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

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.


Malaysia’s police chief: Daesh fighters ‘must be allowed to come back’

Updated 50 sec ago

Malaysia’s police chief: Daesh fighters ‘must be allowed to come back’

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government has still to decide whether a reported 40 Daesh members of Malaysian origin — including women and children — should be allowed to return to their homeland from Syria. But the Inspector-General of Police of Malaysia Abdul Hamid Bador told Arab News on Thursday, “They are Malaysians and the must be allowed to come back.”
Bador stressed that any returning Daesh members would be charged under Malaysia’s Security Offenses Act and would have to undergo the country’s deradicalization program. But while many Malaysians are opposed to allowing the hard-line militants to return home, Bador said, “As a sovereign nation, Malaysia must fulfill her international obligations. We will undertake the responsibility of subjecting all of them to our rehabilitation programs.”
At a press conference on Saturday, Malaysia’s Special Branch Anti-Terrorist Division principal assistant director Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said that Daesh returnees would undergo rehabilitation, which would include counseling for the children.
Many Malaysians believe that the Daesh returnees will pose a threat to national security and should not be allowed to return.
“In principle, they are the citizens (of Malaysia), so they have a right to come back,” Dr. James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “But, in having to fulfill that obligation, obviously the question arises whether or not they broke the law, and to what degree they pose a threat.”
Dorsey warned that “not all deradicalization programs are 100-percent effective,” but said he believed that rehabilitation would enable people to reenter society to some degree.
“The assumption is that they went to Syria to fight, so now that Syria is no longer available they are going to come home to fight. But we don’t know that for a fact,” he said. “That may be true for some, but not for others. It is really going to be a question of evaluating every single one. We need to deal with each of them differently. Sending them to rehabilitation might be one way to resolve this.”
“There are no magic tricks involved in the programs,” Bador said to Arab News. Their success, he said, depended on coordination between the police, the religious department, and prison officers. “We are also thankful that the prisoners themselves have the willpower to return to society,” he added.
Malaysia claims that its deradicalization program is one of the most successful in the world — a model for the fight against terrorism and religious extremism, in which religious institutions play an equally important role during the rehabilitation process.
“Malaysia prides itself to having achieved a 97 percent success rate which indicates that occurrences of recidivism are minimal,” said Muhammad Sinatra, an analyst at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
He told Arab News that Daesh returnees would serve time in prison, and would —  along with the women and children — be enrolled in a month-long rehabilitation program by the government.
“The women and children must have suffered from witnessing horrendous violence and losing their loved ones during their time in Syria and Iraq,” Sinatra said. “This is on top of the physical toll that years spent in conflict zones will have taken. It will take a tremendous effort by psychologists and doctors to address the physical and mental issues these returnees face.”
Sinatra added that it is imperative that the government hear testimonies from current Daesh prisoners — or preferably those who have been released — about the effectiveness of the rehabilitation program in order to obtain a more holistic picture of its success.