Study abroad with Al Qaeda - undercover
American writer Theo Padnos pretended he was Muslim & settled himself into Yemen’s radical mosques
The dorm — a long corridor lined with shoebox rooms shared by roommates — was just like any other student dwelling, aside from the stained glass windows, the ornate woodwork and loudspeakers blaring with Islam's predawn call to morning worship: "Prayer is better than sleep."
It was like any other student dwelling — aside from the absence of music. Or posters. Or women. Contact with the opposite sex was strictly banned.
When he wasn't studying the Quran, Theo Padnos — barefoot, and usually dressed in a flowing white robe — says he would wander down the hall, to see who was around.
Living several doors away was the dorm's requisite quiet kid, who shared a room with one of Padnos' good friends. Back in Memphis, the kid's name had been Carlos Bledsoe. In Sanaa, Yemen, everyone knew him as Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad. Although he was nice to his friends, who were mainly other black Americans, he was suspicious and rarely spoke when Padnos was in the room.
"Abdul Hakim was taciturn, withdrawn, maybe depressed," Padnos recalls. "He didn't like me very much. He was an 'are you with me or are you against me' kind of guy. And he felt I was against him."
"He felt that I was a fake Muslim," Padnos says.
In June 2009, the quiet kid pushed through the doorway of a U.S. military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing one soldier and wounding another. More recently, he passed a note to a judge admitting his crime, and claiming that he was a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He faces capital murder charges in an Arkansas court.
On the topic of Padnos, Carlos Bledsoe/Abdul Hakim was right to be suspicious. Padnos now admits that he was indeed a "fake" Muslim. A curly-haired Vermont native who holds a Ph.D. in literature, in 2005 Padnos converted to Islam at a mosque in Yemen, in front of witnesses.
But he says he never really believed in the religion. He professed his faith in a quest to gain access to Yemen's most forbidden Salafist institutions: places rarely, if ever, visited by non-believers, the mosques and madrassas that breed devout radicals and, in some cases, violent jihadists.
"I wanted to know about the Quran," Padnos says. "I wanted to know about spiritual experience in Islam. I wanted to travel across the nation. I wanted to do all the things that the converts wanted to do. I just did not believe in the god and the prophet and all that stuff."
Until late 2008, he spent most of his time in Yemen, polishing his Arabic and burnishing his Islamic credentials, until he managed to visit some of those radical outposts.
Padnos has long wrestled with speaking publicly about the experience. Several years ago, he landed a book contract, but at the last moment he took his publisher to court to suppress publication. He says he had to pay back his advance, plus a 200 percent penalty, a significant financial loss for a writer who has barely been employed in recent years. He says he felt that the manuscript wasn't good enough to justify the potential outrage and danger to his life that it would generate. Since then, he has continued living in the Middle East.
Finally, this year his cover has been blown. In the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre and the attempted Christmas Day underwear bombing — both of which were allegedly inspired by a vibrant Yemeni arm of Al Qaeda — Padnos wrote a commentary in the London Review of Books that hinted at his inside knowledge of Yemen's Salafist milieu. He later granted interviews in Germany, to a newspaper and a television program. This tipped off a Yemeni reporter, who in February published an article disclosing his multi-year stint as a fake Muslim.
The article, according to a security expert, accused him of falsely converting to Islam as a ruse to fool Yemenis and gain their trust. "That'll certainly put you on a few hit lists," according to the expert.
Padnos now has a contract with a British imprint of Random House to publish a memoir titled "Undercover Muslim," which he hopes will appear later this year. While it's impossible to double-check every detail of his story, GlobalPost confirmed Padnos' account with four Westerners who knew him in Yemen and had followed his encounters as they were unfolding.
"I think he's phenomenally courageous, and I think he's apt to bring back a lot of info that the West has never had before," said Theo's father, Michael Padnos, a lawyer from Boston who now lives in Paris. "Theo decided to go beyond the barriers, and is coming back from Arabia with incredible tales of what's going on there."
Do the Yemeni newspaper's revelation make Padnos uneasy? "Slightly. Yes," he says with a nervous chuckle on a recent phone interview from Paris. "But not totally. I want to have a civilized debate with these [Salafists]. I feel that what they're doing is not correct, and it's bad."
"The worst thing you can possibly do in Islam is defect," he says. "If they're mad at me it will be because they feel that I have defected." In an email to the German newspaper reporter, which he provided to GlobalPost, Padnos wrote "When Muslims get angry it's damn hard to predict what they're going to do next."
Padnos' Yemen odyssey began in 2004. He had just published a book about a stint teaching literature to juveniles in a top-security Vermont prison; the book landed him prestigious media exposure but failed commercially. Eager for a new adventure, he moved to Yemen, where he found a job working for the Yemen Observer.
In a recent New York Times column, Thomas L. Friedman singled out the Observer as an example of Western-style civil society in the troubled country, the kind of soft power the U.S. needs to deploy to win over would-be terrorists. But in the chaos of modern Yemen, Padnos regarded the paper — as well as the Yemeni government, which sponsored it — as a sideshow. The religious men, he realized, wielded the real power.
Wandering through Sanaa's ancient streets, Padnos says he became intrigued by the legions of bearded young Western men wearing Middle Eastern robes and studying the Quran.
"I wanted to get to know them," he says. When he approached them, "They said, piss off."
"So I said, 'Come on, I'm a nice guy, I'm curious, I'm respectful.'
"They said, 'you do not believe in God. You are an unbeliever. Piss off.'"
So he changed his approach. Eight weeks later, he went to the mosque with thickening stubble on his chin. "I said, 'I would like to know more about the Quran. Please. Teach me.'" While the Westerners remained suspicious, he met a Yemeni teacher who invited him in.
Although he says he never felt himself succumbing to the power of Islam, he describes the years he spent in Yemen as transformative. "I needed to have a spiritual voyage. Yemen enabled me to do that. The people were incredibly welcoming and gracious. They reoriented my values. I felt I needed more money to live on, and they taught me, no you really don't. They don't care about achievement, or where you went to college. It's like, 'do you have a good heart?' That's all they want to know. The rest we can teach you."
As an educated, left-leaning American, Padnos says he expected that intensive, firsthand exposure to the Salafist faith would temper the message emanating from the West, that these ultra-conservative Muslims were to be feared.
Instead, he says that what he witnessed worried him further.
"They do feel invaded, and threatened and frightened. They certainly do want to lash out, and especially hope to kill Jews and spies."
Shortly after the Yemeni teacher welcomed him in, he took the dorm room at the mosque, Masjid Shari Qain (although he continued to keep an apartment, where he visited with his Western girlfriend). He preformed his daily prayers, studied Arabic and began memorizing the Quran.
He spent many hours discussing and debating with young Westerners. Muslims, he explains, are obligated to share what they've learned from the Quran with other people — "it's kind of like Facebook" he says: When you're taught something new, you share it with your friends, who share it with their friends. "You learn in cells. The idea is that the cells will spread throughout the world."
The experience exposed him intensively to the wandering idealists drawn by the jihadist movement. Some were Americans. Many were third-generation Arab immigrants to France, Germany or Belgium.
He found these young men to be "sweet and lost and disoriented" — vulnerable to persuasion, stuck between cultures, and ill at ease with the languages of their parents and home countries. Many of the Americans had spent time in prison. "When they get to Yemen, they say 'I am Muslim.' But the Yemenis are shocked at how poor their Arabic is, how little they know of the Quran, and how they pray in strange styles. The purpose of the Quran school in Yemen is to bring them the proper dogma."
From the start, he says, he witnessed a deeply ingrained siege mentality: "In Yemen, everyone feels that the West is invading in so many different ways — with satellite TV, with secret missionaries, with political accords, with spies and NGOs and on and on," he wrote in an email to the German journalist, which he provided to GlobalPost. As an example, he cited the case of two German nurses who were murdered in Yemen while he was studying at a madrassa.
"[Our] teacher felt, and the students agreed, that the two women, who worked with female Yemeni patients in a hospital, and were Christians, were basically there to [mess] with the reproductive organs of Yemeni women. Everyone knows that the West would like to control the crazy rate of population growth in Yemen," he wrote. "Our teacher told us all: 'You are Muslims! The Christians and the U.N. don't want you to have children, see. So every one of you must out now and have 10 children. Now!' He was joking of course, but I think he meant it, too. Anyway, in a room full of very sexually frustrated men — no contact with women allowed — the idea went over very well."
Like many Western Muslims in Yemen, Padnos also spent time in jail, which he says made the other students trust him more. He was walking through the city one day when a friend tore a poster of the president from the hands of an attendee at a rally and ripped it up. "He said, 'Pictures are illegal and politics is illegal, and people shouldn't look at graven images.'" There happened to be secret police watching. "They whipped out their guns and arrested us." He spent three days in jail.
"I loved jail," he recalls. "You sing, you recite the Quran, you make friends with all your buddies, and talk about how the current regime are Islamic imposters," whom the true believers will soon replace. Regardless of whether his 15-odd fellow cellmates were ordinary criminals or suspected Al Qaeda, the camaraderie and privations of captivity inspired fervor. "It makes everyone very religious when you're in jail."
Despite the suspicions of men like Bledsoe, Padnos also traveled to the countryside, where the Islam is even more extreme and consuming. At one point, he says he spent about five weeks at a mosque called Dar al Hadith. The experience he says, was by far his most intense. (News reports have stated that John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," had studied at Dar al Hadith; Padnos tried but failed to confirm this.)
There was "constant surveillance, constant mutual policing," he recalls. "There's no escape from it — it's the matrix in which you live, every minute of every day." The community there "is watching you more closely. Every time you go to the bathroom, they're watching. Every time you wash your hands, they're watching. You're not your own self any more."
"I was looking out the corner of my eyes to see if anyone else had any emotional distance from this. And no, they didn't. Everyone was on the same page."
Jihadist boom town
Dar al Hadith has a long history among jihadists. It was established by a survivor of the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure, a bloody attempt by fundamentalists to seize control of the Prophet's Mosque in Saudi Arabia.
Padnos describes the local village, Dammaj, as a jihadist boom town, which has grown rapidly due to the post-9/11 rebirth of Muslim piety. Its hastily constructed shanties lined a deep, narrow valley, "like an Arabian Yosemite, with lovely sandy paths and grape arbors everywhere. You don't even need shoes, and many people don't own them," he recalls. "And there's a vast Saudi-sponsored mosque rising out of the sand."
Soon, the more stark aspects of the village to came into focus: "There are thousands of women who never emerge from their houses. They are locked in day in and day out. They don't eat in public. They don't pray in public. The husbands do the shopping. They are completely invisible," he says. "You wonder, how can the men have such total mental control over these women?"
In the temperate mountain summer, as many as a thousand young Western men study at Dammaj, some as young 17 or 18 years old. Many have no use for a life in the West, Padnos says: "They want only the piety and the bare feet. They say 'I can have a simple cotton robe and no shoes.' They go there and drop off the face of the earth."
"These kids turn up in Yemen with no cash. They are so lonely. The mosque gives them a house, money, education — and love. And in exchange for that, the kids give loyalty. Furthermore, the Quran is a beautiful book, and for the Western kids they owe all of their knowledge of the Quran to these people."
The men, he says, "give their whole world over to Islam and to the people in Yemen. They become very good Muslims, which is an effacement of the self. In Islam, you merge your body, your thoughts and your gestures with the body, thoughts and gestures of Muslims everywhere. You're supposed to submit — that's the meaning of the word 'Islam' in Arabic: submission."
But Padnos says he detected a sinister second motive: "Yes, Islam insists on moral submission to the rule of God, but I also felt that the preachers themselves were acquiring power. And weapons. The ambition of every strong Yemeni man is to have more weapons and power. And that drives the sheik in Dammaj. His particular weaponry happens to be Western kids."
"The sheiks control these kids more than the kids know. The sheiks can make them operational. These kids have Western passports. I'm not saying they're going to blow anything up. But when the higher-ups feel that they have no other alternative, I think they will send the Western kids back home" to fight their battles. That, he says, is what's driving rogue killers to attack Fort Hood, the Little Rock recruiting center and the Northwest flight to Detroit on Christmas Day.
"We have to communicate that we respect them, and we're not making war on their religion," Padnos concludes. "And we have to act that way too. But when we bomb little random villages in Yemen" — as the U.S. has lately, in pursuit of Al Qaeda suspects — "we just set ourselves up for further warfare."