Foreign Policy Blogs

No Trespassing: US facing home grown terror

As the United States is trying to fight terrorism in different parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Egypt, evidence suggests that agencies tasked with domestic security have overlooked key aspects of home-grown threats and their root causes. Recent examples of failed attempts to attack Americans were linked to international hot spots. In a number of cases the individuals who tried to carry out the attacks studied, and, in some cases, were either naturalized or born and raised in America. This includes Dr Aafia Siddiqi and Faisal Shahzad.

Much has been written about the ensuing blowback following the Soviet withdrawal and the vacuum left behind in Afghanistan. But the seeds of jihad have taken hold and bloomed in some unexpected places. In two small towns in the United States, radical fundamentalism is alive and well – and flourishing out in the open, US officials fear.

The towns of Red House, Virginia and Islamberg, New York are home to a small number of African-American converts to Islam who have withdrawn from the outside world to live by a set of strict religious codes. The two communities, which have formed a sect calling themselves the Muslims of the Americas, are said to be the followers of Sheikh Mubarik Gilani, also known as Sheikh Gilani, who was arrested in connection with Daniel Pearl’s murder in 2002.

Sheikh Gilani began preaching at a mosque in Brooklyn, New York seeking recruits for the Afghan jihad in 1980. It was then that he formed the group Jamaat-al-Fuqra and later Muslims of the Americas.

Muslims of the Americas, a tax-exempt group, operates communes of primarily black, African Americans. In addition to the compounds in Virginia and New York, these groups, which some have characterized as a cult, have compounds in Badger, California; Red House, Virginia; Binghamton, New York; and York, South Carolina. The cult houses between 100 and 200 people per compound, many of them women and children in about 20 huge trailers.

A 2005 Department of Homeland Security report titled the “Integrated Planning Guidance Report,” warned that “other predicted possible sponsors of attacks (against the North America) include Jamaat-al-Fuqra that has been linked to Muslims of the Americas.” Federal government officials shared with this reporter that in 2006, the Department of Justice reported that Jamaat-al -Fuqra “has more than 35 suspected communes and more than 30,000 members spread across the US, all in support of one goal: the purification of Islam through violence.”

The tiny town of Red House, with a conservative Christian population of 12,000, is located in rural Charlotte County, Virginia close to the North Carolina border. It is in this unlikely locale that Muslims of the Americas founded one of their compounds. A “No Trespassing” sign hangs at the entrance of the compound and discourages visitors. The group’s most controversial contribution to the community has been to name a road outside their compound – Sheikh Gilani Lane. The road sign, which was put up in 2007, shattered the uneasy truce that had previously existed between the sect and the townsfolk. A local group, the Christian Action Network (CAN), demanded the removal of the sign and filed a complaint with the local county office. CAN’s President Martin Mawyer claims that “Muslims of the Americas set up their compound in Red House in February of 1993…no one knows the populations of the camp, since the people inside have isolated themselves.” The Christian Action Network’s request was rejected.

Similarly, a secretive Muslim community calling itself ‘Islamberg’ has settled in the woods of the western Catskills, 150 miles northwest of New York City. Like its counterpart in Red House, the compound displays a “No Trespassing” sign at its entrance.

Reportedly the compound was founded in 1980 by Sheikh Gilani, who purchased a 70-acre plot and invited followers to settle there. The compound has its own mosque, grocery store and schoolhouse. The FBI’s Albany Division said the agency has an open dialogue with the residents of Islamberg. They’ve visited the compound but won’t discuss whether there are any ongoing investigations.

US officials in 1989, during a search of a storage locker in Colorado Springs, recovered a large cache of armaments and documents with multiple links to the Jamaat al-Fuqra. Among the arms recovered were handguns, semi-automatic firearms, explosives, pipe bombs, bomb components and several bombs. Jamaat al-Fuqra cadres are suspects in at least 10 unsolved assassinations and 17 firebombing cases between 1979 and 1990. The Red House commune was allegedly involved in a money laundering scheme, according to the FBI documents.

That has not dispelled the worries of some watchdogs. Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, says Muslims of the Americas is making a concerted public relations effort to present a benign face and hide its violent past.

“I think we need to be very much on guard about every member of these compounds,” he said. Though Spencer admits there is nothing inherently wrong with living in isolation, he stressed that “they’re not at all open to visitors, they’re not at all open to scrutiny and there’s an abundance of evidence of sinister goings-on.”

Spencer offered no evidence to back his misgivings, but suggested political correctness may be hampering investigations. He says the group’s connection to Sheikh Gilani is reason enough to be concerned.

Spencer’s suspicions that trouble is brewing in the compounds may be on point. Muslims of the Americas and Jamaat-al-Fuqra are both linked to a slew of terrorist acts and other criminal activity. In the 1980s, they carried out various terrorist acts, including numerous fire-bombings across the United States. Jamaat-al-Fuqra’s early targets in North America were Hindus and targets linked to various Jewish temples too.