Baltimore’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen: Promoting a Radical but Disciplined Message on Jihad

Feb 01, 2011

As concerns about homegrown terrorism mount, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials are increasingly focused on initiatives targeting radicalization in an effort to preempt violence. In congressional testimony in early February, DHS officials touted interagency and “whole government” efforts to counterprogram against radical narratives.[1] Such efforts open the door to a complex problem-set that defies traditional policing. A case study on the challenges ahead can be found in Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JaM), an Islamic organization in Baltimore, Maryland with a decades-long track record of extremist rhetoric.

Although JaM explicitly discourages acts of violence by Muslims in the United States, it advances a number of ideological points closely linked to violent radicalism, while excusing virtually all Muslims convicted of terrorism as victims of government persecution. Even with its careful qualification regarding violence in the United States by its adherents, JaM’s message contributes to a permissive environment for violent radicalization by validating core assumptions shared by nearly all homegrown Islamist terrorists.

Background
Headquartered in Baltimore, JaM members hold leadership positions in at least three mosques in the Baltimore area. The organization also has representatives in Tennessee, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.[2] Its active membership is estimated to be between 100 and 200 people.

JaM’s primary function is da`wa, or calling Americans to Islam, and supporting Muslims imprisoned in the United States, including a number of convicted terrorists. It also endorses military jihad in Muslim-majority countries and in situations where Muslims are perceived to be under physical attack. This support is mostly rhetorical, but JaM also raises funds for legal costs for the families of Muslims in the United States accused of terrorism.[3]

Ideologically, JaM is openly critical of American values and morals and supportive of jihad in several theaters overseas, but it repeatedly emphasizes that violent action is not permitted in the United States.[4] Islamic thinkers cited by the group include `Umar `Abd al-Rahman, Ayatollah Khomeini, Abu al-A`la Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, with the consistent thread being movement-oriented Islam and a focus on the establishment of Islamic states.[5]

JaM carries out its da`wa function through personal appearances by group leaders at mosques and conferences around the United States, as well as through an online newsletter called New Trend Magazine, which has been published weekly since the 1970s. JaM claims its speakers draw crowds often in the low hundreds for Friday khutbas (sermons) at its own mosques and as guests at unaffiliated mosques.[6] The organization also hosts conferences, protests and rallies of varying size, but usually including at least dozens of participants.

Leadership and Organization
Lincoln University English literature professor Kaukab Siddique is JaM’s leader and the dominant editorial voice of New Trend.[7] During the 1970s, Siddique was involved in the publication activities of the Muslim Students Association (MSA)[8] and later with its sister organization, the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), but MSA documents indicate he was fired in 1977 for unspecified reasons.[9]

Embittered by what he saw—with some justification—as the Saudi government’s use of money to buy religious influence over American Muslim groups, Siddique began publishing a controversial newsletter, New Trend Magazine, around the same time he departed MSA. At some point, his activism congealed into the organization, Jamaat al-Muslimeen.[10] JaM’s national leadership is rounded out by a shura council consisting of five members who are located around the United States, including in Brooklyn, Texas, North Carolina and Louisiana.[11] The shura members individually take part in both Muslim and minority activism but are less vocal and visible than Siddique. One of the more prominent members, Abdulalim Abdullah Shabazz, is a former member of the Nation of Islam and a distinguished mathematician who received a presidential award for math mentoring in 2000.[12]

Positions
Jamaat al-Muslimeen’s primary communications vehicle is New Trend Magazine, a weekly newsletter. New Trend claims “a bigger circulation than any of the other Muslim media,” which is difficult to credit.[13] The newsletter was distributed in print for decades, but switched to online-only distribution in recent years due to financial reasons. Issues of New Trend from 2000 forward are available online.

JaM activists travel to unaffiliated mosques around the country to speak and distribute pamphlets and publications, the latter at times without the approval of local mosque leaders. In New Trend issues since 2000 and in khutbas by members of the shura council, JaM reveals a mix of views that defy easy categorization. The organization is inclusive toward both Sunni and Shi`a Muslims, but dismissive of Sufis. Although it is stridently conservative, virulently condemning homosexuality and American moral values in general, it also supports leadership roles for Muslim women and condemns those who it feels distort Islamic teachings to oppress women.

JaM’s website states that “jihad is considered a sixth pillar [of Islam] in countries where Islam is the majority religion.” In its preaching and in the newsletter, the organization has repeatedly supported armed struggle in overseas theaters commonly associated with Islamist terrorism and extremism.[14] During khutbas given in the Baltimore area in 2004, Siddique cited conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya and the Palestinian Territories as part of a worldwide war against Islam and examples of aggression against Islam by the United States and others.[15] In New Trend, JaM characterizes the war in Afghanistan as part of a “clash of civilizations”:

“The American troops [in Afghanistan] seem aware that it’s a war between two ways of life: the Islamic, inward, spiritual, family oriented, non-consumer, and the American, entertainment oriented, sexually easy going, based on multinational corporations. It’s a strange fate which has brought the poorest country in the world, devastated by war, brimming with the energy of resurgent Islam, up against the most powerful country in the world, overflowing with destructive power and backed by endless Jewish finance.”[16]

During a khutba given in Greensboro, North Carolina, Imam Badi Ali, a member of JaM’s shura council, similarly argued the case for an Israeli-controlled global war against Islam, citing Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya as connected fronts in that single conflict.[17] One issue of New Trend celebrated Iraqi insurgents in Falluja not long after the killing of four American military contractors, whose burned bodies were paraded through the streets and eventually hung from a bridge:

“April 10, 2004 was a day of glory for Islam and the Islamic resistance in Iraq. The most powerful military power in the world could not conquer FALLUJAH. The Iraqi people are UNITED AS NEVER BEFORE, Shi’ites and Sunnis joining hands to resist the American elite army installed in their country…America has not understood the Islamic spirit of martyrdom and the concept of the Hereafter. Muslims with that spirit can be killed but they cannot be defeated…As the resistance continues, American power will gradually be undermined, as was the Soviet power in Afghanistan. Over the years, FALLUJAH will be an example for Muslims. An Islamic will to fight back is gradually developing.”[18]

Despite its celebration of military jihad opposing American “occupations” abroad, Siddique clearly and repeatedly advises readers of New Trend that they cannot undertake violence against Americans in the United States, where Muslims are a minority:

“In America, Muslims have the duty of peacefully giving the message of Islam. The jihad with the sword is not applicable to a Muslim minority living in a non-Muslim country. Jihad with weapons is appropriate where Muslims are being physically attacked.”[19]

Despite this important qualification, Siddique in a 2005 khutba blasted an anti-terrorism fatwa issued by mainstream Muslim leaders as dajjali (a reference to the anti-Christ in Islamic eschatology).[20] JaM clearly defines jihad primarily as armed struggle and explicitly refutes arguments by mainstream U.S. Muslim leaders in favor of a non-violent definition prioritizing the spiritual struggle against temptation and wrongdoing:

“The fact is that Islam teaches Jihad as ARMED STRUGGLE against oppressors. The verses of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), make it absolutely clear that JIHAD MEANS ARMED STRUGGLE AGAINST OPPRESSORS, OCCUPIERS, TYRANTS. Many in the Muslim world consider America and Israel, along with India and Russia, as oppressors and exploiters who should be fought. The idea that Jihad is a peaceful, inner, spiritual development is absurd and without foundation.”[21]

While overtly repudiating violence on U.S. soil, JaM nevertheless supports a wide range of Muslims accused of taking part in such violence, most notably `Umar `Abd al-Rahman, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy in relation to multiple terrorist plots in New York, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. JaM leaders dispute al-Rahman’s guilt and claim he is a political prisoner. Other so-called political prisoners include al-Qa`ida member Jose Padilla, convicted killer Jamil al-Amin and Ahmad Ajaj, who was convicted of conspiracy in the World Trade Center bombing.[22] According to an article in New Trend, even World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef was tortured and coerced into a questionable confession, which was responsible for his conviction.[23]

During khutbas, Siddique has stated flatly that “no American Muslim is a terrorist.”[24] In a 2005 khutba in New York City, he told audiences to support Muslim political prisoners, saying, “We assure you, they are not guilty. They have been railroaded. Not one of them is guilty!”[25]

In addition to these mixed messages, Siddique denies most of the historical account of the Holocaust, a view shared by others in the organization to varying degrees. While insisting the organization is not anti-Semitic, New Trend routinely rails against what it perceives as the ubiquitous influence of Jews in American politics and media:

“It is not anti-Semitic to note that even the most idiotic book written by a Jew will get published in America and will even be introduced by an adviser to the President. By contrast, the books of a great historian like [Holocaust denier] David Irving are barred from all book chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble because he honestly could not find any evidence of gas chambers at Auschwitz or of the claim that the Nazis killed six million Jews…Irving is NEVER invited to C-Span. Why? Because a Jew named Lamb decides which books will be introduced on C-Span. Is that view anti-semitic or a fact?”[26]

JaM also has little use for mainstream Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. During a khutba to students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Siddique said:

“For years, these self-proclaimed leaders obtained funds from overseas and tried to impose themselves on the Muslim community on the basis of their financial power. Thus the richest, not the best, became the leaders of America’s Muslims. There are leaders here who do not reveal their incomes or their sources of income. As a result, most Muslims do not know the real allegiance of their leaders.”[27]

Transitional Media
New Trend presents an interesting example of English-language extremist propaganda in flux. During the 1990s, the scene was dominated by print newsletters such as al-Hussam (The Sword), published most Fridays during the 1990s by followers of `Umar `Abd al-Rahman in Boston.[28] The paper newsletter was costly, running about $1,000 per month for printing and distribution, and the newsletter was frequently banned by mosques for its radical content,[29] a problem also faced by JaM.[30] New Trend’s switch to online distribution provided greater reach with fewer costs, while circumventing the firewall at moderate mosques.

Al-Hussam had a single-minded focus on supporting military jihad. New Trend is more cosmopolitan, mixing commentary on overseas jihad with discussion of women’s issues and other Islamic topics. New Trend is also more aggressively anti-American, continually attacking the state of U.S. politics and lamenting America’s “war against Islam.”

New Trend’s online distribution, diverse topics and careful parsing of language concerning violence foreshadowed the new breed of radical websites most effectively represented by Revolution Muslim (now rebranded “Islam Policy”). Like New Trend, the Revolution Muslim family of blogs focuses on a wide range of Islamic issues and voices with enthusiastic support for radical figures, while carefully hedging against anything that could be interpreted in court as an actionable incitement to violence. New Trend, however, is far more disciplined in its message that jihad within the United States is forbidden (no matter how grievous the provocation might be).

Impact
If estimates of JaM’s membership in the low hundreds are accurate, JaM is miniscule in comparison to the mainstream Muslim population, but strikingly large given the strident tone of its political views. Its reach extends beyond the committed membership, thanks to khutbas given around the country by JaM leaders.

The most directly comparable movement, Revolution Muslim, is estimated to have peaked at about a dozen active members, although its reach on the internet and visibility in the media have been substantially larger. Revolution Muslim’s status as the target of law enforcement action is correspondingly larger, leading to several arrests of members and affiliates. In comparison, no known JaM members have been arrested for terrorism or related crimes despite scrutiny from law enforcement.[31]

JaM stays on the right side of the law through its extraordinary message discipline. More than 10 years of New Trend issues reviewed by this author show a remarkably consistent set of principles and an extremely careful and considered sense of where the line should be drawn. Despite being against violence in the United States, JaM’s message contributes to violent radicalization by supporting arguments shared by nearly all homegrown Islamist terrorists:

- The United States is conducting a military war against Muslims.
- The United States is persecuting Muslims on U.S. soil.
- The U.S. government and media are controlled by Israeli/Zionist/Jewish manipulation.
- Those who militarily resist the United States and Israel, including the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, are heroes acting within their Islamic beliefs.
- Those killed while fighting the United States and Israel are martyrs.

The problem is accentuated by JaM’s blanket denial that American Muslims are capable of terrorism and its characterization of virtually all such cases as political persecution. A possible example of how this background noise can lead to more aggressive actions may be found in Antonio Martinez, a Muslim convert accused of attempting to bomb a Maryland military recruiting center. He attended one of the mosques controlled by JaM in Baltimore. Martinez began attending the mosque about six months before he was arrested in December 2010.[32] No evidence has emerged, however, to indicate Martinez was a member of the JaM organization proper.

Because its message is so carefully crafted and controlled, JaM presents a challenging target for traditional law enforcement and counterterrorism techniques. JaM’s strong stand against mainstream Muslim “collaborators” also makes it a highly unlikely partner for the sort of community-based outreach that DHS hopes to use in its counterradicalization efforts. Other radicalizing organizations, including those more closely tied to violence, are already learning to adapt by adopting an approach similar to the strategy that has kept JaM viable and operating in plain sight for decades. In 2010, Revolution Muslim renamed and revamped its operation under the flag of “Islam Policy,” shifting its focus to a more expansive range of Islamic issues and calibrating its public face to present a less violent and controversial image.

Counterterrorism, while challenging in its own right, is made possible by the illegality of terrorism. Counterradicalization is a much different problem-set due to the legality and protections afforded to free speech under the U.S. Constitution. JaM’s durability illustrates just how little latitude the government has to take concrete action against radicalizing actors. Approaches to this problem-set will require especially innovative thinking, and metrics should be devised to quantify the cost-benefit ratio of new counterradicalization efforts compared to traditional counterterrorism, rather than trusting an intuitive hope that this path will lead to a more stable homeland threat environment.

J.M. Berger is editor of INTELWIRE.com and author of the forthcoming book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.

[1] Testimony of Michael E. Leiter, director, National Counterterrorism Center, Committee on House Homeland Security, February 9, 2011.

[2] “Accused Bomb Plotter’s Mosque Tied to Radical Group,” IPT News, December 16, 2010; “National Islamic Shoora of Jamaat al-Muslimeen Highlights Central Issues Facing Muslims of America,” www.jamaatalmuslimeeninternational.org, accessed on February 12, 2011.

[3] New Trend Magazine, December 27, 2004; New Trend Magazine, May 7, 2005. These are just two examples. Many other issues of the magazine contain similar content.

[4] “National Islamic Shoora of Jamaat al-Muslimeen Highlights Central Issues Facing Muslims of America.”

[5] “Great Islamic Thinkers of Modern Times: Glimpses,” www.newtrendmag.org, accessed on February 12, 2011.

[6] Personal interview, confidential source, February 12, 2011; “National Islamic Shoora of Jamaat al-Muslimeen Highlights Central Issues Facing Muslims of America”; New Trend Magazine, May 19, 2005.

[7] For more details, see “Far-Right and Muslim Extremists Gather in Baltimore: Jamaat al-Muslimeen & Kaukab Siddique,” Anti-Defamation League, August 19, 2008.

[8] “Islam in America: Muslim Students’ Association Collection,” annual report, The Islamic Teaching Center, DePaul University, August 25, 1977.

[9] “Islam in America: Muslim Students’ Association Collection,” Minutes of the Board of Trustees Meeting, North American Islamic Trust, DePaul University, November 26-27, 1977.

[10] New Trend Magazine, June 4, 2004.

[11] For details, see www.jamaatalmuslimeeninternational.org.

[12] “President Clinton Honors Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentors,” National Science Foundation, September 7, 2000.

[13] New Trend Magazine, April 30, 2008.

[14] New Trend Magazine, August 7, 2005.

[15] New Trend Magazine, December 25, 2008.

[16] New Trend Magazine, April 1, 2004.

[17] New Trend Magazine, July 1, 2006.

[18] New Trend Magazine, April 12, 2004.

[19] New Trend Magazine, April 8, 2004.

[20] New Trend Magazine, August 7, 2005.

[21] “Husein Ibish of ADC Makes a Fool of Himself Talking About Jihad,” New Trend Magazine, accessed on February 13, 2011.

[22] “America Post-Bush: What is our Role as Muslims?” www.jamaatalmuslimeeninternational.org, accessed on February 13, 2011.

[23] “Voice of the Oppressed Masses,” New Trend Magazine, accessed on February 13, 2011.

[24] New Trend Magazine, December 25, 2004.

[25] New Trend Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[26] New Trend Magazine, May 12, 2004.

[27] New Trend Magazine, May 31, 2004.

[28] U.S.A. v. Muhamed Mubayyid, Emadeddin Muntasser, and Samir Al Monla, District of Massachusetts, 2005.

[29] Ibid.

[30] New Trend Magazine, July 11, 2006.

[31] “National Islamic Shoora Meets in Pennsylvania: Anti-Israel, Interracial, Strongly pro-Woman, anti-War, Based on the Qur’an and Hadith,” www.jamaatalmuslimeeninternational.org, accessed on February 13, 2011.

[32] Scott Calvert, “Man Charged in Bomb Plot Appeared to Drift into Islamic Extremism,” Baltimore Sun, December 9, 2010.