American Journeys to Jihad
U.S. Extremists and Foreign Conflicts During the 1980s and 1990s
Aug 01, 2010
violent extremism among American Muslims has been the subject of considerable official and analytical attention in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001. This scrutiny, however, is devoted almost entirely to the post-9/11 period. Particularly neglected has been the subject of American Muslims who traveled to “fields of jihad” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir during the 1980s and 1990s—a significant gap in knowledge, given plausible claims that hundreds if not thousands of individuals (most, if not all, presumably Muslims) left the United States to join armed struggles abroad during this period. After nearly 10 years of the “global war on terrorism,” it is necessary to explore the “pre-history” of contemporary Islamist extremism in the United States. Such an examination can help calibrate the scale of current challenges, design appropriate countermeasures and, ideally, avoid the mistakes of the past as well as the follies of present-mindedness.
This article considers the cases of four Americans—Hiram Torres, Abu Adam Jibreel, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, and Isa Abdullah Ali—who made journeys to foreign jihads before 9/11. Although hundreds if not thousands of Americans may have left the United States for jihad, robust biographical information exists on only a handful of individuals—and even this information is incomplete. For example, little is known, at least publicly, about what networks might have helped these men join foreign struggles. Given these limitations, it is impossible to say with confidence whether or not these four cases are representative. At the very least, however, a consideration of these cases represents a first step toward the goal of creating a fuller picture of violent extremism among American Muslims before 9/11.
As a high school student in working-class Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Hiram Torres explored a variety of religions and political creeds and yearned “to be part of a revolution somewhere,” one friend, Sachin Timbadia, recalled. Torres traveled with another friend to Bangladesh in the summer of 1993, returning “a changed person,” according to his mother.  She recalled that he began wrapping sheets around his head like a turban and expressing outrage at the poverty he had witnessed in South Asia.
An excellent student, Torres attended Yale but dropped out in 1993 during his freshman year. “He wanted to be in another country,” according to a college roommate, who added that Torres “certainly wasn’t violent and he didn’t talk about hating America—it just wasn’t a place he wanted to live.” Acquaintances said that Torres was not noticeably secretive. Yet in high school he refused to have his picture taken for the high school yearbook because he “wanted to keep a low profile in case something happened in the future,” said Timbadia. At Yale, he declined to submit a photo for the freshman face book—suggesting, perhaps, preparation for a new and possibly clandestine existence.
Several months after dropping out of college, Torres returned to Bangladesh and then moved to Pakistan and finally Afghanistan, where he last made contact with his mother in 1998. Nothing more was heard of Torres until December 2001, when a New York Times reporter discovered documents in a house in Kabul used by Harkat-ul-Mujahidin, a pro-Taliban Pakistani militant group which among other activities had trained John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Talib” captured as an enemy combatant in November 2001. Among al-Qa`ida bomb-making manuals and other material was a list of recruits that included Torres’ name and the notation that he was also known as Mohammed Salman. Torres’ ultimate fate remains unknown.
Abu Adam Jibreel
In 1998, Abu Adam Jibreel, a member of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LT, or LeT), was killed in Kashmir during operations against Indian security forces. His life was recounted in a hagiographical internet essay written by a fellow jihadist, Abdur-Raheem As-Siddiqi, who described Abu Adam as the product of a “considerably wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia” who attended the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had once served as pastor.
A restless spiritual seeker, Abu Adam looked beyond the Baptist creed of his family and spent time at the Atlanta Community Mosque, whose spiritual leader Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (the former Black Panther once known as H. Rap Brown) was serving a prison term for murder. As a student at North Carolina Central University, Abu Adam converted to Islam. Concerned about the plight of Muslims in Bosnia, Kashmir, and Chechnya, he dropped out of the university and, according to As-Siddiqi, “began to prepare for the journey that most never think about—much less prepare for: jihad.”
In November 1997, after months of spiritual and physical preparation, including training provided by a fellow Muslim who had served with the U.S. Army Rangers, 19-year-old Abu Adam traveled to Kashmir. Abu Adam (known to comrades as “al-Amreekee”) distinguished himself at an LT training camp with his piety, discipline, and modesty. “Our brother was in my view, a true zaahid (one who abstains from the glitter of this worldly life),” As-Siddiqi writes.
After four months, Abu Adam completed LT’s commando training course and began preparations “to carefully infiltrate the occupied valley of Kashmir to strike down and destroy the enemies of Allah, the vile Hindus and Sikhs from the Indian army,” according to As-Siddiqi. In July 1997, Abu Adam and his fellow fighters entered into the “occupied valley” and began laying ambushes and carrying out raids against Indian forces. During one “bloody raid on an army post in the Doda sector in the Jammu region,” Abu Adam was killed, but not before killing 17 Indian soldiers, according to As-Siddiqi.
Clement Rodney Hampton-El
Raised in impoverished circumstances, Hampton-El had been a member of the Moorish Science Temple—a predominantly African-American religious sect—before converting to orthodox Sunni Islam and adopting the name Abdul Rashid Abdullah. Hampton-El was also reportedly a member of Jama`at al-Fuqara’, an extremist sect whose U.S. branch was founded in 1980 by Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, a Pakistani Sufi cleric and supporter of Islamist militancy in Indian-occupied Kashmir. By the late 1980s, Jama`at al-Fuqara’ (also known later as Muslims of the Americas) was allegedly acquiring weapons and recruiting fighters for Afghanistan.
Hampton-El joined the Afghan jihad, reportedly serving as a medic with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami mujahidin force. Wounded by a Russian shell, he returned to New York in late 1988 to recuperate. For Hampton-El, also known as “Dr. Rashid” for his work with the mujahidin and his later employment as a hospital technician, Afghanistan was a transformative experience. “The war was a life-force experience that he dearly wanted to return to…so he could have another chance at martyrdom and paradise,” according to one press account.
He never returned to Afghanistan. Instead, he became a significant figure at the al-Kifah Refugee Center in New York, a branch of al-Qa`ida’s international fundraising and support network. During the early 1990s, “Dr. Rashid” trained prospective jihadists and smuggled funds into the United States as part of “Project Bosnia,” an effort to recruit, support and prepare militants for Bosnia. A member of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing conspiracy, Hampton-El was convicted in 1996 with the “blind shaykh,” `Umar `Abd al-Rahman, and others in connection with the “Day of Terror” plot against New York City landmarks.
Isa Abdullah Ali
One of eight children from a Washington, D.C. African-American family, Cleven Raphael Holt dropped out of ninth grade in 1972, and as a 15-year-old lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. Discharged from service after 18 months, Holt returned to Washington. After a dissolute period of minor criminality and odd jobs, Holt had a spiritual awakening and converted to Sunni Islam, adopting the name Isa Abdullah Ali.
During the late 1970s, Abdullah Ali became caught up in Washington’s dissident Iranian Shi`a community fighting for the ouster of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Abdullah Ali eventually abandoned Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, and after the 1979 Islamic revolution went to work as a security guard at the new Islamic republic’s Washington embassy.
In 1980, after a brief period with the mujahidin in Afghanistan, Abdullah traveled to Beirut, where he joined the Shi`a Amal militia. During the next six years, he reportedly trained militiamen, fought alongside the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in West Beirut, and served as a bodyguard to Hizb Allah’s spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. After being wounded in 1986, Abdullah returned to Washington and took a job as a groundskeeper at Howard University.
In 1995, he told friends that he would be traveling to Bosnia to help defend the country’s Muslim community. The following year, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry described Abdullah as “a known American terrorist” suspected of posing a threat to NATO peacekeepers, and guards at the Tuzla Air Base were warned to be on the lookout for him. NATO forces, however, lacked the legal authority to detain Abdullah, and with no outstanding arrest warrants he was able to return to the United States and a life of relative obscurity.
Why Did They Join?
A full consideration of the motivating factors that underlay the entries into jihad described above is beyond the scope of this article. It is important, however, to note that as Andrew Silke suggests, “becoming a terrorist is for most people a gradual process.” Although it is difficult to surmise what this process looks like for the majority of American Muslims who have chosen this path, Silke and Alan Krueger both suggest that a vast number of those who have chosen terrorism were young (teens to early 20s), married males who were well-educated professionals, had a strong Muslim identity, and who felt socially marginalized and experienced some form of discrimination. This characterization, however, is not meant to simplify the complex factors that lead individuals to choose terrorism. Indeed, some of the more recent homegrown cases in the United States have involved less educated, unmarried males who are from the middle-class and are more socially-integrated than their European counterparts. Additionally, many of the more contemporary extremists in the United States who have attempted to link up with international conflicts have often done so as members of small groups—such as the Lackawanna Six (2002), the “Virginia jihad” network (2003), and the five Virginia men convicted in a Pakistani court in June 2010 of terrorist offenses. This reality reflects Marc Sageman’s thesis that individuals are introduced to radical ideas largely through “loose networks” that include kinship or friendship ties often at places of worship or in private homes or gatherings. These closed networks are difficult to both penetrate and anticipate.
Before 9/11, however, American Muslims seeking jihad abroad appeared to do so most often as individuals—or “lone-wolf” jihadists. Although it is not clear why these “lone wolves” opted to seek jihad on their own rather than as part of a group, one explanation may be that although there were Islamic charities and other groups, such as the al-Kifah Refugee Center, that were organized to send American Muslims abroad to wage jihad, it may have been difficult for these Muslims, many of whom may have felt alienated in their communities because of their race, religion or economic status, to identify peers who felt a similar pull toward radical Islam. To connect with others who shared their extremist views and thus relieve their sense of alienation, these Muslim Americans often sought out like-minded individuals at mosques, where they were encouraged by an imam to travel outside the United States to wage jihad. Some may have chosen to travel abroad because joining a terrorist group is a punishable crime, and evading the authorities by leaving the country may have been their preferred option, especially for those with prior criminal records.
Potential terrorist recruits today have more opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals in the United States than prior to 9/11, and there is more ideological and possibly logistical support for conducting domestic terrorist attacks. In addition to a larger network of “facilitators” for would-be terrorists, unrestricted access to the internet has introduced many American jihadists to the extremist ideology that underpins terrorist violence. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen may also spur more U.S. Muslims to consider jihad than in the years prior to 9/11.
American Muslim extremists who journeyed to foreign fields of jihad during the 1980s and 1990s did so largely outside the gaze of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) suspected that hundreds if not thousands of people left the United States for conflicts abroad, a senior FBI counterterrorism official conceded in 2002 that “we didn’t understand the magnitude of what was going on here.”
Today, government scrutiny of Americans suspected of terrorist activities abroad is intense, as evidenced by the spate of prosecutions of U.S. citizens accused of extremist activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. Yet nearly a decade into the “war on terrorism,” government officials, policy specialists and terrorism scholars still know relatively little about the participation of Americans in violent extremism abroad before 2001. Politicians and policymakers typically frame the issue of violent extremism among U.S. Muslims as a novel, essentially post-9/11 phenomenon.
Building on the handful of pre-9/11 cases and mining the experiences of a much broader set of individuals could identify factors—personal, social, logistical, and ideological—that facilitated entry into foreign jihads. Ideally, a more comprehensive understanding of journeys to jihad in the 1980s and 1990s would inform and improve current efforts by the U.S. government—and the American Muslim community itself—to prevent the involvement of U.S. Muslims in violent extremism overseas.
Dr. William Rosenau is a senior research analyst in the Program on Stability and Development, Center for Naval Analyses, Alexandria, VA, and an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
Sara Daly is a lecturer at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
 For recent examples, see Rick “Ozzie” Nelson and Ben Bodurian, A Growing Terrorist Threat? Assessing ‘Homegrown’ Extremism in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010); Brian Michael Jenkins, Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2010). An important exception is Lorenzo Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 32:1 (2009).
 David Rohde and James Risen, “A Nation Challenged: Another Expatriate,” New York Times, February 6, 2002.
 Jocelyn Lippert, “1993 Yale Drop-Out Linked to Al Qaeda,” Yale Daily News, February 7, 2002.
 Rohde and Risen.
 Abdur-Raheem As-Siddiqi, “An American Born Shaheed (Martyr), Abu Adam Jibreel,” May 20, 2001, available at www.albalagh.net/general/abu_adam_jibreel.shtml.
 Donna Leinwand, “A U.S. Teen’s Journey to Jihad,” USA Today, June 14, 2002.
 Elizabeth Shogren, “Fuqra: A Name for Muslim Terrorism,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2003.
 Christopher Heffelfinger, “Evaluating the Terrorist Threat Posed by African-American Muslim Groups,” CTC Sentinel 1:6 (2008).
 Jason Burke, “Frankenstein the CIA Created,” Guardian, January 17, 1999.
 Francis X. Clines, “Specter of Terror,” New York Times, June 28, 1993.
 U.S.A. v. Omar Ahmad Ali Abdul Rahman, et al., Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1996; Evan Kohlmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2004), pp. 73-74.
 Harry F. Rosenthal, “Profile of a Fugitive: ‘Very, Very Weird Story,’” Associated Press, January 24, 1996.
 Tod Robberson, “The Unfinished Journey of Isa Abdullah Ali,” Washington Post Magazine, December 16, 1990.
 Abdullah Ali was reportedly associated with David Belfield (also known as Daoud Salahuddin), an American supporter of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini later indicted for the July 1980 murder of Ali Tabatabai, an anti-Khomeini activist. See William Branigin, “US Sniper in Beirut,” Washington Post, July 28, 1982.
 Brian Blomquist, “‘Terrorist’ Was a Regular in Adams Morgan Bar,” Washington Times, January 26, 1996.
 Robberson; Edward D. Sargent, “DC Mother Told PLO Fighter Son Is Alive,” Washington Post, July 29, 1982.
 Tim Weiner, “NATO Forces Are Warned of US Extremist in Bosnia,” New York Times, January 24, 1996.
 That said, he was the subject of a 2010 documentary, “American Jihadist.”
 Andrew Silke, “Holy Warriors: Exploring the Psychological Processes of Jihadi Radicalization,” European Journal of Criminology 5:1 (2008): p. 105.
 Ibid., pp. 106-119; Alan B. Krueger, “What Makes a Homegrown Terrorist? Human Capital and Participation in Domestic Islamic Terrorist Groups in the USA,” Economics Letters 101:3 (2008): pp. 294-296.
 Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, “Homegrown Terrorism Fact Sheet,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 22, 2010.
 Daniel B. Kennedy, Robert J. Homant, and Erick Barnes, “An Insider View of the Sleeper Cell: A Face Validity Study,” Journal of Applied Security Research 3:3-4 (2008): p. 329.
 Waqar Gillani and Sabrina Tavernise, “Pakistan Sentences Five Americans in Terror Case,” New York Times, June 24, 2010.
 Silke, p. 118.
 Ibid., p. 117.
 Nelson, “Homegrown Terrorism Fact Sheet.”
 John Mintz, “For US, American Holy Warriors Hard to Track,” Washington Post, July 16, 2002.