Even three years later, Arkeuntrez Washington still can’t explain what possessed him to contact a convicted al Qaeda member linked to the 9/11 attacks. It was a mistake, he now realizes in hindsight. He understands how it could create the wrong impression. But when it comes to why, he struggles to find the words.
“I wanted him to get to know me and potentially keep going further,” Washington said during a recent interview with VICE News, when asked about the two letters he tried to send in early 2019 to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan terrorist currently serving life without parole in the U.S. federal “supermax” prison in Colorado. Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001, when a flight training school instructor reported him to the FBI on suspicion that he was learning to pilot a Boeing 747 for a terrorist attack.
The “potentially keep going further” part hung in the air for a moment before Washington clarified: “I just wanted to learn how to do it—I wasn't gonna blow nobody up.”
In the letters, Washington’s tone was warm and inquisitive. He asked basic questions about Moussaoui’s upbringing and education, all seemingly innocuous, until he inquired about pilot lessons and using a flight simulator program. He dropped the name of the mosque that Moussaoui attended and asked about learning from “our Muslim Brothers.” He then switched topics to handball (“Do you still play?”) and closed with a friendly “Hope to hear from you soon.”
A reply never came. Washington was not on Moussaoui’s approved correspondence list, so prison officials returned the letters to the sender. Nobody followed up until a few months later, when federal agents visited Washington’s home in Birmingham, Alabama, to investigate something else: a string of suspicious firearms purchases.
Washington, now 25, was never convicted of any charges related to terrorism. There’s no evidence he was ever plotting any type of terrorist attack. But in August of 2019, he was indicted for illegally selling guns to buyers across the U.S. and in Mexico. When the agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) searched his room, they found copies of the Moussaoui letters, along with handwritten notes on how to build bombs, the names of jihadi leaders, and a clue that suggested he may have used encrypted messaging to communicate with al Qaeda.
Washington pleaded guilty to the gun charges in February 2020 and served two and a half years in federal prison. He was released in September 2021, joining the growing wave of people involved in extremism cycling through the American criminal justice system. While the government’s focus has been on Islamic extremism for much of the last two decades, it’s shifting now to include far-right groups, sovereign citizens, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and others across the ideological spectrum.
The Department of Justice has prosecuted 977 international terrorism cases in the entire post–9/11 era, and 545 of those defendants have been released after completing their sentences. By comparison, already more than 760 suspects face charges for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. With some insurrectionists forming a “Patriot Wing” in the D.C. jail where they are housed, there’s concern that incarceration is only fueling further radicalization.
Two decades into the war on terror, there are still no programs in the U.S. federal prison system dedicated to deradicalization or to specifically help convicted extremists reintegrate into society. VICE News spoke with a range of experts, including several former extremists, about how such programs could work and potentially save lives in the years to come.
“There’s so little knowledge across the system around extremism and what actually happens and how to bring someone back from extremist ideology,” said Chris Buckley, a U.S. Army veteran and ex–Ku Klux Klan member who now works for Parents For Peace, a nonprofit that seeks to rehabilitate extremists. “Political extremism has become acceptable in this country. When you wish harm on another group of people based on their beliefs, that’s extremism.”
Because Washington’s case involved only gun charges, he’s not counted among the terrorism statistics. But following his release from prison, the government is still treating him like an extremist threat. He’s required to have monitoring software installed on his phone and any computer he uses, allowing the government and a private contractor to track his online activity. If he’s caught viewing anything off-limits, he could have his probation revoked and be sent back behind bars.
Asked to describe his relationship with the U.S. government, Washington put it this way: “We are not on good terms. It’s like we’re married and I want a divorce and the woman don't—that's exactly what it's like. Because everything I do is monitored at all times.”
At least so far, Washington appears to be a post-prison success story—he’s got a job, a supportive family, and dreams of someday becoming known for something beyond his criminal exploits. But his case also highlights gaping holes in the safety net for former prisoners, and reveals a troubling lack of preparedness across the justice system to deal with the growing threat of extremism.
Washington is the first to admit that other than the threat of prison and his own conscience, there’s nothing stopping him from trying to get in touch with al Qaeda again or building a bomb.
“Sad to say, I could do it now—but I don't want to,” he said. “I still know how to do this stuff. Certain stuff, you just don't forget. You don't forget how to ride a bike. You don't forget how to drive a car. But I'm not going to do it. That's not my intention.”
Addicted to violent revenge
Scientific study of radicalization and deradicalization is notoriously difficult, partly because the sample size is limited. Researchers at the University of Maryland compiled a database with profiles of 2,226 nonviolent American extremists and found a pool of about 300 who disengaged from extremist groups or movements for at least five years, but with major caveats.
“Exit pathways are rarely quick or linear,” the researchers wrote. “Instead, individuals often experience periods of re-engagement with extremist groups and/or continued criminal activity before achieving a final desistance, disengagement, or deradicalization.”
The study identified the underlying factors keeping “the average extremist” from changing their ways as having family or romantic partners involved, poor education, unstable work history, substance use disorder, and mental illness. The most common reason for leaving was “disillusionment,” simply growing tired of fighting for a hateful cause.
Last year, a team from the nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation interviewed 24 former extremists, plus a dozen of their friends and family members, and reached similar conclusions, noting that arrests or “punitive interventions by law enforcement” often led to increased extremism.
To understand why people drift away from extremism, it helps to know why they became involved in the first place. The RAND team, led by behavioral and social scientist Ryan Andrew Brown, found the extremists they spoke to cited feelings of victimization, stigmatization, marginalization, and, most often “feeling isolated and lonely in institutions (e.g., schools) or communities in which they were the minority race.”
Those feelings of victimization and isolation, Brown explained, tend to drive people to find a like-minded community and seek out ways to exact revenge. And there’s some evidence that the feeling of revenge can stimulate the brain’s pleasure center in ways similar to drugs and alcohol. People essentially become addicted to the feelings caused by extremist behavior.
“To compare the dynamic of substance addiction to extremism, it does seem to be a common pathway,” Brown said. “Violent revenge, fantasizing about it or engaging in it, it engages hedonic pathways. It feels pleasurable. It can become addictive and disassociated from reward itself.”
Among the extremists Brown and his team interviewed, only a few came from families that held radical beliefs. Most, however, had experienced some type of “reorienting event,” something dramatic or traumatic that “prompted them into reconsidering previously held views and considering alternative perspectives.” Examples included arrests, rejection by the military, losing a job, or the sudden death of a close friend or family member.
Washington experienced several “reorienting events” in his life.
One thing leads to another
Washington was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that consistently ranks among the highest for rates of gun violence in the country. His father was incarcerated for part of his upbringing and his mom worked long hours to make ends meet, so Washington was often in the care of his elderly grandmother. He was also close to his cousin, Bobby Baker, who planned to join the military.
But in 2015, Baker, 18, was fatally shot by another cousin during an argument over a video game controller. The two were alone in the room and it’s unclear exactly what happened. Washington thinks they were just messing around, wrestling with each other, when the gun went off accidentally. Washington said that to honor Baker’s legacy, he decided to enlist.
Washington joined the Army and became an infantryman. He’s short, maybe 5 feet 5 inches in combat boots, but sturdy. And after enduring the rigors of basic training, he came to like the military. He learned how to shoot rifles and handle explosives, "how to clear rooms, how to properly assemble the AR-15, how to set up a Claymore [land mine] and detonate it," he said, ticking off his list of skills. He shared a picture of him holding a bazooka on his shoulder, grinning as he aimed it at the camera.
He was stationed in Germany and deployed on training missions across Europe with NATO allies. His Army buddies remember him as a fun-loving guy who was always chatting up soldiers from other countries, soaking up their culture.
“He could go up to anybody and talk to ’em, no matter who they were,” said Brandon Howard, who served with Washington in Europe. “I never saw him angry or anything like that. No matter the situation, whatever we were doing at work, he was always happy. He could make any situation lighter, even if it was bad.”
Another Army vet, Alex Jones, who was more senior than Washington, described him as a model soldier, willing to follow orders and get the job done.
“He seemed like a good dude,” Jones said. “Good head on his shoulders, ‘Roger that, yes sir,’ all that good stuff, respectful.”
The U.S. was still fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State held swaths of Iraq and Syria, but Washington never saw combat. He spent his leave traveling, partying at nightclubs. He cited a trip to France as sparking his fascination with Moussaoui, who allegedly had a role in a plot to bomb a cathedral in Strasbourg in 2000.
Washington was raised Christian and never converted to Islam, but says he started to question the wars in the Middle East. He cited a message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the Islamic State, whom Washington referred to as “al-Big Daddy,” questioning what gave U.S. soldiers the right to raid homes in another country.
“They fight back, we want to call them extremist terrorists, you know, that type of stuff, but you would do the same thing if a country invaded the United States,” Washington said. “Why fight for a country when they don't even want your people in it? And that just opened the door for a lot of other stuff, you know? And then one thing led to another.”
From soldier to arms dealer
The path from soldier to extremist is increasingly common.
A study published last year by University of Maryland called “Extremism in the Ranks and After” found 458 people from 1990 to November 2021 who came from military backgrounds and committed crimes “motivated by their political, economic, social, or religious goals.” The tally includes 118 defendants who face charges for storming the Capitol.
Nearly half of the 458 held anti-government views, were members of organized militias like the Oath Keepers, or were part of the right-wing patriot movement. But around 10 percent were either linked to or inspired by foreign groups, including 19 Islamic State cases and 22 linked to al Qaeda or its affiliates.
“What it looks like often is they become disappointed in their country,” said Elizabeth Yates, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland who studies domestic radicalization. “They’re people who were patriotic, who wanted to be part of something bigger, who wanted to make a difference. They’re looking for a way to contribute but maybe get out and they’re struggling. They're not having the future they expected. Extremists offer something.”
In late 2017, Washington’s grandmother fell ill. The Army granted him leave to be with her in Alabama and, eventually, he decided not to return. He was arrested for desertion and spent time in the brig before receiving an “other than honorable” discharge in 2018. He returned to his grandma’s house and found himself aimless and unemployed.
“Like, flat broke,” Washington said. “Like, not half a penny, nothing in my pocket at all, basically living off my grandma, you know? And so I'm like, man, I got to get some type of money, got to get some type of hustle.”
He chose the gun business. Washington had weapons experience from the military, and he took inspiration from movies like War Dogs and Lord of War, based on true stories about gun-running international arms dealers. He applied for a federal license to sell firearms, but the process was slow and he was eager. He heard about a website called Armslist, the so-called Craigslist of Guns, which connects users for private sales, and decided to start there.
He bought guns legally from stores in Birmingham and resold them on Armslist for a slight markup. He told me his customers were willing to pay above retail value “because they didn't have to worry about having a license or undergo a background check.” He started with AR-15 pistols, a compact version of the assault rifle, making a few hundred bucks off each deal. He sent VICE News videos of himself posing with thick stacks of cash as proof his business was good.
Armslist describes itself as "purely a service provider” and says it is not directly involved in any transactions between users. The site runs a disclaimer that says “it is the sole responsibility of the buyer and seller to conduct safe and legal transactions.”
In addition to local deals, Washington says he shipped guns around the country via FedEx by breaking them down into parts and putting them in boxes with fake names and return addresses. He says he also made untraceable “ghost guns” using a 3D-printer and sold those on the street too. Court records show Washington placed online orders from a company called "Prepper Gun Shop" and had them delivered to a local store. The purchases required background checks, and Washington was soon on the radar of the ATF, who paid him several visits in July 2019.
Washington told the agents he was buying guns to start a training business, using his military background to teach civilians about shooting and safety. Eventually they caught him in a lie and confronted him about dealing guns. Washington was still living in his grandma’s house, and he asked the agents to step out onto the front porch. The ATF agent said Washington “became emotional, and began shaking and crying” as he confessed to breaking the law.
Court records say Washington used a burner “go phone” to conduct his transactions, and he admitted to tossing the device in a dumpster after the feds first visited. He also shredded sales receipts and other potentially incriminating documents. He refused to provide the names of his customers but told the ATF that he’d sold guns to people in Mexico. He claimed he arranged a deal that involved hand-delivering the guns on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas. There is precedent for Mexican cartels sourcing weapons from Armslist but no proof to back up Washington’s claims, at least nothing that survived the shredder.
‘He was pretty ripe to be picked’
When the ATF agents searched Washington’s room, they found notebooks and journal entries, including detailed instructions on how to create a small “pen bomb” using an ink pen, flash powder, and a fuse. Another set of instructions described how to create a “works bomb,” using Drano cleaner, aluminum foil, and a bottle. At the bottom of the instructions was the note “make foil pieces big for big impact.”
The paper contained the names “Shayk Anwar al Awlaki,” a Yemeni-American imam killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, and “Shayk Abu Basir,” a Syrian cleric and thought leader in the jihadi movement. Also scrawled in Washington’s notebook was “Asrur al-Mujahideen,” or “Mujahideen Secrets,” an encrypted messaging system for Windows released by al Qaeda.
A source familiar with Washington’s case was skeptical that he’d actually established contact with anyone from al Qaeda. Washington had an old computer and none of the usual encryption tools, such as a Tor browser. He had a GIF file of a black al Qaeda banner on his phone and a screenshot of a news article about a bombing plot on the New York City subway.
“He was pretty ripe to be picked,” the source said, pointing to Washington’s disaffection with the military. “This guy was at least looking and very easily recruitable. Not just a loner, but a loner who doesn't want to be a loner, just wants to be part of something.”
A lot of mass destruction
The arrest and evidence uncovered by the ATF stunned Washington’s family. His parents declined to be interviewed for this story, but his mom, Andrea Williams, spoke briefly over the phone to say she had no idea what was going on in her son’s mind at that moment in time.
“We were just floored—we were shocked,” Williams said. “He was a kid when 9/11 happened. He didn’t know anything about terrorism.”
Washington was charged in federal court for the illegal gun sales, and the government used the terrorism evidence to push for him to remain jailed while his case was pending. His public defender asked the court for a mental health evaluation, questioning whether he was competent to stand trial. The attorney said Washington had “undergone a prior short-term commitment” and that he gave “irregularities in responses to questions” about his case. There were also concerns that Washington himself “had possibly sent a tip to the FBI reporting his conduct.”
‘If I really wanted to harm people, I could've went out there and caused a lot of mass destruction.’
Washington underwent a psychiatric exam and was deemed fit to proceed. He switched lawyers and eventually pleaded guilty, drawing a sentence of 36 months in federal prison. He denies reporting himself to the FBI, and says he knew exactly what he was doing. He admits to experimenting with homemade bomb-building using supplies from Home Depot, but he claims he drew the line at using the explosives to harm anyone.
“I never wanted to use it against people like that,” Washington said. “I just wanted to know how to do it. You know, just like with firearms, if I really wanted to harm people, I could've went out there and caused a lot of mass destruction, but I'm not weak-minded. I'm strong-minded.”
But mental resilience has its limits. He also speaks about his struggles to contain everything he has absorbed over the years. He finds solace in music and riding a motorcycle that his family bought him after prison, putting in his headphones and zipping around the roads near his neighborhood.
“It just hurts your brain sometimes,” he said. “All types of stuff goes through your head when you know how to do this stuff. And it's harmful.”
Washington says he received no mental health treatment while in federal prison and no counseling related to the extremist aspect of his case. All he got in prison was a GED certificate, which he felt was pointless because he’d already earned a high school diploma.
A spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said the agency “recognizes the fundamental importance of assessing the underlying risk factors that may contribute to a person’s extremism,” and “provides “job training, life skills, educational opportunities, counseling, and other resources to help address those issues.”
‘I rehabilitated myself, if anything.’
But there is nothing for deradicalization—partly because nobody really agrees what that means, let alone whether it could or should be administered to American prisoners.
“Currently, there are no evidence-based ‘deradicalization’ programs throughout the world that are directly correlated to the needs of an offender in the United States,” the BOP spokesperson said. “For example, other countries have robust programs related specifically to religious aspects of extremism. However, the United States cannot adopt these same models due to religious freedoms and constitutional protections afforded in this country.”
Spokespersons for the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Northern Alabama, which handled Washington’s prosecution, declined to comment.
Washington says he has received no help at all—no counseling, therapy, or mental health treatment—either while he was in prison or since his release last September.
“They didn't offer me no programs, nothing,” he said. “I don't really feel rehabilitated. If I do feel rehabilitated, it’s because of what I did exercising… I rehabilitated myself, if anything.”
Big Brother is monitoring
There’s a push to fix this broken system and introduce some type of deradicalization programming into the U.S. criminal justice system. Advocates say it should be treated like addiction, and could be offered alongside the current drug counseling options already in place.
Brown, the RAND researcher, called release from prison “a critical transition point” for people on the road to recovery from extremism.
“You're vulnerable to getting pulled back into something that offers social bonds or financial benefits,” he said. “Some careful, mentored programs could work. Frankly it’d work broadly for trying to prevent reengagement with a variety of criminal behaviors.”
‘Remove extremism and focus on trauma. That’s where you need to look.’
Brown supports the involvement of “formers” like Buckley, the military vet and ex-Klan member who now works to counter extremism. Buckley says his organization Parents For Peace has developed a “Trauma Recovery Program” that focuses on treating the deep-seated issues that cause extremism. The group has worked with over 300 families, sometimes staging rehab-style “interventions” in hopes of breaking through to people who’ve been sucked into rabbit holes.
“Remove extremism and focus on trauma,” Buckley said. “That’s where you need to look. Get away from what, and look at why.”
Buckley advocates for people on supervised release like Washington to be engaged with their probation officers, who he says “are pretty much social workers at this point.”
“They have just as much of a role in extremism and deradicalization and rehabilitation as the probation officer who is getting a guy released from jail on a drug charge,” Buckley said. “There’s programming, education on trauma, they play pivotal roles in keeping a person on a healthy path through accountability.”
Washington’s supervised release requires him to check in regularly with a federal probation officer and undergo drug tests, but he also has special restrictions. If he wants to have a phone, he must pay $35 a month out of his own pocket to have a program called RemoteCOM installed to monitor his activity and contacts.
This type of mandatory surveillance is becoming more common; RemoteCom’s CEO said the software is on roughly 9,000 devices across the U.S. and Canada in cases where the government has concerns about letting a criminal defendant have unfettered access to the internet. The software uses “passive monitoring” and supposedly only monitors for activity related to a person’s case, like a terror suspect browsing bomb blueprints or shopping for guns.
Critics have dubbed this Big Brother–style monitoring “e-carceration,” arguing it's an insidious way to keep people imprisoned and that it can easily trigger petty parole or probation violations that lead to being locked up again. For Washington, it means constantly feeling as if someone is looking over his shoulder.
It’s unclear how often RemoteCOM has been used in cases related to extremism or terrorism. Reporting by The Intercept, which tracks international terror prosecutions, found convicted extremists are often released “with no provision for supervision or ongoing surveillance, suggesting that the government does not regard them as imminent threats to the homeland."
The lack of monitoring is partly a reflection of the fact that most so-called terror defendants are people similar to Washington, with nebulous connections to foreign groups and convictions for nonviolent offenses like immigration violations or making false statements. Monitoring restrictions vary widely depending on the court, with no guidelines across federal districts.
Washington feels that because he was never charged with terrorism, he shouldn’t be punished for it with surveillance that will last for at least three years of his supervised release. “If I'm not charged with it, don't consider me that,” he said.
One person who understands what Washington is going through is Ismail Royer. He was accused by prosecutors after 9/11 of a conspiracy to support "violent jihad" overseas, and was ultimately convicted of helping friends reach a militant training camp in Kashmir. He served 13 years in prison, with 30 months of that time at ADX Florence, the same Colorado prison that houses Moussaoui, the al Qaeda member Washington tried to contact.
Since his release in 2016, Royer has worked with nonprofits to promote peace between faiths and counter extremism. Royer says he initially struggled after prison, partly because anyone who Googled him would skim the results and assume he was a terrorist. It took years, he said, to find a decent job and change the narrative surrounding his name.
“You know you’ve turned a corner when the first page of Google results of your name is for stuff you’re doing for your community,” Royer said.
After hearing about Washington’s case, Royer doubts he was ever a serious jihadist. Washington often seems more like somebody who confuses infamy for fame. He’s fascinated by all types of infamous criminals, from Italian mobsters to Russian arms traffickers to the leader of the Islamic State. The problem with that curiosity, Royer said, is that it can provide an opening for a skilled manipulator to exploit.
“This is clearly some goofball,” Royer said of Washington. “But on the other hand, people like this, their existence is crucial to the methodology of ISIS. They’re sort of like the Nigerian Prince email scam. You can sit there and crank out millions of those [and] you only need .00001 percent of people to respond and fall for it.”
To Royer, it makes sense for Washington’s phone to be monitored for some period of time, but surveillance alone is not enough. He also needs to devote himself to a good cause, Royer said.
“Get him involved in caring about the common good,” Royer said. “Getting him to care about others and others to care about him. I would mandate some community service, not like taking out trash, like working with human beings, Habitat for Humanity, things with teamwork.”
‘People change, I changed for the better.’
Washington found a job handling packages at FedEx, which he finds slightly amusing considering he once used the company to illegally ship guns. He says he’s made some friends through work and wants to enroll in community college classes. He talks about becoming a motivational speaker and launching his own podcast, or maybe something more humble like getting his commercial driver’s license and seeing the world as a truck driver.
Some paths are off-limits now. Washington likes the idea of getting his pilot’s license, but when asked whether that would be allowed given his attempt to contact Moussaoui, he acknowledged it might raise eyebrows. He still insisted the letters were harmless. If he really wanted to cause trouble, he said, he would have asked Moussaoui for a bomb recipe.
“I wouldn't even be talking to you right now,” Washington said. “I would be where he’s at.”
Washington gets animated and says going back to building homemade bombs would be easy: “A month or so worth of planning. It happens. Boom.”
Then he catches his breath and says not to worry, he’s just not that type of person.
“People change, I changed for the better,” Washington said. “That's not me, man. I'm changing. I have changed.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
Sayre Quevedo contributed reporting.