Former Islamic jihadist teaches Middle Eastern politics at Washington College

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Shiraz Maher, a former Islamist, is a visiting lecturer in political science at Washington College this semester. Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, London, teaches a class on Middle Eastern politics.

Shiraz Maher went to the mosque in search of answers.

Why, he wanted to know, had 15 young men from Saudi Arabia, the country where he spent most of his childhood, just crashed jetliners into prominent U.S. buildings?

The men who gave him clarity wore fashionably tailored suits and spoke as easily of Shakespeare and Hegel as they did of the Quran. The 20-year-old Briton found these Muslims — as urbane as they were devout — completely alluring.

By the time U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan three weeks later, Maher was a recruit of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an organization devoted to creating a pan-Islamic state ruled by religious law.

"America, in my mind, had gone to war with Islam," says Maher, now 30, from a sunny patio on the campus of Washington College. "I looked at [President George W.] Bush bombarding the poorest country in the world and I thought, 'If I can't be with you, screw you, I'll be with these guys.'"

The story of Maher's last decade speaks to a question that has perplexed Americans since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Why do some young Muslim men, even well-educated ones from the middle class, come to see us as the enemy? It's an issue to which Maher, teaching at Washington College this semester, brings firsthand perspective.

Washington College President Mitchell Reiss was visiting London for a debate on terrorism when he heard Maher's story of entering and ultimately leaving Hizb ut-Tahrir. It was a tale Reiss wanted his students to hear.

"It's not only a compelling personal narrative," Reiss says. "It demonstrates how a highly intelligent, well-educated individual can be seduced to go down an incredibly dangerous path."

As a result of their meeting, the former jihadist has spent this spring living and teaching in the hushed environs of Chestertown on the Eastern Shore. He has led a class on Middle Eastern politics and recently delivered a lecture on his personal story to a rapt audience of students and townspeople.

"When I heard Shiraz had been part of a jihadist group in his past, I was undoubtedly intrigued," says Oliver O'Connor, a sophomore from Wyoming. "Hearing this early on in the semester actually provided me with more of an interest in the subject matter."

Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London. He has also reported on the Middle East — witnessing the uprisings in Egypt, embedding with the Pakistani army and visiting a deradicalization center in Saudi Arabia — for British publications and television networks.

Students got to see just how connected he is in the region when he linked them, via Skype, to a Syrian rebel camped in the building where two foreign journalists had just been killed by government shelling in the city of Homs. The conversation was punctuated by the steady thump of explosions in the background.

"I would have expected that live contact with a Syrian revolutionary would be unheard of in a classroom environment," says Richard Niroumand, a junior from Twickenham, England. "But the fact that Shiraz made this happen is testament to his extraordinary abilities as a teacher and an expert in the field."

Evolving thoughts

Maher was born in Birmingham, England, to a family of Pakistani origin. When Maher was a few months old, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as an accountant for a member of the royal family.

Maher grew up in a large expatriate compound where every house had a swimming pool and children played well into the evening on lighted tennis and basketball courts. His father was a secular Muslim in a country where all activity stopped for daily prayers and families went on pilgrimage to Mecca every few months. But he never felt stifled.

"The image people got of Saudi Arabia after 9/11, as some kind of Taliban state, just isn't correct," Maher says. "I had a great childhood."

He returned to England as a teen to live with his grandparents and study history. He would have described himself as an atheist or agnostic at the time. "I quite liked the idea of saying I didn't believe in God," he recalls.

He fancied girls and was much more apt to stay out drinking until the wee hours than to rise at dawn for prayers.

But he had acquired in Saudi Arabia a general sense that the United States interfered too frequently with the affairs of Muslim countries. He remembers wearing a T-shirt when he was in grade school that proclaimed "I Support Operation Desert Storm." The disgusted looks of classmates told him his pro-U.S. sentiment was out of step. Their scorn stayed with him.

So, when the planes tore into American buildings on Sept. 11, Maher was not exactly outraged at the attackers.

"My reaction was not, 'This is great,'" he says. "But I saw it as blowback, like the Americans had gotten their comeuppance."

What really struck him, as details emerged, was that so many of the hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia. "Wow, that's my patch," he remembers saying to himself. "I've got to understand what those guys were thinking."

His ruminations pushed him to a local mosque, where he met the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir who so impressed him. "What do you think about what happened?" they asked him. Maher said that perhaps the U.S. had invited attacks.

"This is irrelevant now," he remembers one of the men saying. "Whether it was justified or a crime doesn't matter. What matters is that the U.S. is going to use this as a pretense to wage war on Islam."

Given that framing, he decided he'd rather throw his lot with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims than with the United States. He now regards his thinking as wildly idealistic, but at the time, "I thought, 'Oh, my God, we're all going to be together. An Indonesian guy is going to be brothers with a guy in Morocco.'"

Hizb ut-Tahrir did not advocate violence, at least not directly. Maher says his mentors regarded al-Qaida as well-meaning but ill-conceived in its methods. He describes Hizb ut-Tahrir as "the political wing of global jihad," an organization devoted to radicalizing the thinking of young Muslims but not to producing fighters.

Bill Braniff, executive director for the START consortium on the study of terrorism at the University of Maryland, College Park, confirms this description. Braniff says Hizb ut-Tahrir operates in a gray area by advocating the overthrow of governments but not directly inciting or funding violence.

"It's certainly a difficult question for national security professionals," he says of dealing with such groups, "because they could be aiding in radicalization but are still operating carefully under constitutional protections."

A change of heart

Almost overnight, Maher broke up with his girlfriend, swore off alcohol and began keeping a rigid prayer schedule. At first, his mother liked her son's newfound seriousness. But his father quickly suspected a deeper change.

Maher told his mother and sister to wear veils at home, and he refused to attend a family wedding that was not governed by strict Islamic law. He fought often with his father, who saw the notion of a unified Muslim empire as ridiculous.

Maher says he rose quickly in Hizb ut-Tahrir, assuming a supervisory role of multiple training cells in Northern England. Success fed his ego.

"I was 21, and there were 40-year-olds listening to me with military precision," he recalls.

Hizb ut-Tahrir operates all over the world, but its English branch worked on a few specific goals, Maher says. Members raised money to send to countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, where rebellion against secular governments seemed a more realistic prospect. They took advantage of England's free-speech laws to advocate loudly for a pan-Islamic state. And they recruited young men who seemed taken with such radical ideology.

Maher says the group was monitored by British intelligence agencies but never did anything illegal and thus was allowed to operate freely. He has come to criticize that enforcement strategy in his subsequent life as a scholar. In a 2009 paper, for example, he argued that by treating such organizations as buffers to more violent groups, the government has legitimized training grounds for radical thought. Too often, Maher says, he watched members of Hizb ut-Tahrir move on to more violent activities.

That reality ultimately caused him to reconsider his membership. He saw former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir commit suicide bombings in Israel. "We kept cropping up on the edge of these things," he says.

Maher moved to Cambridge to continue his studies in 2004 and began a deeper examination of Islamic political thought that revealed cracks in the group's ideology. Soon, his whole world view crumbled. But that did not make the decision to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir an easy one.

All of his closest friends were radical Islamists, and he knew those relationships would end the moment he stepped away. He was used to sleeping soundly with the certainty that his fate lay in God's hands. That assurance, too, would disappear.

"Who am I?" he wondered. "Where will I fit into society?"

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.

Maher says he faced some harassment from his former cohorts. He says members of Hizb ut-Tahrir posted his family's address on a white-supremacist website and published fake blogs in his name.

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."