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Bilal Philips is described as being “very influential among English-speaking Muslims.
Stewart Bell Jun 2, 2011 – 6:30 AM ET | Last Updated: Jun 1, 2011 8:08 PM ET
When Bilal Philips turned up in Frankfurt in April to address a demonstration organized by a local Muslim leader, German immigration police quickly expelled him for advocating the killing of homosexuals.
“Which is nonsense,” the 64-year-old Canadian Muslim preacher said in an interview this week during a visit to Toronto. “I was not advocating or calling on Germans to rise up and kill homosexuals.”
He did write that homosexuality is “evil,” that the Islamic punishment for it is death, and that AIDS is a form of divine punishment. But he insists his words were taken out of context to prevent him from speaking.
Such treatment is becoming familiar to Mr. Philips. Before Germany showed him the door, Britain and Australia took similar action, and he has avoided the United States since 1995, when a federal prosecutor named him as a suspected terrorist co-conspirator.
He has also said that India has frozen his visa applications, and feminists in the Maldives organized a letter-writing campaign last year to prevent him from speaking, complaining that his preaching endorsed marrying off young girls as soon as they reached puberty, regardless of their age.
“He’s been expelled from several countries,” said J.M. Berger, the author of the newly released Jihad Joe: Americans who go to war in the name of Islam, which examines the activities of Mr. Philips, a convert born in Jamaica, partly raised in Toronto and Vancouver, educated in Saudi Arabia and who now lives in Qatar.
Mr. Philips spoke last Friday at the Abu Huraira Centre, a Toronto mosque that was in the spotlight in 2009 after police began investigating a few young worshippers who had allegedly traveled to Somalia to join the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Al Shabab.
Next month, Mr. Philips is scheduled to speak at the Toronto Journey of Faith conference, which made headlines last year when the federal government refused to allow one of the keynote speakers, Indian preacher Zakir Naik, into the country.
“He’s very influential among English-speaking Muslims,” Mr. Berger said of Mr. Philips. “He’s very articulate, very charismatic. At the same time a lot of controversy attends to him because of the different views that he’s expressed, including views on homosexuality.”
While one German press report about his recent expulsion described him as an “openly homophobic imam,” Mr. Berger’s book examines a lesser-known incident. It says that in the early 1990s, Mr. Philips ran an “off the books” Saudi paramilitary operation in Bosnia.
In Jihad Joe, Mr. Berger describes how the Saudis approached Mr. Philips in 1992 to start a program that would send American Muslim ex-servicemen to Bosnia to train Muslim fighters battling Serbian forces. They brought the plan to Mr. Philips because he had helped convert hundreds of American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War.
“I was approached by a couple of military people and asked if I knew any of the troops that had accepted Islam, gone back to the States and had left the American military, you know, who might be willing to go to Bosnia to help train the Bosnians,” the book quotes Mr. Philips as telling the author. “What they said they were looking for was something like an A-Team of specialists who would then go and train them to help in resisting the Serbian slaughter.”
Writes Mr. Berger: “That request marked the start of a program that would soon spiral out of control, embroiling U.S. military veterans in a jihadist circle with links to al-Qaeda and to a stunningly ambitious homegrown plot to kill thousands of innocent victims in New York City.”
Asked about the book, Mr. Philips called it “a mixture of fact and fiction.” In an email, he said he was “a Canadian Muslim scholar who 20 years ago tried in a limited way to help his Muslim brothers who were being slaughtered by the Serbs in what came to be known as the biggest massacre and act of ethnic cleansing in the middle of Europe since World War II.”
The first stop of Project Bosnia, as the book calls it, was Switzerland, where Mr. Philips met Hasan Cengic, a Bosnian official, imam and gunrunner who agreed to fund the program through a charity called the Third World Relief Agency, which was largely financed by Saudis.
“After the meeting, Philips started to canvass his military friends back in the United States,” the book says. One of them, identified only as Tahir, was a Vietnam vet who had met Mr. Philips during the conversion program in Saudi Arabia. The book said he is also an alleged al-Qaeda member, although Mr. Philips denied that.
Tahir personally escorted about a dozen recruits, including several Special Forces veterans, to Bosnia, where they set up outside the northeast city of Tuzla. Most of the military trainers left following the mission but some stayed on to fight, the book says.
An American who had fought in Afghanistan, Abdullah Rashid, later replaced Tahir. Unable to recruit veterans, Mr. Rashid decided instead to train non-veteran American Muslims and send them to Bosnia. “Philips agreed and provided him with money to get started,” reads the book.
The recruits, who were from New York and Philadelphia, trained at a camp in rural Pennsylvania but some of them decided that, rather than traveling to Bosnia for jihad, they would instead attack America, specifically New York City.
A Day of Terror was planned, during which bombs would be detonated throughout the city. The United Nations and FBI buildings were among the targets. “The plan they were most close to acting on was to set off truck bombs in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York during rush hour, which would have killed thousands, probably more people than 9/11,” Mr. Berger said.
Told the group was talking about attacking America, Mr. Philips said he rejected the idea and told Mr. Rashid to disband the group or send them overseas. “It was just totally inappropriate. It becomes, some kind of, you know, terrorism really, you know, unleashing violence against civilian population. It’s not acceptable,” the book quotes him as saying.
The FBI got wind of the plot while investigating the failed 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. Ten people were eventually convicted over the New York plot, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, an anti-American Egyptian cleric known as the Blind Sheikh.
Mr. Philips was never charged and told the National Post he has been “from the beginning opposed to the Qaeda and any form of terrorism in the name of Islam,” and that he “continues to oppose suicide bombing directed against civilian populations anywhere.”
He said “some bits” of the book were correct but others were left out. For example, he claims the New York conspirators were actually “set up” by the FBI informant, whom he said “was the one feeding them ideas.”
Said Mr. Berger, “It’s very difficult to evaluate Philips as a source. He’s very charismatic. You want to believe him but certainly he has a pretty long history of controversy that surrounds him and certainly there are a lot of people in [the U.S.] government at least that would like to sit him down for a very long talk.”
Although somewhat curtailed in his travels, Mr. Philips still reaches his followers through the Islamic Online University, which he founded a decade ago, and his website, which calls Jews “misguided human beings who need Islam.”
Asked why some governments don’t seem to want him visiting, he replied, “Well, I think mainly it is an issue of assimilation. I mean, they want Muslims in their countries to assimilate and be indistinguishable from the regular local population.
“That’s what I see at the bottom of it.”