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The Roots of Radical Islam in Prison

For IPT News..

Recently, the Investigative Project on Terrorism exposed a bigoted rant by a speaker at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)'s recent national convention. Warith Deen Umar spun outlandish theories about Jews controlling the world, about Hurricane Katrina being a form of Allah's wrath in response to homosexuality, and argued that the Holocaust was a divine punishment of Jews for being "serially disobedient to Allah."

ISNA officials' response was disappointing.

They neither apologized for inviting Umar nor specifically challenged the substance of what he had to say. Rather, they tried to portray the organization as the victim of Umar's misrepresentation, saying the program was described as offering a "blue print for world peace. Christians, Jews and Muslims have common roots; focuses on the unique position Jewish people are in to move the world toward peace."

Talk about ducking responsibility. At the convention, Umar said "So, my conclusion is that there should be more jihad. But people don't want to hear that. They're scared."

It is a message he preached in prisons and elsewhere for years. Umar's history of radicalism continues to be an issue for law enforcement today. The arrests this spring of four men who were picked up after planting what they thought were live bombs outside two synagogues in the Bronx rekindled focus on Islamic radicalism in prisons. Three of the suspects converted to Islam while serving time and were believed to be radicalized behind bars.

Since 9/11, the general focus on prison radicalism in the media and in government has been on the process of certifying imams and literature available to inmates. Fully understanding the impact of this phenomenon, however, requires a historical look back at Islam in prison. The seeds of jihad were planted in the prison soil by men like Warith Deen Umar long before we were attacked in 2001.

Having spent 26 years working in New York 's Department of Correctional Services, I have witnessed this process of radicalization first-hand. Sometimes it was monitored; sometimes a recruitment cell was infiltrated. As the Deputy Inspector General of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, I was a part of a special investigation called Operation Hades that probed the radical Islamic recruitment movement from both inside and outside prison walls. It was a startling revelation to me, working undercover, to see how the process works.

What follows are observations and examples based on that experience.

Umar, the longtime Director of Ministerial Services for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, is at the center of this maelstrom. Umar came to national attention in 2003 when he stated in a Wall Street Journal article that the September 11th hijackers were heroes and martyrs. He went on to say the prisons were "the perfect recruitment and training grounds for radicalism and the Islamic religion."

Umar, born Wallace Gene Marks on July 23, 1944 was arrested in 1971 as part of a conspiracy to kill New York City Police officers.[i]

At that time he was a member of the Nation of Islam and had taken the name of Wallace 10x. He converted to the Wahhabi sect of Islam while serving time on weapons charges and became a fervent Salafist. The Salafi strand of Islam espouses that Islam was in its purest form during the days of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafism is a term that is often used interchangeably with Wahhabism, which holds to the purging of all things non-Islamic from the world, and the common goal of creating a world Islamic state.

Upon his release from prison, Umar was granted a certificate of relief from the Parole Board and hired by the Department of Corrections as a Muslim Chaplain in 1976.[ii]

One of his first duties was to visit Green Haven State Prison's Sankore Mosque. It was there in 1978 he initially preached a radical form of Islam which included statements against the United States.[iii]

Then came the 1980s.

Prison populations exploded during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 90s. The population of U.S-born inmates increased an estimated 85 percent. For foreign-born inmates, however, the population increased by more than 200 percent. Many of them were from countries with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic organizations like Hamas, Hizballah, Al Qaeda, or Jamaat al Fuqra.[iv]

Five individuals stand out as examples:

  • Yousef Saleh, a Jordanian national, was convicted in 1980 for the firebombing of a Jewish deli in New York City which killed two people. He was sent to Auburn State Prison in April of 1980.[v] Operation Hades found that he remained there 16 years, attending the prison mosque and preaching an anti-Semitic jihad to all who would listen. The imam in Auburn at that time, hired by Warith Deen Umar, was Sami Aman Khalifah, who went on to serve as a Director of the Islamic Society of North America.[vi] Saleh was in the same prison cell as Rashid Baz & Abdel Zaben. He helped to facilitate the network of recruiters by sending monies back over to Hamas and also introducing friends of CAIR and radical leftist organizations to other foreign born Muslim inmates. He was deported in June 1996.
  • El Sayyid Nosair was arrested in November 1990 for the New York City shooting death of Meir Kahane, a radical rabbi whose Kach party later was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. While awaiting trial, Nosair spent 15 months in the New York City Corrections System. Nosair was acquitted of the shooting of Meir Kahane, a jury verdict which Justice Alvin Schlesinger declared "was against the overwhelming weight of evidence and was devoid of common sense and logic."[vii]

Nosair was convicted, however, of 2nd degree assault and criminal possession of a weapon in the shooting of a US Postal Police Officer when he attempted to escape from the Kahane shooting. He was sentenced to a range of 7-20 years and sent to Attica State Prison in January 1991. Because of his fervency to Islam and his act of jihad, Nosair held significant influence with both the imam chaplain and the prison inmate Muslim congregation. This was demonstrated when he went to the Prison Program Committee and was given the job as the chaplain's clerk.[viii]

This arrangement could not have been done without the imam's approval. The imam was hired by Warith Deen Umar. Nosair demonstrated his control of the Muslim inmates when several of them assisted him in contacting Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheik and his associates in the New York/New Jersey area. Nosair convinced those inmates to allow him to use their telephone privileges[ix] to make the phone calls, as he plotted with the Blind Sheik and others to blow up several New York City sites in 1993, including the first World Trade Center bombing. Following his conviction in the Trade Center bombing plot, Nosair was transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

  • On January 26th 1993, 30 days before the first World Trade Center bombing, Abdel Zaben, a Palestinian from Ramallah, was arrested for a series of kidnappings and robberies in New York during which one of the victims overheard him state "this is for the cause!"[x] Upon his conviction, after having spent 15 months in the New York City Corrections system, he was sent to Auburn State Prison in May 1994.

Prior to his arrest, Zaben worked for Ali Kased, one of the founders of The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Zaben's uncle, Khalil al Zaben, was an advisor to the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat.

In a conversation with a confidential source after being convicted, Zaben admitted being a Hamas member. He felt that Hamas was more fervently devoted to the Islamic faith than other Palestinian groups, such as the secular Fatah.[xi] Because of his overseas connections, inmate Zaben became a facilitator for prison converts to Islam who, upon their release, wanted to continue their studies in radical madrassas in Egypt and Yemen.

While in the New York State Prison system, Abdel Zaben, at the request of the imam chaplain hired by Warith Deen Umar, was given the position of chaplain's clerk.[xii] One of the chaplains he worked for over four years was Salahuddin Muhammad. Muhammad came to national attention in 2009 as the imam of Masjid al Ikhlas in Newburgh, New York where four ex-convicts attended services prior to their arrest [xiii] for plotting to blow up a Jewish synagogue and shoot down U.S. military aircraft with Stinger missiles. When the case broke, Imam Muhammad told reporters he never knew or heard of any Islamic jihadists in his prison ministry. According to the New York Times:

"Mr. Muhammad said his years working with Muslims in prison has turned up little actual evidence that many or any become radicalized behind bars; "I don't hear any of that wild stuff", he said, "and if I did hear it, I would stomp it out. It's totally un-Islamic.'"[xiv]

He seemed to have forgotten his own clerk.

  • Yassir Ahmed, an immigrant from Saudi Arabia, was arrested in Brooklyn on August 9, 1994 for murder after an argument with a man. He was convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. He was sent to Shawangunk State Prison where he was given the position of Chaplain's clerk. There, he worked with Imam Cyril Rashid, a representative of the Salafi Society of North America. Rashid was also hired by Umar.

Ahmed was a member of the Talem Circle, which exhorted the U.S.-born inmates[xv] to train with Middle Eastern inmates in how to perform acts of jihad. In addition, he offered to help[xvi] the civilian Chaplain Rashid travel to Yemen to teach English in the training camps after Rashid retired.

  • On March 1, 1994 after hearing a fiery sermon in the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge Mosque, Rashid Baz opened fire [xvii] on a van load of Hasidic students in New York City, killing 16-year-old Ari Halberstam and wounding several others.

Baz was the son of a Lebanese national and a Palestinian mother. For this act of jihad, he was saluted by Hamas[xviii] as a mujahid, warrior hero, and Ibn Islam, son of Islam. He was sentenced to 141 years in prison. As with all new inmates, Rashid Baz went before the Auburn State Prison Program Committee and, like El Sayyid Nosair and Abdel Zaben, he became the prison imam chaplain's clerk. In this role he often preached in the prison mosque at the behest of the prison chaplain. The chaplain was Osamah Alwahaidy; a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship had also been hired by Warith Deen Umar. In February 2003, Alwahaidy was indicted for providing material support to a terrorist organization through the Help the Needy Foundation.

These cases show the deep historical roots of radical Islam in the U.S. prison environment going back almost 30 years, and how a network of radical preachers and recruiters spread through the system. These examples are just a few, observed first-hand. The investigation dubbed Operation Hades went beyond New York, to other places in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, we know from experience that the problem is not limited by geography.

A terrorist is not hatched overnight. Long years of sowing the seeds of Wahabbi/Salafist teachings in the fertile soil of prison are starting to produce a crop of home grown jihadists.

Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of the upcoming book, "The Fertile Soil of Jihad."


[i] NYPD Field Intelligence Investigative Report March 4, 2003.

[ii] Department of Correctional Services records, NYS Division of Parole Records.

[iii] NYPD Field Intelligence Investigative Report 12/09/2003.

[iv] NYS Department of Correctional Services Report on Foreign Born Inmates Statistics Report 1985-2006.

NYPD Report on the Residual Effects of Radical Islam in Prison - Executive Summary 2004.

[v] NYS Department of Correctional Services Records, April 9, 1980, NYPD Arrest Reports, June 24, 1979.

[vi] NYPD/IG Investigative Report - Imam Master List notes. March 4, 2003.

[vii] Ronald Sullivan, "Judge Gives Maximum Term in Kahane Case," New York Times, January 30, 1992.

[viii] NYS Department of Correctional Services Records May 25, 1992.

[ix] NYS Department of Correctional Services Disciplinary Records March 12, 1993.

[x] NYPD Field Intelligence Investigative Services Report, December 1, 2003; NYPD Interview of victims.

[xi] Transcript/Recorded Conversation, September 1, 2002.

[xii] NYS Department of Correctional Services Inmate Program Records September 22, 2003.

[xiii] Daniel Wakin, "Imams Reject Talk That Islam Radicalizes Inmates," New York Times, May 23, 2009.

[xiv] Daniel Wakin, "Imams Reject Talk That Islam Radicalizes Inmates," New York Times, May 23, 2009.

[xv] Federal Bureau of Investigation Report, Feb. 09, 1999.

[xvi] Letter from inmate Yassir Ahmed to Chaplain Cyril Rashid, April 6, 2004.

[xvii] NYPD Arrest Report; NY District Attorney's Office, NYC Pre-sentence report

NYS Department of Correctional

 Services Central Monitoring Case folder February 1, 1995.

[xviii] While Baz was not publicly praised by members of his local community in Brooklyn once he was arrested for the shooting, he was openly lauded as a holy warrior, or mujahid, abroad. Hamas leaflets from Gaza wrote of him as "the holy warrior and Lebanese immigrant Rashid al-Baz, the son of Islam who took action against the souls of the evil dregs of the Jews in Brooklyn in America." ("Islamic Militants Threaten Revenge in Brooklyn," Associated Press, March 11, 1994, as cited in the AJCommittee's Nov. 2000 report.

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 The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) is a non-profit research group founded by Steven Emerson in 1995. It is recognized as the world's most comprehensive data center on radical Islamic terrorist groups.

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