The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Abdullah Ibrahim al-Faisal (born: Trevor William Forrest), a Jamaican cleric who supports the Islamic State (IS) on 5 December. This was long overdue. Al-Faisal’s record of disseminating jihadist ideology, and influencing and/or interacting with terrorists, goes back several decades. And since 2014, al-Faisal has been one of IS’s influential English-language propagandist-recruiters.
Al-Faisal spoke to Paul Williams of the Jamaica Gleaner in 2007, revealing many details of his early life. Trevor Forrest was born in Bluefields, Westmoreland, Jamaica, on 10 September 1963, moving to St. James when he was 6-years-old, where he spent the remainder of his childhood. Forrest was born into a devout evangelical Christian family, who worked at the Salvation Army, he tells Williams, and Forrest was raised in the choir and the boy scouts. Forrest then converted to Islam at age-16 (c. 1980), taking on the name Abdullah al-Faisal, and legally changed his name in 1983.
In the early 1980s, Williams records, al-Faisal went on courses in Islam and Arabic. The first, a six-week crash course in Trinidad in 1981, was sponsored by the government of Saudi Arabia. The second was a year-long course in Guyana in 1982. In November 1984, after a year back in Jamaica, al-Faisal moved to Saudi Arabia, settling in the capital, Riyadh, and studying Arabic and Islam at the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University.
An important individual in getting al-Faisal to Saudi Arabia was Bilal Philips. Born Dennis Philips in Jamaica, Philips grew up in Canada. Philips came to some public notice in the West in the early 1990s after he ran a da’wa (missionary) tent for U.S. soldiers stationed in the Saudi Kingdom as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD (1990-91), which prevented Saddam Husayn’s aggression from extending beyond Kuwait. Philips claimed to have converted between 1,600 and 3,000 U.S. military personnel to Islam; this is probably exaggerated but Philips made enough contacts to recruit military veterans for the jihad in Bosnia after the war began there in 1992. The idea was to have skilled military men involved on the Bosniak side, and to enlist these men in training-up a struggling force. As documented in great detail in J.M. Berger’s book, Jihad Joe, after recruiting two batches of half-a-dozen people, Philips handed off the Bosnian file to a man called Abdullah Rashid, who kept up this network of American jihadists, tied to Umar Abdurrahman, “The Blind Shaykh”, and organized the stockpiling of weapons and training in combat tactics within the United States. This circle was later implicated in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and the attempted follow-on plot involving car bombings at several monuments—the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the United Nations, and the FBI field office—in New York City.
In the seven years or so al-Faisal stayed in Saudi Arabia, he would make visits to the Caribbean, New York, and London, Williams notes.
MOVING TO BRITAIN
Al-Faisal departed Saudi Arabia in 1991 to take a post in Britain, becoming the imam of Al-Masjid Ibn Taymiyya, better known as the Brixton Mosque, in southwest London. Al-Faisal later said that he had been “sent to the United Kingdom to preach by Shaykh Rajhi”, referring to the wealthy Rajhi family of Saudi Arabia whose bank has been linked with the notorious International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and funding for terrorist groups like HAMAS during the Second Intifada.
Al-Faisal was deposed from the Brixton Mosque within a year under the dual pressure of the Saudi authorities and the Brixton salafists, both of whom objected to his radical preachments. Al-Faisal married a British woman, Zubeida Khan, of Pakistani descent, gaining residency rights in 1992, and decamped to Tower Hamlets in east London, a hotbed of radical activism, where he ran proselytism activities through study circles. Al-Faisal connected up with a ring of pro-al-Qaeda ideologues in London, and part of his recruitment pitch was cutting the figure of the charismatic, activist priest—working to get young men off drugs, for example, and socializing them into Islamist extremism as the way out.
Al-Faisal would continue for a decade to travel around the United Kingdom—from Manchester to Birmingham to Swansea and Cardiff to Bournemouth and Worthing—recruiting for jihadist ideology, preaching hatred and subversion against the British government, and inciting his followers to war against unbelievers generally, inside and outside the U.K., and the United States specifically.
Among other things, according to court documents, al-Faisal praised Usama bin Ladin and approvingly played Bin Ladin’s messages calling for terrorist against the U.S.; praised Maulana Masood Azhar, the Jaysh-e-Muhammad leader whose Kashmir-based organization laid down deep roots in Birmingham in the 1990s; condemned the then-Saudi Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz bin Baz, as a heretic; told his followers to learn how to fly planes and handle machine guns; advocated the use of weapons of mass destruction; ratified the fatwa of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar, claiming that defending his “Islamic emirate” in Afghanistan was fard al-ayn (an individual duty); said the “first condition” of jihad was “against kaffirs [non-Muslims]” and that one of the pillars of the faith was to “lessen the population of the kaffirs … Even today in modern times you should cut the throat of the kaffirs with a machete”; incited his followers to kill Jews and Hindus (“You are allowed to kill [a Hindu] and take his money”, al-Faisal was recorded saying); and denounced democracy (“The way forward can never be the ballot. The [way] forward is the bullet”).
No later than February 1998, al-Faisal began distributing his lectures and sermons on audio tapes. Al-Faisal was finally arrested, at his home in Stratford in the far east of London, on 18 February 2002, after police discovered some of these tapes on a man arrested in December 2001. A year later, on 23 February 2003, al-Faisal was convicted of: three counts related to soliciting murder, the first time the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 had been invoked for one-hundred years; two counts of “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred”; and one count of “distributing threatening, abusive or insulting recordings of sound with intent to stir up racial hatred”. On 7 March 2003, al-Faisal was sentenced to nine years in prison, seven for solicitation of murder and two for inciting racial hatred. Al-Faisal’s appeal was dismissed on 4 March 2004.
DEPORTED TO JAMAICA
Al-Faisal was released from prison on 25 May 2007—and immediately deported to Kingston. Though al-Faisal was banned from ever returning to the United Kingdom, this did nothing to prevent al-Faisal recruiting people to jihadism through the internet—even in Britain. Al-Faisal became an immediate problem.
Already, in 2004, when al-Faisal was in detention, Britain had thwarted a plot by Dhiren Barot—to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, other financial services, and the headquarters of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the same city, while levelling a number of hotels in London, with a “dirty bomb” if possible—and found that al-Faisal was a part of Barot’s path to radicalism.
On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”, tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit. Abdulmutallab, the president of the Islamic Society at the University College of London—the fourth London Islamic Society president in three years to be involved in terrorism—drew inspiration from al-Faisal.
An online forum founded in 2007 in New York City, Revolution Muslim, took al-Faisal as its spiritual leader. In April 2010, Revolution Muslim gained considerable attention after the site issued an online threat that the makers of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, would “probably wind up like Theo van Gogh”, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in the street in November 2004 for making a documentary about the abuse of women in Muslim countries. The knife that nearly decapitated Van Gogh was used to attach a note to his body threatening his collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was subsequently driven from her country, gaining safety in America. With this incident, the 1989 ukase from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khumayni calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie for his “offensive” book, The Satanic Verses, and the 2005-06 Danish cartoons row in the background, the decision of many networks to censor South Park—which featured the Prophet Muhammad, in a bear costume, thus not actually visible—in reaction to Revolution Muslim’s threat ignited a global debate over the erosion of free speech in the West. Revolution Muslim’s website was closed down later in the year and most of its operatives are now in prison for terrorism-related offences, including trying to join Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM), al-Qaeda’s then-secret Somali branch.
Just after the South Park episode, on 1 May 2010, a naturalized American from Pakistan, Faisal Shahzad, tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. The blast would have murdered hundreds of people and only failed because Shahzad mishandled the timer—setting it for 7 AM (2 May), rather than 7 PM—and this transpired to be enough time for someone to detect something amiss and report the vehicle to authorities. Shahzad testified to being radicalized by al-Faisal’s materials.
In the run-up to Christmas 2010, a British jihadist cell—Mohammed Chowdhury, Shah Rahman, Gurukanth Desai, and Abdul Miah—planned a wave of terrorist strikes in London. Their targets, according to a handwritten note, included the Stock Exchange and the U.S. Embassy. The cell also has the home addresses of then-London mayor Boris Johnson and two rabbis, who, it seems, were marked for assassination. The U.S. Treasury designation of al-Faisal says that Chowdhury was among those terrorists “directly or indirectly influenced” by al-Faisal.
Al-Faisal’s menace went well beyond the Western Hemisphere. Al-Faisal claimed to have visited 350 mosques in ten countries soon after his release. In 2008, the BBC found al-Faisal preaching in Africa, from Durban in South Africa to Nigeria. Al-Faisal “said he was in Africa because the people there were more spiritual and more receptive to his preaching”, the BBC reported. Al-Faisal was arrested in Kenya on 31 December 2009 for inciting people to join HSM. After a complicated process, al-Faisal was deported back to Jamaica on 22 January 2010. Al-Faisal was prevented from further travel, and thereafter his propaganda-recruitment activity became mostly an online activity.
The U.S. remained concerned about al-Faisal, though not to the same degree as Anwar al-Awlaki: al-Faisal drew a distinction between battlefields like Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Americans should be fought, and the continental United States, which al-Faisal stopped short of declaring a legitimate target—unlike al-Awlaki. Al-Faisal was about to move himself back to centre-stage of Western security concerns.
THE ISLAMIC STATE
Shortly after IS’s caliphate declaration in June 2014, al-Faisal, by then running a website called Authentic Tauheed, declared his loyalty to the project. Al-Faisal was among the few important pro-IS voices in English in late 2014. Another was Anjem Choudary, the British leader of al-Muhajiroun, who was eventually imprisoned in the U.K. and (like al-Faisal) belatedly sanctioned by the U.S. for giving a secret bay’a (oath of allegiance) to IS. Musa Cerantonio, a convert in Australia, and Ahmad Musa Jibril, a U.S.-based preacher, were two other important English-speaking pro-IS figures.
Al-Faisal was outspoken in his support for IS as expanding the realm of what he considered to be proper shari’a governance, and he enumerated the advantages of this as inter alia displeasing the Jews, attacking the Shi’a, and limiting the spread of homosexuality. Alongside ordinary Islamist hate materials, like the antisemitic fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, al-Faisal published a biography of IS leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), on his website.
State prosecutors in New York unsealed an indictment against al-Faisal on 25 August 2017. Al-Faisal is charged with two counts of soliciting or providing support for acts of terrorism; two counts of attempting to do the same; and one count of conspiracy as a crime of terrorism. In December 2016, an undercover officer from the New York Police Department approached al-Faisal online, and al-Faisal directed the NYPD officer to his propaganda videos, IS official propaganda, and offered to help the officer travel to join IS, recommending that the officer marry somebody in IS to make this easier and offered to broker the marriage. The officer went to the Middle East, as instructed by al-Faisal, and al-Faisal then connected the officer with an IS operative in Raqqa. Al-Faisal was arrested in Jamaica the same day as Albany released the indictment, and he will be extradited to America to stand trial.
CONNECTIONS TO TERRORISM
The accusation that al-Faisal’s involvement in jihadism has gone beyond propaganda-recruitment and has included participation in IS’s foreign attacks campaign is not a novel development; it fits with al-Faisal’s record.
When al-Faisal arrived in London in the early 1990s, it was at a time when French officials, watching the renegades from Algeria’s terrifying war and the other failed Islamist insurrections gather in the city, began referring to “Londonistan”. Among this veritable “Star Wars bar scene” of wanted men and zealots was a network of jihadi-salafist preachers—al-Faisal, Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), and Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (Abu Hamza al-Masri)—who in their various ways interacted with al-Qaeda’s operations and ended up as the inspiration for a host of terrorists.
Among the al-Qaeda terrorists or would-be terrorists who had come under al-Faisal’s influence at one stage or another are Richard Reid, the attempted “shoe bomber” who was arrested on board an American plane on 22 December 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker” for the 9/11 conspiracy. Indeed, it is possible that Reid and Moussaoui met at one of al-Faisal’s mosques. One of the four suicide-murderers in London on 7 July 2005, Germaine Lindsay, was a close associate of al-Faisal’s.
The sanctions by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) say al-Faisal “provided recruitment services” to IS. Treasury has a record of al-Faisal assisting at least one follower “in identifying a funding source to travel to ISIS-controlled territory”, and having arranged marriages to facilitate such travel for others. Treasury also lists al-Faisal for “assisting in, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, ISIS.”
Treasury notes that al-Faisal has “directly or indirectly influenced numerous terrorists”. Treasury lists many of those mentioned above: Reid, “two of the four” 7/7 murderers (Lindsay is one; it is unclear who is the second); Abdulmutallab; Chowdhury; and Shahzad.
Given the stringent intelligence work that goes into a designation notice of this kind, it is noteworthy that Treasury includes among those al-Faisal influenced toward terrorism the perpetrators of two recent IS attacks.
First, according to Treasury, al-Faisal influenced at least one of the two men—Elton Simpson or Nadir Hamid Soofi—who were killed in the attempt to murder Pamela Geller and other participants in the “draw Muhammad contest” held at the Curtis Culwell Centre in Garland, Texas, on 3 May 2015. The foiled Garland attack was guided by Junaid Hussain, a British IS jihadist and one of the pioneers of IS’s external operations model. In the aftermath IS issued threats claiming a wider presence in the United States.
Second, Treasury says al-Faisal influenced Abdul Razak Ali Artan, the Somali refugee who injured eleven people with a vehicular ramming and stabbing attack at Ohio State University on 28 November 2016. Artan’s atrocity was claimed by IS, though any direct communication Artan had with IS is not public.
Originally published at the Henry Jackson Society