By Raffaello Pantucci, lawfareblog.com
Dated: April 19, 2020
Editor’s Note: The history of the modern jihadist movement is often the tale of different charismatic preachers and fighters, whose inspiring words and deeds—and whose pettiness and divisions—shaped the movement. RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci examines the life and times of Abdullah al-Faisal, the storied jihadist preacher whom the United States is trying to extradite. Faisal is a particularly militant jihadist, and his personal history captures the dangers of the movement and its many divisions.
When he was able to preach publicly, Abdullah al-Faisal enjoyed employing apocalyptic imagery. The current COVID-19 misery no doubt appeals to his taste for biblical pestilence. The drama of his preaching was such that others in London’s Muslim community would find his exaggerated rhetoric absurd and often dismiss him as a marginal figure. More than two decades on from his heyday in the United Kingdom, Faisal is now fighting extradition to the United States, where he stands accused of helping people join the Islamic State. His four-decade-long career around the world and online distinguishes him as among the most modern jihadist preachers in the West.
Born Trevor William Forrest to an evangelical Christian family in Jamaica, Faisal was introduced to Islam in his mid-teens by his business education teacher, Jolly McFarlane. When he graduated from secondary school in 1980 he changed his name to Abdullah el Faisal, and the next year took a Saudi government-sponsored six-week course in Islamic and Arabic studies in Trinidad. He also studied in Guyana before leaving in November 1984 for Riyadh, where he took up a scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University. Years later, he told police he had been sent to the United Kingdom by his teacher, Sheikh Rajhi, and set himself up among the growing community of black converts in south London. Landing at around the same time that Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was attracting attention, Faisal’s vigorous speeches, skin tincture, fluent Arabic and street style made him a hot commodity among young Muslims in the United Kingdom. In an interview with the Sunday Times in February 1993, Faisal boasted that he was able to transform this charisma into numbers at the south London mosque where he operated, claiming he had “received three converts a day for the past six years.”
Soon after this, however, he fell out of favor at the mosque because of his extreme preaching. By some accounts, it was after he was caught playing Abu Hamza tapes at the mosque. Another of the “Londonistan” preachers at the time, Hamza was already actively involved in jihadism by the mid-1990s, having been to Afghanistan, met Abdallah Azzam and started down his path to becoming the famous hook-handed cleric. At one point or another both Faisal and Hamza had been students of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous Jordanian cleric who had provided spiritual guidance justifying some of the darkest acts during the brutal jihadist conflict that wracked Algeria during the 1990s. Faisal acted occasionally as an interpreter for Qatada, though this sometimes produced strange results.
In a screed attacking Faisal, titled “Be Aware of Takfir!”, Hamza provides an anecdote capturing the relationship Faisal had with his teacher (as well as the tensions among all the preachers). Qatada and Faisal had been invited to publicly debate the practice of takfir—a controversial act, whereby one excommunicates others for failing to act as a proper Muslim. It is a crucial concept among violent jihadists as it provides a context permitting violence against individuals once they are cast out, enabling the killing of Muslim civilians and other Islamists with whom one disagrees. Because Qatada had little English, he was reliant on Faisal as his translator. During the presentation, by Hamza’s account, Faisal was somewhat selective in his translations of Qatada’s words, meaning that while the Arabic speakers in the room felt that “the end of the debate left brother Faisal a broken man[,] … those that did not understand the Arabic [Faisal’s students] went away feeling the same about Qatada.”
Faisal was a particularly aggressive proponent of takfir, wantonly spraying it in any direction he could. The long and illustrious list of people with whom he fell out included everyone from Anwar al-Awlaki (whom Faisal accused of being too restrictive in his use of takfir and therefore a kafir worthy of takfir himself) to the “Tooting and Finsbury Park” Muslims he dismissed as “fake jihadis … using the word ‘jihad’ for fame and fortune and to line their pockets.” At one event with Qatada, he went so far as to call his audience “Jews” when they disagreed with his views—a perspective that even Qatada thought was over the top.
Notwithstanding this rather razed-earth approach to preaching, Faisal remained an attractive figure to jihadists and continued to interact with his fellow Londonistani preachers. One expert with whom I spoke spent considerable time among the jihadist milieu in the early 2000s and described how members of the community would go to Hamza for the religion and to Faisal for the fire. Young Muslims from that time have told me how much they enjoyed listening to Faisal thanks to his polished English, angry rhetoric and cool Jamaican accent. He claimed a street heritage in Jamaica that gave him a way of connecting with the lost men of color in the grimier parts of London where he would hold his teaching groups. He had a strong following across the United Kingdom’s young Muslim community but found that his messages resonated particularly with those who had criminal pasts or inclinations. A number of the black convert Muslims drawn into his circles were often successfully encouraged to move away from lifestyles revolving around drug and alcohol abuse. One respectable Deobandi Muslim leader in north London praised Faisal for this success and struggled to reconcile this history with what Faisal was ultimately accused of in court.
But Faisal was deeply engaged with the U.K. jihadist community. He was a regular at events where future terrorist plotters gathered. In the early 2000s, he appeared at an event with Hamza in Crawley at which the two men spoke before a group that included individuals from the “Operation Crevice” cell that was later disrupted in 2004, a Brit who went on to play a prominent role in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, as well as a preacher who was close to the pair who murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Faisal was also an influential figure in the lives of Zacarias Moussaoui, the infamous 20th 9/11 hijacker, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
Faisal was booted out of the United Kingdom and returned to Jamaica in 2007, having served four years in prison for inciting violence and racial hatred. He had been caught after police attention was drawn to his rantings in the course of their investigation of Richard Chinyoka, a brutal misogynist who was incarcerated for 12 years for raping and torturing a series of women. As police went through Chinyoka’s belongings, they discovered cassette tapes of Faisal’s sermons and were shocked by what they heard. They were even more stunned to discover that these tapes were fairly openly available when they investigated religious centers around London. This led to Faisal’s incarceration and eviction from the country—but not before he was able to help push a young convert named Germaine Lindsay along the path to radicalization. Lindsay then went on to be one of the bombers who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, all of whom reportedly enjoyed listening to Faisal’s preaching.
Faisal’s links to the July 7 group continued after their deaths. Years later, Faisal reported that Samantha Lewthwaite, Germaine Lindsay’s widow, had visited him while he sat in Long Lartin prison. She told him she was happy and offered him money and supplies while he provided her with guidance. The two stayed connected, and soon afterward, when Faisal traveled to South Africa after his deportation to Jamaica, he met a young man, Fahmi Jamal Salim, who was looking for a white wife. Claiming to know him to be Lewthwaite’s type, Faisal put the two in touch and a relationship and children followed. Salim was a long-standing jihadist fighter close to al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA) and al-Shabaab. His sister was married to a fighter who was killed when Comorian AQEA cell leader Harun Fazul took a wrong turn in Mogadishu and ended up in front of a Somali security checkpoint. All of these individuals have links to the same groups and networks that hosted Faisal when he was in South Africa.
After a protracted deportation process that involved bouncing around a number of countries, Faisal was ejected from Africa and back to his native Jamaica. From there he became a keyboard warrior and magnet for journalists. The U.K. press in particular was drawn to him and eager to gather more details about his links to the United Kingdom. His influence at this stage had also grown considerably in the United States, and he was proving to be a draw for extremists from further afield through his website, Authentic Tauheed, and associated social media accounts.
Faisal continued to espouse his aggressive and uncompromising messages online, turning toward the Islamic State as the group gained prominence. He provided speeches and justifications about the validity of the Islamic State’s caliphate, arguing that part of the reason for the Islamic State’s rise was that al-Qaeda was not brutal enough. Showing his eagerness to continue to speak in favor of sexual violence, he declared that Islamic State fighters were allowed to rape women they captured. Additionally, he encouraged jihadists to sacrifice themselves in combat on behalf of the Islamic State, telling his audience that “some of you have lived a sinful life—the only way for you to go to paradise is to die on the battlefield.”
As it turned out, Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed site was managed by an array of extremists dotted around the world to whom he delegated responsibilities. Two of his online associates, 38-year-old Mohammed Abdul Ahad, from north London, and 31-year-old Muhammad Abdur Raheem Kamali, from Rochdale, were sentenced to four years each in February. Their roles were to help manage the website, translate parts of Faisal’s speeches, design posters, and disseminate links and information. They were part of a web of individuals involved in these activities, some of whom have also been arrested and pleaded guilty in the United States over the past few years.
Faisal’s audience was truly global. By one count, 10,000 people listened in during one of his talks. They could ask questions and engage with the preacher through the layer of support staff he built up around him. In October 2019, Singapore handed down its first conviction for terror financing. Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir Sheikh Uduman was a 35-year-old who had been following Faisal’s work online since 2013. Uduman reached out to Faisal, and the two swapped messages via WhatsApp, email and Facebook. Eventually, Uduman sent $840 to Faisal via an intermediary using the name Patrick Grey and Faisal’s wife. Uduman pleaded guilty to the financing charges, and the government claimed he was also eager to pursue armed jihad overseas.
In other cases, Faisal appears to have inspired people to more violent acts. Mohammad Kasim Stimberwala, a lab technician, and Ubed Ahmed Mirza, a practicing lawyer, were both reportedly in contact with Faisal and planning an atrocity aimed at Jewish targets in Mumbai. They had been active online radicals for years, and had even gone so far as to try to obtain weapons and scout potential targets. They were also communicating with Aadhil Ameez, an extremist recruiter in contact with Faisal as well as the 2019 Sri Lankan Easter bombers. His speeches were also reportedly played frequently in Trinidad and Tobago, where he stands accused of being a facilitator for people to go to Syria and Iraq.
The list of attacks he is linked to in the United States is substantial, with the U.S. Treasury Department connecting him to “the Ohio State University attacker during Thanksgiving weekend in 2016; a Garland, Texas shooter at a Mohammed drawing contest in 2015; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber in New York City in 2010; Mohammed Chowdury, who planned and attempted to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who attempted to down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan in 2009.” Separately, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan linked to al-Qaeda who sought to attack the New York subway system in 2009, told a jury in 2012 that Faisal had influenced his radicalization and that he had listened to Faisal’s tapes as he trained in Pakistan ahead of his attempted attack. In all cases, the individuals were active listeners to Faisal’s material, and in some cases—like the Garland, Texas, shooters—they were in direct contact with him.
Faisal was particularly influential among converts, among them Jason Brown, also known as Abdul Ja’Me. Brown was the head of a Chicago gang specializing in drug trafficking called AHK—a mutation of the Arabic “akhi,” meaning “brother”—that required members to convert to Islam. In June 2016, Brown was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on gun charges. When police searched his phones, they found evidence that he was an avid consumer of Faisal’s teachings. Brown continued his obsession with Faisal while in prison and, upon release, started to more actively recruit members of his gang to follow Faisal’s teachings and told them in early 2019 about his plan to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. He also told them that he had sent money to Faisal to support him during his extradition to the United States from Jamaica. He was ultimately arrested for sending money to someone he thought was an Islamic State fighter in Syria.
To this roster of Faisal’s adherents we can also add the two men killed in the United Kingdom as they launched terrorist knife and fake bomb attacks in London in November 2019 and January of this year. Usman Khan, responsible for the November attack on London Bridge, and Sudesh Amman, the man shot down in Streatham in January, were both listeners to Faisal’s teachings. Khan even had Faisal’s phone number.
When he was free, Faisal interacted frequently with his flock and took full advantage of modern technology as well as in-person contacts. His legal trouble in the United States is in part a product of helping one of his adherents join the Islamic State. While trying to impress one follower online, Faisal told her that he was adored in Raqqa and that the Islamic State was keen to fly him in to guide them. Now that he is jailed, he has fewer contacts, but his ideas continue to flourish online.
Faisal’s luck has finally run out. Given U.S. sentencing and conviction rates for terrorism offenses, it is highly likely he will eventually face a long stint in prison. His ideas, speeches and lessons, however, will continue to live on. Authentic Tauheed can still be found online with some digging. The website stopped updating in August 2017, roughly around the time that Jamaican authorities arrested Faisal on a U.S. warrant. His final posting is titled “Entering the Lizard Hole,” which he explains “means that the Muslims will imitate and follow the kuffar in their creed, culture and character. This issue is one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.” As Faisal awaits judgment, his ideas will continue to be perpetuated around the world online—making him likely the most enduringly and globally influential of the infamous Londonistani preachers.