The American path to jihad
By Chris Heffelfinger
On July 26, a former Washington cab driver and resident of Gwynn Oak, Maryland, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for providing material support to a terrorist group.
Ohio-born Mahmud Faruq Brent, 32, admitted to attending training camps run by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, Army of the Pure) in 2002, a Pakistan-based jihadist group established during the 1980s campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
After training at various locations in Pakistan, Brent returned to
the United States, residing in Baltimore when he was arrested in August 2005. Brent told Tarik Shah - who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaeda - that he had been up in the mountains training with the mujahideen. 
Through Shah, Brent's training is linked to other cases of Americans who attended LeT-run camps in Pakistan. After Shah's arrest, he agreed to record conversations with Brent in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In Shah's cellular telephone, along with Mahmud al-Mutazzim, another name Brent used, was the contact information for Seifullah Chapman, who also knew Brent. Chapman, a former marine, was part of the "Virginia Jihad Group", another informal network convicted of terrorism-related charges stemming from their training in Pakistan. He was sentenced in 2005 to a 65-year prison term.
As disturbing as these cases are individually, collectively they demonstrate an even more troubling trend of radicalized American Muslims - bound by Salafi ideology - receiving training overseas and returning to the United States for potential future operations.
The Virginia Jihad Group
Based out of Falls Church, Virginia, the informal Virginia Jihad Group was led by Ali al-Timimi. A US citizen, Timimi was sentenced to life in prison for soliciting others to levy war against the United States. Eleven people were charged in the case, and the prosecutors successfully argued that the network was part of the jihadist threat akin to al-Qaeda.
Timimi was born in Washington, his father a lawyer for the Iraqi Embassy. At age 15, he moved with his family to Saudi Arabia. While there, he grew interested in Islam, inevitably the Salafi variety that is espoused by the Saudi religious establishment. After returning to the US, he received a PhD in computational biology from George Mason University in Virginia.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Timimi was an Islamic teacher in the northern Virginia area. Yet he was also involved with the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), a group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that receives funding from the Saudis to promote Salafi Islam in the US, especially in the prison system.
Naturally, Timimi's scholarly ties, more than anything, reveal his ideological proclivities. Establishing a center for Islamic education, Timimi contacted the well-known Egyptian-born Salafi Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Khaliq and translated his works into English. Abd al-Khaliq openly promoted the Salafi Islam prominent in the Persian Gulf region, and privately encouraged more militant Salafism among his followers, telling them that US troops were legitimate targets of the jihad.
Ties to Salafi organizations
Timimi's work for IANA - which included leading a five-person delegation to Beijing in 1995, where he defended female circumcision at an international women's conference - ties him into a much broader circle of Salafis, such as those in the Saudi Salafi establishment.
Like many others who have been a part of that movement, he sought more militant teachings that condoned violence against Americans. Yet the path to militancy often begins with seemingly benign teachings at austere mosques and Islamic centers. Commonly called Wahhabi, they call themselves Salafi, but for purposes of da'wa (proselytizing) and education, they do not emphasize their denomination. It is simply presented as "pure" Islam, and theirs is a purification movement.
A former chairman of IANA, Muhammad al-Ahmari, told the New York Times that as of 2001, roughly half of his organization's funding came from the Saudi government, with the remainder primarily coming from private individual donations from the Gulf region. IANA received at least US$3 million from 1995 through 2002, which funded the distribution of 530 packages containing Korans, tapes, lectures and other instructional Salafi educational material to prisoners in the US. Part of the funds, however, also went to disseminating what is among the most militant Salafi material to date in the US.
The group's webmaster, Sami Omar Hussayen, was a graduate student in Idaho when he posted two fatwas from Saudi Salafi-Jihadis Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali, which incited jihad against Americans. Sami's uncle, Saleh Hussayen, is a high-ranking Saudi minister who gave at least $100,000 to IANA. He was also a director of a northern Virginia organization (the Safa Group) with, the US government contends, about 100 front companies operating under it to launder money to al-Qaeda through Isle of Man and Swiss bank accounts.
Those raids, which took place in late 2001 and early 2002, have not yet come to trial. More inexplicable yet, Hussayen also came under scrutiny for a trip to the US, where, on September 10, 2001, he stayed at the same Marriott Residence Inn near the Washington area's Dulles Airport as three of the Saudi hijackers who crashed Flight 77 into the Pentagon the following day.
Hussayen was questioned by the FBI, but there was no evidence he actually met or interacted with the hijackers. He was said to feign a seizure during the interview and taken to the hospital, where he was declared to be in good health. He returned to Saudi Arabia and to his post as minister of religious endowments, overseeing the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.
From ideology to action
After conducting numerous case studies at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, New York, research has demonstrated a pattern for radicalization among Americans who embrace jihad, whether foreign or US-born. The cases of the Lackawanna Six, the Portland Seven, and the Virginia Jihad Group as well as John Walker Lindh, Adam Gadahn and others demonstrate the need to travel overseas to receive training.
In all of the above cases, the individuals traveled, or attempted to travel, to Pakistan or Afghanistan. As the base of al-Qaeda's leadership and the site of the first jihad, the area continues to be one of the primary destinations for mujahideen seeking training.
These individuals and others from the US may have arrived at LeT camps, rather than at the Farouq camp or others that have been under Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, because they enjoy far less scrutiny. Founded shortly after 1986 as the military wing of the Center for Da'wa and Guidance, LeT initially helped Pakistani mujahideen enter the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, they focused their efforts on Kashmir and have two of their training camps in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistan-administered section of the disputed province.
LeT also claims to have trained thousands of combatants to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Kosovo and the Philippines. Clearly, among American Muslims radicalized by militant Salafi Islam, LeT camps in Pakistan became a center for incoming mujahideen, as did bin Laden's guesthouse in Peshawar two decades ago.
These cases all suggest that ideology, above anything else, is the common identity among group members. Their belief and commitment to the Salafi movement and its aims to purify Islam, which is the foundation on which bin Laden and other jihadist leaders have built their platforms, was the common factor that bound together these diverse individuals with various ethnic, national and linguistic backgrounds.
Even a cursory look at the Brent case reveals ties to members of Ali al-Timimi's northern Virginia jihadist group and, through them, a much larger world of official Saudi funding and militant Salafi influence. For nearly all the terrorism cases involving radical Islam, the subjects began their journey with the Salafi Islam offered by the Saudi establishment, its leading scholars, and its prestigious institutions in Mecca and Medina.
Although they are clearly responsible for a portion of the radicalized Muslims now on a course for militancy, whether headed for a jihadist front in Iraq, Somalia or Lebanon or in the United States or the United Kingdom, those same individuals who have committed themselves to the cause cannot be effective without adequate training. Such individuals are encouraged - by Ali al-Timimi and Abu Musab al-Suri alike - to seek training in a place such as Pakistan as an essential stage in their path to truly serving the jihad.
Chris Heffelfinger is an independent researcher affiliated with the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy, West Point, New York.
1. See the criminal complaint "United States of America v Mahmud Faruq Brent, aka Mahmud al-Mutazzim", filed in the US District Court, Southern District of New York, August 3, 2005.
(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)