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.


‘Results’ needed from Myanmar over Rohingya return: UNHCR head

Updated 24 May 2019
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‘Results’ needed from Myanmar over Rohingya return: UNHCR head

  • A UN fact-finding mission called for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for “genocide”
  • Myanmar pejoratively labels the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they are illegal interlopers

YANGON: Myanmar must “show results” to convince Rohingya refugees to return, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Friday at the end of his first visit to Myanmar since the crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
A brutal military campaign in western Rakhine state forced some 740,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh.
Around one million Rohingya now languish in sprawling refugee camps from various waves of persecution.
A UN fact-finding mission called for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for “genocide” and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has started preliminary investigations.
During his visit Grandi spoke with both Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist communities in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence.
He also held discussions with officials in capital Naypyidaw, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, describing all talks as “constructive.”
“My message is: ‘please accelerate’, because it has been very slow in the implementation in this first year. We need to show results,” he told AFP in an interview in Yangon.
“This is not enough to convince people to come back,” he said.
Grandi visited the camps in Bangladesh in April.
The two countries have signed a repatriation agreement but so far virtually no refugees have returned, fearing for their safety and unconvinced they will be granted citizenship.
Myanmar pejoratively labels the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they are illegal interlopers and the community has had its rights eroded over decades.
Gaining independent access to northern Rakhine is difficult with most journalists, observers and diplomats only allowed on brief chaperoned visits.
Grandi defended the UNHCR’s involvement in a plan by the Bangladeshi government to move some 100,000 refugees onto low-lying island Bhashan Char.
The area in the Bay of Bengal is prone to flooding and cyclones.
Rights groups oppose the scheme that has also so far been universally rejected by the Rohingya themselves.
The refugee agency must be “involved” to have the necessary information in order to take a stance on the issue, Grandi said.
“We’re still at that stage, no more than that.”
He also visited camps near Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, where nearly 130,000 Rohingya have been confined since a previous bout of violence in 2012.
Myanmar has announced it will close the camps but many are skeptical the displaced will enjoy more freedoms.
Grandi said the UNHCR would reconsider its role in providing services if conditions did not substantially improve.
“To simply transform the camps, upgrade the camps, upgrade the houses, for example, but leave them in the same situation will not be a solution,” he said.