Enemy of the State

Milton Viorst on the path that brought his son's childhood friend from a middle-class American upbringing to life imprisonment for conspiracy to commit "violent jihad"

In 1977, at the bar mitzvah of his son, Nick, journalist and author Milton Viorst squirmed as the rabbi delivered a stormy sermon about Arabs, castigating them as a people for killing young Jewish boys. Seated somewhere in the audience, Viorst was well aware, was his son’s close friend, Ali al-Timimi, the American-born son of Iraqi émigrés and the only Muslim in the room. Deeply embarrassed, Viorst found himself hoping that Ali, an adolescent after all, would be too bored or distracted to pay attention to the rabbi’s declamations.

Just after the boys entered high school, Ali moved to Saudi Arabia with his parents, who had each obtained lucrative positions there in government and academia. Nick Viorst’s relationship with Ali faded, as youthful friendships so often do, into a pleasant memory.

Until last year. One day, Nick telephoned his father with a startling message: he had read in the newspaper that Ali had been sentenced to life in prison, charged by the FBI with recruiting fellow Muslims to an anti-American jihad network in the wake of 9/11. He was, the prosecutor claimed, a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism, a “kingpin of hate” who had used his religious authority and charisma to lure his followers into clandestine military operations against the United States.

Viorst was shocked. How, he wondered, could Ali, a kid who grew up wearing McDonald’s T-shirts and baseball caps, who enjoyed beers and rock concerts, who seemed, in other words, so wholly American, have gone on, in the span of three decades, to become an enemy of the state?

It was more than a hypothetical question for Viorst. A prominent journalist who had written copiously about the Middle East and the Arab world (his most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West), Viorst saw in Ali’s arrest a confluence of the personal and the professional, a story about radical Islam, centering on a man who had once been a welcome guest in his own house. It was, he realized, a story he had to write.

What ensued, Viorst admits in retrospect, was the most difficult reporting he had ever faced as a journalist. Secluded by the government in a maximum-security facility, Ali was unavailable for questioning. Most of Ali’s friends preferred to remain silent, fearing the repercussions that might come from criticizing the government. Working mainly with official records, then—from Ali’s past speeches to the government’s indictment—Viorst tried to recreate the path that had led Ali from his schooldays with Nick to the burning scarlet letter of a being convicted as a terrorist.

The more Viorst learned, however, the more troubling the questions that presented themselves. While Ali had almost certainly made some disturbing statements—advising a small group of his followers to leave America and become holy warriors in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Afghanistan—he never advocated or pursued action against the United States. Viorst was also troubled by some of the strategies pursued by Ali’s prosecutorial team, from disregarding testimony on the grounds that Islam allows its adherents to lie, to interpreting a penchant for paintball—a sport favored by some of Ali’s followers—as clear evidence of violent intentions.

In his June 2006 article in The Atlantic, Viorst addresses these questions by constructing an intricate mosaic of theology, politics, and grand human drama. He also raises a question of his own: are Muslims in post-9/11 America being treated fairly under the law?

I spoke to him by telephone on April 10.

—Liel Leibovitz

So many Americans are familiar with the stereotype that Islam ends up drawing its followers into violent fanaticism and anti-Western thinking. How might Ali’s case speak to these sentiments? Is it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?

Well, I think Ali’s case is very much a demonstration of where we as a culture, we as a government, have gotten sucked in the vortex created by 9/11. Ali was not treated as an individual in our society. Every person who is accused of a crime, or every person who walks the streets, has the right to a presumption of innocence. But Ali was treated as a member of a suspect segment of society, and wound up, incomprehensibly, with a life sentence. We played very loosely with American process and American tradition.

Ali received some of his Islamic education in Medina, where Saudi-brand Wahabbism prevails. Do you believe that this exposure determined his life’s course?

We’d probably need a psychiatrist to answer such questions. Clearly, the Ali I knew when he was a kid, friendly with my son Nicholas, showed, in my judgment, no signs of extremism. I was certainly surprised by the course Ali’s life took—but then, I sometimes wonder about the course my own life ended up taking, and I have been acquainted with myself for a very long time. So I don’t know why his particular case unfolded that way. All you can do is look at the evidence and chart it, but you can’t say what was in his head.

That aside, I do have some serious problems with the course Saudi Arabia has taken. I think that during all those decades when we were preoccupied with the dangers of communism, we might have given some thought to the dangers presented by Islamic extremism, which we didn’t. We never paid very much attention while the Saudis were spending a very substantial proportion of the very large fortune they earned from oil on building schools and mosques throughout the Islamic world—and outside the Islamic world, even in the Western world. Wahabbism isn’t necessarily a violent doctrine, but because it is rather extreme, it can tip easily into violence. I think that’s what happened with Osama Bin Laden.

But Islam isn’t the only source of this problem. We’re talking about two cultures that have been in a posture of confrontation for many, many centuries. I’ve just finished writing a book about the 1,400-year rivalry between Islamic civilization and Western civilization. It’s not just about Islam; it’s about Islam and Christianity being two highly evangelistic religions, both seeking to promote the power of their civilization. Christianity and Islam are pretty much mirror images in that respect. What’s happening right now, in my judgment, is the latest chapter in a 1,400-year-old rivalry between two cultures, not just between two religions.

That intercultural struggle seemed to play out in Ali’s life. The most curious thing for me about him, as he’s portrayed in your piece, is that there almost seem to be two of him. For most of the story, he’s a man struggling to practice dispassionate, modern science and orthodox Islam at the same time. Then, a few days after 9/11, he gives a speech declaring that the attacks might augur the imminence of the end of days, and that his followers should consider leaving America and practicing jihad as holy war. What, in your opinion, happened?

I think that most Muslims were traumatized by the 9/11 attack, Ali among them. And the fact that they could anticipate, with a certain amount of accuracy, that they would be under assault, struck them all with fear. There was some very compelling evidence for that kind of reaction. But you’re right about Ali juggling two lives and two sets of thought. And I think it’s correct to say this reached a dramatic climax in the hours after 9/11. Ali probably was not alone in that. There no doubt were Muslims all over the world who found themselves in the same kind of schizophrenic situation, with their efforts to reconcile their two worlds suddenly shattered.

Given your personal acquaintance with Timimi, how did you feel when you first heard the news about Ali?

I was shocked, because I had not followed Ali. He and Nicky had drifted apart, and their lives took rather different courses. I don’t think Nicky even knew where Ali had gone during this period. It certainly wasn’t a subject that came up in our house. And then suddenly, all these decades later, we learned that Ali had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

On a professional level, I’ve spent these last decades trying to understand Islam and the relations between Islam and the West. And in many ways Ali seemed to epitomize the issues I had been focusing on. So I decided I would like to go to work and try to better understand what had happened to him.

What was the research process like? Was it hard to reconstruct the story?

It was very hard. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve had to do, because the raw material was very scarce. I talked to some members of Ali’s family, but other members of Ali’s family wouldn’t talk to me. And I couldn’t talk to Ali since he was in prison. Even though, legally, he and I both had a right to talk, the prison authorities made special efforts to make it difficult for people other than Ali’s wife, so far as I know, to visit with him.

So I really had to do a whole lot of reconstructing. I did this by reading statements that Ali had made over the years, and finding friends of Ali’s who lived outside the United States. The Internet proved to be a marvelous instrument. I’m sort of old, and the Internet is still pretty new and foreign to me. But I got fairly good at it as I worked at it, and found some important friends of Ali’s who lived in Australia, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. We had some useful exchanges of information, which complemented what I was able to find on my own.

And of course, there was also the huge trial record. It was a three-foot high stack of papers, and I read every word of it maybe three or four times in order to understand what the various people were saying. So, between all of that, I did my best to try to present a profile of Ali that was as fair and accurate as I knew how to make it.

There are some people who would argue that arresting would-be terrorists for their rhetoric is the only way to prevent future attacks. They'd point out that there's no way to just "wait and see" if someone hijacks a plane or blows up a building before throwing him in jail. What’s your take on this?

I’d be the last to say that the danger to our society is not real. It is real. Even before 9/11, there was the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. There was information circulating through the FBI about these mysterious men who were taking pilot training in American pilot training schools, and for whatever reason, the FBI never quite got around to checking that out. If we had stopped Moussaoui, or stopped some of the other terrorists who hijacked these airplanes, then 9/11 might have been avoided.

I think there’s no doubt that after 9/11 most Muslims are looked upon a little bit more carefully than other segments of society. I can’t criticize American civilization for that; you look to where the dangers seem to lie. But when you do that, you’d better be very careful not to cross the line, and I think we stepped over the line with Ali. There is no doubt in my mind that after 9/11, security considerations do have to be a very high priority for the government, but that doesn’t mean that we can engage in abuses, as we did with Japanese Americans in World War II.

If someone is making speeches in a mosque, saying, “We have to kill Americans and hijack planes,” then, yeah, we better watch out for that guy. That’s a serious problem. But I don’t think that’s what Ali did. His “rhetoric” was not inflammatory; it was an effort to understand his own religion. There was very little that was even in the grey area, although I’ll admit that some of it was within a grey area. But it’s hard to find anything he said that could be described, legally or even colloquially, as incitement. There are real dangers that we have to look out for, but not a bunch of guys playing paintball. And certainly not Ali al-Timimi, who never promoted violence against his country.

Why then, in your opinion, was Ali targeted by the government?

I don’t know the answer to that. I can surmise that the government was under a lot of pressure—they were certainly were looking for people who had been involved in terrorism—but I have no idea what the real motivation was in the case of Ali. You’d be better off asking Mr. Kromberg [Ali’s prosecutor], or the Attorney General. If you can get an answer, let me know.

For my own part, I agree with what Ali’s wife said: he certainly did not hate America. He loved America. He thought of himself as an American. Christian evangelicals or Orthodox Jews or Salafi Muslims can be extremely American but follow modes of existence that are totally different from my own. That doesn’t make them any less American. I’ve been around enough to know that people can ostensibly start from the same place and have their lives wind up in very different ways. We know that. We don’t always know why. That’s one of the exciting mysteries of existence.