McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Randall Royer grew up in the Midwest, a suburban St. Louis kid. By the time he was 21, he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Ismail Royer, fighting in Bosnia alongside fellow Muslims against Serbian ethnic cleansing.
By the time he was 31, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping friends who wanted to join the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now age 44 and out of prison, he remembers Bosnia as both a highlight of his life and the place that launched him on a disastrous path.
“There was so much meaning and purpose in what I was doing,” he said of the Bosnian war. “I spent so much time trying to recapture that feeling of Bosnia. It never came back.”
He remembers with pride the gratitude expressed by the Bosnian families whose homes he defended and says the war is one of those rare conflicts where there was a clear good guy and bad guy.
Royer’s search for the next Bosnia led him to Pakistan, where he joined the fight over Kashmir – a conflict that he said he viewed with ambivalence. Eventually, he came back to the U.S. and served as a spokesman for some of the nation’s most prominent Muslim civil rights groups.
Royer was one of about a dozen young Muslims from the D.C. area who played paintball in the northern Virginia woods as a means of preparing for holy war. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a few members of the group traveled to Pakistan, and with Royer’s help, got in touch with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Royer’s friends’ ultimate goal was to join the Taliban and help fight U.S. soldiers.
Royer pleaded guilty in 2004 to aiding and abetting use of a firearm in a crime of violence and aiding and abetting the carrying of an explosive.
He was never convicted of a terrorism-related charge – a distinction that is significant to Royer.
“When I look back at myself, I don’t see myself as an extremist,” he said. “I see myself as being naive, romantic, a Don Quixote kind of guy.”
He points out that he has a long history of speaking out against al-Qaida, and he is equally critical of the Islamic State, which is now responsible for motivating and recruiting most of the lone-wolf terrorists who have popped up in the U.S.
Michael Jensen, a researcher with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said he also sees a difference between Royer and the more modern iteration of Islamic extremists. He said Royer was drawn to localized conflicts like Bosnia and Kashmir, as opposed to the global jihadist vision espoused by al-Qaida or the Islamic State.
Royer said what drew him to Islam in the first place was his view that it could be a vehicle for social justice. In the Muslim world, though, he said a quest for