If My Daddy Could See Me Now
September 11, 2001, we are often told, “changed everything.” In Washington, D.C., and Baghdad, Iraq, that may have been true. President George W. Bush and a handful of his advisors, who had been itching for a fight with Iraq since before the inauguration, now saw their opening. It would take another year and a half to make the preparations and to go through the motions necessary to whip up public support for the war, but at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time, when American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the 94th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein’s death warrant was signed. The rest of his life, he was living on borrowed time.
Not so the American people—most of them, anyway. After the initial shock of the day gave way to weeks of “special reports” and celebrity tributes to the victims and heroes of September 11, most Americans lived their lives post-September 11 as they did, in the words of the President, “pre-September 10.” There were some added inconveniences whenever they had to travel; their 401(k)’s, already battered by the bust of the dot-com boom, sank to new lows; and Washington began racking up debts that their children and grandchildren will never be able to pay, but all in all, everyday life was little changed.
For “Abdul,” however, September 11, 2001, was a true turning point. In November 2001, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about how life had changed for Muslims at the Rockford Iqra School and mosque, and when Aaron Wolf and I visited the school in February 2002, Magdy Kandil, one of the founders of the Muslim Community Foundation of Rockford, had told us that Muslims, who had only recently begun to see themselves as full participants in American political life, now were “a little bit confused about the new laws” and reluctant to speak out publicly.
Abdul’s situation was even more complex. After all, he was not born into Islam. Educated in a Catholic school, he had converted to Islam from his family’s Lutheranism. Moreover, while he dressed in traditional Muslim garb and had grown a beard, he otherwise did not look the part. You can take an eighth-generation German-American out of his ancestral religion, but you cannot change his genes.
Nor, for that matter, can you change his history. While he had adopted a new religion, Abdul was still intensely proud of his family’s history, his ethnic group, and his country. He had spent years researching his own genealogy and the history of German settlers in Winnebago County. In dozens of binders, he had amassed birth certificates, death notices, and burial information on thousands of German-Americans in Northern Illinois. He was, in the strictest sense of the word, a patriot—someone who loved a particular people in a particular place.
Abdul had collected scores of old photographs of his ancestors, many of them in military uniform. His father had been a Marine in the Vietnam War; his great-grandfather, who had brought him up, had fought in World War II. While at West High School in Rockford (before it was closed, triggering the 13-year-long Rockford desegregation lawsuit), he had joined ROTC. He had hoped to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps, but his later run-ins with the law, including a felony conviction for attempted robbery, would keep him out of the service.
After September 11, however, Abdul hoped that the situation might have changed. He was fluent in Arabic and had studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in Egypt and in Yemen. Having begun his studies under an adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin), an organization that practically defines radical Islam, before renouncing a radicalism that he had never found comfortable and completing his studies under a Salafi scholar, Abdul believed that he had skills to offer beyond simple physical ability. He went down to the local Army recruitment office in Rockford and tried to enlist.
The recruiter administered the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a multiple-choice test used to determine the suitability of potential enlistees. The ASVAB returns a percentile ranking, comparing the test-taker to all others who have taken the test. The minimum ranking in order to enter each branch of the Armed Services varies from 31 (Army and Army National Guard) to 36 (Coast Guard, Air Force, and Air National Guard). Abdul scored a 92, placing him at the very top of the second-highest category of aspiring recruits.
While the recruiter was impressed by the score and by Abdul’s desire to serve his country, September 11 had not changed the fact of Abdul’s felony conviction. The Army could not accept him, but, the recruiter told him, his skills might be useful elsewhere. Had he thought about volunteering for something related to homeland security? The recruiter suggested that Abdul contact the FBI.
Others might have picked up the phone or sent a letter of inquiry; Abdul walked into a local FBI office clothed in traditional Islamic garb. His appearance, he recalls, was greeted with astonishment; even after he explained the purpose of his visit, security guards made him walk through a metal detector three times, though he had not set it off the first or the second time.
The FBI’s initial skepticism was quickly dispelled as the field agents he talked to became convinced of his sincerity. In addition to his language skills, Abdul had other things to offer. His own troubled background and history with a Chicago-based gang that had been something of a recruiting ground for Islam gave him a certain street credibility, while radical Muslims—particularly those associated with U.S. affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood—viewed (quite correctly) both black and Caucasian converts to Islam as more easily radicalized. At a time when it was reasonable to expect that the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies would be attempting to infiltrate Islamic organizations that might be recruiting potential terrorists, Muslim stereotyping of converts to their own religion caused them to lower their suspicions.
By early 2002, Abdul had begun working for the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Chicago, and his activities were confined to Chicago and the near suburbs. With a significant and growing Muslim population and the headquarters or important chapters of several major Muslim organizations loosely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, Chicago proved fertile ground. His earliest efforts were aimed entirely at gathering intelligence—making contacts in mosques and Muslim organizations and listening carefully for anything out of the ordinary.
It did not take long before Abdul came into contact with a Pakistani Muslim, living in Chicago, who was making frequent trips outside the United States. When it became clear that the Pakistani had been visiting a terrorist training camp near Johannesburg, South Africa, the JTTF acted quickly, and the man was arrested at O’Hare International Airport, as he was preparing to board a plane.
It was the first arrest that Abdul had a hand in, but it would be far from the last. Over the next several years, his work for the FBI would result in somewhere between 15 and 20 arrests. Abdul is not sure of the exact number because many of them, like the arrest at O’Hare, were carried out quietly and kept out of the news, and Abdul was usually removed from contact with the suspects at least a few weeks before the arrest. While JTTF officials have not given him a precise count, they have told him that they “have never seen work” like his.
By 2003, the FBI was sufficiently impressed with his work that they asked Abdul if he would be willing to take on assignments outside of the Chicago area. He agreed, and over the next four years, he spent extended periods away from Rockford and Chicago, in more than a half-dozen locations in the Eastern United States. Each situation was different, but the process was the same: Move into an area; get to know members of a mosque or other Islamic organization; listen carefully; try to befriend anyone who seemed suspicious or potentially dangerous; and, all the while, keep the FBI handlers up to date on any developments. In some cases, Abdul’s work resulted in arrests, including two high-profile cases that Abdul can only discuss off the record because his cover was never compromised. In others, he gathered intelligence that has helped the FBI determine that entire mosques require further scrutiny and surveillance.
The assignments became lengthier and more nerve-wracking, and they began to take a toll on his health.
After he had started working with the FBI, Abdul married two other Muslim women (one, an Oxford-educated economist), and his family grew to more than a half-dozen children. By early 2006, he decided that he wanted out. He returned to Rockford and began planning for a quiet future. He became more active again in the local mosque, and his children were still attending the Rockford Iqra School. Life was returning to normal.
Abdul still kept in touch with the FBI, of course, and in August 2006, a field agent with whom he had worked contacted him to ask a favor. The JTTF had their eye on an African-American convert to Islam who attended the mosque in DeKalb, Illinois, and lived with his mother in Genoa. He had a job in Rockford. They could not offer any further details, other than his name, his place of employment, and his work schedule. Would Abdul be willing to seek him out, get to know him a little bit, and offer his assessment?
* * *
The assignment seems simple enough. Further work had not really been in his plans, but this job will not require him to be away from his family. A few days, maybe a week, and he can make a full report to the field agent. Abdul agrees.
And so, in late August, Abdul drives out into the Wasteland of East State Street, Rockford’s version of the several-mile-long strip of big-box stores and chain restaurants, anchored on the far end by a Wal-Mart, that plagues most Midwestern cities. Leaving his car in the massive parking lot that sprawls in front of Target and several smaller chain stores, he walks toward EB Games, a video-game retailer and rental shop that occupies the small storefront on the east end of the strip mall.
According to the schedule provided by the FBI field agent, Derrick Shareef should be at work right now.
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.
This article first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.