The Harrisburg Terrorist, My little brother and the quandary of self-radicalization
On December 17th, 2015, the FBI executed a no knock search warrant and arrested my little brother at his residence in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. According to the indictment, the FBI’s Philadelphia Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) had been surveilling Jalil Aziz’s online behavior as early as July 2014. Wednesday December 20th, 2017 my little brother was sentenced to a little over 13 years for conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization and transmitting a communication containing a threat to injure.
Publicly, this case has reached it’s inevitable conclusion. The terrorist has been caught, a tough sentence has been handed out, and we’re all safer because of it. While the rest of America has moved on, my little brother’s “adjustment” is only just beginning. He has a long road ahead of him including, obtaining his GED, learning how to survive in prison, being labeled a terrorist and felon for life, and more importantly, completely ridding himself of all his perverted, inaccurate, and faulty beliefs. Myself, our family, and The TAM Group will be there for him, especially concerning his mental health and Islamic identity.
Discussing his Islamic identity is probably the scariest conversation to have with the American public. Why? Because Muslims are evil, vengeful, hateful, angry individuals who hate the American way of life. If you watch enough “24”, “Homeland”, or insert Hollywood villain “here”, this is the perspective you may lean towards, especially, if you’ve never met a Muslim.
Was my little brother confused? Yes! Did he threaten (via Twitter), to cut the head off of Obama in the White House? Yes! Did he advocate revenge killing (via Twitter) for the three Muslims shot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina? Yes! Did he pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Yes! Did he make a number of disgusting, horrific statements (via Tweets and retweets)? Yes! Was he a threat to his community? No, not in anyway!
Unlike my sister and I, my little brother grew up completely sheltered. While my sister and I went to public school, interacted with friends and family, participated in geography bee’s, oratorical contests, homecoming dances, school plays, and local football games, my little brother wasn’t allowed to have these experiences. He wasn’t only sheltered, he was secluded, sequestered, and imprisoned in his house. He wasn’t allowed to visit me, his sister, aunts, or uncles. All phone calls were monitored and kept short. I wasn’t allowed to spend any meaningful time with him. By age 18 he had never held a job, never taken a train or bus by himself, or been anywhere out of the presence of his parents. He wasn’t only inexperienced, he was noticeably awkward. If you had the opportunity to speak with him you would undoubtedly come away feeling like you were speaking with a 10 or 11 year old. My little brother was clearly developmentally behind, most likely a result of being raised and homeschooled by my mother in an overbearing, controlling, and dictatorial environment.
With hindsight being 20/20, maybe our family should have taken the pregnant utterances of my mother seriously. She vowed, when I was around 15, that, “Your grandmother took you and your sister from me, she will not be taking this one”. Here, my mother is referring to my sister and I gravitating toward our grandmother who unlike my mother was not physically or verbally abusive. My mother, who almost certainly has an undiagnosed mental health challenge, repeated this utterance in one form or another for many years to come. We could not have imagined in our worst nightmare this would be the outcome. Did my little brother play a terrorist online? Yes, absolutely. Should his naivete, inexperience, and stupidity result in losing over 10 years of his life? I would disagree and not for for the reasons you may think.
How should the issue of self-radicalization be addressed? In a report issued by the George Washington Program on Extremism, they state on their website, “The 147 individuals studied in our report defy any cookie-cutter profile of the ‘American ISIS supporter”. This means that there is no one size fits all approach to identifying radicalized, dangerous individuals. What has been law enforcement’s response been to this need for nuance? It appears the FBI’s approach (thus far) is to monitor the subject until he commits a criminal act, or in some cases send undercover agents to “assist” the subject with the goal of arresting him before a violent act could be committed. In April 2017, then Homeland Security Director John Kelly stated that the FBI has open terrorism investigations in every state. Current FBI Director Christopher Wray mentioned before a Homeland Security Committee that the bureau has about 1000 open domestic terror investigations. This approach is at the heart of the quandary of self-radicalization. Do we watch everyone while waiting for any one of them to cross the line of criminality?
The FBI has tried a myriad of approaches as a response to the complexity of this issue. In 2014, in the case of Shannon Conley, the FBI press release stated, “Special Agents with the FBI met with her in extraordinary attempts to persuade her not to carry out her plans to travel overseas to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization and to engage in violent jihad”. In the end, she was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. As per the report, “ISIS in America” by Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, three individuals, aged 15, 16 and 17, were intercepted on their way to Syria by German authorities, based on intel from the FBI and returned to the United States. They were all released to their families without charges. In the case of Peyton Pruitt of Alabama, an Esquire Magazine exposé mentioned that he was charged with providing support for an act of terrorism. Peyton Pruitt was diagnosed as being mentally disabled, having mental retardation, autism, and attention deficit disorder. In order to afford the legal fees Tony Pruitt, Peyton’s father sold his home, their nine acres of land, and gave away all the furniture. After 11-months of incarceration, the St. Clair County Circuit Court found Peyton not guilty by reason of mental defect.
The above cases are indicative of the complexity, scale, and reach of the self-radicalization phenomenon. In the HBO special titled “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma”, Phillip Mudd, the former Deputy Director of the CIA Counter-terrorist Center and FBI National Security Branch, explained the difficulty assessing individuals’ intentions. In speaking with the family of Ehsanul Sadequee, who was sentenced to seventeen years on terror related charges, he stated, “a youth can transition from saying I am concerned with what I see around the world to saying I want to strap on a bomb and kill people. I saw that, in some cases happen within a matter of weeks…”
My little brother will be spending all of his twenties behind bars; this is no simple task for someone who has never experienced life. Even so, as I mentioned to Chief Judge Connor during sentencing, I feel no resentment toward the government or the judicial system. I have a family with three little girls, and if I saw a news story that a suspected terrorist lived next door I would want something done about it.
The FBI has a clear mandate to protect the homeland and it’s approach, while flawed, can be considered effective. It is placed in an incredibly difficult situation. If an attack occurs it is questioned by all levels of government. If it arrest individuals who have yet to attempt an attack, they are critiqued that a crime has not occurred.
The confused Muslim is also placed in a winless situation. The local Imam is most likely not trained to dissect, interpret, and address the root causes of radicalization with all its subsidiary branches. This leaves the confused Muslim three options. They can continue to learn via online material and place themselves in an environment to be radicalized even more, tell a friend, family, or local Imam and risk ostracization and labeling, or do nothing and allow these confused feelings and thoughts to fester. If not correctly addressed the next publicized drone strike could ignite those same unaddressed feelings.
Family members of those radicalized are placed in a similar no-win predicament. According to a New York Times article, Sal Shafi was worried about his son becoming radicalized and contacted the FBI. In the end his son Adam Shafi was charged and faced a lengthy prison sentence. His father states that, “Every minute, I just imagine him in that solitary confinement, facing 20 years, because I cooperated with the government”. In the same article Seamus Hughes the Deputy Director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism stated, “There is no system in place that doesn’t result in spending 20 years in jail”.
In recognition of this quandary on both sides, as well as whisperings of members of our own Muslim community being affected by online extremist propaganda, we decided that it was the Muslim communities’ responsibility to provide an alternative solution. In the summer of 2014, a group of us with specialties in radicalization, Islamic theology, human development, social services, prison chaplaincy, and community organizing came together to form The TAM Group. We acknowledge the predicament the government was placed in, at the same time, we felt confident that we could provide a meaningful alternative to a problem that has the potential to criminalize Islamic behavior in general. For example, a woman wearing a hijab could instantly be considered a threat. It’s ironic that I would help form a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the issue of homegrown violent extremism, while my little brother would later plead guilty and accept a 13 year sentence for being a homegrown violent extremist.
Our group, The TAM Group, formed to be that bridge where confused, misinformed, vulnerable Muslims can be engaged, challenged, and educated before they reach the point of committing a criminal act. Where concerned family members and friends who are the most likely to see the first signs radicalized behavior could speak with a specialist and be given relevant counsel and advice. Reading the tweets of my little brother is still highly upsetting. I wasn’t able to help him, but hopefully we can convince other angry, motivated Muslims to pursue a different direction and change course. One of our goals is to assist them in building and developing a positive Muslim identify with self-awareness, self-control and rational responses. When they discover the root of their anger and frustration they can change their behavior and see the facility of blood-thirsty groups such as ISIS and their ludicrous Islamic claims.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters must understand that violence directed towards innocent people will lead to a path of ruin. That trying to harm a country where you live and whose government is constructed to protect your person, property, and family is idiocy and a faulty way of thinking. America is a country where you are completely free to engage in your religious observances without fear of retribution or coercion. Is our system perfect? No it is not – far from it. Does the lack of perfection give anyone the license to kill anyone you see fit? No, no and again, no.
Dr. Abdul Haqq Baker mentioned in his presentation to the United Nation Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) this past December in Kyrgyzstan, that when addressing violent extremism a nuanced, multi-pronged approach is needed. The FBI is not a social service agency. It’s mission is not to guide your (our) misguided Muslim youth. It is a law enforcement agency. Hence the need for a non-profit organization where, as Assistant Chief Metropolitan Police Chief Jeffrey Carroll said in our August 7th Conference held at the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center, a partnership with community groups and law enforcement exist. We must establish a level of trust with local, state, and federal law enforcement institutions. We can’t hold the government responsible for our youth’s misinterpretation of the Quran. We must be there to deconstruct and break down the corrupt theological arguments used by terrorist group, verse by verse. As practicing orthodox Muslims we hold a level of respect and authority on the subject that a non-Muslim, government official will never hold. Our methodical, sequenced, and tested approach will not work for everyone. Some individuals require imprisonment. However, with partnership and communication with our law enforcement partners, we offer a significant alternative to the current status quo.
In his statement before the court, my little brother took full responsibility for his actions. He acknowledged and apologized for the horrific things he tweeted. The online violent extremist community provided him a connection and feeling of acceptance. This admission did not save him from the wrath of the court, nor will it save anyone else. My brother has gone from one prison to another, but for others out there, there are alternatives.
Ibrahim Aziz is one of the founders and an Executive Board Member of The TAM Group. He is a 16 year IT professional and currently enrolled in Bowie State University as a Sociology major. He hopes to enroll in a Clinical PhD. program upon gradation.