Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia:
Case Study in Homegrown Radicalization
The real threat to the United States is not terrorism. The real threat is the sophisticated forces of Islamism, which have collaborated with the American Left not only to undermine U.S. national security, but to shred the fabric of American constitutional democracy—freedom and individual liberty. In The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, bestselling author Andrew C. McCarthy provides a harrowing account of how the global Islamist movement’s jihad involves far more than terrorist attacks, and how it has found the ideal partner in President Barack Obama, whose Islamist sympathies run deep. — Andrew C. McCarthy
The new report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on textbooks in use at the Islamic Saudi Academy in northern Virginia leaves little doubt that the Saudi government, which owns the school, and school officials use the school as an incubator for their special brand of Islam among the students, to the rejection of moderate interpretations of the Koran which reject hate speech, polarization, and incitement. Yesterday’s USCIRF report was actually the fourth since 2003 warning that various Tawhid editions of textbooks used by the Saudis in its schools include intolerant language which should be removed (see last year’s USCIRF report, which refers to the other reports).
But I can see millions of Americans rolling their eyes, wondering why it matters. It matters because the ISA textbooks and intolerant culture have acted as an incubator of homegrown terror for years, as seen in the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali.
As I reminded readers on May 20, the 1999 valedictorian at the ISA was none other than Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of joining Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Ali was born in Houston and raised mostly in the U.S. His family moved to Jordan for four years, and then moved to Falls Church, Virginia, when Abu Ali was 14 or 15, and his father worked at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. I know Falls Church like the back of my hand, and there is nothing in its public schools or culture which would lead any average, U.S.-born young man towards radical Islam. Ali attended ISA, excelled there, and was obviously attracted to the teachings represented in the textbooks and the culture of the school. For after first attending the University of Maryland,he left in 2000 to study Sharia law for several months at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. While there, he met someone who befriended him, who eventually became a coconspirator in his assassination plot. After Abu Ali returned from his studies to the U.S. in August 2000, he stayed in touch with his “friend,” and Abu Ali returned to Saudi Arabia in September 2002 (pages 7-8). Then, to quote a February 2005 filing in the criminal case against him (page 4), “Between in or around September 2002 and on or about June 9, 2003, the defendant joined a clandestine al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia.” That was no ordinary cell – members included the Al Qaeda terrorists which planned and executed the May 12, 2003 attacks in Riyadh, killing 34, including nine Americans (page 5 of the linked document). The Saudis publicly warned, five days before the attack, that 19 persons were planning an attack inside Saudi Arabia, and named Abu Ali in that group, but the warning was too late to stop the attack. The same filing which pinpointed Abu Ali’s entry into Al Qaeda gave a clue to a second coconspirator in the plot to kill President Bush (pages 4-5):
“The defendant discussed plans for assassinating President of the United States George W. Bush with a member of the al-Qaeda cell (identified in the Indictment as Coconspirator #2). Specifically, the defendant and Coconspirator #2 discussed two options for assassinating the President: (1) an operation in which the defendant would get close enough to the President to shoot him on the street; and (2) an operation in which the defendant would detonate a car bomb… The government proffers that Coconspirator #2 later was killed in a shoot-out with Saudi law enforcement authorities in or around September 2003.”
Evan Kohlmann identified that coconspirator in a post here on February 24, 2005, after the filing:
“That September, there was only one shoot-out of note between Saudi security forces and Al-Qaida members wanted for their involvement in the May 2003 suicide bombings in Riyadh… September 23, 2003, Saudi forces attempted to raid the three-story housing complex of the King Fahd Hospital in Jizan (600 miles south of Riyadh) on the suspicion that it was being used as a base to plan upcoming Al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. During the ensuing shootout, one Saudi policeman and three Al-Qaida militants were killed, including Zubayr al-Rimi (a.k.a. Sultan Jubran Sultan al-Qahtani). At the time, al-Rimi was among Saudi Arabia’s most wanted terrorist suspects and had served as a key lieutenant to other senior Al-Qaida operatives in the region. Moreover, only days before his violent death in Jizan, the FBI had sent out a specific alert to state and local law enforcement about Zubayr al-Rimi, warning that he was wanted “in connection with possible threats against the United States.” In retrospect, it seems likely that Rimi’s “possible threat against the United States” was a would-be plot to assassinate President George W. Bush with the assistance of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali.”
The Saudis arrested Abu Ali in June 2003 and held him until the U.S. demanded that they try him or send him to the U.S. for trial, and the Saudis chose the latter.
Within a week of his arrest, the FBI searched his room at his parent’s house (page 6) and found items which had he had in his possession there before leaving for Saudi Arabia in September 2002:
“An undated, two-page document praising the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and condemning U.S. military action in Afghanistan;…Audio tapes in Arabic promoting violent jihad, the killing of Jews, and a battle by Muslims against Christians and Jews; and
A book written by al-Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which al-Zawahiri characterizes democracy as a new religion that must be destroyed by war, describes anyone who supports democracy as an infidel, and condemns the Muslim Brotherhood for renouncing violent jihad as a means to establish an Islamic state.” (More on that last phrase below.)
So Abu Ali was radicalized by the time he left the U.S. for his last trip to Saudi Arabia.
Abu Ali’s friendships in Saudi Arabia weren’t limited to Al Qaeda associates, but included other radical extremists who were also based in northern Virginia. Among those arrested with Abu Ali in Saudi Arabia were leading members of “the Virginia jihad network,” sometimes dubbed “the Virginia paintball gang” for their use of paintball in the Virginia woods to practice for eventually joining Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Afghanistan to fight against the U.S. To quote fromanother filing in the Abu Ali case (pages 3-4) : “At about the same time that Abu Ali was arrested, three other Americans in Saudi Arabia were also apprehended by Saudi officials… Unlike Abu Ali, each of these individuals was extradited a month later to the United States. See id. Once in the United States, they were charged, along with eight other Northern Virginia men, with undertaking paramilitary training to wage a terrorist jihad on behalf of Muslims.” Eventually there were at least a dozen guilty pleas or convictions of members of that network, with the most recent occurring in April.
Abu Ali didn’t move towards Islamic jihadism when he was growing up in Houston, and I doubt that he latched onto it as a kid in Jordan. His serious exposure to the jihadist mentality had to start at the ISA, when there was no oversight of the textbooks and school culture. The outstanding study released last year by the NYPD, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” identified four stages to radicalization as pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization. The report analyzed the “Virginia jihad network” as a case study for each stage, but just as easily could have discussed the Abu Ali case. The study identifies common factors in U.S. homegrown terrorists:
“Most of the same indicators and signatures that were common among the five foreign plots were also common to the three U.S. plots. Generally, the plot members were:• Male Muslims, under the age of 35, who were local residents and citizens and came from varied ethnic backgrounds. In fact, all were between the ages of 18 and 37 with the average ages at the time of their training activity being about 27.
• Many, but not all, were the children of immigrants from the Middle East or South Asia; the second generation in the U.S.
• Significant proportions came from middle class backgrounds; none were economically destitute.
• Most had some form of higher education, at least high school graduates, if not university students.”
That description fits Abu Ali perfectly. Other stages describe Abu Ali’s passage and the role of the ISA in his radicalization. The school would have been the scene for Abu Ali’s self-identification and early indoctrination after his years in Jordan, with his jihadization occurring after graduation and up through his physically joining the Saudi jihadists.
There are no excuses left for the Saudis to maintain the textbooks, which inculcate principles underlying the jihadist culture. The ISA has an incubator for radicalization of otherwise average American Muslims for years, and at this point there is no reason to trust that the Saudis or school officials will remove them. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors should revoke the lease (I assume that the lease includes the standard “termination for convenience” clause in all government contracts). And the State Department should order the school shut down as suggested by the USCIRF.
The ISA case is also another example of the continuous export of Wahabist propaganda from Saudi Arabia; the string of broken promises by the Saudis on counter-terrorism issues; and the power of the Saudis inside Washington to escape responsibility for its actions. But that is a different post for another time.