Ali Al-Timimi was a popular lecturer at the Center for Islamic Information and Education at the Dar al Arqam Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. But now he has been sentenced to life in prison for calling upon Muslims there after 9/11 to join the Taliban and fight against American troops in Afghanistan. He was a primary inspiration for the “Virginia jihad network” which aided a jihadist group in Pakistan and played paintball in order to train to fight U.S. forces.
According to CNN, Timimi told his hearers that “Islamic history justifies attacks on civilians, that those fighting Americans in Afghanistan would die as martyrs and how to reach a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.”
The London bombings have underscored the necessity to take this kind of language seriously. When people declare war on the United States, we should take their words with the utmost seriousness. Timimi’s prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, stated: “Al-Timimi hates the US and calls for its destruction. He’s allowed to do that in this country. He’s not allowed to solicit treason, as he did. He deserves every day of the time he will serve.”
Yet Timimi declared himself a “prisoner of conscience.” Mahdi Bray, the executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation and self-styled “country Muslim from Norfolk, Virginia,” was also aghast at Timimi’s sentence: “What he said was perhaps repugnant and inflammatory,” Bray conceded, “but was it really his intent to have people go and take his words and translate that into going and killing other human beings, specifically Americans?”
If that was not his intent, what was? Speaking about attacks on civilians, martyrs’ deaths and fighting Americans doesn’t admit of much of a metaphorical interpretation. Would Bray have us believe that Timimi was referring to jihad as a spiritual struggle, and that by the Taliban he meant “holiness” and by the Americans, “sin”? Sometimes words mean just what they appear to mean.
Some of the tendency not to take such talk seriously comes from a general state of denial about jihadist activity in the United States. But Timimi is by no means the first homegrown jihadist. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was identified in the 9/11 Commission Report as the “principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” studied in the United States for several years, beginning in 1983. He received a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina A & T in 1986, and went to Afghanistan the next year to wage jihad against the Soviet Union. When he came to America to study, he had already joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the forefather of the terrorist groups Hamas and Al-Qaeda. Yet if American officials were aware of this at all at the time, they evidently didn’t think it was important enough to merit a denial or revocation of Mohammed’s visa, or close surveillance of his activities.
Nor is Timimi the first American citizen, or the second after John Walker Lindh, to become involved with the jihad. Maher Hawash, the Intel video technology wizard who pled guilty in August 2003 to conspiring to aid the Taliban, was a naturalized American citizen. Another American citizen, former Council on American Islamic Relations communications specialist Randall Todd “Ismail” Royer, is now serving twenty years in prison for his role in the same “Virginia jihad network” with which Timimi was involved. Royer, a St. Louis native and convert to Islam, stockpiled arms and, according to his indictment, planned “to prepare for and engage in violent jihad on behalf of Muslims in Kashmir, Chechnya, the Philippines and other countries and territories, against countries, governments, military forces and peoples that the defendants and their conspirators believed to be enemies of Islam.”
Sahim Alwan is also an American citizen. A leader of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna, New York and onetime president of the mosque there, he has the distinction of being the first American to attend an Al Qaeda training camp. Why did he go? He was convinced to do so by Kamal Derwish, an Al Qaeda recruiter. Alwan explained that Derwish taught him that the Qur’an “says you have to learn how to prepare. Like, you gotta be prepared just in case you do have to go to war. If there is war, then you would have to be called for jihad. And that was the aspect of the camp itself, for going and learn how to use weapons, and stuff like that.”
The London bombings are just the latest indication that such statements should be regarded with the utmost seriousness. Yet most analyses of the bombings and other acts of Islamic terrorism continue to be invested with a curious unreality and unwillingness to take such words at their face value. Jihad, we hear endlessly from Islamic apologists, is a spiritual struggle. Terrorism? It’s in the eye of the beholder, as news talking head Brian Williams reminded us when he recently equated the Founding Fathers with modern-day jihad terrorists. The movement in the universities and the mainstream media to drain the word terrorism of its particular meaning and its application to our enemies is far advanced – and so are its effects. The assault by the ACLU and people like David Cole on the provision of the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to conduct surveillance on individuals and groups who call for jihad could paralyze the agency’s ability to stop these people before they can act.
Bassam Khalaf was fired from his job as a baggage screener at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport on July 7. Airport officials discovered that under the name “Arabic Assassin,” he had recorded a rap CD entitled Terror Alert, on which he described himself as a “crazy, suicidal Arabic ... equipped with bombs” and threatened to hijack a plane on September 11, 2005 and fly it into a building.
A statement on his website says, “I CHOSE THIS NAME BECAUSE IT FITS ME. IM ARABIC AND ILL ASSASSINATE YO A**.” Yet despite the forthright bloodlust in his lyrics, he professed to be bewildered about his firing: “I kept my music and my job separate,” he protested. “What does my music have to do with my job?” About his firing, he said: “I know part of it is racially motivated.”
People often mean what they say. While Khalaf may well turn into the ACLU’s next poster child, there needs to be a thoughtful public debate about whether the United States can still afford the luxury of treating all such cases as freedom of speech or civil rights issues. Khalaf himself is most likely nothing more than a harmless buffoon, but Houston Airport officials would have been foolhardy in the extreme to assume that that was all he was. Khalaf’s activities and associations should be carefully and thoroughly investigated; the time when officials had the luxury of disregarding such statements is long past.
If he and others like him are simply ignored, or casually and thoughtlessly granted a license to speak and act freely under the guise of “freedom of speech,” we find to our dismay that one of these homegrown jihadists, like Timimi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the rest, actually meant what he said.