The Education of Ali Al-Timimi

Describing him as a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States, the government sent an American Muslim scientist to prison for life. But has justice been served?

After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, how- ever, paintball among Muslims in northern Virginia appeared to U.S. authorities to be more than just indulging fantasies. President Bush promised that Muslims would be protected, and violent hate crimes actually turned out to be few. But within days federal authorities initiated anti-terrorist programs that singled out Muslims for detention and deportation. Thousands of Muslims were interrogated by law-enforcement officials, and terrorism charges were brought against some 150 of them. Special security procedures targeted Muslims in airports, and many Islamic charities and businesses were shut down on the grounds that they abetted terrorists. Muslim life was invaded by a sense of dread. Despite the president’s promises, evidence was abundant that Muslims were being treated differently from other Americans.

At the Dar al-Arqam mosque on the night of the attacks, Ali publicly criticized the killing of innocent people by the al-Qaeda hijackers but urged Muslims to make contingency plans to protect themselves and their families. Five days later, seven of the paintball players gathered for dinner in the apartment of Yong Ki Kwon, a twenty-five-year-old Korean-born convert, to discuss how they should proceed. Kwon, who lived near Ali, had sometimes driven him to his lectures. While Kwon was picking up take-out kebabs for the dinner, he and Ali spoke by phone, and Kwon learned that Ali was free that evening. Kwon invited Ali to join his other guests so that he could provide them with Islamic guidance. Kwon’s dinner party was to lead to indictments of all of the attendees, and prison for most.

Not surprisingly, the accounts of the dinner party that participants presented to law-enforcement authorities vary in details, but the overall picture that emerges is remarkably consistent. The guests all recalled an atmosphere of great tension. Some expressed apprehension that they or their families would be set upon by mobs and their homes burned. When Ali arrived, he ordered that the phones be disconnected and the blinds drawn. He also elicited everyone’s promise that the discussion be kept secret. When two paintball players, one of them unknown to him, arrived late, he stopped talking until after they had left. Later, federal prosecutors cited these events as proof that the dinner was the start of a criminal conspiracy.

Versions of what Ali said at the dinner were also reasonably consistent, though differences in detail were crucial. One explanation for the differences lies in the fact that after their indictments, many of the dinner guests negotiated plea-bargaining agreements that required them to testify against Ali. At his trial Ali himself remained silent, though earlier he had spoken voluntarily to the FBI and his statements were presented to the jury. Still, when the prosecution did not like what he was quoted as saying, it simply claimed that Muslims who wage jihad are taught to lie. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that the dinner guests’ versions of the talk Ali delivered that night differed as little as they did.

Ali, it is agreed, began with an exposition of Salafiya, holding that the 9/11 attacks augured the imminence of the end of days. Muslims, he said, had a duty to repent their sins. He then advised his listeners that they and their families might best leave America, following the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad, who, in the hijra of 622 A.D., fled with his disciples from Mecca, where they had been persecuted, to the safety of Medina. As his third point, Ali reviewed—rashly, as it turned out—the Islamic doctrine of jihad as holy war, and pointed out that his listeners could serve the faith as mujahideen in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Afghanistan.

The government’s charges against Ali turned on the third point, the Afghanistan alternative. On the night of Kwon’s party, most Americans assumed that President Bush would soon open a front against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime, bin Laden’s host. But Bush had not yet announced his plans. When prosecutors argued that Ali had urged the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan, the defense replied that U.S. troops were neither present nor assigned there at the time he spoke. Had killing been his motive, the defense lawyers said, Ali had only to propose a fifteen-minute drive to the Pentagon, where countless uniformed Americans worked every day. On a key related issue, witnesses split over whether Ali had declared that jihad in Afghanistan was a duty or simply an Islamic option. Though no witness testified that Ali advocated violence, his raising the Afghanistan prospect opened the door to prosecution for conspiring against the United States.

Ali held the stage after dinner that evening for only an hour or so, after which Kwon drove him home. When Kwon returned, the agenda of the dinner guests shifted to the logistics of jihad. By coincidence, one of the guests, a Pakistani national named Muhammad Aatique, had already made arrangements to visit his family in Karachi. Three of the others, Kwon among them, agreed to meet him at one of the LET training camps in Pakistan. Several of the guests then walked to a nearby 7-Eleven store, where they bought a phone card and placed an untraceable call to the LET office in Lahore, presumably to give notice of these plans. Over the next few days Kwon and two other dinner guests went to the Pakistani embassy to obtain visas for the trip.

On September 19, Ali had lunch at a local kebab shop with Kwon and his traveling companion, Khwaja Mahmood Hasan, who also had relatives in Pakistan. Both subsequently testified that Ali expressed neither approval nor disapproval of their intentions but urged them to be cautious. Over the following two days, the four paintball players flew to Pakistan. Kwon and Hasan spent several weeks sightseeing, shopping, relaxing on the beach, and visiting with Hasan’s family. They all met up finally at the designated LET camp, where they underwent some training in the use of AK-47s, machine guns, and rocket- propelled grenades. Within a few more weeks, however, all apparently had lost their ardor for jihad and returned home. None reached Afghanistan; none fired a shot at an American.

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Milton Viorst has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (2006).

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