associated with the Muslim Students Association. On at least one trip, Azzam was accompanied by one of his young college students from Saudi Arabia named Osama bin Laden.
Excerpted from JIHAD JOE by J. M. BERGER Copyright © 2011 by J. M. Berger. Excerpted by permission of Potomac Books, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The "New" Problem vii
1 The Early Years 1
2 Al Qaeda's Americans 17
3 The Death Dealers 33
4 Project Bosnia 51
5 Rebuilding the Network 79
6 War on America 101
7 The Rise of Anwar Awlaki 115
8 Scenes from September 11 127
9 The Descent of Anwar Awlaki 133
10 A Diverse Threat 151
11 The Keyboard and the Sword 177
12 The Future of American Jihad 203
Selected Bibliography 259
About the Author 265