Ahmad Musa Jebril had a shady reputation that preceded him, yet he was still a mystery to many in suburban Detroit’s Muslim community.
The son of a local imam who had been dismissed by his mosque because of his radical views, the younger Jebril had also been barred by some area mosques for his own extremist rhetoric. So when Jebril started coming around to Masjid Umar Bin Khattab in Brownstown Mi. in the summer of 2003, officials at the mosque warned younger congregants to stay away from him, thinking that if they banned him outright without witnessing an actual transgression, his appeal might increase.
But unbeknownst to mosque officials, Jebril, now 36, had already attracted a group of five to 10 teens and twentysomethings by delivering passionate, teary-eyed lectures about Islamic spirituality and the earliest Muslims while they sat mesmerized on the floor of a spare prayer room in the mosque’s basement.
“He approached us as someone trying to get more involved with the youth of the [mosque],” said Jawad Khan, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, who was 19 when Jebril came “out of nowhere.” Like his peers, Khan was initially impressed with Jebril, and disregarded the warnings. After all, Khan reasoned, the talks were about spirituality and Islamic history. “He was a very powerful speaker. He could really get your emotions going.”
Many Americans worry that it is just such a combination--a radical leader and impressionable youths--that can lead to the creation of homegrown terrorists, like the 24 British Muslims (three of whom were recent converts) arrested in early August as suspects in a plot to blow up several planes with liquid explosives flying from Heathrow Airport to the United States.
And the reappearance of Yahya--a youth believed to be California native Adam Gadahn--on an FBI list of most-wanted al-Qaeda suspects last spring was a sobering reminder of what happens when an isolated youth is not steered away from extremist rhetoric. Gadahn, who converted to Islam nine years earlier, had no friends and quickly fell in with a group of Muslims overly critical of all things Western, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.
While suspicion in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 tended to focus on extremists from the Middle East or South Asia, recent incidents have focused attention on local recruits, such as the four British Muslim suicide bombers who attacked London’s subway and bus system in July 2005. The arrests of young, North American-raised Muslims in California, New Jersey, Virginia, Toronto, and elsewhere since 9/11 have for many Americans confirmed, or at least fueled suspicions that mosques and other Islamic institutions breed terrorists.
But how real are these fears? Are many Muslim youths in the United States susceptible to radical preaching? Are terrorists being groomed here?
In Detroit, Jebril’s lectures turned into angry rants about western crimes against Muslims and he peppered his talk with invectives against Shi’a Muslims and called on God to turn Jewish children into orphans, Khan recalled. Khan and most of his peers stopped going, and soon, mosque officials also learned about Jebril’s clandestine lectures, and banned him from the mosque barely a month after he had arrived.
Detroit-area Muslims later learned that the FBI was investigating Jebril and his father for terrorism-related activities, and that a Hamas poster was found during a raid on their apartment. The FBI in Detroit declined to comment on whether it is still investigating Jebril on terror suspicions, or what investigators have found so far.
While danger was averted in Detroit, Khan said he has heard of mosques in New York, Houston, and elsewhere where radical messages have an audience. But at least mosque officials in this country are more careful, he said.
Islamic leaders in the United States acknowledge that they cannot completely rule out the possibility of homegrown terrorists. But they assert that their communities are unlikely breeding grounds for them because Muslim Americans, while perhaps angry with American policies in the Islamic world, recognize their freedoms, enjoy greater prosperity, and endure less racism than Muslims in Europe. On the contrary, Muslim Americans, like those from Masjid Umar Bin Khattab, have little tolerance for radicalism, they say.
“Any incident, big or small, weighs upon anybody who’s visibly a Muslim,” said Nadwah Khan, 24, who wears a headscarf and has been active in her Toledo, Ohio, mosque since childhood. “We all worry about it, and we all try to prevent it.”
“As long as Muslims have that feeling that, ‘in spite of everything, things aren’t so bad for Muslims in the U.S.,’ there aren’t going to be those high levels of disenchantment and resentment that allow radicalism to thrive,” said Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and author of “American Muslims.”