The phone rang as I approached the entrance of to my apartment in Manhattan, a few blocks away from Times Square.
The thick Jamaican accent on the other end was quick to instruct me.
“I picked ‘Sheikh’ up at the airport,” he said. “He is home and well.”
“He’ll call you later today at Aladeen’s.”
It was a day I’d been waiting for quite some time. As I entered through the doorway, I got the sense that I was entering into another realm, a new chapter in the life of an American Muslim dedicated to promoting the global jihad.
The “Sheikh” my correspondent was referring to was Abdullah Faisal, a cleric that had radicalized many in Britain throughout the nineties, that had translated and commented on Osama bin Laden’s ‘Declaration of Jihad against the Americans’, that had helped radicalize Germaine Lindsey, one of the 7/7 bombers, that called for the killing of “Jews, Hindus, Christians, and Americans” even before September 11, 2001.
“Sheikh” Faisal was convicted in February 2003 for incitement to murder, a charge I would later be convicted of as well. Aladeen had facilitated my contact with him while he was in Belmarsh prison. We corresponded by mail, and I became one of his favorite followers.
Faisal was deported from Britain to Jamaica on May 25, 2007. That day, the Jamaican press reported that two followers met him when he arrived at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. One of them, the brother on the phone, Amin, informed the press. “”We will give him a platform for teaching, because there are many persons waiting to hear from him.”
Later that day, I visited Aladeen on the Upper East Side in Spanish Harlem. Faisal phoned me on Skype soon after I arrived. During the call, he informed me that he had been banned by Jamaica’s Muslim leadership from preaching in Jamaican mosques already. About this, he laughed. However, he emphasizedthat he’d received a “warm welcome” from the Jamaican government. I soon informed my “sheikh” of plans to insert his radical message in the United States. “The conditions are ripe for positive reception,” I told him, “We’ve laid the groundwork in collaboration with Al-Muhajiroun here in the US.”
“Prepare to initiate a true jihadi movement,” he said. “Omar Bakri has come a long way but is still far away from the truth.” In his opinion, even the most notorious of the UK’s radical preachers was too soft on positions of jihad.
“My incarceration was a blessing in disguise,” Faisal explained.“Had I been free for the London bombings I would have been serving a life sentence for my connections to Germaine Lindsey.” Well aware that it is hard to prosecute on the influence of ideology alone, I wanted to set Faisal up with a similar legacy in America. I wanted to call that effort RevolutionMuslim.com.
Faisal wanted to take his time, however. At the end of the call he emphasized that he would return to preaching jihad, but would have to start with the Jamaican Christian community. “Jamaica has the largest number of churches per square capita.” he said. “So, I must first call them to Islam.” I offered to start a website for him immediately, but he was reluctant. “I was in America once and the Muslims there are open to the message, but it is not time now.” He instructed me to prepare for the future but to await his directive.
Over the next few months, Faisal and I communicated frequently by phone and online. He instructed me in what he called the “technique” of radicalization. It was the summer before I started graduate school at Columbia University and I immersed myself in jihadi books and Arabic treatises, as Faisal guided me upon the path. He taught me the same ideology that we now see prevalent in the Age of ISIS in detail, an ideology even Al-Qaeda considers extreme. I soon would become a prominent activist, synthesizing the theology of Faisal with revolutionary politics and conspiracies about the West’s “War on Islam.”
As I started my first semester at Columbia, Faisal kept to his word. One day, I received a package in the mail from Jamaica. It was a copy of a nationally televised debate on a show in Jamaica called ‘Religious Hard Talk.’ In it, Faisal attempted to embarrass a catholic bishop by explaining that “Jesus preached Jihad.” Faisal pointed to a quote from a biblical parable and then cited it out of context. “You don’t know your Bible. We the Muslims know the Bible better than you,” he stated to the bishop. Almost immediately, I created a simplistic video and uploaded it to Youtube, at the time a relatively nascent online platform.
The intro to the video was clear. Graphics were interspersed with text that read:
“The West is Waging a War Against the Muslims…Who will arise to defend the deen (religion) and carry the banner of La ilaha illa Allah?The hypocrites criticized his adab (manners)… some say he made too much takfir (excommunication)… The kuffar tried to silence him arresting him for an obscure law from 1861… Charged with “incitement to murder” based on comments made within the context of the Quran…”
Before turning to the debate segment, we announced with capitals and exclamation points:
“TO NO AVAIL! HE’S BACK…”.
We realized that while he was notorious in Britain, our targeted audience in America had hardly heard of Faisal at all. However, once uploaded to YouTube, the video immediately drew attention. In the comments section, some Muslims celebrated Faisal’s return; American youth that had no knowledge of his previous influence in Britain were exposed to his combative and confrontational style. Moderate Muslims and Christians opposed the content and went into back-and-forth dialogue. Soon thousands of comments followed the initial posting and subscribers to Revolution Muslim’s Youtube channel. We recognized the power of interactive social media immediately, and went on to serve at the forefront of developing a viral and lethal jihadi network in the English-speaking world. As donations rolled in, Faisal instructed me: “It is time to launch the dawa (preaching) and send Americans the true message of a “guiding book and supporting sword.””
Slowly, we inserted Shaikh Faisal’s uber-extremism rhetoric into the American ambit. Most assumed that American Muslims would be immune to the message, that they differed from their European counterparts due to higher levels of education, income and integration. But we soon saw a surprising amount of support. As Al-Qaeda turned its organization away from a top-down hierarchical structure to a model of leaderless resistance, dedicated more to inciting lone-wolf attacks than plotting to outdo 9/11, we unabashedly aligned ourselves with the global salafi jihadi movement. We supported bin Laden, the Taliban, the Islamic State in Iraq and others publicly, and we used Faisal credentials to legitimize out platform.
Revolution Muslim, with Faisal at the helm, radicalized hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans. Our website became a key-hub in the English-language jihadisphere. We influenced Muslims around the English-speaking world. In America, we would go on to be connected to many of the plots either carried out or thwarted between the years of 2008 and May 2011, when I was arrested in Casablanca, just as the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring turned toward jihad. The video I created remains a radicalizing element online. It’s been uploaded innumerable times to different accounts. One upload is approaching a million views. It’s been translated into Arabic, and to this day, requests to purchase the debate flow into the old Revolution Muslim Gmail account.
Many may believe that ISIS’s announcement of its caliphate resonated mostly because of its military prowess and possession of territory. Truth be told, the call of ISIS, adherence to its barbaric ideology and attention to its propaganda would not have been nearly as impactful, had Revolution Muslim not first planted the seed.
The effects of Revolution Muslim will cause me shame and guilt for the rest of my life. We worked in tandem with Al-Muhajiroun in Britain. We conspired with Omar Bakri Muhamamd and Anjem Choudary to carry the message of khilafah and jihad throughout the West. In collaboration with Samir Kahan and Anwar al-Awlaki, we designed Jihad Recollections, the precursor of Inspire Magazine, Dabiq and now Rummiyya. We eventually set Faisal up with his own online outlet, Authentic Tauheed. There he utilizedthe social media platform Paltalk. It was over Paltalk that he eventually met the informant that would lead to his demise. I was relieved when I read of Abdullah Faisal’s indictment on August 25th, 2017. I can only imagine the difficulties it took to get Faisal to reveal his connections abroad. This is because I know the layers of protection it takes to get to Faisal himself. The NYPD should be applauded. The case will likely remove a menace to America and the West at large. As New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance put it,
“Shaikh Faisal has dedicated his life to terror recruitment. Through his lectures, website, and videos, he incites untold numbers of people around the world to take up the cause of jihad. As is alleged in this case, he provided material support to the Islamic State by facilitating the passage of a self-described ISIS sympathizer from New York to Syria. A charismatic leader, the defendant’s rhetoric has been cited by several convicted or suspected terrorists in New York, London, and beyond.”
According to Mitch Silber, former Director of Intelligence Analysis at NYPD, “Sheikh Faisal has been on the NYPD’s radar ever since he was released from British prison and was sent back to Jamaica in 2007. We understood his role in radicalizing British citizens, like 7/7 bomber, Germaine Lindsey to violence and we were concerned that he might have a similar effect on this side of the Atlantic — and we were correct. He became the chief spiritual sanctioner for New York City based Islamist group Revolution Muslim and was a very savvy operator. His arrest this week was ten years in the making.”
Still, I can tell you from my experiences that the ideas Faisal spread will go on to harm others in the future as well. Faisal was one of the last ‘charismatic preachers’ radicalizing and recruiting for the global jihad in the West, but he has trained many less-educated replacements that will continue preaching for the cause. From the time of his release from prison in Britain, Shaikh Faisal groomed Westerners from his home in Jamaica. That went on for over ten years. He refrained from media whoring like Omar Bakri and Anjem Choudary, so there was not a ton of publicity associated with his arrest. Faisal left behind an ideological stain, an uber-jihadi legacy that seems to be resonating more and more. Authentic Tauheed currently has over 11,000 followers on Facebook. In one of Faisal’s last lectures, entitled ‘The Future of the Caliphate,’ Faisal obligated his students to obey the dictates of ISIS leadership going forward, as they transition to a virtual caliphate. Of course, ISIS leadership calls on Muslims living in the West to carry out terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, we cannot arrest our way out of the jihadist problem. Faisal’s indictment is a step in a positive direction, but we must ask ourselves what it means for going forward. We increasingly recognize that the war on violent Islamist extremism will not be won solely with bullets and bombs, that it is a war of ideas at its core. We may say we are ready to engage in a ‘battle for hearts and minds’, but as Major General Michael Nagata admitted in a recent interview with the New York Times, we are still trying to understand ISIS, the latest metastisization of the global salafi jihad. “We have not defeated the idea,” he stated. “We do not even understand the idea.”
As we transition to ponder on what the ‘jihadisphere’ will look like as ISIS loses more territory, we would be wise to analyze and understand the history and transmutations in jihadi ideology. Unfortunately, most today don’t even recall or know the history and influence mentioned here. Therefore, they address its symptoms instead of attacking the root of the disease. They thus fail to exploit new developments and prove delayed, countering rather than combating, and reacting as opposed to proactively countering a jihadi worldview that has spread like a virus and become somewhat of an epidemic.
Understanding the networked history and ideological mutations of the salafi jihad is key to combatting the threat going forward. Otherwise we will continue to make crucial mistakes. With ISIS losing territorial control and military power, the ideology will focus more and more on inciting attacks in the West. However, this context places us in a unique position to combat the threat, as long as we fail to make similar mistakes. As the old adage puts it, “Those that fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”