Debating Al-Qaeda in the Supermax


By Ismail Royer

As some readers may know, I was released from federal prison in December 2016 after serving thirteen and a half years on terrorism-related charges. Those charges related to my involvement from 2000 to 2002 with the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, including assisting several people in attending its training camps. Anyone interested in the background of my criminal case can read more about it here and here.

For two and half years I was confined in ADX, the supermax prison located in Florence, Colorado. ADX is the most secure prison in the United States and is the successor to Alcatraz. The New York Times did an excellent story on my confinement there.

For a year and a half of my time in ADX, I was in solitary confinement in D-Unit, along with my codefendant and dear friend Saifullah Chapman, as well as people like Theodore Kaczynski,  Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolph, Ahmed Ressam, and many others. There we were alone in our cells for 23 hours a day; even so, we had ways of communicating. As for face-to-face communication, the only time we could do that was at recreation. Rec was five days a week for what was supposed to be two hours but was usually closer to an hour. We were placed in individual steel cages big enough to allow us to pace in circles or do calisthenics. Some people did nothing but talk because rec was our only real opportunity to communicate like normal human beings.

Back in the cells, we couldn’t holler at each other through the door very well because of the “boxcar”-style cells: a thick steel door at the front of the cell, and another door of bars set about three feet inside the cell.

So we had to get creative. One way to talk to the guy in the cell next to you was to place a roll of toilet paper over the sink or shower drain and blow the water out of the pipes and have your neighbor do the same. (You signaled to him to do that by banging on the wall.) Then you just put your face up to the drain and talked; we’d even play chess that way, each of us with our own chess set and calling out the coordinates of our moves.

Another way to communicate was through “kites,” or letters. There were various ways we passed kites around. One way was to slide a kite under the door to the orderly, the inmate chosen by staff to do janitorial work for an hour or so a week. Being an orderly was the only way you could get out of your cell other than by going to rec or being taken to the doctor or to a visit. The orderly would pass the kite to the inmate you wanted it to go to.

So I used to communicate by kite with the inmates on my range in D-Unit. For example, here’s a kite between me and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bomber, on a pretty banal topic. We exchanged many more kites, though, and I kept all of them. We even did affidavits for each other’s lawsuits against the Bureau of Prisons. I’m not sure how his suit turned out, it had something to do with getting ADX to serve food with more fiber. His affidavit for my lawsuit was really helpful and was even cited by the presiding judge.

It’s difficult to describe my feelings for inmates like Nichols. On the one hand, his crime was disgusting and heinous, and he only narrowly avoided the death penalty. On the other hand, he explains that he was manipulated and threatened by Timothy McVeigh into helping prepare the bomb, and he cooperated with the government in McVeigh’s prosecution. Having lived next to Nichols for 18 months, it was natural to grow friendly with him and see him as a person and neighbor rather than a monster. He is a conscientious practicing Christian and was pretty kind to me, as you can see by this kite he sent me, and I appreciated that in that extreme and severe environment. I realize that probably sounds offensive to many reading this and I understand that; I’m just explaining how it was.

Another inmate I used to communicate with was Richard Reid, the British convert to Islam and Al Qaeda operative who tried to blow up an airline flight from Paris to Miami. Virtually from the day I got to D-Unit I debated with Richard, who I knew as Abdur-Raheem or Abu Isa, about Al Qaeda, Islamic history and theology, and terrorist ideology and tactics. As anyone who knows me or is familiar with my writings might anticipate, Richard and I had much to disagree about. At the same time, as with Terry, we grew familiar and friendly with each other, though sometimes our feelings would get raw given the contentious nature of our debates. I had some other issues with Richard, but I’ll go into that in future writings.

Many of our discussions were in the rec cages, but we kept up a running dialogue through kites. Because I was putting so much thought and effort into the kites I was sending Richard, I decided early on to use carbon paper to make copies of them; likewise, I kept all the kites that he sent me. When I left ADX I compiled all of our correspondence and I have it to this day.

Through our debates, I challenged Richard on every aspect of Al Qaeda’s ideology, strategy, and tactics. I saw myself as a representative of the Muslim ummah, challenging a representative of a group that claimed to speak and act on our behalf, with incalculable consequences. The product of our dialogue, I think, is fascinating.

I am making available on a A Good Tree one of my letters to him, which is pretty substantial in length, breadth, and depth, and is fairly representative of the nature of our dialogue. I also am including the first page of his response to my letter. I am including only one page because I intend to publish all of the material as a book when I find a publisher. Additionally, I hope to annotate the material to make it more accessible and understandable to readers who may not pick up on subtext or be familiar with historical and theological references.

Finally, let me add that I do not necessarily agree today with everything I wrote in 2010. And I apologize for the quality of my handwriting.

3 thoughts on “Debating Al-Qaeda in the Supermax

  1. Read your now viral article on Islam and American Muslims Drift Apart and while it raised some very valid points in a general sense, I thought it lacked some precision in its critique. Upon checking comments in FB reposts I was not surprised to see many trashing that essay. I am sure most would sing a gentler tune after reading this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be locked in a cell for 23 hours a day but Allah guided you through it. Perhaps you even spread dawah in the process. Inshallah, you will find a publisher for your book.

    Liked by 1 person

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