I WAS_INSPIRED TO START A RADICAL MUSLIM EXTREMIST GROUP
“I’m a victim of child abuse, and it left a mark on my soul…but that doesn’t define me.”
“I’m a victim of child abuse, and it left a mark on my soul…but that doesn’t define me.”
I have always been a charismatic individual, but I would never let people get to know me. I always had all of these friends, but when you boiled it down, I was really just the hub of the network. I knew everybody, but nobody got to know who I really was, and I never let anyone get too close. I was operating from a place of trauma.
What’s powerful and dangerous about jihadism, or right-wing extremism, or left-wing extremism, is that you are hyper focused on that ideology, especially when you are an activist, and nothing can stand in your way. And that’s not a healthy space to be in. It is important to realize that human beings need to pause in order to understand consciousness, and to tap into what’s really important in life.
I believe that the life that I used to live was largely a projection of how I felt about myself. And, I believe that now, in my current state, the more that I work on myself, and the more I attempt to heal my trauma, the more good things and people come into my life. People that I work with in the realm of countering and combatting messaging, and countering extremism, they have come in and made my life a networked system. I still might not get the same level of camaraderie, or meaning, that I got from jihadists, but at the same time, I have a cause, and I have a sense of belonging and meaning.
I grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania. My father, having suffered a bit of a crisis when his father passed away during his senior year of high school, moved from an affluent neighborhood in New Jersey to a small college town in Pennsylvania. He adopted the ‘hippie’ lifestyle, decided that he was done with academic life, and dropped out of school. My mother, who was a local, met and got involved with my dad, and not long after she found out that she was pregnant. Back in those days people got married because of things like that. They weren’t necessarily in love, it was just ‘the right thing to do’.
Shortly after my birth, things got difficult in the house. My father was cheating on my mother almost from the beginning of the marriage, and she would take out her anger and animosity at him on me. She would beat me very badly. I would be told that I should have just been aborted. I went to local authorities several times, but my mother would lie her way out of it. Family members knew that it was happening. My father knew that it was happening. But no one stepped in to stop the abuse. It was a situation that haunted me my whole life.
The emotional and physical abuse continued throughout my childhood, and, at the age of sixteen, I couldn’t take it anymore. I ended up running away to New York City and starting a life on the streets.
I learned how to hustle and survive while drifting around a lot. The first year or so was really hard. I was desperate for something to believe in, or a purpose in life, and that is when I discovered the countercultural ideology of Anarchism. I lived in parking lots, I traveled all around the country, I lived with the hippies for a stretch. I lived off the radar, which was comfortable for me then.
I ended up being incarcerated for the first time in State College, Pennsylvania. The first full day that I was in prison I went to the library to find a book to pass the time, and I stumbled on the autobiography of Malcolm X. This book completely transformed my aim in life. I found him incredibly intriguing, and it led me to researching more about Islam. I ended up converting officially.
But I still wasn’t taking care of myself, because I hadn’t dealt with my trauma from childhood. So I ended up in jail again, this time for about sixty days. It was there that I met a veteran of the Afghan Soviet war, a Moroccan man. He taught me the basic tenets of Islam, with a definite politicized interpretation. I was already political as a result of my anarchistic leanings, and in contact with far leftist thinkers, so it resonated very well with me.
I walked out of that jail and I completely changed the way that I had been living; I began to live by the tenets of Islam. I found it to be very peaceful. It gave me grounding, and it gave me structure.
Then, when 9/11 happened, it seemed to confirm what the Moroccan man had told me in jail. I saw us not as victims, but as victimizers, and I began to flirt with the ideology of Osama bin Laden. I ended up back in New York City, living in a homeless shelter in Harlem that was run by the Nation of Islam. I found myself preaching on 125th Street, and mobilizing the community against the invasion of Iraq. I was very successful at that.
A few years later I attended the Muslim Day Parade, and was disturbed by what I saw. There were floats that talked about being proud to be an American. And I found it incredibly hypocritical that no one was even discussing Afghanistan and Iraq. That is when I saw the black flag, from the most notorious radicalization and recruitment agency in the West, waving in the wind. I joined them right away, and became one of their chief speakers.
I rose through the ranks quickly. I got my bachelors degree, and then got accepted into a masters program at Columbia University. I established correspondence with two influential individuals and ended up starting an organization, Revolution Muslim, with them at the end of 2007.
After we started Revolution Muslim, the transition from traditional websites into social media really began to happen. We were the very first group in the West to unabashedly promote Jihadism, and say that we loved Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, and that we supported Al Qaeda. We built up pamphlets for propaganda that ISIS has since adopted. We tailored the message for a Western audience, through marketing techniques and branding strategy. We wanted to figure out a way to make this message appeal more and more to Western youth.
But it’s not just about online promotion. You had to show real world practice, so we developed the first English language Jihadi magazine. The three of us combined were really a powerful force, and we eventually connected to at least a dozen terror organizations in the West. At one point the authorities were running investigations on five different continents. We influenced a lot of people.
I was never caught specifically for terrorism, but I walked them up to the line of free and legal speech. Out of fear of incarceration, I ran to Morocco and kind of fell off of the radar for awhile.
While I was living in Morocco, I taught English and economics at a university. And it was my conversations with one of my students, a liberal woman, that slowly started to help me understand things that I had taken for granted, like free speech and elections. I started embracing different ideas. I was able to see some of the flaws of the movement, having been removed for some time, and no longer influenced by the socio-psychological variables that occur when you are immersed. I started to change.
A few weeks after they killed bin Laden, I was arrested coming out of a mosque in Casablanca, and sent to a prison in Rabat. For five months, I waited for the Americans to come and pick me up. I was now facing time in prison as a consequence of my actions. I started to contemplate who I had become, and I started to think differently. By the time the Americans came to pick me up, I was on my way towards disengagement.
I was put into solitary confinement in Washington DC, and for the first time, I began to think about Islam from my own angle. I knew the ideology inside out, but now I began to interpret it through a different, post-Enlightenment, lens.
The FBI came to visit me to begin the debriefing process, and a female agent showed me empathy; she realized my potential as an asset. She could see that I had changed. They asked me to work with them from the federal prison that I was sentenced to.
My cooperation proved to be important, and in 2015 I was granted an immediate release from a judge after only serving three years and four months of an eleven and a half year sentence. I was released back into society, but it was very hard to readjust.
The very first day of my immediate release, I was on the front page of the New York Times, and broadcast on all of the cable news stations. I had spoken out about the abuse that I had suffered as a child for the first time in my life. I felt like it was important to link the role of trauma to eventual radicalization, but “outing” my abuser somehow made me feel guilty, and like I was doing something wrong. I basically fell into a spiral and ultimately threw away the opportunity of a lifetime.
My biggest challenge has been the constant struggle with recuperating. I am a victim of child abuse, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But I realized that I had not addressed the scars of my trauma. My mind and body were still separated and detached. I came to realize that although I had de-radicalized cognitively, I had not de-radicalized holistically.
My newest way to combat the darkness is with my organization Light Upon Light. We have created an online portal that offers a complete ecosystem of messaging and services aimed at combating polarization, hate and extremism. One of the ways Light Upon Light seeks to do this is by launching a series of campaigns across different social media platforms. The overall goal being to promote awareness that in an Age of Extremism, we all have a role to play when it comes to combating polarization and hate.
I think that it’s very important, when it comes to how you combat extremist messages, how you interact with people. It’s not about giving them information, it’s about listening and understanding. It’s about me gently guiding someone to make their own realizations, just like I did. You want to establish a human bond that allows you to talk about your own experiences, while treating an individual as your equal.
Much of my time is now allocated to building out my organization, which gives me incredible fulfillment. I feel like the damage that I’ve done can be channeled into something productive. Now I am empowered to turn a negative past into positive advocacy. And I think it’s because I’m healing on the inside.
I’m learning how to do things like have intimate relationships, to be a successful parent, and to deal with my own issues and not punish myself. I’ve learned about balance and civility. I am getting the same things that I got from the extremist movement, but on the other side of the spectrum. I really believe in what I’m doing, and now I know that everything happens for a reason. I don’t really see obstacles any longer, I just see opportunities.