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Radicalized: The Story of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad

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Nine years ago, 24-year-old Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot two people at a military recruiting center in Little Rock. Acting as a lone-wolf terrorist and pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda's cause, Muhammad killed Private William Long and wounded Private Quinton Ezeagwula. He is now serving a life sentence at the Varner Unit supermax prison in Lincoln, Arkansas.

Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, and his father, Melvin Bledsoe, wants his son's entire story to be told.

Melvin Bledsoe says his son grew up like "any other kid." He was born and raised in Memphis, like his father, who founded and still owns Blues City Tours. Bledsoe says Carlos was raised in a middle-class family that gave him love and "all the best things." His family was one that "ate dinner and breakfast together at the table," he recalls, with a smile.

Bledsoe remembers his son being a "happy-go-lucky fellow," a kid who always wore a "big smile." He grew into a "typical" teenager who loved to dance. "He thought he knew more than his parents," Bledsoe says. "He was a normal teenager like that. But he loved life and pure fun. He was always making people laugh. And he loved his dog."

He was a young black man who had opportunities to go to college and get a higher education — something Bledsoe says he didn't get a chance to do. His son's dream was to study business in hopes of "giving me an early retirement," he says."No one would have thought that sending him to college would make that dream turn into a nightmare, but it did."

Carlos Bledsoe - COURTESY OF THE BLEDSOE FAMILY
  • courtesy of the Bledsoe family
  • Carlos Bledsoe

When Carlos Bledsoe graduated from Craigmont High School, he went off to Tennessee State University in Nashville, where his father says he started to "drift off a little bit." But, after a run-in with the law on a weekend trip with friends, Bledsoe says his son wanted to change his lifestyle and looked to get on the right track. "[The incident] scared him."

Though he grew up in a Baptist church, Carlos wanted to start exploring other religions that would "guide him in the right direction," his father says. "So he went searching."

The young Bledsoe visited churches of different denominations, and a Jewish synagogue, but none of those felt like a good fit for him. Then, one day on campus, he crossed paths with an imam passing out flyers inviting students to visit a local mosque. Though he didn't know it at the time, this was the beginning of his son's radicalization, Bledsoe says.

After his son started attending services at the mosque, the imam realized Carlos was vulnerable and impressionable, and, Bledsoe says, he took advantage of that. "[Carlos] didn't know what was about to happen," Bledsoe says. "He had no idea that once he got to this particular mosque he would be introduced and led to the plan they had for him."

The plan they had for his recently converted Muslim son led him to Yemen, which at the time was known for its notorious radical Islamic population. Bledsoe says his son traveled there under the impression that he would be teaching English to locals, while learning Arabic. That was not the case.

Instead, his father says, he went there to be "brainwashed" by radical Islamists. After being lied to about the true intentions of his trip, he was "fed poison and nonsense," Bledsoe says.

While in Yemen, his son was exposed to anti-American propaganda that his father says changed his thoughts, behavior, and identity. He was encouraged to hate his country and seek revenge for the crimes America had committed against Muslims. "He was totally brainwashed," Bledsoe says. "He had ideas for his life, but they had other ideas for him."

Bledsoe had no idea that, less than two years later, those ideas would lead his son to open fire on two soldiers outside of a Little Rock Army/Navy recruiting center. At the time, Carlos Bledsoe told the police his actions were fueled by frustrations with the way Muslims were being treated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few months before the shooting, when his son came home from Yemen, Bledsoe says he was different. He changed the way he talked and dressed, and he changed his name. He no longer wanted to be called Carlos, and asked to be called Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad.

In hopes of helping his son return to a normal life, Bledsoe expanded his tour bus business to Little Rock, in order to give his son a job. But, like the rest of his family, Bledsoe was totally unaware of his son's stewing anger — and his plan to launch a jihadi attack.

On a weekend in early June 2009, young Bledsoe loaded his black Ford SUV with a rifle and two handguns, setting out to his intended targets: a rabbi's home in Nashville and a military recruiting center in Kentucky. When those attacks didn't pan out, the 24-year-old headed back home to Little Rock on June 1st. While just a few miles from his apartment, he happened to come across two soldiers smoking cigarettes outside of a recruiting center. Bledsoe opened fire on the pair, wounding 19-year-old Quinton Ezeagwula, and killing 23-year-old William Long.

Muhammad was charged with one count of capital murder and 16 counts of engaging in a terrorist act, which were charges stemming from shots he fired at an occupied building. Muhammad told authorities in Little Rock that he was "mad at the U.S. military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past."

Parents for Peace

Melvin Bledsoe is still healing from the events of that day nine years ago.

"This is something I have to live with until I die," he says. "So I decided, because of the will of God, that I would do something that would help other people."

Bledsoe says he does that by talking about it. At first, he says his family didn't support his speaking freely about the incident in public, but he says the more he talked about it, the more he felt healed, so he kept talking.

"I've been very outspoken," Bledsoe says. "I stand up and I speak up as often as I can." He says because he spoke, someone listened, and that led to his founding of Parents For Peace, along with his daughter, Monica Holley.

Melvin Bledsoe is one of the founding members of Parents For Peace, a nonprofit formed to help families combat the lure of extremism.
  • Melvin Bledsoe is one of the founding members of Parents For Peace, a nonprofit formed to help families combat the lure of extremism.
coverstory_bledsoe.jpg

The organization was conceived during a trip Bledsoe took to Los Angeles four years ago, where he attended a series of focus groups about radical Islamic practices on American college campuses, especially those targeting young black males. Though Bledsoe was one of several people who told stories of loved ones falling into the trap of radical Islam, his son's story was chosen for a deeper discussion.

Through those discussions, Bledsoe met others who had experienced similar situations and who also wanted to "make a difference." They decided to create the foundation for Parents For Peace, a nonprofit formed to help families concerned about loved ones becoming involved in extremism.

Today, most of the organization's operations are based in Boston, including a 24-hour hotline. Callers are put in contact with social services or professionals best suited for their situation. Sometimes law enforcement is asked to intervene, although, Bledsoe says, "We try not to involve the police, but we will work with law enforcement. Sometimes we have to, if we can save someone."

The organization is designed to thwart attraction to any type of extremist ideology or groups, including terrorist organizations, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and street gangs.

"Gangs have extremists too," Bledsoe says. "They're people in there trying to change the thoughts and behaviors of young people. And they certainly need help, too.

"Maybe we don't pay attention to it and we don't recognize it, but there are still people in this country who wish to do harm to America," Bledsoe says. What happened to his son can happen to any young person who is "looking for something and doesn't quite know what they're looking for."

Bledsoe says it's important to help people look for and recognize the signs of radicalization before it's too late. The main motivation for doing what he does, Bledsoe says, is to help other families avoid having to endure the kind of pain his family has had. "We've made a difference, and we're making a difference," he says. "That's the story that needs to be told at the end of his story."

The Search for Identity

To an adolescent looking for identity, radical or deviant groups can be very seductive, says Kelly James, a sociology and criminology professor at Christian Brothers University. She says young people join these groups with the promise of "concrete payoffs."

There are a handful of theories, James says, that explain why people are drawn to deviant subcultures, extremist ideology, and hate groups. A common thread among the theories is a discontentment with one's own life and a need to somehow express that frustration, which often can result in targeted acts of hate or violence.

James adds that when these deviant groups have charismatic leaders that package their agenda well, young people are more likely to take interest. A key piece of adolescent psychology is a desire to belong and to feel significant, she says, and peers play a huge role in that.

"I think young people are searching for identity and community," James says. "If you feel powerless as a young man, and here's a very masculine and powerful personna you see that you can immediately take on, then you will. It's like an avatar.

"You manifest a look and attitude and it gives you entrance into this premade community," James says. "These things are attractive for young people, especially when they're vulnerable." Once a part of these communities, James says research shows that it's easier for someone to make risky decisions or commit violent acts than they would if acting alone. The cause of the group becomes more important than individual human life.

"So you justify hurting people because of a cause," she says. "Some of it is chemical at some point. Your body is at a heightened excitation level. Life becomes less valuable, especially when you're in a specific group that can target another specific group."

James says this can even be the case within certain religious circles. Subgroups within a religion have been known to use some pieces of their faith while ignoring other parts to justify their own causes, she says. "The books of religion are one thing and the people that interpret them are another thing."

Melvin Bledsoe - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Melvin Bledsoe

"Islam Means Peace"

Though he hasn't come in contact with any radical Muslims since he moved from Lebanon to Memphis in the 1990s, Nabil Bayakly says he understands how extremists' ideology is contrived from Islam, which he knows as a peaceful religion.

Bayakly is the vice president of Muslims in Memphis, a nonprofit formed here in 2003 to be a "cultural bridge builder." It aims to educate the public about the Islamic faith, while shedding a positive light on the religion and the people who practice it.

According to Bayakly, Islam literally means peace. "That's the core concept," he says. "It means peace within yourself, peace with your neighborhoods, and peace with your community. The root word of Islam is peace."

But, Bayakly says, when people take certain elements of the Islamic faith out of context, they can "justify doing horrendous things." Some people use isolated verses of the Quran "to do whatever they want."

The violence and hatred of radical ideology stems from the handful of verses in the Quran that focus on warfare and battlefronts, Bayakly says. And when people try to apply these "ubiquitously, in everyday life, it doesn't work."

Bayakly says the extremist ideology in the Muslim faith is not unlike that which can be derived from any other religion. It happens when people use their religion to claim superiority over others and believe they have a unique closeness to God, he says. For example, Bayakly says, members of the Ku Klux Klan have used the Bible and Christianity to justify their mistreatment of certain groups. It's the same with Islam, he says.

Bayakly says it's especially important now in America to "show that our religion is not one of vengeance and war. ... That's not the message of Islam at all. There's a matrix of hate toward us now," he says. "Once you're aware of the matrix, you have to go in and shatter all of the falsehoods."

Bayakly says knowledge is the most effective tool in combating people's mistrust of his religion. That's why he tries to educate people as much as possible about his faith. Bayakly says he would tell the Muslim who would commit violence in the name of the religion and the non-Muslim who is prejudiced toward it, the same thing: Read the Quran in its entirety and understand the real message — peace.

Life After Death

That's what Carlos Bledsoe is beginning to understand today, as he serves his life sentence at the Varner Unit.

"He's trying to deprogram himself," Melvin Bledsoe says about his son. "And that's very hard to do in a state prison. The people he met before had twisted the religion to do evil things."

Bledsoe says his son is learning what it really means to be Muslim. "Those people lied to him, and they used him." and his son is starting to realize that.

"And I will tell the world on the tallest mountain that what happened to my son was a tragedy," Bledsoe says. "A crime was committed against my son before he committed a crime."

Bledsoe says his son is remorseful. Seeking forgiveness, he sent an apology letter from prison to the victim's family a couple of years ago. In the letter, he explained what happened to him and all that preceded his decision on that June morning in 2009.

He told the family he was "confused, misled, and lied to." It's steps like that that make Bledsoe believe his son is "starting to come around." More recently, he's started to help out with Parents For Peace — something his father calls a "miracle."

"Trying to turn a tragedy into something positive is never easy," Bledsoe says. "To see the sadness and anger of people receiving my story and what happened to my son really moves me. It motivates me; it makes me want to do more to help. And it heals me and my family."

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