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Mother Jones on Fake Former Terrorists

Mother Jones has an article about the burgeoning industry of fake “former terrorists” selling their alleged expertise to the FBI, local police departments and wingnut groups and turning their mostly invented stories into cold, hard cash. One of them is Kamal Saleem, who is from Michigan and and has been involved with a lot of right wing politics in the state. But his story just doesn’t hold water.

Over the last five years, Saleem’s tale of terror and redemption has made him a minor celebrity among Christian conservatives. Part national-security wonk, part evangelist, he is one of a handful of self-described “ex-terrorists” who have emerged in the post-9/11 era to share their experiences. He has spoken in state capitols, at the Air Force Academy, and at colleges and churches around the country. He has been a guest on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and started his own nonprofit, Koome Ministries, of which he was the only full-time employee in 2009. Tax records show Saleem earned $48,000 from the ministry that year—and had a $39,000 expense account—while Koome took in nearly $100,000 in donations and grants.

According to his memoir, The Blood of Lambs, Saleem, who grew up in Lebanon, broke into the terror biz at the age of seven by running weapons—strapped onto sheep—for Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat (who kissed his forehead at a public ceremony, “his breath bearing tales of garlic and onion”). As a teenager, he helped run a terrorist camp in the Libyan desert at the behest of Moammar Qaddafi. He visited Iraq, where he rubbed shoulders with Saddam Hussein. In the late 1970s, he traveled to Afghanistan, working alongside the mujahideen and CIA spooks to beat back the Soviets. A Kansas City Star columnist skeptically dubbed him the “Forrest Gump of the Middle East.”

Saleem claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has put a $25 million bounty on his head, and that there have been attempts to earn it: After a 2007 event in Chino Hills, California, he writes in his book, he returned to his Holiday Inn to find his room ransacked and a band of dangerous Middle Easterners on his trail. Saleem describes calling the police to alert them to an assassination attempt. Local law enforcement, however, has no record of any such incident.

That’s just one of many of Saleem’s tales that don’t stand up to scrutiny. (Through a spokeswoman, Saleem refused to comment for this story.) Doug Howard, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Michigan’s Calvin College, first encountered Saleem in 2007, when he was invited to speak at the school. Howard quickly became suspicious: For starters, Saleem claimed to be a descendant of the “Grand Wazir of Islam,” a position that doesn’t exist. Howard dug deeper and discovered that Saleem’s original name was Khodor Shami—and that for more than a decade before outing himself as a former terrorist he had worked for Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. (CBN declined to comment. Focus on the Family confirmed Saleem was an employee but would not comment further.)

A former friend also sheds light on Saleem’s past. Wally Winter, a nurse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, first met him when they both worked at a hospital in Abu Dhabi in 1979. Two years later, he got a phone call from Saleem; he’d come to the United States and needed help. Winter says he welcomed Saleem into his spare bedroom, opened a bank account for him, taught him how to drive, and helped get him a job at the hospital where he worked near Oklahoma City. When Winter moved to the city, Saleem came along. “He had no money,” Winter says. “I had to drive him wherever he was going.” The two were close; Winter would bring Saleem to his parents’ home on holidays.

Winter recalls his former roommate as a devout Muslim whose yarns often lapsed into wild exaggeration. “He could sell swampland in Louisiana,” Winter says. “I really do not believe the story about the terrorism. I totally believe that he would make up something like that to either make money or become well known.”

The biggest of these hucksters is Walid Shoebat, who claims to have bombed a police station in Israel — though the police there have no record of any such incident ever taking place.

Comments

  1. yoav says

    Churches have been pimping “former atheists” who would go around and tell anyone willing to pay how they used to be evil drug addicts who used to have sex with puppies and play D&D for satan until someone told them that there are no proof for evilution and how they are so happy now that they found jeezus. This is a perfectly logical development for people who made lying for jesus an art form.

  2. says

    Selling false credentials to conservative groups who don’t do background checks if one thing. For the FBI and other policing organizations to fail in conducting these background checks is another. It serioslyseriously undermines their credibility. How can we expect them to recognize a ‘real’ terrorist when they can’t recognize a fraud?

  3. Didaktylos says

    There was a similar gaggle, wasn’t there, of “ex-communists” who did well out of addressing (for cash naturally) “patriotic” organisations during the McCarthy era?

  4. thompjs says

    yoav, back in the 70′s it was former Hell’s Angel and heroin addict converted to Jesus. There were more of them running around than the total number of Hell’s Angels.

  5. kermit. says

    If only we had some sort of criminal investigative organization at the federal level, we could have nipped this in the bud!

    At least we can derive comfort from convictions of federal cases, knowing how thoroughly the FBI vets their witnesses and technical experts.

    [/sarcasm]

    Grandpa ran a tent revival circuit when I was a kid, and a couple of churches. Reformed sinners were always a big draw, and the audience knew that they were truthful, because they were born again in Jesus, and what they said always matched up with what the audience already knew…

    Sorry, I guess that was sarcasm too.

  6. raven says

    The other of many fraud staples in fundieland are the satanists.

    There are a few reformed satanists wandering around claiming to have kidnapped children and killed them in their ceremonies.

    The FBI under pressure investigated this in the 1990′s. They never found a single case.

    If their religion was true they wouldn’t have to lie all the time.

  7. laurentweppe says

    Also, fake former satanists, fake former catholics who knew about secret nun orgies and priests secretly organizing abortion sabats and jesuits conducting evil secularist conspiracies but never heard of priest sexually abusing altar boys… I’m pretty sure one could find one or two fake former non-denominational devout believers who forsook religion the day they became “enlightened” by -ahem- Atlas Shrugged.

  8. abb3w says

    I suspect it resonates a basic cultural chord. Most atheists seem to find the stories of evangelical deconverts quite interesting, too.

    Of course, there’s sociological data to provide some confirmation to a lot of the evangelical-to-atheist deconverts’ claims….

  9. says

    The biggest of these hucksters is Walid Shoebat, who claims to have bombed a police station in Israel…

    Did someone say “palling around with terrorists?” I guess it’s okay if you’re only palling around with FAKE terrorists and the FBI are too stupid (or too partisan and corrupt) to detect the fraud.

    Which brings us to…

    How can we expect them to recognize a ‘real’ terrorist when they can’t recognize a fraud?

    THIS.

  10. says

    Most atheists seem to find the stories of evangelical deconverts quite interesting, too.

    YMMV of course, but I’ve never heard a single “deconversion” story that was anywhere near as implausible as the “conversion”/”salvation” stories mentioned above. Have you ever heard a former-Christian-turned-atheist blithering about drugs, orgies, human sacrifice, satanic ritual abuse, or anything of that order that he/she allegedly witnessed in a church or mosque? The most outrageous stories I’ve heard from “deconverts” describe events that have been independently corroborated elsewhere…like, you know, that whole pedophile-priest thing, the Jesus Camp thing, the Moonie brainwashing thing…

  11. Sastra says

    I also immediately thought of “former Satanists” who went around the Christian evangelical circuit back in the 80′s and 90′s, claiming they had held high rank in a diabolical cult and telling shocking tales.

    “Former atheists” can’t quite play the same game. Terrorists and devil worshipers are supposed to have secret underground organizations which can’t be checked by any normal means — or can’t even be checked up on at all. You can claim to have been the “Grand Wazir” of an Islamic cutthroat network or a “Demon Emperor Level 1″ of a coven of homicidal witches and the lack of evidence for any such thing will just be chalked up to how secret and sneaky these groups really are.

    But anyone who says they used to be a “prominent atheist” or a well-known leader in the freethought community is going to have to pony up the evidence. The big complaint against atheists as atheists is that we’re too outspoken, too public, too attention-seeking for the taste of the average evangelical. They waved poor Antony Flew around because they knew he had real credentials.

    Any ‘former atheist’ who insists they were heavily involved in atheist organizations and considered very important is not going to be able to fake that. We’re not in hiding. We’ll just ask “who?”

    And if we don’t know them, we’d tell the Christians that we don’t know them. We’d be eager to tell them. With glee.

    Even delusional megalomaniac pathological liars are likely to figure this out, and stay clear of claiming to have once been an atheist leader.

  12. Sastra says

    Raging Bee #10 wrote:

    YMMV of course, but I’ve never heard a single “deconversion” story that was anywhere near as implausible as the “conversion”/”salvation” stories mentioned above.

    Neither have I — again, with the exception of someone who left a well-known cult (like the Phelps boy.)

    I have heard plenty of personal tales of child abuse or other outrageous treatment which came out of a religious background or mindset, but I think the message of such stories is more about the problems that occur with supernatural belief systems — not that this is THE reason to conclude that there is no God. In general, atheists tend to distrust an emotional approach to the question. If you were religious and change your mind, you better have better reasons than mistreatment by religious people. That can be the catalyst, sure. But there are “nice” churches out there, too.

    Atheists also tend to be skeptics in general. If a story starts to be so elaborate or sensational that it sets off a bullshit detector, this will probably be mentioned regardless of how heartfelt the testimony seems to be. The communal agreement to trustingly accept and respect anything that sounds like heartfelt testimony is somewhat lacking in the atheist community, I think. Good thing, on the whole.

  13. laurentweppe says

    Have you ever heard a former-Christian-turned-atheist blithering about drugs, orgies, human sacrifice, satanic ritual abuse, or anything of that order that he/she allegedly witnessed in a church or mosque?

    Nope, but at the same time, I’ve heard stories like “I was a believer, then I red Ayn Rand”, or, “I was a believer, then I red Marx” which are equally hard to swallow.
    *
    Personally, the worst fake “deconversion” story I ever heard was from more than one (alas) self-proclaimed far-left activists who served me variations of the same template: they claimed to have jumped from moderate brands of christianity/judaism/whatever to atheism when they “realized” that, ahem “Religion had been invented in the early historical times to turn the utopian early city-states into oppressive capitalist empires and that its ongoing success was proof that 99% of the human race was either too moronic to save itself or complicit of the system and that therefore a vanguard of atheist should build a benevolent dictatorship which would protect civilization from its stupid denizens” (sic, sic, and resic)
    I mean: seriously? They claimed to have jumped, through their reasonning power alone from “Love thy neighbour” to “All my neighbours are retards therefore I am entitled to micromanage their entire existence as a member of the benevolent intelligentsia”? To me, this kind of “deconversion stories” always sounded more like an attempt to justify one’s (or many’s) own lust for power.
    *
    Also, but less laughable, are atheists who describe not why they became atheists but why they became anti-clericalists: saying that the whole pedophile-priest thing, Jesus Camp thing, Moonie brainwashing thing turns one into an atheist is like saying that learning about Gulags and the Great Leap Forward turned one into a supply-sides enthousiast: the first step is easy to understand, the last one, not so much.

    ***

    But anyone who says they used to be a “prominent atheist” or a well-known leader in the freethought community is going to have to pony up the evidence.

    Aw, come on: that’s not so hard: You just have to claim that there are “secret cells” and an atheistic underground. The goal is not to convince atheists that you’re an ex: the goal is to convince the already gullible from the other side who already hate atheists’ guts and are looking for confirmation.

  14. Sastra says

    laurentweppe #13 wrote:

    Aw, come on: that’s not so hard: You just have to claim that there are “secret cells” and an atheistic underground. The goal is not to convince atheists that you’re an ex: the goal is to convince the already gullible from the other side who already hate atheists’ guts and are looking for confirmation.

    Just out of curiosity, have you (or anyone else here) ever heard of anyone on the Christian lecture circuit making such a claim — that they were not only an atheist, but an atheist leader of a secret cell in the atheist underground?

    I’m not sure if I’d be more surprised if anyone has made such a claim … or if nobody has ever made such a claim.

  15. laurentweppe says

    that they were not only an atheist, but an atheist leader of a secret cell in the atheist underground?

    I’ve never heard a fundie claiming that he had in the past been working as part of an atheist underground, but to tell the truth, I try to avoid fundies: the few interaction I’ve had with them have already filled my brain with enough mindfuck for a couple of lifetime.
    *
    On the other hand, I’ve heard fundies claiming, not that they were ex-members of an atheist underground, but that they knew for sure that atheists were working in secret to destroy christianity from inside: among the most ridiculous claims I ever heard uttered by fundies was that (and here comes the mindfuck) the Catholic Church had been taken over by freemasons who had organized this communist black mass known as “Vatican II” and that child-molesting priest were in fact hippie sympathisers trying to subvert the Good godfearing catholic folks by turning them all gay, and that, of course, every pope from John XXIII to John-Paul II were part of the conspiracy.
    So, yeah, here you have it: according some fundies, Pope Polonium was a an atheist hippie Freemason working undercover against Christianity. That’s not the “I was on the ennemy payroll” kind of narrative used by fake converts, but I daresay it is equally bizarre

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