Up close he looks more milquetoast than militant.
Dressed in a North Face jacket and Timberland boots, the only thing that betrays Ahmad Jibril's status as a pin-up boy for Western wannabe Islamist fighters is his 9-inch beard and Quran.
Slumped in the defendant's chair in federal court late last month, Jibril, 43, combed his whiskers with small hands. He never gazed up from scripture. Instead, the radical Sunni cleric let his female court-appointed lawyer do his talking.
The holy man, it appeared, had lied to the court about having money. He lied about having work. And now he was in danger of going back to prison for perjury. But he was afraid of talking.
"Tell me exactly what he's in fear of," asked the federal judge.
"False statements," Jibril's lawyer said.
When Jibril was released from federal prison in 2012 — he served more than six years for a raft of convictions ranging from fraud to income tax evasion to jury tampering — he was ordered to pay back $250,000 he stole via insurance scams.
But instead of making right his debt to society, Jibril went straight to social media and began posting [pep-talks](http://Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUMUjQN773k) to weekend Wahhabi warriors.
"When your brothers in Syria speak," he told followers, "everybody today shut their mouth and listen because they're proving themselves real men."
And his pearl for foreign fighters in Syria:
Look where the arrows of the enemies of Islam r aimedWestTheir slaves in the eastRafidaModernists&u will see the righteous grp in Syria
— Ahmad Jibril (@ahmadmusajibril)January 31, 2014
Not exactly the stuff of epic poetry, but it has gone over big with the jihadi crowd. According to a report by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, Jibril has become the most popular on-line preacher in the world for Westerners who have gone to Syria to fight with ISIS and al Qaeda. Jibril has 27,000 followers on Twitter and 240,000 likes on Facebook.
"He's a cheerleader," the report states. "A benevolent father figure."
With the feds monitoring his key strokes, Jibril has been careful not to directly call for jihad against the United States. But according to his charging papers in 2005, that's exactly what he did before being sent to prison for a fraud scheme he carried out with his father that involved setting fire to houses and then filing bogus insurance claims.
When a bomb exploded in Saudi Arabia in 1995 killing four Americans, Jibril faxed a letter rife with misspellings to CNN from his home in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
"Attacks will follow on civilian Americans," his note read. "They are easier to attack."
It was big talk from a little man. Jibril had no connection to the bombing beyond a subscription to cable television.
Still, he went on to host an anti-American website from his father's house, according to the indictment, calling for his students to "spread Islam by the sword, to wage a holy war, to hate and kill non-Muslims." He was booted from two Dearborn mosques for unleashing diatribes against Shia Muslims.
His post-prison social media acumen got the attention of the feds, who wanted to know why he could afford computers and internet access but couldn't pay his restitution. In a court-ordered deposition, the American-born cleric refused to answer questions about his financial particulars — money earned on eBay, deposits in his bank accounts from a consulting firm — invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself more than 200 times.
He did, however, cop to owning a sofa and living at his sister's house. One is left to presume that his sister lets him sleep in a bed and gives him an allowance to purchase toothpaste and underpants.
He was a study in contradictions sitting there in federal court: an American encouraging his country's enemies to fight overseas while he hides in his sister's basement. An Islamist "cheerleader" whose yearbook photo from Dearborn's Fordson High School shows him with poofy hair and a knit tie. A law school graduate who was sent to prison for arson and fraud.
"I think he's going to be a huge problem for the FBI and the intelligence community," said Andrew Arena, former special agent in charge of the Detroit Bureau of the FBI. "They're going to have to keep an eye on this guy real closely. Who's he in contact with? Who's he radicalizing? Who's he inspiring?"
I waited for Jibril outside US District Court in Detroit that cold March morning to ask him a simple question: Why the hate? Instead of answering me, he ran like a jackrabbit, jumping into a car with illegally tinted windows that had pulled up to the curb. Tires squealing, it then blew through a red light.
I followed him to his sister's house, a shabby Cape Cod near Ford headquarters. He wouldn't answer the door.
Despite three years thumbing his nose at the federal authorities and paying just $3,080 in restitution, the court granted him immunity from prosecution for lying about his finances and compelled him to give another deposition stating his sources of income.
Jibril complied and was released from court supervision on March 29. His passport was returned. His tether removed, he is free to do and go as he pleases.
We may never know where his money comes from. In its final stipulation in the matter of the United States of America vs. Ahmad Musa Jebril — his name is spelled differently in court documents — the federal judge ordered that Jibril's final deposition regarding his financial holdings be sealed "in order to preserve defendant Jibril's privacy."
Jibril should thank God he was born in the USA.
Follow Charlie LeDuff on Twitter: @Charlieleduff