RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All this week we're looking at young Americans who have actual or suspected ties to terrorism. Today we look at a group that's been connected to a number of terrorism cases. It's called Revolution Muslim, and it operates freely and openly in New York City. The group has introduced young men and women to radical clerics on the Web, and some of those men and women have taken the next step and joined terrorist groups.
As part of this week's series, Made in America, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talked to one of the founders of Revolution Muslim.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: To give you an idea of where Revolution Muslim sits on the political spectrum, listen to one of its founders.
Mr. YOUSEF AL-KHATTAB: All we want is, that we want the non-Muslims, at this point, off the lands of Mohammed (unintelligible) all of the lands of Mohammed. We want the (unintelligible) out of it.
Unidentified Man: Do you want Islam to take over the rest of the world?
Mr. KHATTAB: Of course I want it to - and it will.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Yousef al-Khattab. He helped start a group that he says is both a radical Islamic organization and a movement.
Revolution Muslim organizes small rallies at mosques to draw recruits. It's also very active online. They say their blog has 1,500 hits a day. It has a YouTube channel with almost 1,000 subscribers. Revolution Muslim has said it wants to establish Islamic law in the U.S., destroy Israel, and it openly supports al-Qaida.
(Soundbite of beeping)
TEMPLE-RASTON: I spent a recent afternoon with Yousef al-Khattab in New York.
Mr. KHATTAB: Revolution Muslim, everything we did was basically open.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Khattab described a typical chat room meeting.
Mr. KHATTAB: It would consist of a small lecture, maybe sometimes in the early period of what had been Sheikh Abdullah Faisal, a recording or something of the sort, and then it would be analysis. And that's basically what it was all about.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It sounds innocent enough, but a list of Revolution Muslim's members reads like a who's who of American homegrown terrorism suspects. One has been arrested for wanting to launch an attack on the Long Island Railroad for al-Qaida; others were intercepted getting on flights to join a terrorist group in Somalia. The editor of an online magazine for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen was a regular in the Revolution Muslim chat rooms. And Jihad Jane, the Philadelphia woman arrested last year, was a Revolution Muslim devotee too.
Of the two dozen homegrown plots in this country in the past year, Revolution Muslim was linked to a third of them. Khattab says the group isn't to blame.
Mr. KHATTAB: Certainly I never told anybody to go overseas, never told anybody to break any laws.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So far, the group's core membership has stayed on the right side of the law, and that's one reason why they haven't been shut down. Another: law enforcement can track possible suspects by monitoring them, and Khattab knew they were being watched.
Mr. KHATTAB: You know, it's perfect. They see who's giving out the literature, who's taking it, what's being said, who's this guy, what's he saying, does he agree with them? You know, it was just they couldn't get a better informant than that. And I'm sure we had many informants come through. In fact, I know we did.
TEMPLE-RASTON: But mostly they had true believers coming through: young, disaffected Muslims experimenting with the idea of violent jihad.
Professor MIA BLOOM (Penn State): I think that Revolution Muslim is more like a gateway drug.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mia Bloom is a professor and terrorism expert at Penn State.
Ms. BLOOM: It offers the opportunity for people to become further and further involved, and enables people who might just be tangentially interested in the global jihad to link up with real jihadists in Pakistan and other places.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Religious awakenings are at the heart of Revolution Muslim. You see, 42-year-old founder Yousef al-Khattab had his own conversion. He used to be Joey Cohen. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of secular Jews. But he said there was something missing for him in the Jewish religion and he liked the idea of completely submitting to God, so he became a Muslim.
Mr. KHATTAB: You know, my parents, they're not religious Jews. And they don't agree with Islam at all, but they believe it's my choice to do what I want.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Last week the New York Police Department held its annual Shield Conference.
Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Most of the people here are in suits, not uniforms. Private security people from around the region come to One Police Plaza, just blocks from Ground Zero, to get a briefing from New York's Finest. This year, the buzz is about homegrown terrorism. And when the NYPD talks about homegrown plots, Revolution Muslim inevitably comes up.
For example, this summer the NYPD arrested two New Jersey men who wanted to joins a terrorist group in Somalia.
Mr. MITCH SILVER (NYPD Intelligence Analysis Division): Interesting, they're here associating with these two groups: the Islamic Thinkers Society and Revolution Muslim.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Mitch Silver. He runs the NYPD's Intelligence Analysis Division. They're the ones who track terrorism in the city. And here's how he sees Revolution Muslim fitting into the recruitment process.
Mr. SILVER: And they seem to attract individuals who are aspiring jihadists based on their provocative message. But at a certain point these individuals decide that the rhetoric isn't enough and they want to do more, they want to join the fight. They spin off from the group and they actually try and get involved with the fight.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's how Revolution Muslim works: people are attracted to its message, then graduate to other groups.
I pulled Silver aside after the conference and asked him why so many jihadists seem to fall in with Rev Muslim.
Mr. SILVER: I think that's because in the United States, Revolution Muslim, Islamic Thinkers Society, stand out as two of the most public and provocative groups that are putting this message out there. So pretty much anyone in the U.S. who's looking for this message, they're going to end up at Revolution Muslim or Islamic Thinkers Society's doorstep.
TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the people who turned up on the doorstep - online at least - was a blogger named Zack Chesser, and what happened next is one of the reasons why Yousef al-Khattab broke with Revolution Muslim. It began when the FBI arrested Zack Chesser in July. They said he was on his way to join an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Somalia called al-Shabab.
The way Khattab sees it, Revolution Muslim should have stopped Chesser from going. For Khattab, one of the founders of the group, it was the last straw. He cut all remaining ties.
Mr. KHATTAB: Honestly, they're going to hate me for speaking to you, and this is going to go on and I'm going to be the coward and this and that - we have a principle: loving and hating for the sake of Allah. They focus on the hating all the time. When you see the youth or whoever's watching these things only talking about jihad, it's a warning sign.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And that apparently is at the heart of Khattab's latest conversion. Now, when Khattab talks about Revolution Muslim, it's as if it were a youthful indiscretion.
Mr. KHATTAB: I just guess I came to say that I believe what I said before was wrong.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Do you think you outgrew Revolution Muslim?
Mr. KHATTAB: It's hard to outgrow something that's bigger than you are, you understand?
TEMPLE-RASTON: He thinks for a minute.
Mr. KHATTAB: I don't know. Yeah, I guess that would be the word. I guess I would say I outgrew it.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Which in some ways may be as happy an ending as possible; not just for Khattab but for law enforcement too. They'd like to think that radical Islam is something people will outgrow.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we look at two of al-Qaida's most famous propagandists -both of them American.