When terrorist bombs rocked London's transit system on July 7, 2005, killing 52 people, Maher could wait no longer. He could not stand to feel culpable, even tangentially, for such violence. After seven months of agonizing, he left.
At the urging of a journalist friend, he eventually decided to speak out about his experiences and work to prevent others from going down the same path. He says he was chilled to the bone in 2007 when he saw the face of a man accused of plotting to drive a flaming Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow International Airport. He had known Bilal Abdulla well among a small circle of radical Islamists in Cambridge. Seeing Abdulla as the chief suspect in a terrorist bombing validated many of Maher's worst fears.
Eighteen months later, he testified against his former friend.
"I did it, and I did it happily," he says. "But I didn't want to do it. It was hard to look in the faces of guys who had been my best pals and know that I was condemning them to life in prison."
A story that resonates
In his work and his teaching, Maher emphasizes the complexity that he ran away from as a radical activist. No conflict is as simple as West vs. East or Muslim vs. Christian, he tells his students. There are matters of climate, economic class and ethnic heritage that complicate every struggle in every country.
"Nationalism is a construct, all right," he says in his British accent as students sit near him in a semicircle, gulping coffee to get through the 8:30 a.m. class. "What is the basis of the Iraqi state? How does it validate itself? I think it's a very artificial unit."
Maher wasn't sure how to broach his past at Washington College. He didn't bring it up at the beginning of the semester, but a student approached him in the second week and asked, "Is it true that you were, like, in al-Qaida?"
The rumor had been percolating as it turned out, so Maher figured he'd better just show his students a video he made for the British Broadcasting Corp. about his time in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ultimately, they say, his experience added to his teaching.
"I find Shiraz's abandonment of extremist values particularly interesting," says Niroumand, the junior from England. "It struck me as remarkable that he could totally abandon his actively jihadist lifestyle and transform into an outspoken advocate of democracy and a levelheaded critic of jihadist organizations."
Mallory Kahn-Johnston, a senior from Connecticut, says her parents "thought it was great that I was able to learn about his perspective on his own life."
Maher, used to the bustle of London, was taken aback by how deserted Chestertown seemed on the January night when he arrived. But he says he has loved the students and the opportunity to work in seclusion on a planned book about the intellectual history of al-Qaida.
Reflecting on his evolution as he strolls the campus in a professorial blazer complete with arm patches, he says, "I'm right back to where I was. I'll go out and have a drink again."