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My Year Inside Radical Islam By: Erick Stakelbeck
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 08, 2007

When I first heard that I’d be working alongside a former employee of an Al-Qaeda-linked, Wahhabi charity—one shut down by the federal government for funneling money to terrorist groups, no less—I was deeply concerned. I’d been assured that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross had left his Islamist past far behind, that he’d since converted to Christianity and was fresh off a stint as an attorney for one of the leading law firms in the United States. This all sounded perfectly reasonable, and his resume was indeed impressive. And yes, people change. Still, my suspicions lingered.

Could Gartenstein-Ross be a jihadi “plant?” After all, my employer at the time, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), was a leading counter-terrorism think tank whose location was a closely guarded secret, and its Executive Director, Steven Emerson, had long been targeted for death by jihadists. Perhaps Gartenstein-Ross was acting as an inside man for a jihadi group, ingratiating himself at the IPT only to glean sensitive information about the organization that could be passed on to his Islamist cohorts. Unlikely, given IPT’s thorough screening of prospective employees, but possible.


Upon meeting Daveed for the first time, my suspicions only deepened. He was articulate, clean-cut, friendly, and knowledgeable about a wide range of my favorite topics, from history, to music to sports. He also possessed a keen intellect and was, at times, brutally honest (like a friend should be). Heck, the guy was completely likeable—the perfect sleeper agent. I thought of the Al-Qaeda handbook, which calls on jihadists to use deceit in order to obtain information about the enemy’s “vital establishments,” and even encourages them to strike up false friendships with infidels.


Call me a paranoid Islamophobe if you must, but I still believe those initial concerns back in the summer of 2004 were wholly legitimate, given the circumstances. Still, I must admit, I’m struck by how absurd they now seem. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a sleeper agent? The same down-to-earth guy with whom I’ve shared countless laughs and great conversations, and with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to bond with on a personal and professional level these past two-and-half years? The same rising star in the counterterrorism field who contributes regularly to respected publications like The Weekly Standard and Reader’s Digest? The fact that this brilliant, well-adjusted young man of Jewish descent could somehow get sucked into the primitive world of radical Islam—even if for a relatively short time—demands an explanation. Thankfully, Daveed provides that and a whole lot more in his absorbing new memoir, My Year Inside Radical Islam.


The two most notorious cases of white converts to Islam who adopted a fundamentalist strain of the faith are, undoubtedly, American Taliban John Walker Lindh (serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for treason) and Al-Qaeda mouthpiece Adam Gadahn (aka “Azzam the American,” thought to be hiding somewhere in the tribal regions of Pakistan). Both men had unusual religious upbringings and were raised in the progressive environs of California. Gartenstein-Ross has said his path towards radical Islam mirrored theirs in some respects.


Raised in liberal Ashland, Oregon to hippie parents, he was taught to revere Jesus and Buddha equally as great teachers; but that no one religion held a premium on truth. By the time he left Ashland in 1994 to attend Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Gartenstein-Ross had grown into a free thinker with a passion for social justice. At the same time, he found himself searching for spiritual answers. He was befriended by a Muslim student who practiced Sufism, which is generally considered a more moderate form of Islam (although opinions vary). Gartenstein-Ross was attracted to several aspects of the religion, but one seems to have particularly struck him: Islam’s belief that Jesus was a prophet with a close relationship with God, but that he had never claimed divinity. This seemed to answer some of the nagging spiritual questions he’d been contemplating after years of debates with Christian friends.


In reading the book, one gets the sense that loneliness and a few near-death experiences made Gartenstein-Ross slightly more susceptible to such a major life change as converting to a new religion--particularly one not known for its fondness toward Jews. Nevertheless, his new life as a progressive-minded Muslim proved gratifying at first, both intellectually and spiritually. Upon graduation, he accepted a job at an Islamic charitable organization back in Ashland called the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation. Before long, his entire world was turned upside down. 


Al Haramain was a Saudi government-funded operation that billed itself as a religious charity. Although Saudi Arabia officially closed down Al Haramain because of its terrorist ties in late 2004, the question remains whether it is actually defunct; its leadership is reportedly still in place, as is its support infrastructure.


Not surprisingly, after just a few days at Al Haramain’s Ashland branch, Gartenstein-Ross learned that his moderate interpretation of Islam was dangerously out of step from that of his co-workers. It seemed that everything, from listening to music, to owning a dog, to wearing shorts above the thigh, to dating a non-Muslim woman, was strictly haram (forbidden) and worthy of eternal damnation.


In one eye-opening passage of My Year Inside Radical Islam, Gartenstein-Ross describes an uncomfortable interaction with a local elementary school teacher in which he refuses to shake her hand, because such contact between the sexes was viewed as inappropriate by his radicalized peers at Al Haramain. When Gartenstein-Ross voiced disagreement over these restrictive ground rules, he was lectured—often times loudly, and straight from Islamic texts—by his outspoken co-workers, who’d been Muslims longer and, hence, viewed Gartenstein-Ross as a theological novice with much to learn about his new faith.  


The incessant browbeating and indoctrination continued on a daily basis, and regular visits by radical Saudi sheikhs to the Ashland office only helped reinforce Gartenstein-Ross’ view that perhaps his initial, moderate interpretation of Islam had been off the mark. The more he studied the Koran and other Islamic texts, the more he found a compelling argument for the legalistic practice of the faith as trumpeted at Al Haramain. What at first seemed ridiculous now seemed divinely sanctioned.


In a sense, Gartenstein Ross’ steady drift towards radicalism encapsulates the West’s great dilemma in its ongoing struggle against fundamentalist Islam. Are the jihadists just a small sect of extremists that have hijacked a “great and peaceful religion,” as our leaders and media elites reassure us after every new terrorist attack? Or do bin Laden, Nasrallah and the charitable chaps at Al Haramain actually practice Islam as its founder and prophet, Mohammed—himself a warrior—intended it? Yes, there are moderate Muslims. But are they essentially akin to “cafeteria Catholics,” who conveniently pick and choose which practices they want to take from their religion, while ignoring the more stringent, or “outdated” ones? In other words, is Islam itself moderate? Or is it, if taken literally, an inherently violent faith incompatible with modernity and Western values? As European and American victims pile up and the global jihad intensifies, that’s a question a reluctant West, paralyzed by political correctness and self-doubt, will eventually have to confront.


By the time he left Al Haramain in 1998 to attend law school in New York City, Gartenstein-Ross had his own issues to confront. His descent into radical Islam had caused a growing chasm between he and his Christian fiance, Amy. He also felt increasingly distanced from his still-liberal parents. Overall, Gartenstein-Ross’ experience at Al Haramain had left him disillusioned and spiritually restless. He could no longer reconcile the fact, for instance, that celebrating Christmas with Amy and her family was haram, and that marrying her would be even worse. He recounts a solitary stroll through Central Park when all of the doubts and questions that had been building up overwhelmed him:


When you became Muslim, you thought that the moderate interpretation was clearly right. You thought that extremists were either ignorant or manipulating the faith for their own gain. Your time at Al-Haramain has made you question this. As your cherished vision of Islam collapses, you’re left feeling depressed, hopeless, confused…you once unreservedly condemned the “extremists”; now you say prayers for the mujahideen. But you still have doubts, and you’re not happy with where you are.


Gartenstein-Ross decided to read and re-read the Quran, to once again pore over every important Islamic text with a fine-toothed comb. He was left with more questions than answers. He soon found himself attending church on Sundays, and reconnecting with an old friend who was a devout Christian. When Gartenstein-Ross learned that Al Haramain’s Ashland office had been raided by the F.B.I, he decided to step forward and help with the investigation. To his surprise, the Bureau already knew all about him.


How times change. In my current job as a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News, Gartenstein-Ross is one of the first experts I dial whenever I need information on developing events in the War on Terror. His tumultuous time spent in the grip of radical Islam has given him a personal insight into the enemy that few counterterrorism analysts can match. He continues to work closely with U.S. intelligence agencies, and shares his expertise in frequent appearances on radio and television. My Year Inside Radical Islam promises to only enhance his reputation, and deservedly so.


Other reviews, quite rightly, have focused on the larger issues the book speaks to: among them, the road to radicalization, the poisonous role of many American Muslim organizations and mosques, and the ease with which Islamists have quietly blended into the American social fabric. At its heart, however, I think the book is more about a conflicted young man’s personal journey from the brink of oblivion to redemption. Despite its subject matter and cautionary lessons, it’s also a love story. And I can assure you that it’s completely and utterly above suspicion.


Erick Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News. He also contributes to Hot Air.com.


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