Muslim extremist armies of one

The other day we looked at the excellent Washington Post profile of Zachary Chesser, the American Muslim who threatened violence against South Park creators for not depicting Muhammad. And now we have another intriguing profile of another American Muslim terrorist. This time the report is in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The paper received seven handwritten letters from Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Memphis native who shot two men outside an Army recruiting office, killing one. That man, Pvt. William A. Long, is pictured here. The article is lengthy and goes into detail about Muhammad's life and the events that led to his terrorist attack on American soil:

What I had in mind didn't go as planned but Allah willing He will reward me for my intentions.

He planned for weeks, buying guns secondhand to avoid the FBI.

Then, to test whether the feds were watching, he bought a .22-caliber rifle over the counter at Walmart. He stockpiled ammo and practiced target shooting at empty construction sites.

By his own account, he was preparing for jihad.

From a black Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Memphis native, watched two soldiers in fatigues smoking outside a military recruiting center in Little Rock. He aimed an assault rifle out the window and fired.

Muhammad's terrorism didn't go as planned. He hoped to go on a violent spree throughout the region. But he took a wrong turn and was stopped by the police. The rhetoric he uses in describing his attack is religious. He says he was motivated by U.S. action against Muslims and Islam. His own first-hand narrative says this was his jihad, and he laments that he failed to cause more death and destruction. He describes how, when and why he made his declaration of faith (at age 19 in a Memphis mosque), why he traveled to Yemen and attempted to travel to Somalia (to get better weapons training), and details on his terrorist attack.

A quick note on the best and worst parts of the story. The headline "Memphian drifted to dark side of Islamic extremism, plotted one-man jihad vs. homeland" is odd, no? What's the light side of Islamic extremism? Although I'm ashamed to say I didn't know it wasn't Memphisite or Memphisiac but Memphian. And my favorite part of the story is that it takes the tale of this lone gunman and shows how Al Qaeda has shifted from these well planned, comprehensive attacks and actually suggested smaller, one-off type terror attacks. I'm not saying that the murder of Pvt. William A. Long of Conway, Ark., isn't important enough on its own. But to know how this terror attack relates to the strategy of Al Qaeda in general is helpful and informative.

But what about the religion in the story? Despite the fact that Muhammad won't stop talking about religion, I couldn't quite figure out exactly how his religion motivated him to kill. There's plenty of backstory -- Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe and got in a little bit of trouble as a teenager, even as a college student. We learn that he didn't understand the Trinity, felt unwelcome in Judaism, and subsequently explored and became attracted to Islam.

During a visit to a Nashville mosque, he watched the synchronized movements of 50 to 75 people as they bowed and prostrated themselves in prayer. He was amazed.

"So I attempted to join and after realizing I didn't know what I was doing, somebody (asked) when did you become Muslim? I said I'm not just interested in it? And when I said that the whole place lit up. I mean brothers shouted 'Allahu Akbar'!! (Allah is the greatest) and embraced me like I was a long (lost) brother."

A man from the mosque explained the religion's fundamentals -- belief in one God, angels, the revealed scriptures, the prophets, predestination and the day of judgment. He also gave Muhammad a copy of the Quran.

Both Muhammad and the folks at the mosque agree that they're not militants. But we don't find out what, exactly, transformed Muhammad. Clearly it happened before he went to Yemen to join up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but we just learn that it happened "step by step."

The most substantive discussion of religion happens in the following section, beginning with Muhammad's explanation of jihad, which he describes as a defensive struggle against those who attack Muslims. Then we get quotes from a couple of professors who disagree. One religion professor says that the bigger meaning of jihad is internal struggle and that the external defense of Islam is lesser. Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, says Muhammad might have just been at risk for violence even if he hadn't become tied in with Al Qaeda:

"It's much easier to blame an out-group and to justify your own personal anger and mistakes by scapegoating and bastardization of scripture than it is to really take the bull by the horns and say, 'What is it about me that I have to improve?' " Levin said.

He added: "This is an example where it really is the fanatic and not the faith. The faith plays an important role in the sense that if you have an extremist with a disposition towards aggressive violence, it's not good for them to find a belief system that they can use to find refuge and legitimacy in.

"With that being said, it's not the faith. It's their contortion of it. In other words, this is not something that people have to worry about from well-adjusted, learned scholars in Islam."

Both of these expert perspectives are interesting and helpful, but I found them a bit easy. I mean, Muhammad was greatly inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, and was caught with his materials when he was jailed in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki is an imam, a published author on Islam, and more learned than the average Muslim. He was also well-adjusted enough to once be considered a model of moderate Islam by the New York Times and Washington Post. And yet he also advocates the same definition of jihad that Muhammad does. I would have asked both of these experts about that in an attempt to find out more about Muslim extremism. Yes, it's easy to discount it as the rantings of uneducated youth. And that probably makes us feel better, too. But Muslim extremism itself comes in many forms and in a variety of outlets.

On the burning issue of the day -- how Islam is interpreted by those who engage in violence in its name, it fell a bit flat. But this is another informative look at homegrown terrorism and the use of Muhammad's own words to tell his story is engaging and provocative.

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