"Paintball Terrorist" Gets 20 Years
- EX-ST. LOUISAN CAUGHT IN POST 9/11 NET
Jon Sawyer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/6/05
Randall "Ismail" Royer saw himself as a bridge, a white Muslim convert
from suburban St. Louis uniquely positioned to help other Americans
understand his faith.
The U.S. government had a different view - that Royer was part of a
shadowy band of Islamist extremists, bent on holy war.
In legal terms, the government view prevailed.
Royer, 32, now sits in a Pennsylvania medium-security federal prison.
He's serving a mandatory 20-year term after pleading guilty of using
firearms in support of a militant Muslim group battling Indian forces
over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
But while officials including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft
hailed Royer's guilty plea last year as a victory in the U.S. war on
terrorism, the plea agreement acknowledged no act or plot against U.S.
interests here or abroad. Under the plea deal, other charges that
could have sent Royer to prison for life were dropped.
Federal prosecutors defend the long sentences meted out to Royer and
others in what became known as the "Virginia Jihad" cases, also called
the "paintball cases" because defendants had played war games at local
But to Royer and his family, and to many Muslims around the country,
the disposition of the cases sent a different signal - one of a
government overreaching when national fears run high, and
Royer still sees himself as uniquely positioned to drive that message
home to non-Muslims who haven't experienced it firsthand.
"I think the American people need to be concerned," Royer said in a
letter to the Post-Dispatch from prison that arrived this week,
"because once the system is bent to start putting a minority in
prison, the system stays bent."
Adjusting to America
Mirsada Stabancic and Ramon Royer have Ismail Royer in common - her
husband, his son.
Stabancic's background is wartime Bosnia. Royer's is farmland
Illinois, Army service, a career in commercial photography and
suburban St. Louis.
Together they're coping with a life that neither envisioned.
Stabancic, 27, is raising the couple's four children, ages 2 to 7. She
lives in an apartment building a block from the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque
in Falls Church. The senior Royer and his wife, Nancy, live down the
hall; they moved from St. Louis this summer to help with the children.
A support group at the mosque pays Stabancic's rent and also tuition
at the local Islamic school.
Since August, Stabancic and her children have been unable to visit
Royer at the Allenwood, Pa., prison or even to talk with him on the
telephone. He has been denied phone and visit privileges for six
months because prison officials said he had once called home without
getting approval first.
Prison officials declined to comment on an individual inmate situation
but said such disciplinary procedures are common.
The youngest of Royer's children, 2-year-old Hassan, knows his father
mostly from photographs.
"Hassan says he's in the kitchen when people ask where his dad is,"
Stabancic said, "because that's where his photograph is."
Stabancic met Royer when she was still in high school. She immigrated
from Bosnia to the United States and moved to St. Louis knowing no
English. She learned the language watching "Days of Our Lives" on
television, and now speaks fluently and expressively.
Adjusting to American life wouldn't have been easy even with a more
conventional husband. Stabancic wears a full hijab that covers her
head to foot, including all of her face except her eyes.
Today she wears jeans under the long cloak and a ring on one of her
toes. But eight years ago, as a new arrival in middle America, she got
looks standing in line at a St. Louis McDonald's.
"Someone said 'Look at how she dresses. She's in America. She can take
that off now. She shouldn't let her husband do that to her.'
"And I said, 'What are you talking about? It's not my husband. He has
nothing to do with this.'"
More recently, on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart with a friend, also
covered, she overheard a man in the parking lot tell his wife, 'There
go the Saudis. There go the terrorists.'
Inside the store, she caught up with the man.
"I said, 'What if I called you a rapist?' He said, 'But I'm not a
rapist.' And I said "Well, I'm not a terrorist, either.'"
But those are the exceptions, not the rule, Stabancic is quick to add.
She loves America, she says.
"There are a lot more nice people here than ignorant people," she says.
The FBI investigates
When Frank Brostrom of the St. Louis FBI office called in fall 2001,
just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ray Royer was happy to answer
questions about the activities of his Muslim convert son.
"I spent three years in the Army," the elder Royer said. "I gave my
oath - and I don't take that lightly.
"I let them know that I was on their side. I said that if anything
Randy was involved in risked harming this country I would have told
them - but that there wasn't anything."
Brostrom, a 15-year bureau veteran, confirmed that he had met half a
dozen times with the senior Royer between fall 2001 and his son's
arrest in June 2003. Some of the meetings took place at Denny's
restaurants. Others were at the family's home, with Royer making a
specialty dish that he now calls "FBI spaghetti."
"I think it shows that we're human, too," Brostrom said. "I sat down
and had spaghetti with the father of someone who had problems. I
treated them with respect and I had sympathy for their situation."
The Royers were of interest not just because of their son but also for
a stream of young Muslims who had rented rooms in their Manchester
house. One of them was Zihad Sadaqa, also known as Zihad Khaleel, who
bought a satellite telephone that ended up in the hands of senior
al-Qaida operatives. Sadaqa was never charged with a crime; he died in
an automobile accident in Saudi Arabia in 2002.
"I think these people took advantage of the fact that the Royers were
allowing people a place to stay," Brostrom said. "I wish Mr. and Mrs.
Royer the best. They're very patriotic people."
Ramon Royer says he wonders if the FBI took advantage of him,
manipulating the law enforcement system to build a case against his
son. His experiences remind him, he says, of a famous passage in
George Orwell's "Animal Farm."
"I guess in this country, too, all people are created equal," Ramon
Royer says. "It's just that some are more equal than others."
A Muslim activist
The activities of Randall "Ismail" Royer were scarcely a secret. The
Parkway South graduate had found Islam as a 19-year-old and became an
ardent proselytizer and explainer of the faith, on Web sites and as
communications director for two of the biggest Muslim associations in
He had fought alongside Muslims in Bosnia's civil war in the mid-1990s
and in 2000 visited a Muslim training camp on the disputed border of
Kashmir between Pakistan and India. He even took the opportunity to
fire a gun in the "general direction," he said, of Indian forces. And
from 2001 on he voluntarily discussed his activities with Brostrom and
other FBI agents.
He also attended lectures by Ali al-Timimi, an Iraqi-American Muslim
imam, or preacher, known for his inflammatory anti-American rhetoric.
Timimi was convicted this year of inciting terrorism and sentenced to
life in prison. His alleged urgings that Royer and others in the
paintball group join Jihad forces abroad were a key factor in the
government's prosecution of the case.
Royer says his own condemnation of violence was clear.
In August 2001, a month before the 9/11 attacks, a posting by Royer on
a Chicago-based Muslim Web site singled out a Hamas attack on a
Sbarros restaurant in Jerusalem.
"If the Israelis are unjust for killing a Muslim child, then this
action is just as horrifying," he wrote. "How miserable I would feel
to stand before Allah with this action on my record of deeds."
In a letter from prison last month Royer stressed that he had "never
thought for an instant, or even discussed, any kind of anti-American
The law he pleaded guilty of violating was the rarely enforced
Neutrality Act, a law dating to the 18th century that bars citizens
from joining military action against nations friendly to America.
Royer pleaded guilty of using weapons and explosives in violation of
Sources close to the case say Royer could have negotiated a shortened
sentence but forfeited the opportunity when prosecutors learned last
spring that he had communicated improperly with al-Timimi, the imam,
then on trial. Royer says the real problem was his refusal to back up
the government's claim that the group had planned to fight in
Afghanistan and elsewhere against U.S. forces.
Three of the paintball defendants said they had intended to fight U.S.
forces; they received reduced sentences. Three others were acquitted
and six convicted, with sentences ranging from 15 years to 85 years.
Royer's father put the issue bluntly. The prosecutors "were very angry
with Randy," he said, "for not agreeing to lie for them."
The office of Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of
Virginia, declined to comment on this and related cases. McNulty's
promotion to deputy attorney general is pending in the Senate.
In his recent letters, Royer says he is determined to make the best of
life in prison, even as he reflected the resentment that many Muslims
feel about law enforcement tactics.
"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," Royer says.
"This is not to say that there are not Muslims in the world who are
dangerous to U.S. security," Royer wrote. "But we were just not those
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