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Story Publication logo December 6, 2005

Randall “Ismail” Royer's letters from prison


The following article ran as part of a seven-part series by Jon Sawyer and Tim Townsend, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 4-11, 2005.

Randall "Ismail" Royer grew up in Manchester and is a graduate of Parkway South High School. A Muslim convert, he pleaded guilty last year to federal charges of helping a pro-Pakistani Muslim group fight Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence at the medium- security federal prison in Allenwood, Pa.
Prior to his arrest in 2003 Royer worked in communications positions for the Muslim American Society and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), two mainstream Muslim groups. Royer attended American University in the early 1990s but left for Bosnia, where he served for several months in the Bosnian army. While in Bosnis he met his wife, Mirsada Stabancic.

Royer, 32, wrote the following letter, dated Nov. 2, to Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer. He describes his life in prison, his current studies in religion and history, and his view of U.S. government policies toward Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also talks about his relationship with his parents, his wife and their four children.

"Dear Jon,

"Thank you for your letter. I would be happy to put the answers to your questions down on paper. Your inquiry gives me a chance to do so.

"As for my day-to-day schedule: Most inmates work 8-hour-a-day jobs, as did I until recently in the kitchen, but [I] have now landed a janitorial job in my housing unit, which takes only about an hour or two hours of my time in the morning, five days a week.

"The rest of my time is spent on study, physical exercise, and socializing.

"As far as my studies, I have divided them up into Islamic studies and, for lack of a better word, non- religious studies. In my religious studies I am focusing on the Quran - -the science of its proper recitation in Arabic as well as reading Quranic commentary (exegesis) and memorization of its verses -- and also the Arabic language.

My 'non-religious' studies are in the topics of Language, History and Philosophy.

"In Language I am studying English grammar and literature. I have read about 60 to 80 books since being arrested, including Henry James, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Swift, Hemingway, Homer and on and on. I'm learning Spanish (this prison has a Spanish-speaking majority), maintaining my Bosnian (aka Serbo- Croatian), and intend to delve into the field of Linguistics. My parents have, at my request, printed out the course catalogue from MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and I've selected linguistics courses that I've asked them to obtain the reading lists and syllabi for.

"In History my focus has been on American and European history, perhaps because those are the books I've found in the libraries of the various jails I've been in since my arrest. But I have a particular interest in the American and French Revolutions, which are key to understanding the modern era and the resulting events and ideas that shaped it. I also am fascinated by ancient history – Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Jews.

"In the field of Philosophy, I am most interested in existentialism and other modern thought, because it is most relevant to the modern era. I've been reading Sartre, Kierkegaard and Neitzche.

"The common thread, perhaps, in most of this (i.e. History, Literature, Philosophy) is to understand the modern world by understanding the paths we took to arrive at where we are today. This, with the ultimate goal of, once being able to describe the malady, then being able to prescribe an antidote. My mother would say this is yet another manifestation of wanting to 'save the world,' which perhaps landed me here in the first place.

"But I will also say that this experience has burned me out, to some degree, on 'saving the world' – or maybe it would be better to say, I've matured, and now I seek simply to understand it, for understanding's sake, and not for any grand purpose.

"In any case, once all this input reaches a critical mass and I am impelled to start writing again, one of my main goals is explain to my fellow western Muslims the world in which they live and Islam's role, potentially and as it is now. I have, for example, a draft of a very long essay on being an American and a Muslim, from an entirely different perspective than the superficial treatment this topic has received.

"The dilemma at the core of my paper, however, is broader in its impact than simply American Muslims. The issue is really the state of Western man, who has abolished religion as the home of his soul, and replaced it with ideology, nationalism, and consumerism. The Muslim is uncomfortable in this environment, not (only) because he / she is a member of a minority 'foreign' religion, but because his religion – unlike Christianity – never experienced a Protestant Reformation which fragmented the soul of modern man and placed religion in a box. (Ironically, some Protestants play the role of wanting to weaken the church / state divide, when it is Protestants who led to the setting up of the wall in the first place, by helping to precipitate the downfall of the Catholic Church's dominance in the lives of western men and women.)

"So Muslims are out of sync because they haven't traveled this path. But Western man is out of sync with himself because this path's logical conclusion ('God is dead') means the withering of his soul.

"Also, I have written extensive notes on the issue of terrorism (definition: political violence against civilians – NOT Muslims in a legitimate war against other soldiers), its origins and its impermissibility in Islam. Also, on the alien ideas present in many modern so-called Islamist movements. To be clear, the purpose of these writings will be to correct the Muslims, not to please the Muslims' critics, which seems to be a reason many Muslims come out with seemingly similar writings.

"What am I reading now? 'Crime and Punishment,' by Dostoevsky; "An Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran;' 'Game Theory: A Non-Technical Introduction,' by Morton Davis; the Quran, and "Arabic for English-speaking Students.'

"I exercise regularly. We don't have weights here but I do calisthenics, pull-ups, push-ups, dips and I run three miles every other day, which I hope to begin increasing to marathon length, eventually (obviously not every other day!) I have a good book on the topic of running ...) I have never been in better shape than I am in now.

"Socializing. I am now in general population. At first, I spent two months in segregation (in Oklahoma Transfer Center, then here) while they tried to figure out whether I was a homicidal fanatical berserk terrorist as described in my Pre-Sentencing Report (which consisted mainly of the indictment and the government's motions from my bail hearings). That's funny because in the year I was at Alexandria (Va.) jail, I and two of my co-defendants were tutors in the GED and ESL programs, and recognized as role models by jail authorities. Then we came to the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] (part of the Department of Justice, our prosecutors) and suddenly we're dangerous.

"I have no problems with any inmates here. I am a full participant in our religious community here, which
itself is respected by other inmates and groups of inmates. And the rule here is to respect others and you will be respected, while being aware of your surroundings and holding one's head up. This heads off most potential problems. Also, the practicing Muslim doesn't gamble, watch TV frequently, use drugs or alcohol, or fraternize with homosexuals – which are all avenues to violence.

"There are eight housing units here. The Muslims in my unit get together in the evening to eat, talk, laugh and worship. We see the Muslims from the other units in the chapel and in the exercise yard and chow hall, and are fairly close. As everywhere, there are a few who practice, a number who don't really, and those in the middle.

"The prison population is divided into gangs and other groups. The Muslims' relationship with them is usually good, as we are respectful and uninvolved in their antics, and at the same time constitute a large segment of the prison population.

"It's funny that I remember thinking, shortly before I realized I was in legal trouble, how I would be able to handle myself in prison. I don't know why I thought about that at the time. I suppose the human being is resilient and able to adapt to whatever situation he is in.There are certainly those in much worse situations than I am. In fact, this is how I stay positive (most of the time). By realizing there are others in worse situations, and by taking each day one at a time, trying to end each day a little smarter, a little stronger, and closer to God.

"The most difficult part of this whole experience – really, in perspective, the only difficult thing – is being cut off from my family. The prison authorities here, when I arrived last year, decided to prevent me from using the telephone for the rest of my 20-year sentence (aside from one 15-minute call a month). The justified this legally by saying that my [Pre-Sentence] report indicated I had used the telephone at some point in my case (so do most inmates!) and BOP policy allows them to, therefore, restrict my calls. I'm fighting that.

"Last year, a particularly nasty FBI agent contacted the prison and told them my wife had violated security procedures at the Alexandria jail, which was a bald-faced lie, with the intent of preventing her from visiting me. The prison turned her away when she and the kids came to visit me (driving 5 hours). The prison first said I would never see her again (on top of not talking to her), then relented when she got a letter from the Alexandria jail clearing her of the false charge.

"What initially sent me into a several months-long debilitating depression was not being able to see my children, to whom I am very, very close. But through patience and prayer, I have worked through this. In the Alexandria jail the Muslim chaplain gave me very sound advice: When you begin thinking about your kids, instead of pining over them, pray for them instead. It is more productive and better for your mental state.

"What people don't realize is that every second you spend with your family is more precious than gold. A half an hour spent reading to your children or throwing a football with them is better than a hundred overtime hours spent to buy them a bunch of stuff, or worse, for one's own aggrandizement.

"Another thing is my parents, with whom I am also very close. I used to get agitated and bored hearing my dad tell his stories, or talk about his work or his computer or whatever. But now when he comes to visit I say things to provoke him to tell me his stories, then sit and blissfully listen to them.

"And of course, with my wife, I think of all the things I could have done better – been more romantic, and all that, spent more time with her.

"And at the same time, with all this, I don't regret wanting to help the innocent men, women and children of Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir and Chechnya. It is sad that after 9/11, acts of heroism would be seen as crimes, simply because of the religion of the innocents I sought to protect. (The government would say I mischaracterize what happened, of course, but Americans traipsing off to join the Israeli army aren't prosecuted for violating the Neutrality Act! Or anything else).

"As far as the alleged plan to fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, which is distinct from the above, I did not plead guilty to that and I specifically deny that it existed. The government witnesses simply rubber-stamped the prosecutor's scenario to win sentence reductions, and are known and admitted liars.

"The government has made a major mistake in adopting the approach of treating ALL Islamic movements, with certain rare exceptions, as actual or potential threats. My group of friends and I, for example, never thought for an instant, or even discussed, any kind of anti-American actions. It was and is the last thing on our minds. Lashkar e-Taiba is focused exclusively on Kashmir, and within the Islamic milieu is involved in the intellectual struggle AGAINST al Qaida. The head of Benevolence International Foundation was imprisoned for sending x-ray machines to Chechens, who couldn't care less about America. Examples abound.

"What is to be gained by declaring a sort of global crusade against Islamic movements everywhere? I am far from the romanticist who says these fighters in these trouble spots have always behaved Islamically and nobly, but there are serious underlying reasons for these conflicts (most of which are asymmetrical) – mainly severe political oppression or military occupation. For the U.S. to blame the victim and throw its cards in with the morally wrong party, simply because the victims (or their champions) are Islamically oriented, is to invite blame and potential retaliation – and, of course, to provide ammunition for those who seek a clash of civilizations.

"I would also add that Ibrahim Hamdi and I are alone in the whole 'Paintball 11" (now 12 or 13) group that ever really considered fighting anywhere, anyway (I actually did, in '95). The rest were paintball players or fantasists, with the misfortune of knowing us. Even those who traveled to Pakistan were known to me as non-serious people going through motions, for show, and merely fooled around there for a little bit and moved on. I've heard the FBI first became aware of the post-9/11 group of four travelers to Pakistan [including Royer] when one of them, upon returning to the United States, began bragging about around his university campus that he gone with the intention of fighting the United States. Perhaps the 'fantasy' of doing so would be a more accurate term, and anyway he speaks for himself, and the first I heard ot it was when the FBI began asking questions about it, and our homes were raided.

"I believe and have always believed, that al Qaida belongs to a sect called the Khawaarij, an extremist sect that is known for killing Muslims, and declaring them to be disbelievers for any sin, large or small, thus authorizing their murder. I ask Allah to guide them and hope they repent.

"Islam is far from that. It is a simple religion, in which the soul gives up the worship of all gods but God, then tries his best to perform good deeds for His sake, and leave off bad deeds for His sake. To respect and love his parents, family and neighbors, and to speak true and pleasant words, and to give to the poor, and establish justice and peace in the earth. War is sometimes inevitable, but it should be a last resort, and clear, nearly universal boundaries must be respected, after which peace – the default – must be established. It might seem for the average American that Islam over-emphasizes violence (I'm sure the impression is mutual for many Iraqis, and others), but most of the "third world" is rent by instability, including the Muslim world, so this impression is simplistic.

"I am an American, have not stopped and never will stop being an American. I wish only the best for my land in this life and in the next. Islam does not belong to the East or West, because God created us all. A civilizational conflict, which seems to be where we're headed, would be a tragedy and a waste, especially considering how much we have to learn from one another.

"Finally, it would be worthwhile to reflect on the words of bin Laden, from a recording released shortly after 9/11, in which he said, 'Now you will see that America's freedom is just a façade" (or words to that effect). In another tape, from 2003-04 I believe, he said, "It seems in some ways Bush and I are working toward the same goal." (I believe he intended: total war) Sept. 11 and its aftershocks served the interests of all the wrong people (Muslim extremists, enemies of civil rights in the U.S., defense contractors, despots in Muslim countries, Islam and Muslims' political and religious adversaries, etc.)
"Sincerely, Ismail Royer

Dec. 1, 2005

Dear Jon,

"Thank you for all the reading material and the news from home. The sermon really hit home. (Giving the family a copy of the letter is fine!)

"I hope my letter answered at least some of your questions. It's hard to conduct any kind of in-depth (deadline-oriented) interview by mail. I hope I can be of service to you to the extent that it's practicable.

"Thoughts on these cases: what you have is, for the most part, mountains being made of molehills. Before 9/11, law enforcement never would have bothered themselves with someone involved with rebels in the Himalayan mountains or in the Caucasus, or a bunch of Muslims playing paintball, or a cancer researcher given to making incendiary speeches. Now three of us are serving life sentences; me 20 [years], [Ibrahim] al-Hamdi 15, etc. As far as Ahmed Abu Ali [convicted in Virginia last month of plotting the assassination of President George W. Bush, in a case based on a confession Abu Ali gave to interrogators in Saudi Arabia], I give him the benefit of the doubt where Saudi intelligence services are concerned. That video [of confession] was the end product and its antecedents are unknown. It's just inconceivable that a videotaped confession in a country known (by the State Department) to torture would be accepted as evidence in a U.S. court. If a murderer can have the charges dropped because he wasn't properly advised of his rights, how much more extreme is Ahmed's situation? Plus, I know Ahmed and I just can't believe it of him.

"In our situation, what you have is a passel of prosecutors and FBI agents who are taking advantage of post-9/11 hysteria to build their careers. The outcome of these cases is predetermined by judges who are submissive to the administration and a jury pool ready to believe the worst about Muslims. Many of us laughed when we were arrested and saw these indictments, and read the overblown language with which our legitimate activities were described, and the wild claims of cooperating defendants. But none of us is laughing now, and indeed the wilder the accusations, the more likely, it seems, a Muslim will be convicted.

"This is not to say that there are not Muslims in the world who are dangerous to U.S. security. But we just were not those people.

"I think the American people need to be concerned because once the system is bent to start putting a minority in prison, the system stays bent. If they can search my house without a warrant, they can do that to you, too. If they can say that a book I had or a newsletter I started were overt acts in a criminal conspiracy, they can do that to anyone.

"[Osama] bin Laden said in a videotape shortly after 9/11, 'Now the world will see that America's freedoms are really an illusion,' and the politicians and intelligence forces seem intent on proving bin Laden right.

"And the reality is that families are destroyed by all this. By my count, there are 19 children of the 13 people arrested in my case (including the [original] 11 plus [Ali al-] Timimi and [Ali Asad] Chandia), and then parents and wives. This is a lot of people to grow up orphaned because of paintball and an Indian subcontinent border dispute.

"Sincerely yours, "Ismail"

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