United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Terrorist Recruitment and Infiltration in the United States: Prisons and Military as an Operational Base.
October 14, 2003
Dr. Michael Waller
Annenberg Professor of International Communication , The Institute of World Politics
Statement of J. Michael Waller
Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security
Senate Committee on the Judiciary
14 October 2003
Thank you, Chairman Kyl, and members of the Subcommittee for holding this important series of hearings. Thank you also for inviting me to testify on the subject of terrorist penetration of the U.S. military and prison systems via corruption of the chaplain programs, and how it fits in with a larger foreign-sponsored campaign to build terrorist support networks inside this country.
I am testifying in my capacity as Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft and national security in Washington. My expertise is in the political warfare of terrorist groups, not the theology of Islam.
Enemies of our free society are trying to exploit it for their own ends. These hearings ensure that policymakers and the public know and understand how our enemies’ operations work within our borders.
Chaplains are only one avenue terrorists that and their allies have used to penetrate and compromise the institutions of our civil society.
The recruitment and organization of ideological extremists in prison systems and armed forces is a centuries-old problem, as is the difficulty that civil societies have had in understanding and confronting the matter. While in tsarist prisons, Stalin and Dzerzhinsky organized murderers and other hardened criminals who would lead the Bolsheviks and their Cheka secret police. Hitler credited his time in prison as an opportunity to reflect and write Mein Kampf. Terrorist inmates and others communicate and organize among themselves and with the outside world via the rather open nature of our correctional system, and are known to do so in secret with collaborative lawyers by abusing the attorney-client relationship.
Chaplains are a vital part of military and correctional life, and until recently they have been above reproach. For several years, however, some of us have been alarmed that the small but important Muslim chaplain corps in the military has been harmed by those with an agenda that is more political than spiritual. This raises legitimate – indeed pressing – national security concerns.
The nation now finds itself with suspicions about the integrity of certain Muslim chaplains and how one or more may have been able to penetrate one of the nation’s most secure terrorist detention facilities at Guantanamo, Cuba, breaking through the heavy compartmentation that was designed in part to keep the detainees from communicating with one another and with the outside. That particular case is pending in the legal system, but its gravity is magnified by an important fact: the group that vetted the suspect chaplain was founded by a Wahhabi-backed member of the Muslim Brotherhood with a long track record of supporting terrorist leaders from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah. It shares an office with him and, reportedly, even the same tax identification number.
My testimony will discuss:
• The foreign entities and individuals who created the Muslim chaplain corps for the United States military;
Initial research findings
Our country’s security, intelligence and counterintelligence services missed a lot before 9/11, and have been so deluged with information since then that it is often hard to make sense of it even two years later. Those inside government, and those of us outside, are early in the analytical process. My testimony is based entirely on the public record, and is intended to help connect the dots among what can be a maze of confusing names and organizations. Much of the research has been done with the staff of the Center for Security Policy.
In short, this is what my colleagues and I have found:
• Foreign states and movements have been financing the promotion of radical, political Islam, which we call Islamism, within America’s armed forces and prisons.
Toward understanding the problem
Before I begin, one should note that a great battle is taking place today within the Islamic faith around the world. Many Muslims have come to me and to my colleagues with information about how their mosques, centers, and communities have been penetrated and hijacked by extreme Islamists who have politicized the faith and sought to use it as a tool of political warfare against the United States. We would not know what we already know were it not for the active collaboration of Muslims from many countries and currents who fear the political Islamists, and it is clear that federal terrorism-fighters and the nation at large have benefited likewise.
As a society, we have not understood the nature of the problem. Some, such as the FBI leadership, have contorted themselves to unusual lengths to avoid honest discussion of the issue.
The testimony of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) before this subcommittee on 26 June of this year is a case in point, where the witness failed even to discuss the subject on which he was requested to testify, which was on growing Wahhabi influence in the United States. The FBI Director himself has a splendid staff of speechwriters who painstakingly avoid using the words “Islam” and “terrorist” in the same sentence. Such dissembling does a disservice to the American public and arguably has harmed efforts to protect the country from terrorism.
Part of the trepidation against honestly discussing the issue is the atmosphere of fear and intimidation surrounding part of the discourse. Oftentimes as soon as a non-Muslim notes that nearly 100 percent rate of terrorist attacks were perpetrated in recent years by those who call themselves Muslim, certain self-proclaimed Muslim “leaders” in the United States take to the airwaves, the press and the Internet to denounce the critic as being “racist” or “bigoted.” Some of their non-Muslim friends have done the same, creating a chilling effect on open discussion, leading to poor public understanding of the conflict at hand.
Curiously, there is no shortage of normal Muslims in this country who agree with the critics. However, they are not organized and often have felt too intimidated to speak out.
Significantly, our research shows the most virulent of the denunciations have come from the self-proclaimed Muslim “leaders” who are tied to foreign or domestic terrorist organizations; foreign – mainly Wahhabi – funding; and in crucial cases, the Muslim Brotherhood. As we will see, a reported Muslim Brotherhood member, who had built a political pressure group in Washington that the FBI certified as “mainstream,” frequently assailed the arrests of bona fide terrorists as bigoted actions that would harm the American Muslim community.
When we discuss the chaplain issue, we should keep it in a larger context. That context spans 40 years of Wahhabi political warfare as an element of religious proselytizing – or, some would argue, political warfare of which proselytizing is an element.
The strategic goal is twofold: to dominate the voice of Islam around the world; and to exert control over civil and political institutions around the world through a combination of infiltration, aggressive political warfare, and violence.
We see this happening globally: In Pakistan and Egypt, the United Kingdom and continental Europe, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, in Russia and Turkey; in Southeast Asia, parts of Africa and Latin America; and here in the United States.
This trend is one of the factors that unites so much of the world – including the Islamic world – in the Global War on Terrorism. And that factor helps to explain why some countries find it so difficult to cooperate to their full potential, and why other leaders have been nothing short of courageous.
Hearings this subcommittee held last June and September have illuminated the issue and started to connect the dots. Chairman Kyl, you said it exactly on September 10 that “we must improve our ability to ‘connect the dots’ between terrorists and their supporters and sympathizers. We must understand their goals, their resources and their methods, just as well as they understand our system of freedoms and how to exploit them for their terrible purposes.”
Part 1: Chaplains, the Wahhabi Lobby, and the Muslim Brotherhood
The process for becoming a Muslim chaplain for any branch of the U.S. military, currently involves two separate phases. First, individuals must complete religious education and secondly, they must receive an ecclesiastical endorsement from an approved body. As several recent media reports have noted, federal investigators long have suspected key groups in the chaplain program – the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council (AMAFVAC), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) – of links to terrorist organizations.
• The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) trains Muslim chaplains.
Religious education and ecclesiastical endorsement
As of 8 June 2002, nine of the fourteen chaplains in the U.S. military received their religious training from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) in Leesburg, Virginia.
Following training at GSISS or another religious school, the majority of Muslim chaplains receive their endorsement from the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council (AVAFVAC).
ISNA provides ideological material to about 1,100 of an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 mosques in North America. It vets and certifies Wahhabi-trained imams and is the main official endorsing agent for Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military.
An organ of ISNA, the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) has physical control of most mosques in the United States. NAIT finances, owns, and otherwise subsidizes the construction of mosques and is reported to own between 50 and 79 percent of the mosques on the North American continent.
Origin of military chaplain problem: Muslim Brotherhood penetration
One can trace part of the military chaplain problem directly to its origin: A penetration of American political and military institutions by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is a key figure in Wahhabi political warfare operations against the United States.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an international movement founded in 1928 that seeks the destruction of all state and geographic divisions, rejects the idea of the nation-state and all forms of secularization, and works toward creating a world pan-Islamic state with a government based on Muslim sharia law. Initially it was uncompromising in its rejection of secular society, but in recent years changed its strategy to renounce violence (“ostensibly,” in the word of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram), and to take over or dominate political parties, unions, and professional syndicates. It is technically banned in its home country of Egypt, but operates through cutouts. Al Ahram calls the Muslim Brotherhood a “political movement” because of its political goals.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan is “God is our purpose, the Prophet our leader, the Qur’an our constitution. Jihad our way and dying for God’s cause our supreme objective.”
Following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the Muslim Brotherhood became part of the international Wahhabi infrastructure, with the Saudis providing sanctuary and support. Its functional leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is widely believed to al Qaeda’s second-in-command after Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri is currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Alamoudi: The operations chief in the U.S.
In 1990 Abdurahman Alamoudi, an émigré from Eritrea of Yemeni descent and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, set up a political action organization in Washington called the American Muslim Council (AMC). This subcommittee heard testimony almost six years ago that the AMC, based at 1212 New York Avenue NW, was inter alia, the “de facto lobbying arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Earlier this month, AMC advisory board member Soliman Biheiri, whom federal prosecutors say was “the financial toehold of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States,” was convicted of violating U.S. immigration law.
Alamoudi is presently in jail on federal terrorism-related charges. He was arrested in late September 2003 at Dulles International Airport after British law-enforcement authorities stopped him with $340,000 in cash that he was trying to take to Syria. U.S. officials allege that the money may have been destined for Syrian-based terrorist groups to attack Americans in Iraq. Charges include illegally receiving money from the Libyan government, passport and immigration fraud, and other allegations of supporting terrorists abroad and here in the United States.
Since Alamoudi has not had his trial, it may be inappropriate in this Judiciary subcommittee setting to discuss the case further, other than to say that one of his attorneys, Kamal Nawash of Northern Virginia, spoke to the suspect after his arrest and called the case politically motivated. Nawash told reporters less than two weeks ago that Alamoudi “has no links whatsoever to violence or terrorism. On the contrary, he supported the U.S. war on terrorism.”
Alamoudi has a long public record that indicates why his instrumentality in founding and shepherding the U.S. Muslim military chaplain program unfortunately calls into question the integrity of the entire Muslim chaplaincy, and requires thorough investigation.
Alamoudi successfully burrowed into the American political mainstream until some of his extremist statements made him a public liability. My testimony will not discuss the details of his political activity other than to say that it included both main political parties and two administrations.
A timeline of events and statements shows that the Pentagon’s Muslim chaplain program was compromised at the start due to the fact that Alamoudi founded it and guided it, and nominated the first chaplains.
During the time he and his organizations were involved in the chaplain program, Alamoudi was a senior figure in Northern Virginia-based entities that were raided or shut down for alleged terrorist financing; he openly spoke out in support of Hamas and Hezbollah, he campaigned for the release of a Hamas leader, and he attempted to secure the release of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader convicted for his role in plotting to bring down civilian airliners and bomb bridges, tunnels, and skyscrapers in New York City.
1979: Abdurahman Alamoudi emigrated to the United States.
1985-1990: Alamoudi was executive assistant to the president of the SAAR Foundation in Northern Virginia. Federal authorities suspect the Saudi-funded SAAR Foundation, now defunct, of financing international terrorism. SAAR is the acronym for Sulaiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, a wealthy Saudi figure and reputed financer of terrorism. Victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks allege in court that “The SAAR Foundation and Network is a sophisticated arrangement of non-profit and for-profit organizations that serve as front-groups for fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations.”
1990: Alamoudi founded the American Muslim Council (AMC) as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization, based at 1212 New York Avenue NW in Washington. The AMC has been described as a de facto front of the Muslim Brotherhood. The AMC’s affiliate, the American Muslim Foundation (AMF), is a 501(c)(3) group to which contributions are tax-deductible. SAAR family assets financed the building at 1212 New York Avenue NW.
1991: Alamoudi created the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council (AMAFVAC). Its purpose: to “certify Muslim chaplains hired by the military.” Qaseem Uqdah, a former AMC official and ex-Marine gunnery sergeant, headed AMAFVAC.
1993: The Department of Defense certified AMAFVAC as one of two organizations to vet and endorse Muslim chaplains. The other was the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS).
• March: Alamoudi assailed the federal government’s case against Mohammed Salameh who was arrested ten days after the first World Trade Center bombings in February: “All their [law enforcement] facts are – they are flimsy. We don’t think that any of those facts that they have against him, or the fact that they searched his home and they found a few wires here or there – are not enough.” Salameh was convicted in the bombing plot and is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
From about 1993 to 1998, the Pentagon retained Alamoudi on an unpaid basis to nominate and to vet Muslim chaplain candidates for the U.S. military.
1994: Alamoudi complained that the judge picked on the 1993 World Trade Center bombers because of their religion: “I believe that the judge went out of his way to punish the defendants harshly and with vengeance, and to a large extent, because they were Muslim.”
• He began a public defense of Hamas: “Hamas is not a terrorist group … I have followed the good work of Hamas…they have a wing that is a violent wing. They had to resort to some kind of violence.”
1995: Alamoudi continued his Hamas defense, arguing that “Hamas is not a terrorist organization. The issue for us (the American Muslim Council) is to be conscious of where to give our money, but not to be dictated to where we send our money.”
• Alamoudi accompanies AMAFVAC chief Qaseem Uqdah on a tour of naval installations in Florida to assess the needs of Muslims in the U.S. Navy.
1996: In 1996, Alamoudi became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In so doing he swore to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
• Alamoudi spoke out in response to the arrest at New York’s JFK Airport of his admitted friend, Hamas political bureau leader Mousa Abu Marzook. Months after the arrest, Alamoudi blamed the February 25th Hamas suicide bombings of Israeli citizens on Marzook’s detention: “If he was there things would not have gone in this bad way. He is known to be a moderate and there is no doubt these events would not have happened if he was still in the picture.”
o “It depends on me and you, either we do it now or we do it after a hundred years, but this country will become a Muslim country. And I [think] if we are outside this country we can say oh, Allah, destroy America, but once we are here, our mission in this country is to change it.”
• And again: “I know the man [Marzook], he is a moderate man on many issues. If you see him, he is like a child. He is the most gracious person, soft-spoken. He is for dialogue… [His arrest] is a hard insult to the Muslim community.”
1997: Back to Hamas: “I think [Hamas is] a freedom fighting organization.”
2000: Alamoudi publicly embraced not only Hamas but Hezbollah. At a videotaped protest in front of the White House on 28 October, Alamoudi shouted, “Anybody who is a supporter of Hamas here? Hear that, Bill Clinton. We are all supporters of Hamas. I wish they added that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah. Anybody who supports Hezbollah here?”
• Alamoudi described a two-track political approach, advocating prayer for the destruction of the United States, but counseled that while working within the U.S., his allies should try to change policy: “I think if we are outside this country, we can say oh, Allah, destroy America, but once we are here, our mission in this country is to change it.”
2001: In January, Alamoudi attended a conference in Beirut with leaders of terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda.
• November 2001: After NBC and other channels broadcast a 2000 videotape of him proclaiming support for Hamas and Hezboollah, Alamoudi told reporters, “I should have qualified what I have said. I should have said that we should support Hamas and Hezbollah in the effort for self-determination.”
2002: Alamoudi protested the arrest Imam Jamal Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly known as H. Rap Brown): “I think there is a witch hunt against Muslims.” Al-Amin, who held a former AMC post, was later convicted of murdering a Georgia law-enforcement officer.
• March: Federal agents raided Alamoudi’s American Muslim Foundation during Operation Green Quest, as well as several other organizations which Alamoudi had led, staffed, or otherwise been affiliated.
2003: In September, Army Capt. James “Yousuf” Yee, a Muslim chaplain who ministered to the 660 terrorist detainees at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, was arrested and identified as having been “sponsored” by the AMAFVAC.
• Alamoudi was arrested by federal agents as he returned from a trip to Libya, Syria, other Arab countries, and the United Kingdom.
Somehow despite all the above public events, the Pentagon found fit for Alamoudi to start and effectively run the Muslim military chaplains program. Somehow the State Department saw Alamoudi as an appealing representative of the United States in its public diplomacy activities, making him a “goodwill ambassador” to Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and elsewhere, as part of the USINFO program.
Saudi recruitment of American military personnel
U.S. counterintelligence is vigilant against recruitment of American military personnel by foreign intelligence services, but has been blind toward the possible recruitment of American officers into Wahhabi political extremism or Islamist terrorist networks. See Appendices 3, 5 and 6 for case study of Bilal Philips, a former Jamaican Communist Party member-turned-Saudi agent of influence who claims to have converted thousands of American soldiers from the Persian Gulf War period to the present.
Philips, recruited in the U.S. by Tablighi Jamaat, went to school in Saudi Arabia, was made a proselytization official by the Saudi Air Force. One of his greatest influences was Mohammad Qutub, who developed a political theory for Islamist revolution and who taught Osama bin Laden.
Value of religious conversions to terrorists
Islamists terrorists view conversions of non-Muslims to Islamism as vital to their effort. Europeans and Americans from non-Muslim backgrounds do not fit the terrorist profile. They know their societies far better than immigrant terrorists, and they blend in seamlessly. They also have Western passports. Some analysts view the conversions as a new generation of political and social protest against the West and toward the “Third World.” According to a recent report:
The young people in working-class urban areas are against the system, and converting to Islam is the ultimate way to challenge the system,” said Roy, a director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “They convert to stick it to their parents, to their principal… They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam. I see a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause.”
The converts are useful to a new al Qaeda strategy of “training the trainers,” a method that the increasingly decentralized organization used to export terrorism to other countries.
Part 2: Radical Islamist Domination of
Radical Islamist groups, most tied to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi organizations suspected by the U.S. government of being closely linked to terror financing activities, dominate Muslim prison recruitment in the U.S. and seek to create a radicalized cadre of felons who will support their anti-American efforts. Estimates place the number of Muslim prison recruits at between 15-20% of the prison population. They are overwhelmingly black with a small, but growing Hispanic minority. It appears that in many prison systems, including Federal prisons, Islamist imams have demanded, and been granted, the exclusive franchise for Muslim proselytization to the forceful exclusion of moderates.
• The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) trains prison chaplains. It trained Imam Umar the Bureau of Prisons chaplain who was fired after the Wall Street Journal profiled his post-September 11th extremist rhetoric.
• “Yvonne Haddad, an academic who studies Muslims in America, noted in a lecture at Stanford University that the two loci of Islamic awakening in the United States are the university and the prison. It makes sense to connect these two centers of Islamic activity for sake of establishing Islam in the United States.”
• “In the U.S., just two weeks after the September 11 attacks, Muslim Chaplain Aminah Akbarin at New York’s Albion Correctional Facility was put on paid administrative leave after telling inmates that Osama bin Laden should be hailed as “a hero to all Muslims” and that the terror attacks were the fault of President Bush….According to published reports, radical Islamists—Muslims who follow a rigid interpretation of the Koran called Wahhabism—have put a high priority on reaching disaffected inmates around the world and recruiting them for their own deadly purposes.”
• Some prison-oriented groups prey on that disaffection. A leader of the Chicago-based Institute of Islamic Information & Education (III&E) said after 9/11,
The Islamist Appeal
Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
The Islamic Society of North America is an influential front for the promotion of the Wahhabi political, ideological and theological infrastructure in the United States and Canada. Established by the Muslim Students Association, ISNA seeks to marginalize leaders of the Muslim faith who do not support its ideological goals. Through sponsorship of propaganda, doctrinal material and mosques, is pursuing a strategic objective of dominating Islam in North America.
ISNA provides ideological material to about 1,100 of an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 mosques in North America. It vets and certifies Wahhabi-trained imams and is the main official endorsing agent for Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military.
Politically, ISNA has promoted leaders of the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
Magnitude of the Threat
Notable Prison Converts
Summary of Muslim military chaplain founder Abdurahman Alamoudi’s organizational affiliations (asterisk * indicates the organization was raided in federal counterterrorism probes)
Executive Assistant to President of SAAR Foundation*
Founder, former executive director, American Muslim Council (AMC)
Appendix 2: Key Organizations Involved in Muslim Prison Recruitment
National Islamic Prison Foundation (NIPF) – Contact: Mahdi Bray; 1212 New York Ave. NW, Suite 525, Washington, DC 20005. This is the same address as the American Muslim Council (AMC).
• “Specifically organized to convert American inmates to Wahhabism.”
• NIPF “coordinates a coast-to-coast campaign to convert inmates to Islam. Foundation officials claim an average of 135,000 such conversions per year. More than 10 percent of the 2 million plus U.S. prison population is Muslim. When black American Muslims are released from prison with the customary $10, a suit of clothes and a one-way bus or train ticket, they know any mosque or masjid [Islamic center] will shelter and feed them and help them find a job.”
Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
• “The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) have been bringing prison chaplains and volunteers together since 1998 in their “Islam in American Prison” conferences. These delegates deliberate on various ways of serving inmates, such as the provision of free literature within prison, helping the families of those incarcerated, building halfway houses for those released, and similar other beneficial measures.”
National Association of Muslim Chaplains – Contact: President, Imam Warithuddin Umar
• Founded by Warith Deen Umar, a radical prison convert, who offered his views of Isalm and the Sept. 11 attacks to the Wall Street Journal arguing that “The hijackers should be honored as martyrs, he said. The U.S. risks further terrorism attacks because it oppresses Muslims around the world.” He was later fired from his job as a contractual consultant with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and barred from continuing his volunteer chaplaincy in New York State Prisons.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)
• “CAIR has recently dedicated more resources to assisting Muslims in prison. ‘We are meeting with the appropriate government agencies, researching case law and contacting more inmates to see how we can help Muslims practice Islam in prison with the limited rights they have,’ says CAIR Civil Rights Coordinator Hassan Mirza.”
Institute of Islamic Information & Education (III&E) – Contact: Managing Director, M. Amir Ali, Ph.D.; P.O. Box 410129, Chicago, IL 60641
• “There are indications that each piece of literature of the Institute sent to a prisoner is circulated and read by at least ten persons; based on this estimate the III&E is reaching out to more than 20,000 individuals a year in the prison system. The cost of correspondence is somewhere $25 to $40 per letter and enclosures, which includes management, rent, utilities, personnel, material and postage.”
Islamic Prison Services Foundation – Contact: Nasir Shahid; 1709 4th St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.
Islamic Prison Outreach – Contact: Imam Alauddin Shabazz; 10326 S. Hoyne, Chicago, IL 60643.
Islamic Correctional Reunion Association – Contact: Mohammad Firdause; 6336 S. 66th Ave, Tinley Park, IL 60477
Islamic Prison Service Dawah – Contact: Ali Jabbar Hakkim; 4715 Fable St., Capitol Heights, MD 20743.
Appendix 3:Al Qaeda’s tactical use of Muslim converts
The following is a reprint of an article by Sebastian Rotella, “Al Qaeda’s Stealth Weapons,” Los Angeles Times, 20 September 2003.
The convicted terrorist has a hard-core moniker: “the blue-eyed emir of Tangier.”
But Pierre Richard Robert was once a French country boy, an athletic blond teenager living in a house built by his father among pastures here in the Loire region.
Robert liked drinking and fast bikes more than school. He got interested in Islam when he played soccer at the Turkish cultural center in a neighboring industrial town. He said he wanted to convert because Allah watched over him as he sped downhill into town on his bicycle.
“I told him it’s not like changing shirts,” said Ibrahim Tekeli, a leader of the Turkish community. “The imam told him, ‘I want you to reflect and talk to your family first.’ But Richard said: ‘I’ve already reflected… For months before I made my decision, I would run the red light on the big hill every day going real fast. I would always pray to Allah to protect me. And I never got hit by a car.’ ”
Fourteen years later, though, Robert has hit bottom. A Moroccan court sentenced him to life in prison Thursday after convicting him of recruiting and training Moroccan extremists for a terrorist campaign.
He joins an unlikely group of men with non-Muslim backgrounds that includes Richard Reid, the British “shoe bomber” convicted of trying to blow up an airliner; American Jose Padilla, an alleged Al Qaeda operative being held as an enemy combatant; and Christian Ganczarski, a German convert arrested in June by French police.
Robert and Ganczarski were not just foot soldiers, investigators say. They represent a dangerous trend as police chop away at Islamic networks two years after the Sept. 11 attacks: converts who assume front-line roles as recruiters and plotters.
The number of converts has grown as Islamic militants have struck a chord with young Europeans from non-Muslim backgrounds. These “protest conversions,” as scholar Olivier Roy calls them, have less to do with theology than with a revolutionary zeal dating to Europe’s ultra-left terrorist groups of the 1970s and ’80s.
“The young people in working-class urban areas are against the system, and converting to Islam is the ultimate way to challenge the system,” said Roy, a director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “They convert to stick it to their parents, to their principal… They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam. I see a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause.”
As demographics and immigration propel Islam’s spread in Europe, the number of French converts — the vast majority of them law-abiding — has increased steadily to about 100,000, Roy said.
Extremists of European descent worry police for the same reasons that Al Qaeda prizes them: their symbolic value, their Western passports and their fanaticism.
“Converts are the most important work for us right now,” a French intelligence official said. “They want to show other Muslims their worth. They want to go further than anyone else. They are full of rage and they want to prove themselves.”
The rise of the converts actually may be a sign of Al Qaeda’s weakness, a need to fill a vacuum as leaders are hunted down. The limited hierarchy of Islamic networks can make leadership a question of circumstance and initiative. A Spanish investigator said Al Qaeda has “many soldiers, some sergeants and the generals.”
Ganczarski and Robert were no generals, but they allegedly stepped up to plot attacks and recruit. And investigators say Ganczarski, 36, became a pivotal figure in Europe during the post-Sept. 11 period because of his alleged ties to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s now-imprisoned operational boss, who turned increasingly to converts while on the run.
Ganczarski is being held in a French jail as a suspected conspirator in the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that killed 21 people, including French tourists, in April 2002.
Investigators say Mohammed controlled the plot from Pakistan despite the vigilance of U.S. spy satellites that intercepted some of his coded conversations with accomplices. To elude detection, he used non-Arabs in Europe to support the Tunisian suicide bomber, Nizar Nawar, police say.
On the day Nawar blew himself up in a truck-bomb at the historic synagogue on the island of Djerba, he called Mohammed in Pakistan, investigators say, and Ganczarski’s home in Duisburg, Germany. A German wiretap recorded the latter call: As if addressing a mentor, Nawar asked Ganczarski for a blessing, investigators say.
Although the Germans lacked proof to arrest Ganczarski, who denied involvement in the attack, the widening investigation soon involved French, Spanish and Swiss police. It revealed Ganczarski’s access to Al Qaeda’s “hard core,” in the words of a Swiss intelligence report dated last December.
Ganczarski called Mohammed’s Swiss cell phone in Pakistan “numerous times” in the months before the Djerba attack, according to the report.
The phone call intercepts also pointed to a Swiss convert, Daniel “Yusuf” Morgenej, who had befriended the German in Saudi Arabia, authorities say. Swiss police questioned and released Morgenej. But Spanish and French investigators say he and Ganczarski remain suspected links in an intricate chain leading to the plot’s accused money man, a Spanish exporter.
Moreover, the Djerba plot appears to have been part of a larger effort led by Mohammed to deploy converts. Padilla, the American who allegedly schemed to set off a radioactive bomb, was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 after arriving from Switzerland. In the preceding weeks, Padilla placed four calls to the same phone number for Mohammed that Ganczarski had called, according to the Swiss intelligence report.
Ganczarski was born in Gleiwitz, Poland. His family moved to Germany when he was 9. He dropped out of school and found work as a metallurgist in the Ruhr Valley. It was on the shop floor that a fellow immigrant, a North African, introduced him to the Koran, officials say.
“Ever since his youth, it appears he was greatly preoccupied with questions of faith,” said a senior French law enforcement official.
His radicalization accelerated when he met a Saudi cleric visiting European mosques in search of Western-born acolytes. In 1992, Ganczarski received a scholarship to attend an Islamic university in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the senior official said.
Ganczarski spent three frustrating years in Medina. He took special courses to overcome his lack of schooling, but failed to enter the university, the senior official said. Yet his zeal did not seem to waver.
He traveled to Afghanistan in 1998 — the first of four sojourns — trained at an Al Qaeda camp and saw combat there and in Russia’s breakaway republic of Chechnya, officials say.
Ganczarski met Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, who entrusted him with handling computers and communications, the senior official said. Bin Laden saw converts as “an especially potent weapon,” the official said.
Returning from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ganczarski persisted in trying to organize plots even after the Tunisian case drew attention to him, officials say.
An alleged accomplice from Duisburg has told French interrogators that Ganczarski began preparations for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Karim Mehdi said the two explored a technique developed by Mohammed in Afghanistan. It involved packing model planes with 3 or 4 kilos of explosives and diving them into a building by remote control, according to the senior French official.
“They got as far as acquiring material,” the official said. “They did a lot of research on planes in Germany. You can pilot these planes from a mile away. The embassy is a double target — you hit the French and Americans in one blow.”
U.S. officials declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing threats to embassies.
Mehdi also admitted scouting targets for a planned car bombing at tourist sites on Reunion island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, officials say. Mehdi said Ganczarski was an “organizer and the financier” of the plot, according to French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who described the German as “a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda.”
Ganczarski found refuge for a time in Saudi Arabia, where he took his family last November. But after this year’s terrorist attacks on expatriate compounds in Riyadh put pressure on the Saudis, they expelled him to France. Under tough anti-terrorism laws, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere has accused Ganczarski in the Djerba attack based on his alleged ties to the plotters, and has at least two years to bring him to trial. Authorities are also interested in the fact that Ganczarski had phone numbers for two imprisoned members of the Hamburg cell that planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ganczarski’s alleged access to the inner circle is not surprising. Al Qaeda has embraced true believers regardless of ethnicity. Just as many converts marry Muslim women, some terrorism suspects of Arab origin have European wives, who often equal them in ideological ferocity.
“The Ganczarskis, the Roberts, they show that the radicalization is here, not just in the Middle East,” said Roy, the French scholar. If Al Qaeda’s urbanized, globalized jihad continues to attract angry Europeans, the network could gain a “second wind,” he said.
Robert, 31, could be a case in point. Like Ganczarski, the Frenchman represents a breed of blue-collar convert — neither jailhouse recruit nor university radical.
He grew up in the French hamlet of Chambles. His studies ended at Anne Frank Middle School in Andrezieux, the industrial town just down the hill where his father worked at a glass factory. The teenager made Turkish friends doing spot jobs in textile plants and playing in the Turkish soccer league, which was popular with French and immigrant youths because it used the best field in town.
The Turks of Andrezieux, who describe themselves as moderate Muslims, remember Robert as a silent kid crouching off by himself in the mosque. Like many converts, he had struggled with “drinking, stupid things” and yearned for discipline and purpose, said Tekeli, 35, a veteran union activist.
“In Europe you have everything you need: work, health benefits, family,” he said. “Yet something is missing. People find it in religion. And Islam is the religion that is growing. The French young people are more open than their parents.”
Robert’s stunned father called his change of faith “a betrayal,” Tekeli said. But when Robert turned 18 and decided to study Islam in Turkey, his parents paid for the trip. Robert traveled to Konya, a center of tourism and religion that is a magnet for European converts.
When Robert returned to France in 1992, the French intelligence official said, he complained that Turkey was “too secular.”
He went to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where in the mid-1990s he trained at a camp run by Al Qaeda, according to French and Spanish investigators.
He also married a Moroccan woman and began wandering between Europe and Morocco. They came to Chambles for an extended stay about seven years ago, living at his parents’ house before renting apartments around the nearby city of St. Etienne, a fading landscape of shuttered arms factories and abandoned coal mines.
Robert had acquired a beard, traditional Islamic garb and the name Yacub. During visits in 1999 and 2000 to an Islamic bookstore in St. Etienne, he impressed the manager with his Arabic and his religious knowledge.
“He knew more than me,” said the manager, Ahmed Abdelouadoud.
Robert’s aggressive ideas caused conflict even at fundamentalist mosques, the intelligence official said. He became an itinerant late-night preacher in housing projects, Tekeli said.
He also got involved in the used-car racket in which Islamic extremists are active, buying cars in Europe for resale in Morocco. In 1998, he was jailed in Belgium on suspicion of auto theft.
That was nothing compared with his clandestine activity in Tangier, the Moroccan smuggling haven where Robert, by then a father of two, spent most of his time the last two years. He was convicted Thursday of recruiting several dozen young men for terrorist cells he set up in Tangier and Fez.
Robert’s Al Qaeda credentials crossed cultural borders: The group made him its “emir.” He led weapons training sessions in forests and deserts, according to the court’s verdict.
Then came the May 16 suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca, the worst attack ever in Morocco, a kingdom that prides itself on its relative tolerance. Police rounded up hundreds of extremists, catching Robert in a forest at the wheel of a pickup truck with fake Dutch plates.
Authorities charged that he served as a leader of a network that had planned a coming wave of attacks on tourist and commercial targets. After initially confessing, Robert denied it all and said he had been tortured because police needed a foreign fall guy.
“I am the victim of a frame-up by the security services,” he said in a statement relayed by his lawyer.
Robert also testified during his trial that he had worked as an informant for French intelligence, a claim French officials denied.
Investigators say Robert was part of a strategy of “training the trainers” — a model of how an increasingly decentralized Al Qaeda will function. The network exported terrorism to Morocco through a handful of recruiters who quickly whipped locals into killing shape, officials say.
Robert also wanted to bring his war home to France, police say. He and Abdulaziz Benayich, a die-hard holy warrior with longtime ties to European terrorist cells, schemed about using a bazooka or rocket-propelled grenade on targets including a giant refinery and a plutonium shipment near Lyon, about an hour from Robert’s hometown, investigators say.
When Spanish police captured Benayich in June in Algeciras, across the strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, he had shaved off his body hair — as is done in a purification ritual that precedes suicide attacks.
“He was preparing for an attack,” a Spanish police commander said. “Benayich is very dangerous.”
Although some French officials feel Robert’s threat has been exaggerated, he narrowly avoided the death penalty that was requested by prosecutors.
His old friends have watched the news reports. Robert looked exhausted in court, a pale figure surrounded by guards. He had shaved his beard. One day he wore the red and yellow jersey of Galatasaray, a Turkish soccer team.
At that moment, the “blue-eyed emir” resembled the 17-year-old his friends remember: crouched over the handlebars on his way to town, praying to Allah, gathering speed.
Appendix 4: Tablighi Jamaat convert and Saudi agent of influence claims to have converted thousands of U.S. troops
Global News Wire
August 3, 2003
JAMAICAN-BORN CANADIAN INTERVIEWED ON ISLAMIC MISSIONARY WORK AMONG US TROOPS
Interview with Dr. Bilal Philips, a Jamaican-born Canadian, by Mahmud Khalil in Dubai; date not given
(Khalil) How did you convert to Islam and when did that take place? (Philips) That was in 1972, four years after converting to communism in Canada out my belief in the establishment of justice and equality, only to discover that it was a mere verbal slogan that communism bragged about. During my search for a philosophy, through which I could apply justice and equality in words and deeds, I had the opportunity to learn about Islam. I traveled to London to study this religion under a missionary group (jama’at al-tabligh) for three months. But, I did not benefit much during that trip, as the group did not concentrate on the Islamic shari’a sciences. I returned to Canada and sought to obtain a scholarship in the land of the cradle of Islam.
I was admitted into the Faculty of Islamic Call (Al-Da’wah) in Medina for six years, during which I spent two years learning the Arabic language.
During this period, I attended lectures by Shaykh Nasir-al-Din al-Bani, Ibn-Baz, Abu-Bakr al-Jaza’iri, and Hammadi al-Ansari. I then obtain the M.A. in the creed from King Sa’ud University in Riyadh. At the same time, I worked as teacher of Islamic education in “Manart al-Riyad” schools. (Khalil) How did you switch from teaching to preaching Islam to the US Forces stationed in Al-Khubar? (Philips) The idea came from Ali al-Shammari who had a strong urge to convert US soldiers into Islam. But, he did not speak English well. So he sought my help in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. Since that date, I began giving religious lectures to US soldiers on Islam.
(Khalil) Was the matter confined to giving religious lectures, or did it go beyond that to persuading US soldiers to convert to Islam. And, when precisely did you begin your call and how long did it last? (Philips) I can say that we began our campaign to convert US soldiers to Islam after the end of the war in Kuwait and the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces. The campaign lasted five and a half months during which we formed a special team, which spoke fluent English. We set up a big camp in the US military barrack in Al-Khubar for this purpose called: “Saudi Camp for Cultural Information.” (Khalil) Were you doing that with the official permission of the Saudi authorities and the US Forces Command? (Philips) No, but a considerable number of US officers and men asked us to deliver such lectures. So I can say that the US Army welcomed our work.
(Khalil) Why, in your opinion, did some US officers welcomed giving such lectures on Islam to their soldiers? (Philips) I believe it was to divert their soldiers’ attention from other issues, as Saudi Arabia lacked entertainment places for these. The Christian missionaries accompanying the US forces tried, before the conversion of 11 US soldiers, to shut down the camp and stop the lectures we gave to the soldiers. In the meantime, the camp acquired the name of “conversion to Islam camp,” especially since the number of soldiers who converted to Islam daily were about 15 to 20. This is in addition to the fact that many US soldiers bought copies of the Holy Koran in the English language.
(Khalil) Who were the members of the team that helped you in your work? (Philips) It was a special team whose members spoke fluent English. I recall that we expanded our work at the time to the point of operating for 24 hours. We obtained an apartment in the barrack and divided the team into groups working on rotation.
(Khalil) What were the means and methods used to persuade US soldiers to convert to Islam? (Philips) At first we prepared the soldiers mentally. A member of the team with experience in broadcasting and American psychology undertook that job. He called in 200-250 soldiers. Once he prepared them psychologically, I began giving the lectures and opened the floor for discussion on different issues. In my answers to their questions, I often linked the topics to the call for conversion to Islam.