From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
Memphian drifted to dark side of Islamic extremism, plotted one-man jihad vs. homeland
By Kristina Goetz
November 14, 2010
What I had in mind didn't go as planned but Allah willing He will reward me for my intentions.
He planned for weeks, buying guns secondhand to avoid the FBI.
Then, to test whether the feds were watching, he bought a .22-caliber rifle over the counter at Walmart. He stockpiled ammo and practiced target shooting at empty construction sites.
By his own account, he was preparing for jihad.
From a black Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Memphis native, watched two soldiers in fatigues smoking outside a military recruiting center in Little Rock. He aimed an assault rifle out the window and fired.
Muhammad sped away, hoping to flee 150 miles to Memphis where he would switch cars. But a wrong turn in a construction zone led him to police.
He stepped out of the SUV wearing a green ammo belt around his waist.
"It's a war going on against Muslims, and that is why I did it," an officer heard him say. "You see how I gave up with no problem."
Much of this account emerges from police reports and an 18-page mental-health evaluation contained in court files. But Muhammad tells a far broader, detailed story in seven handwritten letters to The Commercial Appeal. Taken together, those letters are not just an admission of guilt but a profession of failure for having not caused more death and destruction.
The letters, written in pencil between May and October, provide a rare glimpse into the thoughts of a self-described jihadist, according to one national security expert. Muhammad describes in his own words how he took his declaration of faith in a Memphis mosque; his motives for moving to Yemen and his attempt to travel to Somalia for weapons training; how and why he planned multiple attacks in the U.S, including ones in Nashville and Florence, Ky., that didn't go as intended; and how he allegedly executed the Little Rock assault.
In his own words:
It's a war out against Islam and Muslims and I'm on the side of the Muslims point blank ... The U.S. has to pay for the rape, murder, bloodshed, blasphemy it has done and still doing to the Muslims and Islam. So consider this a small retaliation the best is to come Allah willing. This is not the first attack and won't be the last.
Muhammad is yet to convince U.S. authorities he's anything other than the murderer of Pvt. William A. Long of Conway, Ark. He's being held on state charges, awaiting a February trial.
But one senior consultant to the U.S. government on global terrorism believes Muhammad's self-described attack in June 2009 and others like it -- lone gunmen with no formal al-Qaida training or direction -- illustrate the new nature of an old enemy.
Al-Qaida has shifted from a far away, tough-to-join group to a social network that almost anyone, anywhere can join. Even a middle-class, Baptist kid from Memphis, born Carlos Bledsoe, who played youth basketball and worked at Chuck E. Cheese's.
"It's a massive red flag for me about the way al-Qaida has changed its perspective in saying, 'We don't need impressive attacks. We need you guys to go pick up a gun and kill somebody,' " said Jarret Brachman, author of "Global Jihadism."
"Like they understand this is the trend and that they're trying to get back out in front of it. And then they can claim credit for all the next Bledsoes."
* * *
Carlos Leon Bledsoe was born July 9, 1985, to Linda and Melvin Bledsoe. He wouldn't change his name to Muhammad until years later.
"Regarding my pre-Islamic past ... I don't like to talk about it," he wrote to the newspaper. "... I was known as Bledsoe in the neighborhood and did things most teenagers do."
A mental-health evaluation performed at the Arkansas State Hospital provides a glimpse. (He was deemed competent to stand trial.)
Muhammad told the psychiatrist he first used alcohol at about age 15 or 16 and drank "maybe 2 or 3 times a year." He smoked "a joint or two every month" starting at age 14.
That changed when he went to college, he said. He drank alcohol until he was intoxicated roughly four nights a week and smoked an average of an ounce of marijuana a week or "two blunts a day."
Muhammad also said he had experience using weapons that could cause serious harm beginning in middle school. He described using guns and knives in fights during his school years. He had been suspended several times for fighting. He added: "I was a gang member."
A 2003 police report shows he was charged, months before his 18th birthday, with unlawful possession of a weapon -- chrome-plated brass knuckles.
After a driver failed to yield at a stop sign and hit Muhammad's car, she told police he jumped out, put on the brass knuckles, hit the rear passenger window and yelled: "Bitch I'm gonna kill you ... Get out. ... I'm going to kill you when I get your address."
The police report also indicates Muhammad was affiliated with the M.O.B. gang.
Muhammad admitted running to the woman's car, yelling and swearing at her, but denied to police he hit the car or threatened the driver. He forfeited the weapon, and the case was handled nonjudicially by juvenile authorities.
After graduating from Craigmont High, Muhammad left Memphis for Nashville to enroll at Tennessee State University, where he attended for three semesters.
In February 2004, Knoxville police pulled over a blue Mazda for an equipment violation and found several weapons, including a loaded SKS assault rifle and two shotguns. Muhammad, a passenger in the back seat, told police he owned the guns and had planned to sell the shotguns. He also had marijuana and a switchblade, according to the report.
"I was actually facing 14 yrs back then," Muhammad wrote. "And that kind of spooked me so to speak.
"So I was offered a plea deal and it included probation for a year but, a condition was I wasn't to get into any trouble not even a ticket or I was to come and serve the 14 yrs."
Knoxville court records show only one charge of possessing a prohibited weapon, a silver switchblade, which was dismissed in June 2004.
The incident profoundly affected Muhammad. He changed his lifestyle, his friends and began to study religion.
He evaluated Christianity and realized he didn't believe in the faith of his youth. The doctrine of the trinity was incomprehensible to him.
So he turned to Judaism because he was attracted to monotheism. He visited a couple of orthodox synagogues and was given pamphlets but was turned away and stared at because he was black, he said.
"But that religion seem(ed) to me like too much of racial pride and not for other people," he wrote. "It seem(ed) to be all about 'the Jews' or 'children of Israel.'"
That's when Muhammad turned to Islam.
During a visit to a Nashville mosque, he watched the synchronized movements of 50 to 75 people as they bowed and prostrated themselves in prayer. He was amazed.
"So I attempted to join and after realizing I didn't know what I was doing, somebody (asked) when did you become Muslim? I said I'm not just interested in it? And when I said that the whole place lit up. I mean brothers shouted 'Allahu Akbar'!! (Allah is the greatest) and embraced me like I was a long (lost) brother."
A man from the mosque explained the religion's fundamentals -- belief in one God, angels, the revealed scriptures, the prophets, predestination and the day of judgment. He also gave Muhammad a copy of the Quran.
Later, at Masjid As-Salam in Memphis, Muhammad recited the Shahada in Arabic: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
"They are not Mujahideen or militants or preach jihad," Muhammad wrote about the Memphis mosque. "But that's where I became Muslim."
So to make a long story short I believed in it wholeheartedly and decided to become a Muslim in a local Memphis masjid. I took my declaration or testimony of faith and bore witness to the truth. The year was 2004 and I was 19 years old.
* * *
A senior member of Masjid As-Salam and the Muslim Society of Memphis board, Mohammed Moinuddin, facilitated a meeting between mosque members and the FBI after the shooting at the agency's request. Muhammad spent very little time at the mosque, he said, but the few who remembered him described him as calm, not belligerent or hostile.
Moinuddin said he encourages people to speak up if they know about potential threats so law enforcement officials can be informed.
"Islam, our religion of faith, does not believe in killing people and stuff like that," he said. "It's a very peaceful religion. The very meaning of the word Islam means peace. And therefore it's kind of ironic that people are sometimes distorting the image of Islam."
* * *
By 2007, Carlos Bledsoe had become deeply observant and legally changed his name.
"So step by step I became a religiously devout Muslim, Mujahid -- meaning one who participates in jihad," Muhammad wrote. "I was a jihadist before I traveled to Yemen. I've loved jihad every since I became Muslim."
Family members became concerned that Muhammad was too focused on religion but thought he was simply trying to find his way. They never heard him talk about extremist ideas or doing anyone harm.
But on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muhammad traveled to Yemen because he wanted to further understand Islam. People were hospitable, the cost of living low.
"People treated me with so much respect, like those brothers I first met," he said.
Muhammad wrote that he knew people who could show him around and help him get started but didn't say who they were or how he met them.
He declined to answer certain questions about other Muslims for "security reasons." He also said in one letter that he was "asked many times to carry out a martyrdom operation in America" but "didn't have proper training in regards to explosives."
He did not elaborate.
Muhammad spent his days studying and then taught English after the Asr, or third prayer of the five daily prayers. He felt uncomfortable teaching "the language of the enemy" and considered it only a source of income. He learned Arabic by interacting with native speakers.
Muhammad met an elementary school teacher to whom he taught English and eventually married. He told the state psychiatrist he sold his car in America to help pay for the dowry.
When Muhammad had been married about two months, he was arrested at a roadside checkpoint. He carried a fake Somali passport and lacked the proper government permissions to travel.
He also had videos and literature about the daily operations "by our Muslim soldiers in different parts of the world," literature from people such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American Islamic cleric who uses the Internet to spread al-Qaida's message, and explosive manuals that included tips such as how to make gun silencers, he said.
Muhammad's plan had been to travel to Somalia for training in how to make bombs, particularly car bombs.
Instead, he was imprisoned in Yemen's Political Security Organization.
(H)ad I got this training my story would of ended a lot differently than it's going to end now. My drive-by would of been a drive-in with no one escaping the aftermath!!
* * *
Muhammad had been in prison a few weeks when people from the U.S. Embassy came to interview him, he told the state psychiatrist, because he had "literature, contact, cell, videos, and people's numbers on my phone that were wanted in Saudi Arabia."
Muhammad described meeting fellow Muslims during his detention, some of whom were tortured in interrogation rooms. They were beaten with sticks and poles so badly they could hardly walk, he said. Some were sexually abused, and others were threatened with sodomy. He was "maybe insulted in interrogation a few times but not tortured as they were," he wrote.
"They didn't do anything to me mainly out of fear of America," he wrote. "But America didn't give a damn about me while I was there but they didn't know that. They were confused they didn't know whether if I was a 'spy' or a 'jihadist' so they were scared.
"(B)ut the FBI knew exactly who I was. They had been tracking me the whole time. Every since I left back on (the) 9/11 anniversary. They just watched and waited. But the FBI aren't as smart as people think. I proved that and other brothers are also proving it."
Muhammad felt empathy for four imprisoned Cameroonians -- two Muslims and two non-Muslims -- whom he said were held without trial or proof of a crime for nearly 12 years. He smuggled a letter they wrote along with their names and fingerprints out of the prison and sent it to human-rights groups, he said.
"In this prison there were no phone calls, no letters whatsoever," he wrote. "So these brothers along with some others haven't contacted their families in years. My wife didn't know where I was for weeks until I used the phone of an interpreter from the Embassy."
Muhammad later told the state psychiatrist he first began planning to carry out jihad against America while he was in prison.
In January 2009, he was deported back to the United States.
I came back to America on a mission. And the feds knew I had been to places in Yemen where "foreigners" are not supposed to go. The feds knew I had the Somali I.D. and why I had it. The reason was to go to Somalia!! To join my Mujahideen brothers and get training, because I had none. So my original plan was foiled once I was arrested in Yemen. ... I had to revise another plan and I did with the help of the Mujahideen ... Al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula.
* * *
Muhammad was interviewed by an FBI agent when he returned to the United States, he said. One law enforcement official told The Associated Press that Muhammad had been under investigation by an FBI-led terrorism task force since his return.
In regards to the CIA & FBI yea they followed me, yea they tapped my phone, read my emails, interrogated me not once, not twice but three times before my jihadi attack on the crusader recruiting center but what good did it do? I outsmarted them and they know it. That's why they don't want to pick these charges up and are leaving me in state court to be hung. ...
I know the real reason why they're so (quiet). And it's because they dropped the ball with me and not just me. Nidal (Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army major charged in the Fort Hood shootings), Umar Farouk (the Nigerian charged for trying to detonate plastic explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight), Faisal (Shahzad, the Pakistani-American sentenced to life in prison for his failed attempt to bomb Times Square) and others who evaded their agents and devices and paid-informants posing as Muslims.
They can't catch us all.
Per bureau policy, an FBI spokeswoman in Little Rock declined to say whether a federal investigation is pending and would not comment on the court case.
For several months after his return from Yemen, Muhammad stayed with his parents in Memphis before he moved to Little Rock to work for his father. That's when he began to research and develop a plan, he told the state psychiatrist. He provided more detail in his letters.
Muhammad bought several guns and stockpiled ammunition over a period of weeks because he was "on a budget." He didn't use a credit card to buy supplies because "Muslims don't believe in interest."
When he bought the rifle at Walmart and wasn't questioned, he recalled walking to the parking lot with the new gun, thinking: "It's on," meaning he was not under surveillance. "The FBI had not put a hold or checked."
Plan A, as he called it in one letter, was to assassinate "3 Zionist rabbis in Memphis, Little Rock and Nashville. Then target recruitment centers from the South to the nation's capital. And other Zionist organizations in the northeast. That was the plan, which mostly failed."
Muhammad said he began his jihad in Little Rock and reported to the state psychiatrist that he "did something" there but did not elaborate.
Next he drove through Memphis to Nashville. He had prepared a carton of Molotov cocktails, lit one and threw it at what he believed to be the home of an orthodox rabbi. But it bounced off the glass.
He drove to his next target, an Army recruiting center in Florence, Ky. He had researched recruiting centers before he left Little Rock and chose one in Florence because "it was near an interstate and bordered Ohio. Easy to get away." But the office was closed.
"It was supposed to be my first," he told the psychiatrist.
Muhammad was frustrated at his failed attempts. He had saved money for the guns, ammunition and gas for the trip, which he said cost "near $4 a gallon" at the time.
He went home to plan.
We believe in an eye for eye not turn the other cheek. ...We are all brothers under the same banner fighting for the same cause. ... (T)he war has no boundaries as you can see. ... Unless the U.S. government pulls fully out of Iraq and Afghanistan and stop(s) helping Israel in (its) massacre of Muslims, blood will flow in the U.S.A. like tap water.
* * *
On the morning of June 1, 2009, Muhammad drove down Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock. His Plan B, he said, was a "random and unplanned attack" for which he chose the recruiting center.
"I went around the corner so they (couldn't) see me," he said of the soldiers standing outside smoking. "I did not want them to see me coming. I had the SKS with me and put it out the window. I rolled by and started shooting."
He made his intent clear: "I was trying to kill them."
Pvt. William A. Long, 23, of Conway, Ark., lay on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.
Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, 18, of Jacksonville, Ark., crawled inside.
Muhammad drove away but made a wrong turn because of construction and left the tailgate down, a mistake he believes made him easier to identify.
Going to jail was not part of the plan, but, "I got myself caught," he said.
In interview room 4 at the downtown detective division, Muhammad told investigators about his time in Yemen and his deportation.
He also explained that when he returned to America, he had hatred for the U.S. and was angry at what he saw as news outlets such as CNN filtering its reporting. He accused military personnel of target shooting the Quran and urinating on it.
Muhammad said he'd have killed more soldiers had more been in the parking lot.
Muhammad also told police there were at least six Molotov cocktails in a milk crate in the bed of his truck -- green and clear bottles filled with gasoline and oil and duct taped.
"And compared to what I had planned originally it was like a grain of sand," Muhammad wrote about the attack. "One crusader dead, one wounded, 15 terrorized, big deal. Nidal Malik (Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter) is the real Islamic warrior, and my plan A was on that scale."
Days after his arrest, Muhammad called The Associated Press to say he wasn't guilty of murder because "murder is when a person kills another person without justified reason."
I'm just one Muhammad There are millions of Muhammads out there. And I hope and pray the next one be more deadlier than Muhammad Atta!! (peace be upon him) commander of the blessed raids in NY and D.C. on 9/11.
* * *
In one letter, Muhammad explained what jihad means to him:
"In Islam there's a call to duty -- jihad -- and it's of different types but the one I'm mentioning is a defensive struggle or fight with weapons against those who attack, kill, maim the Muslims. And this is a part of Islam."
John Kaltner, an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College who teaches courses on Islam, the Bible and Arabic, said Muhammad has a distorted view of Islam and how to live life as a Muslim, including the concept of jihad.
"It's one Arabic word that all non-Muslims know, but ironically they don't really know the meaning of it or at least the full meaning of it," Kaltner said.
"It comes from an Arabic root that can mean to put forth great effort. ... When we look at these terms it's very clear they speak about two different types of putting forth effort, of striving."
One, he said, is of defending the faith when Islam and Muslims come under attack. That is considered a lesser jihad, he said. The greater jihad is the effort a Muslim puts forth to avoid sin and temptation and stay on the straight path.
"So this is a type of striving and effort, a type of jihad that is very different," he said. "It's directed inward. It's not directed outward. And the enemy, so to speak, isn't coming from outside, but it comes from one's own person."
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said Muhammad's previous contact with law enforcement suggests he might have been at risk for violence no matter what movement or ideology he joined.
"It's much easier to blame an out-group and to justify your own personal anger and mistakes by scapegoating and bastardization of scripture than it is to really take the bull by the horns and say, 'What is it about me that I have to improve?' " Levin said.
He added: "This is an example where it really is the fanatic and not the faith. The faith plays an important role in the sense that if you have an extremist with a disposition towards aggressive violence, it's not good for them to find a belief system that they can use to find refuge and legitimacy in.
"With that being said, it's not the faith. It's their contortion of it. In other words, this is not something that people have to worry about from well-adjusted, learned scholars in Islam."
* * *
In January, Muhammad wrote a letter to the presiding judge in which he asserted his sanity, claimed affiliation with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and said he wanted to plead guilty. He wrote another in October, reaffirming his desire to plead guilty to additional charges he received while in jail and said if there were more delays he would dismiss his attorneys and exercise his right to represent himself.
Some have questioned whether he had any contact with an al-Qaida organization.
Far as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula I won't say much but yes, I'm affiliated with them. And it's more of a Islamic Revivalist Revolutionary Movement than an organization. Same with other Al-Qaeda fronts. Our goal is to rid the Islamic world of idols and idolaters, paganism and pagans, infidelity and infidels, hypocrisy and hypocrites, apostasy and apostates, democracy and democrats and relaunch the Islamic caliphate ... and to establish Islamic law (Shari'ah) -- Allah's law on earth and anyone who strives for this is affiliated with the movement.
So yes I'm Al Qaeda and proud to be.
A person's level of connection to a terrorist organization often determines how lethal his or her attack will be, said Brachman, the senior global terrorism consultant. The higher the connection, the greater ability a person has to kill.
Muhammad's alleged operation in Little Rock doesn't seem typical of someone who had much connection to an official al-Qaida organization, but his Plan A does, Brachman said.
"It fits seamlessly with al-Qaida's modus operandi, if you will, of either simultaneous or sequential attacks against multiple targets in different geographic areas," he said.
But there are signs al-Qaida's strategy is changing. Earlier this year, he said, Adam Gadahn, an American who joined al-Qaida in the late 1990s, released a video highlighting three attacks he said Muslims around the world should emulate.
One was Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter. The second was the stabbing and shooting of a Dutch filmmaker named Theo van Gogh. And the third was a 1993 attack against CIA employees by Mir Aimal Kasi, who stood outside CIA headquarters and shot at cars.
None were al-Qaida-orchestrated attacks, Brachman said.
The fall issue of an English language online magazine published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula called Inspire provides more evidence of a strategic shift.
One article encourages Americans to "fight jihad on U.S. soil" and not to "attempt to travel overseas to join the (mujahideen) in an overt manner."
It touts the advantages of random shootings and cites Muhammad as an example:
"The firearm option: Nidal Hasan and Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad. It's the least suspicious if you already own a firearm. For this choose the best location. A random hit at a crowded restaurant in Washington, D.C. at lunch hour for example might end up knocking out a few government employees.
"Targeting such employees is paramount, and the location would also give the operation additional media attention."
* * *
Muhammad now spends 23 hours a day alone in a cell in the Pulaski County Detention Center. He speaks to no one and can't see out the windows. His only book, he said, is the Interpretation of the Noble Quran.
He is scheduled to face a jury in February on charges of capital murder and attempted capital murder among others.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
I knew this would end with the enemies of Allah killing me. But the good thing is -- Martyrs don't die! Allah says, "Don't think of those who are killed for the sake of Allah as dead. Rather they are alive with their Lord and they have their provision!" (Qur'an 3:169) And that's what I believe. The jihad lives on. May Allah accept my jihadi operations and grant me what he promises all of the ... (martyrs) Ameen.
From the experts
Retired Brig. Gen. Russ Howard, who was founding director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said homegrown terrorists are his biggest concern.
He sees al-Qaida's tactical shift as a way to differentiate between "al-Qaida writ large" and what's fermenting on a local level in the United States.
"Al-Qaida has not launched an al-Qaida attack on the United States since 9/11 because of ego," he said. "They can't do one to the same magnitude as 9/11. And to do anything less would be to admit defeat or admit that they weren't as powerful. ... So they're giving the impression that they're operating here through local terrorist organizations or local terrorists. ... They're getting the exposure. They're getting the publicity.
"In essence they're saying, 'We don't have to attack the United States because Americans are fulfilling our goals and objectives for us.'"
Howard, who served in the U.S. Army for 37 years, has a background in special forces and has been involved in the counter-terrorism effort since 1984, said al-Qaida is flexible and willing to experiment with new tactics to further its cause.
"I'm not as concerned about Baptists turning into Muslims and then becoming combatants in the United States as I am about second- or third-generation kids who, from websites, get this feeling of humiliation and feel that they have to do something because of their culture or because of their religion," he said.
"And so they're buying into this al-Qaida extremist message."
Author Jarret Brachman doesn't think Americans will see another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 anytime soon because counter-terrorism measures have increased such that a massive attack would be difficult to execute. But he does anticipate lone terrorists who identify with the movement to keep getting through America's defenses.
"We're going to continue to see these armies of one popping off their attacks," he said. "But that, to me, is a whole lot better than a repeat of the London train bombings or Madrid or 9/11."
John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, said it has become extremely difficult in the years since 9/11 to launch high-level, synchronized, coordinated attacks because of both increased counter-terrorism measures and al-Qaida's shortage of high-caliber recruits.
"They have started to shift their own internal profiles of whom they would like to see go out and engage in militant activity," he said.
Al-Qaida has been rethinking its strategy in terms of what it's willing to brand and openly encourage.
"Key to maintaining uncertainty in the U.S. population is making (people) believe al-Qaida is capable of anything anytime anywhere. So encouraging what might appear to be ... small-level attacks, can have a profound psychological effect."