“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
April 23, 1910
I cannot believe I put myself back here. It’s all too strange. The episode is over… finally. But it’s a shame it took incarceration to extinguish it. I’ve failed… at something so amazing – again.
The head resting inside these hands aches, but the heart that rests inside this chest hurts, even more so. Self-inflicted anguish is much worse than defecting the blame. Once you confront your biases, there is no way to attribute your present condition to anyone or anything but yourself. No matter what “really” happened. Reality is either the result of a conscious decision or a manifestation of the subconscious condition of your soul. It was already written, by yourself and God, at the same time. I never quite got my mind around that conundrum, but you can feel it deep down inside. It’s true.
I raise the head from my hands. Timid fears drip. Tears drop from my eyelids. The trauma I must now confront circulates as if it is in my blood. I look around the concrete confines of the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU) that will now be my home for 23 hours a day. Awkwardly enough, I am in the same jail… the same jail I was placed in when they extradited me from Morocco back in 2011. Awkwardly enough, I am in the same solitary cell… a cell I spent 11 months in… the cell where I started my “de-radicalization”. I’ve now realized my worst fear…”from one extremism to another”. Never at a loss for words, I look up and utter to no one:
They locked me in this room alone by myself, just me. With no one to talk to, except for the walls or the face in the mirror I see. So I sit, listen and watch…the television, my head… Not a motion to make or a second spared. I record everything read and said. Absence of kindness. Distinct memories of pain caused by the things that I threw away. So I’m holding my breath, until they let me out. But I´m afraid off what might happen.
̃The next time I breath ̃
I wrote it on the wall in here last time, but it only exists in my conscience now. Perhaps I need to stop talking so much. These are days that try human souls, and this is a time for reflection… Who am I? Really? What have I become? Where will I go from here?
If there is a cycle, a rhythm to my life, it is to build up and then extinguish. To tear it all down…like Jenga. This time, those deep underlying issues screaming “You are not worthy of any stability or success” have damaged my relationship with so many people… people I love… people that believed in me… people that fought so hard to give me the enormous opportunity this episode just cost me… I want so bad to blink my eyes… to go back to yesterday… to not face the trials that will unfold… I truly miss them. I feel I owe them an apology… It is not a justification to say you’re sorry, but it makes you feel better, deep down inside.
I went public at GWU’s Program on Extremism in August, 2016, as America’s first former Islamist Extremist. It was something I, and several others, worked hard to realize. I’d never been so excited about anything, and my life has been full of constant drama. It felt like the rest of my existence would finally be safe, satisfying and stable. I’d discovered who I was… and wanted to be. It went extraordinary well at first. There was tons of media, conferences and talks. I was reading, writing and thinking out loud- I loved each and every one of my colleagues. And then, I started to get overwhelmed.
Media was on every day, but I really wanted to work on my writing. No offense, but doing media is not limited to the time you spend on camera. There is preparation for University control, strategy for University fundraising (it’s always about the fundraising). There are conversations before the shoot with the producers and there are hours of emails and text follow-ups – most trying to extract information you’re not at liberty to talk about. I started to get a bit perturbed.
I also maintained my cooperation with the U.S. Government. I couldn’t walk away. I had grown to love those I worked with and what I was doing, regardless of the hurtful accusation that I was an “FBI mouthpiece”, or the claims of “entrapment”. Still, it took up a large portion of my time – ultimately they were understanding. But as Dostoyevsky once explained factiously, “There are certain persons who have a perfect right to commit breaches in the law or crimes; there is no law for them”. Certain factions weren’t so happy with me when or work was “discontinued”. Then, everything started swirling.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May, 2015, three months after my release from prison. The symptoms of manic moods became alive: rambling speech, extroverted and charismatic personality, overwhelming oneself with projects, staying up all night reading, and then, self-medication combined with periods of grandiosity, destructive tendencies and throwing success away. But I didn’t want to believe it. I kind of liked the mania; like Jimmy Hendrix, I soon excused myself “while I kissed the sky”. It seemed cosmic. Everything started spinning, and I did what I do so well: throw everything away, in a likely irreparable way.
Shortly after going public, I presented at a Counterterrorism Conference, organized by the DoJ. As I departed the stage, I burst into tears. It came from nowhere, but I knew there was more work to be done. I could feel the trauma there. I panicked, even if just for a moment. Later that day, Toni, from Life After Hate, let me know that he saw it as well. “You gotta own it”, he said, “It has not yet sunk into your heart”. Watching South Park that evening, a cartoon I once threatened, produced a bonding, but I did not utilize it. I started to drift off.
The following afternoon I presented in front of Jessica Stern’s class at Boston University. I burst into tears several times while candidly sharing my experiences. There, in front of several professionals and promising students, I realized I had more work to do. Jessica told me the same thing again; Miriam, at Parents4Peace, gave me an applicable book, a hug that was all too sincere, and a number to call if I needed it. But I didn’t.
A few weeks later, at the Wonder Women Summit in New York City, I saw the effects first hand, when an organizer suffered a manic episode. There, in a hotel room with a dear friend I have now lost, I recognized the need to address the issue… But I wasn’t ready. Nevertheless, as I spoke on a panel, I stated for the first time that my de-radicalization wasn’t complete. I had to address the trauma. Farah Panditt, an amazing mind that totally understood, told a reporter afterwards that it was the first time she had heard my story in detail, and that “I was needed on the front lines”. I was honored… but I felt incompetent. I started to lack confidence at the Program on Extremism. I felt like a failure, even though I was succeeding.
When I returned to the Program on Extremism, I received an email from Dr. Stern. She requested I write on my trauma, and that she present it at a psychoanalysis conference. I wrote it, but when nobody offered me therapy, I incorrectly assumed nobody cared. I started to criticize the ‘ivory towers’, and started to play with the underprivileged. It was pedagogy of the oppressed in the ghetto. It was what I knew. Conversations with concrete, like books, meant no one could hurt you… you can only hurt yourself, and that’s exactly what we do.
At my first public conference, with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and on the periphery of the UN General Assembly, I had the privilege of sitting with two of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met: Rashad Ali (ISD) and Elizabeth Kaplan (Mind, Body, Medicine). I found Elizabeth’s work all too intriguing, and eventually I met with her staff at the home of the Executive Director, Dr. James Gordon. As I finished explaining my life story and the concept of a parallel network for CVE, I started to cry. It was not the first time in the discussion. Their organization concentrated on trauma, and I was so happy when they asked me to work with them. I think what followed was the most satisfying moment of my existence. I had one condition and turned towards Dr. Gordon: “I am grateful for the invite”, I said, “However I need you to treat me for trauma first. I need assistance.” I had never asked the courage to ask for anyone in life for help. I texted Jessica after I did it. I was ecstatic. And then I ran away from it all… and from my true self.
There were conferences and travels, piles of papers on my desk. The information was so absorbing, and I’ve always enjoyed the company of books, almost as much as that of intelligent people. For the first time in my life there were intelligent people everywhere. I was always in discussion: I planned cartoons, non-profit and endeavor trainings, programs, platforms.
I met so many fascinating people, and this one incredibly mesmerizing woman. She appeared out of nowhere, by chance, and it started out as a mostly everyday occurrence. Of course, I tried to push her away, but she wouldn’t leave. She wanted to know me. I mean, really know me. And I was starting to feel undeserving, scared to press on. I think I decided to blow up the world around me, so that I didn’t have to get intimate with someone I was falling in serious love with. Meanwhile, my eldest son had an accident; the brain damage he suffered aggravated his already delicate condition. My probation officer said I looked overwhelmed, but I didn’t listen. I stopped eating, working out, there was no leisure… Once again, I wanted to save the world… and I put it on my shoulders. I was starting to get dizzy.
The rest can be discerned from between the lines of these pages, nowhere else. When you recognize the trauma but don’t address it, you still love the mania. It means you are responsible. It means you are still an extremist. I so wish I would have taken those steps, but I did not. Now I know I have to learn to take care of myself, so I stop hurting those around me, and so that the next chapter will be healthy and stable.
“The world is the place the light enters you”
Yesterday, for the first time since my return to Alexandria Detention Center, I saw her: Mrs. Henderson. I used to talk about her ad nausea in the press, as I told the story of the guard who would let me sit in the Law Library to get me out of solitary confinement. That was where I drank wine with the Enlightenment philosophers, back in 2011 and into 2012.
“Hi Jesse”, she smirked. She used to call me Younus. She was letting me know she knew what I’d gone to become, and why I was back in solitary confinement.
“You messed up”, she said, “But you’ll get on your feet again. Just pick yourself back up!”
I looked up and smiled.
“Just get back in the library”, she laughed, as she closed the door.
“I don’t need the library. My life is a book”, I whispered, “And this is its tragic ending.”
I heard Mrs. Henderson continue: “By the way, Jesse, you know those in solitary confinement now get two hours out each day, they can go to programs, and they bring the library to you on a cart.” I knew it was a small change, but a result of our past interactions and of me sharing my story while at the Program on Extremism. Suddenly, I felt a huge sense of inspiration. “I’ve been here before.” I rose off the edge of my mattress. “Maybe this is not the end… but it’s a new beginning”.
It is a short walk to freedom, 90 days. But it must not be a single trek to a door beyond the confines of a prison. It must be a journey, an inward quest, which goes to the root of affliction.
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light.
Once a woman came to the Islamic Scholar Ibn al-Qayyim. She informed him of her problems, plight and poverty. “Why do I feel so down?” she inquired. But the scholar shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “I don’t know”, he replied. He then lift his hand and pointed to the corner of the mosque. There sat a man reciting the Qur’an. He had a paralyzed side, suffered from a developmental disorder, was almost blind, poor and disheveled. Still, he looked up at the scholar, and smiled. The woman was overcome with relief, overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.
I think and sit about the plight of the Syrians and the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Christians suffering across the globe, the Jews and their history of being stereotyped and persecuted, of other religions and ethnic minorities. And I remain grateful. I have my heart, my head, these hands, my health, and a wonderful woman… the most fascinating woman I’ve ever known, and the only woman I ever let truly know me. Therefore, I must get back on my feet, back to my true self.
At least today, I don’t view the world from a lens that is black and white. Even inside a dungy cell, a kaleidoscopic window can open up, like the prism that reflects a sunrise, creeping through the slit window of solitude, upon the horizon. For the two months during the episode, I moved at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. In the end, I ran in a circle. As my lawyer enlightened after the judge sentenced me, “I work slow but constant. When I get hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I sleep. When the work day is over, I go home”. Such simple but useful advice… a heuristic I will always remember.
People always ask me whether I could back to the extremist jihadist I once was. If I’ve learned anything from my experiences so far, it is that I have overcome that rage and hate. I’ve conquered those perceptions. Now, I turn inwards, to address the trauma, the root of that extremism. Now I know why I destroy in a minute what I built over months and years.
I hold on to the idea that I’ll be home soon, to “see about a girl”, to attempt to return to the arena, and hopefully to the sustained support and friendship of some of you.
I truly apologize and ask for your forgiveness.