Bosnia to Pakistan to prison: Ex-fighter reflects on life

Ismail Royer poses for a photograph Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Arlington, Va. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2017
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Bosnia to Pakistan to prison: Ex-fighter reflects on life

MCLEAN: Randall Royer grew up in the Midwest, a suburban St. Louis kid. By the time he was 21, he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Ismail Royer, fighting in Bosnia alongside fellow Muslims against Serbian ethnic cleansing.
By the time he was 31, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping friends who wanted to join the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now age 44 and out of prison, he remembers Bosnia as both a highlight of his life and the place that launched him on a disastrous path.
“There was so much meaning and purpose in what I was doing,” he said of the Bosnian war. “I spent so much time trying to recapture that feeling of Bosnia. It never came back.”
He remembers with pride the gratitude expressed by the Bosnian families whose homes he defended and says the war is one of those rare conflicts where there was a clear good guy and bad guy.
Royer’s search for the next Bosnia led him to Pakistan, where he joined the fight over Kashmir — a conflict that he said he viewed with ambivalence. Eventually, he came back to the US and served as a spokesman for some of the nation’s most prominent Muslim civil rights groups.
Royer was one of about a dozen young Muslims from the D.C. area who played paintball in the northern Virginia woods as a means of preparing for holy war. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a few members of the group traveled to Pakistan, and with Royer’s help, got in touch with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taibi. Royer’s friends’ ultimate goal was to join the Taliban and help fight US soldiers.
Royer pleaded guilty in 2004 to aiding and abetting use of a firearm in a crime of violence and aiding and abetting the carrying of an explosive.
He was never convicted of a terrorism-related charge — a distinction that is significant to Royer.
“When I look back at myself, I don’t see myself as an extremist,” he said. “I see myself as being naive, romantic, a Don Quixote kind of guy.”
He points out that he has a long history of speaking out against Al-Qaeda, and he is equally critical of the Daesh, which is now responsible for motivating and recruiting most of the lone-wolf terrorists who have popped up in the US
Michael Jensen, a researcher with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said he also sees a difference between Royer and the more modern iteration of Islamic extremists. He said Royer was drawn to localized conflicts like Bosnia and Kashmir, as opposed to the global jihadist vision espoused by Al-Qaeda or the Daesh.
Royer said what drew him to Islam in the first place was his view that it could be a vehicle for social justice. In the Muslim world, though, he said a quest for social justice gets twisted into a sense of victimization and even a persecution complex.
“If you’re constantly blaming other people, you’ll never change,” he said.
Tariq Nelson, a friend of Royer for more than 20 years, said Royer’s desire to right wrongs on a global scale ultimately led him down the wrong path.
“He was an idealist who got caught — they all got in over their heads,” Nelson said. “To an outsider it sounds strange. Nobody wanted to be a terrorist. In fact they were anti-terrorist.”
When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Royer said his Muslim identity led him to struggle with the question of whether being an American and Muslim were compatible.
An Islamic scholar from northern Virginia, Ali Al-Timimi, advised the paintball group in the days after Sept. 11 that an apocalyptic clash of Muslim and Western civilizations was approaching, and that Muslim men should “go be with the mujahedeen.” It helped prompt Royer to return to Bosnia, and it prompted others in the group to seek Royer’s help in joining Lashkar.
In hindsight, Royer said, it was “colossally bad advice.” Al-Timimi was convicted of soliciting treason and sentenced to life in prison.
While Royer was behind bars, he continued to do what he had always done. He debated philosophy and theology, and often found himself as the advocate for moderation and tolerance.
He said he carried on debates with some of the most notorious criminals, including Al-Qaeda “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, passing notes from cell to cell because prisoners in his unit were kept in isolation.
He plans to publish his correspondence with Reid, and wants to be a voice against Islamic extremism. He is learning social media and this week spoke to students at the University of Southern California about pathways to extremism.
He figures that if he can get through to hardened criminals, he can get through to others.
“I think I was getting somewhere with Richard Reid,” he said.


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.