Made in the U.S.A.
Hundreds of Americans have followed the path to jihad. Here's how and why
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 2 1/2 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.