Hi mom ~ its me Joey Cohen ~ I'm a Muslim now!
Third of four parts
When Yousef al-Khattab demonstrated outside New York mosques just a couple of years ago, it was pretty obvious where he stood on the political spectrum.
"All we want is the non-Muslims, at this point, off the lands of Mohammed. ... We want the kafirs out of it," Khattab said in one interview, using a term for infidels or Muslim non-believers. When asked if he wanted Islam to take over the world, his answer was unequivocal: "Of course I want it to ... and it will."
To promote that world view, Khattab and a friend of his, a Columbia University graduate named Younes Abdullah Mohammed, started a group called Revolution Muslim. Khattab says it was supposed to be both a radical Islamic organization and a movement. It operates openly and freely in New York City and on the web. He says their blog receives 1,500 hits a day, while the Revolution Muslim YouTube channel has almost 1,000 subscribers.
The group's goals include establishing Islamic law in the U.S., destroying Israel and taking al-Qaida's messages to the masses.
"Everything we did was basically open," Khattab says one recent afternoon in New York. "Our meetings would usually consist of a small lecture; sometimes, in the early period, it would be a Sheik Abdullah Faisal recording of some sort and then analysis. ...That's basically what it was all about."
It sounds innocent enough. But Abdullah Faisal, the spiritual leader of the group, has preached the message of radical Islam for some time. He told NPR several months ago in Jamaica that Muslims had to fight against the people who were raping their women and robbing their lands.
The cleric served five years in prison in the United Kingdom for incitement to terrorism. And Kenya recently deported him back to Jamaica. Authorities there said he was trying to recruit foreign fighters for a terrorist group in Somalia called al-Shabab.
Faisal says that if he had actually done that, thousands would have left Kenya for Somalia. He denies he was ever in the recruitment business.
Group Like 'A Gateway Drug' To Jihad
Revolution Muslim has its own gossamer connections to terrorism. A list of its recent members reads like a "Who's Who" of American homegrown terrorism suspects. One has been arrested for wanting to launch an attack on the Long Island Railroad for al-Qaida; three others were intercepted getting on flights to join a terrorist group in Somalia. An editor believed to be behind an online magazine for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen was a regular in Revolution Muslim chatrooms, as was Jihad Jane, the Philadelphia woman arrested last year for plotting to kill a Danish cartoonist.
Of the two dozen homegrown plots in the United States in the past year, Revolution Muslim was linked to one-third of them. Khattab says the group isn't to blame.
"Certainly, I never told anybody to go overseas — never told anybody to break any laws," Khattab says. (Younes Abdullah Mohammed ignored numerous requests by NPR for an interview.)
Khattab and Mohammed have managed to stay on the right side of the law. They are careful to stay on the correct side of the First Amendment.
"I don't glorify any acts of terrorism," Khattab explains. That's one reason why authorities haven't shut them down.
Another reason is that law enforcement has had a great deal of success tracking possible suspects by monitoring Revolution Muslim. And it was no secret to the group's members that they were being watched.
"It's perfect, they see who is giving out the literature, who's taking it ... what's being said, who's this guy, what's he saying, does he agree with them," Khattab says of law enforcement's monitoring activities. "They couldn't get better informants than that. I am sure we had many informants coming through, in fact I know we did."
But mostly they had true believers coming through: young disaffected Muslims, experimenting with the idea of violent jihad.
"I think Revolution Muslim is like a gateway drug," says Mia Bloom, a professor and terrorism expert at Pennsylvania State University. "It offers the opportunity for people to become further and further involved, and enables people who might be just tangentially interested in the global jihad to link up with real jihadists in Pakistan and other places."
Rhetoric Transformed Into Action
In a very fundamental way, religious awakenings are at the heart of Revolution Muslim. Founder Yousef al-Khattab, 42, used to be Joey Cohen. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of secular Jews. (Co-founder Younes Abdullah Mohammed, who was born Jesse Norton, also converted to Islam.)
Khattab says that, for him, there was something missing in the Jewish religion. He liked the idea of completely submitting to God, so he became a Muslim.
"My parents aren't religious Jews and they don't agree with Islam, at all, but they believe it is my choice to do what I want," Khattab says.
At the New York Police Dept.'s annual Shield Conference in October, most of the attendees wear suits, not uniforms. They are private security people from around the region that descend on One Police Plaza, just blocks from Ground Zero, to get a terrorism briefing.
This year, the buzz is about homegrown terrorism and, when the NYPD talks about homegrown plots, Revolution Muslim invariably comes up.
This summer, for example, the NYPD arrested two New Jersey men who wanted to join a terrorist group in Somalia. They allegedly were associating with Revolution Muslim and its predecessor, the Islamic Thinkers Society.
It is unclear how long the groups have been around — but the Islamic Thinkers Society attracted public attention when its members started demonstrating in favor of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after they occurred.
"[These groups] seem to attract individuals who are aspiring jihadists based on their provocative message," says Mitch Silber, the head of the NYPD's intelligence analysis division, which tracks terrorism in the city. "But at a certain point, these individuals decide that rhetoric isn't enough, and they want to do more. They want to join the fight. They spin off the group and actually get involved with the fight."
So that's how Revolution Muslim works: People are attracted to its message, then graduate to other groups.
When asked why so many jihadists seem to fall in with Revolution Muslim, he says he thinks it's because it — and the Islamic Thinkers Society — "stand out as two of the most public and provocative groups that are putting this message out there."
"Pretty much anyone in the U.S. looking for this message ... they are going to end up at Revolution Muslim [and the] Islamic Thinkers Society's doorstep," Silber says.
Talking Only Of Hate A 'Warning Sign'
One of the people who turned up on the doorstep, online at least, was a blogger named Zack Chesser. And what happened next is one of the reasons that Khattab finally broke with Revolution Muslim.
It began when the FBI arrested Chesser in July. They said he was on his way to join the al-Qaida affiliated group al-Shabab in Somalia. The way Khattab sees it, Revolution Muslim should have stopped Chesser from going.
"Honestly, they are going to hate me for speaking to you and this is going to go on and I am going to be the coward and this and that," he says. "In Islam, we have a principle loving and hating for the sake of Allah. They focus on the hating all the time. When you see the youth only talking about the hate, that's a warning sign."
That's what, apparently, is at the heart of Khattab's latest conversion, his severing all ties with the group. Now, when he talks about Revolution Muslim, it is as if it were a youthful indiscretion.
"I guess I came to say that I believe what I said before was wrong," he says.
When asked if he thought he outgrew Revolution Muslim, he replies: "It is hard to outgrow something that is bigger than you are." And he's quiet for a minute. "I don't know, yeah, I guess that would be the word, I guess I would say I outgrew it."
And that, in some ways, may be as happy an ending as this story could have — not just for Khattab but for law enforcement, too: They'd like to think that radical Islam is something people will outgrow.