He is a lifelong Texan, registered Republican, die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan and professional Muslim ‘de-radicalizer’ all-in-one. Especially in light of both the recently-foiled Christmas day airline bombing plot in Detroit and earlier high-profile arrests of 5 young American Muslim men in Sargodha, Pakistan; the current debate within the chattering class of our political zeitgeist is revolving around ensuring that young impressionable Western Muslims are not radicalized within the dark recesses of cyberspace and the Internet.
This is where professional de-radicalizers like Mohamed Elibiary come into play.
As founder and president of The Freedom and Justice Foundation in Dallas, Mr. Elibiary has recently found himself serving the American Muslim community by helping to serve families and communities who are concerned about some of their youngsters naively falling prey to the lure of a ‘new jihadi cool’; a sociopolitical term coined by former CIA forensic psychiatrist Dr. Marc Sageman to categorize some of these young impressionable men who seek to perform acts of criminal vigilante terrorism contrary to every normative mainstream teaching of Islam.
“There are two major approaches to de-radicalization,” Mr. Elibiary recently told me during an exclusive interview. “We have to present our youth with better conduits to voice their dissent more effectively in order to fix geopolitical challenges facing the Muslim world” and thus reduce the feelings of disenfranchisement which could possibly lead to potential radicalization.
“All this [professional de-radicalization] stuff started about five years ago,” he further told me as he recalled a 2008 story when he was called by a Texas imam about an Egyptian-American young man who was en route to Pakistan after the traumatizing death of his father. Immediately, Mr. Elibiary was quickly connected to the sister of this young man by the imam and he found out that the young man was flying “over the Atlantic” on an airplane at the moment he received this frantic phone call.
“I was literally on K Street [in Washington DC] when I received the phone call,” recalled Elibiary about the 2008 incident. Immediately, he learned from the sister in Texas that the young man’s mother and another sister were living in Cairo, Egypt at the time.
Mohamed Elibiary immediately thought of a plan.
He told the sister in Cairo to immediately fly to Dubai and meet the brother during his layover for the next segment of his flight to Pakistan. At the airport in Dubai, she met her brother and immediately told him that his mother in Cairo was “completely distraught” and that if he did not accompany her back to Cairo that their “mother would probably die” very soon. With familial obligations now trumping any idiotic extremist tendencies, the young man immediately abandoned his plans for Pakistan and flew back home with his sister to their mother’s home in Egypt.
During this whole concocted ordeal, Mr. Elibiary was here stateside and immediately reached out to his contacts in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and said that “the Bureau was fully cooperative” during the whole plan to intercept the young woman’s brother at Dubai International Airport.
When speaking further about the professional de-radicalization process, Mr. Elibiary also highlighted that the concept of a ‘cognitive opening’ lies at the psychological heart of the de-radicalization process in many cases.
Professor Quintan Wiktorowicz of Rhodes College has written extensively on this subject and says that “the first step to radicalization is a ‘cognitive opening’, which is the first crack opening a person has to extremist ideas.”
According to Professor Wiktorowicz, the phenomenon of a ‘cognitive opening’ can be the “result of social, economic, and/or political discontent from various kinds of alienation, discrimination, and/or victimization.” Furthermore, he goes so far as to include personal issues (such as a death in the family) to being a potential ‘cognitive opening’ for potential radicalization as well.
The common thread of these radicalization experiences is that they precipitate an internal personal crisis that “shakes certainty in previously-accepted beliefs and renders an individual more receptive to the possibility of alternative views and perspectives,” according to Professor Wiktorowicz.
Most recently, Mohamed Elibiary was also at the forefront of the recent case of 5 young American Muslim men who were arrested by law enforcement authorities in Sargodha, Pakistan. At the very beginning of this case, he was quickly contacted by their families and representatives when they realized something was afoul when their sons did not return to their homes in Northern Virginia.
Mr. Elibiary was immediately called by the families’ representatives who had stated that the family representatives had just stepped out of a conference room and that “we got a [farewell] video” from one of the five men arrested in Pakistan.
“I’ll call the Bureau,” Mr. Elibiary responded and immediately was in touch with the Washington Field Office of the FBI to let them know that the American Muslim families of the 5 men wanted our law enforcement agencies to know about their sons’ disappearance.
The one major silver lining for this case in Sargodha, Pakistan was that the concept of ‘community policing’ worked very well. More than a “week and a half” after Mr. Elibiary first received the families’ phone call, CNN reported the fact that the young men’s families went directly to their mosques and Muslim civil rights organizations on the morning of December 1, 2009, shortly after discovering their sons were missing almost two weeks earlier.
“The path for a lot of these kids is essentially like at-risk gangbangers, who want to stand up for their community, to address grievances of the global Muslim community more effectively than they’ve seen the elder generation address them since 9/11,” Mr. Elibiary told CNN’s Anderson Cooper shortly after the arrest of the five young men in Pakistan.
“For over three years, there was been a ‘virtual war’ going on between mainstream Muslim scholars who are trying to block the extremist message in Western countries, which has not been reported in the West,” Mr. Elibiary continued to tell me during our exclusive interview on his work as a professional de-radicalizer.
When asked further what the American Muslim community can do to ensure that our children are not future potential pawns for extremist propaganda; he highlighted obvious and everyday civic duties that we do in our lives like, “Taking your kids with you when you go to vote, while you go sight-seeing at the state capital or visiting your congressperson.”
“That is the best way that we can help bring about positive change in America; not 5 random guys aimlessly going into a war zone somewhere” in the forgotten hinterlands of Pakistan.
Arsalan Iftikar is an international human rights lawyer, a regular weekly contributor for the ‘Barbershop’ segment for the National Public Radio (NPR) Show “Tell Me More with Michel Martin” and also a featured contributor for CNN Anderson Cooper 360. His blog is at TheMuslimGuy.com. This article was previously published in True/Slant.