Media Center


June 06, 2002

Hundreds of Americans have followed the path to jihad. Here's how and why
By David E. Kaplan
U.S. News

Fifteen thousand feet high in Kashmir and armed with a Kalashnikov–that was not how friends thought Jibreel al-Amreekee would end up. All of 19, the restless kid from Atlanta had grown up in a wealthy family attending Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr. A soft-spoken youth with long dreadlocks, al-Amreekee had a passion for sky diving and reading books on the world's religions.

One religion that drew his interest was Islam, and while he was at North Carolina Central University, that interest grew into a calling. By 1997, he had converted and was spending his time at the modest Ibad-ar-Rahman mosque in Durham, where African-Americans mixed easily with immigrants from Egypt and Pakistan. He fell in with a group of fundamentalists who preached of how fellow Muslims were being slaughtered overseas and how jihad–holy war–was every Muslim's obligation. For al-Amreekee, it came as a revelation. He dropped out of school, read the Koran daily, fasted, and prepared for combat overseas. "He was into it, man," recalled a friend, Jaleel Abdullah Musawwir. "You know, Islam says when you get into something you go full ahead, and that's the way he did it."

In late 1997, al-Amreekee took off for Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have clashed for decades. Through friends in Durham, he hooked up with Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Righteous Army), a now banned militia blamed for December's terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. Lashkar leaders, closely allied with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, have announced plans to "plant Islamic flags in Delhi, Tel Aviv, and Washington."

After training at a Lashkar base in Pakistan, al-Amreekee got his chance: His unit began ambushing Indian troops in Kashmir. But the American didn't last long. After just 21/2 months as a jihadist, he was dead–killed while attacking an Indian Army post. "He got what he wanted," said Abdullah Ramadawn, a friend and fellow Georgian who used to drive him home after prayers. "He always said he wanted to be a martyr."

Americans are accustomed to thinking of the jihad movement as something overseas, inspired among the faithful in spartan Pakistani schools and gleaming Saudi mosques. But there is also an American road to jihad, one taken by true believers like al-Amreekee and hundreds of others. For 20 years–long before "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh–American jihadists have ventured overseas to attack those they believe threaten Islam. It is a little-known story.

They have left behind comfortable homes in Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco, volunteering to fight with foreign armies in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. Their numbers are far greater than is commonly thought: Between 1,000 and 2,000 jihadists left America during the 1990s alone, estimates Bob Blitzer, a former FBI terrorism chief who headed the bureau's first Islamic terrorism squad in 1994. Federal agents monitored some 40 to 50 jihadists leaving each year from just two New York mosques during the mid-'90s, he says. Pakistani intelligence sources say that Blitzer's figures are credible and that as many as 400 recruits from America have received training in Pakistani and Afghan jihad camps since 1989. Scores more ventured overseas during the 1980s, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

U.S. News traced reports of more than three dozen American jihadists, many of them previously unknown. Unlike the 9/11 hijackers, who spent only months here, many are U.S. citizens, native born or naturalized. Most put down roots here, attended schools, ran businesses, and raised families. A majority appear to be Arab-Americans–Egyptian, Saudi, and Palestinian immigrants–or fellow Muslims from lands as far afield as Sudan and Pakistan. But a fair number are African-Americans, who make up nearly one third of the nation's Muslims. Still others are as varied as Lindh, a wealthy white kid from California's Marin County, or Hiram Torres, a Puerto Rican convert from New Jersey.

No records. Surprisingly–despite the key role some have played in terrorism –investigators have never tracked them as a group. Immigration agents keep no records on foreign travel by U.S. citizens and resident aliens. FBI and CIA officials say that fear of political spying charges has kept them from monitoring suspicious trips by U.S. citizens abroad. Nor does the State Department have files. "Why would we keep records?" asks one official. "These are people who are dropping out of U.S. society." With few such records, government files on al Qaeda backers here were woefully incomplete. Thus, after September 11, most of the 1,200 suspects arrested were found by combing immigration rolls for persons out of compliance–not by tracking those with jihadist ties or training in the jihadist military camps of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Those camps–once run freely by bin Laden and his allies–are the connective tissue binding together the international jihadist movement. To date, the United States and its allies have captured al Qaeda fighters from no fewer than 33 countries, including Australia, Belgium, and Sweden. Only two "American Taliban" are in custody: Lindh and Yasser Esam Hamdi, a Baton Rouge-born 22-year-old who spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia. But some counterterrorism officials are convinced dozens more remain active, including several who may play key roles within bin Laden's network. Their trails are difficult to track; dual citizenship and false passports are common, and they typically have Arabic names, either given or adopted, with multiple spellings. "God knows where the hell they are, because we never found them," says Blitzer. "It's always been a potential time bomb."

They are, to be sure, a tiny minority of the nation's 4 million Muslims. Law enforcement officials stress they see no evidence of a tightly organized "fifth column" among America's diverse Muslim communities. And many jihadists have fought in struggles that the United States either supported or was neutral in–against the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, for example, or against ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. In fact, Americans have long fought in other nations' wars. Such actions may violate the Neutrality Act–which bans fighting against nations with which America is at peace–but the law is rarely enforced. During the late 1930s, for example, nearly 3,000 Americans fought the fascists in Spain's civil war.

But the international jihad movement is different, analysts say. It has become virulently anti-American, anti-Western, and steeped in the kind of absolutist religious fervor that is the hallmark of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. In that, American holy warriors resemble their brethren overseas: They tend to be young, smart, and motivated, often introverted and detached, and ready to risk life and limb. "These are the true believers," says Howard University's Sulayman Nyang, author of Islam in the United States of America. "You feel you are an instrument of God, or part of a historical force."

Call to war. Jihad–literally, "struggle" in Arabic–can also mean one's private spiritual quest. But today it is widely used to connote holy war. And for many, that journey begins in the mosques and Islamic centers of America. There young Muslims may hear imams full of fire and brimstone sermonizing on the persecution of Muslims abroad. They may be handed videos depicting a Muslim world under siege, filled with images of bloodied and broken corpses. Those same images beckon online. Since the mid-1990s, Web sites have spread the call to holy war at cyberspeed. Links like and now bring the faithful to harrowing displays of refugees and martyrs in faraway lands. In 2000, a Chechen jihadist Web site,, directed recruits to network quietly: "Anyone interested in going to fight . . . should contact members of their own communities and countries who are known to have been for Jihad. You will know these people and they will know you."

Others proselytize less subtly. For years, the San Diego-based American Islamic Group sent its Islam Report to Internet news groups with its bank account listed. "Supporting Jihad is an Islamic obligation," read one report. Included were communiqués from Algeria's terrorist Armed Islamic Group and war reports from Bosnia and Chechnya. In a 1995 Internet posting titled "First American Martyr in Chechnya," the group mourned the loss of Mohammad Zaki, an American killed in Chechnya that year. Zaki was a Washington, D.C., native who ran the group's Chechnya relief effort, his colleagues wrote. The father of four, he reportedly died in a Russian air attack while delivering aid to Chechen villages. U.S. and Russian officials in Moscow have no record of Zaki's death. (Kifah Jayyousi, who was then the San Diego group's head and later facilities chief for the Detroit and Washington, D.C., school districts, could not be located for comment.)

Some jihadists become radicalized overseas, as did Lindh. In the past 25 years, Saudi and Pakistani groups have targeted African-American Muslims, in particular, offering scholarships to study Islam and Arabic in their countries, according to Prof. Lawrence Mamiya, an expert on Islam at New York's Vassar College. "The first step is education, and then they're recruited by more militant groups," he says. "Being in those countries, they come across the oppression those people confront."

New recruits. Once recruited, the jihadists all but disappear. A rare window opened on their world at last year's trial of U.S. Embassy bomb- ers, in which a half-dozen names surfaced of Americans allegedly tied to al Qaeda. Wadih el-Hage, an Arlington, Texas, tire store manager and top bin Laden aide, got some media attention, but others passed unnoticed. There was Mubarak al-Duri, an Iraqi native living in Arizona, who officials say worked with bin Laden's firms in Sudan; Mohamed Bayazid, a Syrian-American who allegedly bought weapons and uranium for al Qaeda; and Abu Osama, an Egyptian-American said to have trained al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Government witness L'Houssaine Kherchtou testified to knowing "some black Americans" who he believed were al Qaeda associates in Sudan and Pakistan. Perhaps most intriguing were accounts of Abu Malik, a martial arts expert from New York who allegedly fought in Afghanistan and later turned up at al Qaeda's headquarters in Sudan.

U.S. News gained access to records of other American jihadists from some of Pakistan's best-known Islamic schools. There are thousands of these madrasahs, as they are known, and they provided tens of thousands of recruits to the Taliban. One of the most influential, the Haqqania school outside Peshawar, graduated much of the Taliban's senior leadership–along with at least nine Americans. The records are sketchy. In most cases, they list only the student's Arabic name, ethnicity, and home country. In 1995, seven Arab-Americans enrolled in the school, among them Zaid Bin Tufail of North Carolina, Zahid Al-Shafi of Texas, and Ahmed Abi-Bakr of Washington, D.C. All received military training and fought with Taliban units in their drive to unite the country, school officials say. Other students included two African-Americans: a "Dr. Bernard" from New York, who arrived in 1997, and "Abdullah," whose parents left their native Barbados and settled in Michigan; he, too, joined the Taliban and was reported "martyred" near Mazar-e Sharif in 1999 or 2000. None of them, however, shows up in checks of U.S. public records.

Records at another madrasah, the Tajweed-ul-Koran in Quetta, show that three Americans studied there in 1996. Two were African-American–"Omar" and Farooq" are the only names listed in the register–and school officials described the third, "Haidar," as a tall, white fellow, about 25, "with a strong build and small golden beard." The foreigners, they say, left for military training with the Taliban in Kandahar. At another pro-Taliban school in Quetta, the Jamia Hammadia, workers recall a 25-year-old American student from Chicago–Abu Bakar al-Faisal–who arrived in 1995 and died while soldiering with the Taliban in 1999. Al-Faisal, they say, had broken with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam before coming to Afghanistan. Even sketchier records exist at the Jamia Abi-Bakr school in Karachi, where officials say about a dozen African-Americans studied. The madrasah is linked closely to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir militia Jibreel al-Amreekee joined.

The best-known American jihadist–John Walker Lindh–attended yet another madrasah. The alienated Lindh, a lawyer's son, discovered Islam online and, like many jihadists, later fell in with Tablighi Jamaat, a Pakistani evangelical group. Although not itself linked to terrorism, Tablighi's radical preaching is thought to have influenced several British citizens now held by U.S. forces in Guantánamo, as well as suspected shoe bomber Richard Reid.

Rocket grenades. Through Tablighi, Lindh ended up at his Pakistani madrasah. At age 19, he finished six months of studies at the pro-Taliban school. His next stop was Harakat ul-Mujahideen–the Jihad Fighters Movement–another Kashmir-focused militia tied to hijackings, kidnappings, and bin Laden's terrorist network. In mid-2001, armed with a Harakat letter of introduction, Lindh presented himself to al Qaeda, where he trained with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, U.S. officials say. Captured in November and then wounded in a revolt, Lindh stayed true to his views, insisting that martyrdom is "the goal of every Muslim." Today, his hair cut and beard shorn, he sits in an Alexandria, Va., jail, facing charges of murder and terrorism. His attorneys argue he is innocent; they say Lindh never fired on Americans and has constitutional rights to bear arms and associate with radicals like al Qaeda.

Harakat ul-Mujahideen seems to be a favored home for traveling jihadists. Earlier this year, an apparent list of recruits surfaced in a Harakat safe house, bearing the name Hiram Torres–a Puerto Rican from New Jersey missing for years. In 1995, Harakat officials claimed they were hosting several hundred foreign Muslims at their training camps, including 16 Americans. That year, at Harakat offices in Lahore, Pakistan, two Saudis boasted of their own American backgrounds to a reporter. In smooth English, Muhammad Al-Jabeer claimed to be from Chicago, where he'd studied for an M.B.A. His friend, Ahmed Usaid, said he hailed from New Jersey and held a B.S. in computer science. Usaid, Harakat sources say, died in battle near Mazar-e Sharif in 1999 and was buried in Afghanistan.

One well-trod route to jihad leads through London, a city so popular among radical Islamists that some call it Londonistan. This was the apparent path taken by New Yorker Mohammad Junaid. The grandson of Pakistani immigrants, the 26-year-old Junaid surfaced in Pakistan last October, vowing to kill fellow Americans on sight. Sounding much like a New Yorker, Junaid claimed to have grown up listening to Whitney Houston and riding roller coasters. The stocky, spectacled Junaid said he'd left a dot-com job in midtown Manhattan, but even more striking was the claim that his own mother escaped from the ninth floor of the World Trade Center.

None of that lessened his rage at America, which stemmed, he said, from racist taunts at his Bronx high school. At college, Junaid read of how Muslims were under attack worldwide; he later linked up with the London-based al-Muhajiroun (the Emigrants). The group is believed to have sent hundreds of foreign jihadists to Pakistan and Afghanistan, largely by targeting British colleges and immigrant communities. Now banned on U.K. campuses, its leaders have praised the 9/11 attacks and say that America has declared war on Islam. Junaid believes them. "I will kill every American that I see," he vowed to a TV reporter. "I'm not a New Yorker. I'm a Muslim."

Holy warriors like Junaid deeply worry authorities, but that wasn't always the case. During the Cold War, Washington encouraged the jihad movement in its drive to bog down the Soviets in Afghanistan. As many as 25,000 foreigners answered the call during the 1980s, most notably bin Laden. The majority hailed from Arab nations, but many journeyed from Sudan, Southeast Asia, China, and Great Britain. Others came from the United States, among them dozens of native-born Americans. One, Muhammed Haseeb Abdul-Haqq, was the son of a Baptist preacher in New York. A recent convert to a Pakistani Sufi sect, Muslims of the Americas, Abdul-Haqq rallied fellow Americans to fight the Soviets in the early 1980s. The group set up "jihad councils" across the country and in 1982 sent 12 members to Pakistan, intent on finding their way into battle. "It was amazing for me," recalls Abdul-Haqq. "I had no military training, but I knew what I was doing was for the Almighty."

Fearing an international incident, alarmed U.S. and Pakistani officials stopped the group from entering Afghanistan. But others followed. "We were the spark," says Abdul-Haqq. "Different avenues opened and others got through." Indeed, during the war, a handful of journalists came across Americans fighting alongside the Afghans. Among them was 34-year-old Akhbar Shah, an African-American from Boston found by reporters in 1985. Shah claimed to be a U.S. Army veteran helping the rebels organize training camps and said he'd seen two dozen other black American Muslims in Afghanistan.

Soldiers of Allah. Meanwhile, Abdul-Haqq's Muslims of the Americas continued to preach jihad. The sect's American branch had been founded in 1980 by a charismatic Pakistani cleric, Sheik Mubarik Ali Hasmi Shah Gilani, who appeared at a Brooklyn mosque bedecked with ammunition belts and calling on his mostly African-American converts to wage holy war. A recruitment video from the early 1990s–Soldiers of Allah–depicts would-be guerrillas handling firearms and explosives and shows Gilani boasting how recruits are given "highly specialized training in guerrilla warfare." The organization freely admits sending more than 100 of its members–all U.S. citizens–to Pakistan, but says it was only for religious study. Federal agents believe that dozens also received military training there and that some fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Kashmir. It was Gilani whom the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl was seeking before he was murdered–on a tip the cleric was tied to alleged shoe bomber Reid. Gilani was questioned and released.

Gilani's claims of nonviolence would be easier to believe if so many of his followers were not in trouble with the law. Over the years, the group has drawn more than 1,000 members to rural compounds in a half-dozen states. During the 1980s, its followers engaged in a bloody campaign of U.S. bombings and murders, largely against Indian religious figures in America, officials say. Two Muslims of the Americas members were recently convicted on firearms charges, and another was charged with the murder of a deputy sheriff in California. The group's Abdul-Haqq says that these crimes are not typical of his membership and that most occurred many years ago. Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, have found nothing to tie the group to bin Laden's al Qaeda and note that Gilani's Sufism has long been at odds with Taliban-style Islam.

The dream of Gilani and other jihadists to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan came true in 1989. For them, it was a great victory, the triumph of international Islam over a godless superpower. Even as America withdrew its CIA officers and its funding, the emboldened jihadists stayed and plotted new campaigns. Some went on to new battles overseas; some returned to their homelands, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, intent on making them strict Islamic states. Others took aim at America, angry over its support of Israel and basing of troops in Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 26, 1993, their pent-up rage exploded in the form of a 1,200-pound bomb under the World Trade Center, which killed six and injured more than 1,000. That first attempt to topple the twin towers led investigators to a sheik named Omar Abdel Rahman. An Afghan war veteran, Abdel Rahman had been driven from his native Egypt for his ties to terrorism. He arrived in Brooklyn in 1990, and soon, he, too, was preaching holy war at local mosques. More important, Abdel Rahman's followers took control of an obscure "charity" in Brooklyn–the Alkifah Refugee Center. Founded in Pakistan in the early 1980s, Alkifah had scores of branches around the world, including Jersey City, N.J.; Tucson, Ariz.; Boston, and 30 other U.S. cities. Most were little more than storefronts–the Brooklyn one sat atop a Chinese restaurant–but they raised millions of dollars to support the Afghan resistance. And, they sent men along with the money. By 1993, the Brooklyn office alone had sent as many as 200 jihadists from America to join the mujahideen, investigators say.

As agents closed in on Abdel Rahman's network, they were stunned at the number of jihadists heading overseas, says Blitzer, the former FBI counterterrorism chief. "What the hell's going on?" he remembers thinking. Five years after the Soviets had left Afghanistan, the jihad movement was booming in America. "It was like a modern underground railroad," says Neil Herman, who supervised the FBI investigation of the bombing. Most were Arab immigrants, but investigators remember many native-born Americans who frequented the center.

One of those Americans was a bearded black Muslim named Rodney Hampton-el, known to his friends as Dr. Rashid. Hampton-el juggled several roles: He battled local drug dealers on the streets of New York's 67th Precinct, while at his job he worked a dialysis machine in an AIDS ward. By 1988, he'd made his way to Afghanistan and joined the rebels, but he was nearly killed by a land mine. Recuperating in a Long Island hospital, Hampton-el gave a revealing interview to anthropologist Robert Dannin, author of Black Pil- grimage to Islam. A true believer, Hampton-el said his wound was "a blessing" and he hoped to return soon to Afghanistan. "To be injured in jihad is a guarantee that you will go to Paradise," he explained. "Most important of all, you must have faith in order to go. This is the ultimate honor for a true Muslim."

Bomb plots. Within months, Hampton-el was leading workshops on guerrilla warfare for Abdel Rahman's followers in Connecticut and New Jersey. By 1993, there was talk among his group of fighting in Bosnia, but increasingly attention focused on America. Hampton-el offered to supply his friends with bombs and automatic weapons, part of a plot that included attacks on major bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan. He never got the chance. The FBI nabbed Hampton-el, Abdel Rahman, and eight others, who all received heavy prison sentences in 1996.

And what became of the Alkifah Center and its jihadists? The Brooklyn center closed, but the network of other jihad centers remained active, where they helped form the nucleus of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Indeed, the centers were left largely intact, even in the United States. "They certainly continued on, but were somewhat fragmented," says Herman, the former FBI case agent. Only in the wake of 9/11–eight years after the 1993 attack–did the White House issue an executive order freezing Alkifah's assets.

By then, however, the centers had gone underground. Today, many of the connections are handled informally, through radical members of mosques and Islamic centers, investigators say. But officials believe a network of Islamic charities has also helped fill the void, among them the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation. With offices in nine countries and a budget last year of $3.4 million, Benevolence is one of the nation's largest Muslim charities. In December, federal officials froze its assets, and in April they arrested its director, Enaam Arnaout, for allegedly lying about ties to terrorism. They claim that Arnaout, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen, is an Alkifah veteran and longtime bin Laden associate. According to an FBI affidavit, the 39-year-old Arnaout helped send jihadists to Bosnia and nearly $700,000 to Chechen rebels, and direct- ed arms convoys into Afghanistan and Croa- tia. Arnaout denies any wrongdoing, and his foundation is suing the government to recover its funds.

Whatever the outcome of those cases, the jihad movement in America remains alive and well. And while it is easy enough to dismiss the varied jihadists as adventurers or extremists, most seem motivated by unselfish aims; they care deeply about the suffering of their brethren overseas. What else would propel someone like Jibreel al-Amreekee, the soft-spoken Atlanta teenager, to leave his home, travel 7,000 miles, and get killed fighting a foreign army? "The Muslims don't have any help," says Abdul-Haqq of Muslims of the Americas. "Look at the world's hot spots; look at how many places Muslims are being killed." The problem is balancing their right to intervene against the danger posed by the fanaticism that infects so much of their movement. For now, America seems convinced that the business of jihad needs to come to an end. "The government did too little too late," says Herman. "Had law enforcement looked harder at some of these issues, we wouldn't be talking about it today."

With Monica M. Ekman, Jonathan Elliston in Durham, N.C., Aamir Latif in Pakistan, Michael Reynolds, and Kit R. Roane in New York

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