New worry over domestic al-Qaida link

Federal officials suggest a jailhouse conversion to Islam turned Brooklyn-born Jose Padilla into Abdullah al Muhajir, ally of international terrorists. But experts are deeply divided over the risk posed by such conversions.

By Eric Boehlert
Published June 12, 2002 1:31AM (EDT)

The arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir on suspicion of being an al-Qaida operative allegedly planning to set off a "dirty bomb" in Washington has raised a new set of concerns for Americans already fearful about potential attacks. That's because unlike the 19 hijackers who struck on Sept. 11, this suspect was born Jose Padilla, and he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Just as the capture of John Walker Lindh -- "the American Taliban" -- baffled and outraged the nation in November, the May 8 arrest of Al Muhajir seems certain to provoke intense debate over how a man could turn so fiercely against his own nation that he would consider attacking it with a crude but potentially lethal nuclear device.

Answers to that question were difficult to come by yesterday. But with information trickling in from the federal government and local law enforcement agencies, analysts pointed to al Muhajir's criminal record and his conversion behind bars to Islam as crucial episodes in the story. And while opinion was divided, some suggested that prisons could be a breeding ground for homegrown Islamic terrorists.

"Surely Americans should be concerned about it," says Vibert White, a former high-ranking advisor with the Nation of Islam. White notes Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has routinely used bitter, anti-American rhetoric in his speeches and over the years has aligned himself with extremists such as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who, says White, once urged Nation of Islam members to take up arms against their government.

According to reports from the Justice Department and local police departments, Padilla had a history of street crime with a penchant for violence. CNN reported yesterday that he served three years in a Chicago-area juvenile detention center for aggravated battery, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery. In 1991 he was arrested for a Florida road-rage incident, and while in jail, he attacked a deputy.

Exactly when he converted to Islam and changed his name is unclear. But the transformation is hardly rare. Prison conversions to Islam date back more than half a century among African-American men -- the conversion of the late civil-rights leader Malcolm X was the most famous -- and remain common today.

Observers suggest that the change of faith helps prisoners reform themselves, even as it grants them access to a larger community, which is important for physical protection behind bars.

There are between 4 million and 7 million Muslims in America today. Approximately 2million of them are African-American, and just 30,000 are Hispanic, as the suspect al Muhajir appears to be.

According to recent population surveys, roughly 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year, with the vast majority of them (between 85 and 90 percent) being people of color. There are no hard numbers on prison conversions, but experts suggest they make up a significant portion of the overall conversions.

But whether that creates a risk of domestic terrorism is a subject of deep disagreement.

Appearing on MSNBC yesterday, noted terrorism expert Steven Emerson suggested the plot highlighted the danger of allowing radical Muslim gangs to proliferate inside America's prison system as more and more minorities convert to Islam while serving time.

White agreed, saying cause for concern has been rising for years.

"Farrakhan has been very, very close to people we'd consider today as being extremist, or at least very dangerous to America," says White, author of "Inside the Nation of Islam," a recent book critical of Farrakhan.

"It's a message that's being echoed by [Middle Eastern] groups toward American Muslims -- you're part of the same problem, that the American government is corrupt and is brutalizing Muslims," says White. "When they get out of prison their language is really aggressive in reference to U.S. government activities."

Others, however, insist that such characterization exaggerates the risk of the Islamic conversions that arise from time behind bars.

"There is frustration and anger with the American government, but in my opinion the vast majority of Muslim converts coming out of prison are not al-Qaida sympathizers," says Mustafa El-Amin, who recently spoke at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison at a conference on the role of religion among inmates. "They may have issues with America or Bush, but you can't even attempt to justify Sept. 11."

He notes that years ago most prison converts were attracted to the more radical Nation of Islam, which enjoyed a major presence in the prison. But the Nation of Islam has lost much of its power in recent years, with its active membership dropping from approximately 100,000 a decade ago to just 25,000 today, experts say.

Today, more and more minority prisoners are converting to so-called orthodox Islam, or Sunni Islam. With the guidance of orthodox Muslim chaplains found at more and more prisons, converts "are not people attracted to terrorist organizations," says Richard Brent Turner, author of "Islam in the African-American Experience."

The majority of today's 2 million African-American Muslims are Sunni and have no connection with the Nation of Islam. "We're more patriotic. We love America and we'd defend it," says El-Amin, author of "The Religion of Islam and the Nation of Islam: What is the Difference?"

Turner agrees that some minorities adopt Islam and use it as a way to critique the American political system, but he says there is no pattern of prison converts being attracted to, or involved in, terrorist activity. "The pattern is reformed people who make a contribution to the community they live in," he says.

One potential misperception stemming from al Muhajir's arrest is that members of America's minority Muslim community share the same agenda of the larger, Muslim Arab immigrant population inside the U.S. In fact there's a real tension between the two groups, with American converts resenting what they see as the often separatist, and largely foreign-policy-based agenda embraced by the immigrant community.

The two groups rarely interact socially or at mosques, and a sizable economic divide often separates them. Many minority Muslims have been upset at how immigrant Arabs have tried to define American Muslims, particularly since Sept. 11.

That's why few Americans have taken up the call of radical Muslims internationally. But the numbers are relative: According to a recent story in U.S. News & World Report, since 1989, 400 American recruits (or 30 a year) have trained in Afghan and Pakistani terrorist camps.

The most infamous among them is Lindh, who was taken into custody in Afghanistan in November. In a 10-count February indictment, the federal government charged him with conspiracy to murder Americans and aiding the Taliban and al-Qaida, among other counts. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 26, and if convicted, he could be sent to prison for life without parole.

Aukai Collins, in a new book "My Jihad," details the conversion to Islam that propelled him from a San Diego mosque to Croatia, Chechnya and Afghanistan before he had a change of heart and became an advisor to the FBI and CIA.

"Being an Islamic fundamentalist does not mean that you support or engage in terrorism," he writes in the book.

It is likely that most Americans see Lindh, who is white, as a fluke and not representative of widespread support for al-Qaida among Muslims at home. El-Amin hopes that's the case with news of al Muhajir's arrest.

"I am concerned about a backlash," he says. "That's the biggest fear. Whether he's African-American or Hispanic, the image is now out there."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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