Eyad Ismoil is one of the half-dozen men convicted for carrying out the World Trade Center bombings in 1993. Born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and Jordanian mother, he was sentenced to 240 years in prison for driving a rental van packed with a bomb into a garage, killing six and injuring about 1000 more. (During his trial, he maintained that he was innocent and did not know what was inside the truck.) But 20 years after his arrest and burial deep inside the dungeons of the ADX Super Max facility in Colorado, Ismoil was moved to the general population here in West Virginia at USP Hazelton, the high-security federal prison where I reside.
Ismoil is my coworker in one of the resource centers on the compound that gives inmates an opportunity to break free from the gambling, drugs, and violence that makes up a monotonous prison life. I find him to be an extremely intelligent and humble man; for someone who's supposed to "hate the infidels," he shows no signs of loathing towards the many prisoners and staff who openly despise him.
Still, Ismoil's ethnicity and the nature of his crime make him a target. Every horrific event that pops up on the news increases the disdain for him even more, but after talking with the guy, I found myself less than shocked at the eruption of radical Islamic terrorism over the past two decades. Indeed, when I first asked Ismoil about ISIS after the Paris attacks, he asked me one question back: "Why do you think they did it?"
I responded with the only thing I knew: "They hate us."
He smiled and rolled his eyes, as if to say I knew nothing. So it was that an unlikely acquaintanceship between a hippie bank robber from Pittsburgh and a convicted terrorist from the Middle East was born.
Recently I sat down at a table with the thin, bearded 44-year-old Muslim, to get his views on the Islamic State, the mass shooting in San Bernardino, and other tragedies like the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado. He said that to resolve the conflicts between extremists in the Middle East and the West, it was important to talk "human to human," but he also made it clear that he empathizes at least somewhat with the Islamic State. Unsurprisingly, many of his views would be considered appalling to the vast majority of Americans, but our conversation gave me a window into the worldview of people who think the US is to blame for terrorism.
VICE: As an Islamic terrorist from an earlier generation, what's your sense of who the Islamic State's members are and where they came from?
Eyad Ismoil: ISIS is not jihadists recruited from all over to fight. They are the Sunni Muslims that have lived through 25 years of wars, torture, and rapes. They are the Iraqi and Syrian people that have suffered from unjust wars started by the US government. And when the US government [mostly pulled out of] Iraq in 2010, the Shia and Maliki government started killing the Sunni day and night under the watch of the Americans.
The US response was, "This is an internal problem. We don't want to interfere with their business." The show Rise of ISIS showed this, even though they tried to spin it like ISIS are aliens from another planet trying to take advantage of the massacres that the Shia—the government of Iraq—is doing to the Sunni and to get people to pledge.
But the fact that every Arab and Muslim knows is [that] ISIS is the native people of Iraq and Syria. That's why the head of ISIS is Abu Bakr Baghdadi. He was a prisoner in an American prison in Iraq during the occupation for about four years and is known to be a scholar from the prophet's family. They are a very big family in Iraq. That's why [many] of the Sunni pledge to him.
You don't have to recruit people for ISIS. They're Muslims from all over the world that have seen an injustice after 25 years and want to help their brothers. What you have to understand is the Iraqi people are the most stubborn of the Muslim world. They won't accept occupation or humiliation.
Day after day, all these things add up 'til the volcano erupts, and that is what's happening in Iraq and Syria under the name ISIS.
Were you surprised by the Islamic State attack in Paris?
People over in America ask why ISIS did this. [But] people in the Middle East ask, "Why is the US doing this to us?" Put yourself in their shoes—France is dropping bombs for a year in Iraq and [more recently] Syria, destroying everything, women, children, buildings… A bomb doesn't discriminate between ISIS or women and children—it just destroys.
In [a recent edition of] USA Today, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said, "We're in the business of killing terrorists, and business is good." This is a business to them. But it's human life. Human life has the right to exist the way they want.
Imagine the Iraq and Syrian people. After a year of bombing, you see your people killed, land destroyed, children scared to do anything more than hide in the corners all day. All this coming from bombs in the sky and you can't stop it. What would you do?
But even if you think the French air campaign is wrong, how does that justify terrorism?
This reminds me of a story. There was a lion, a tiger, and a zebra. The lion is complaining that something went wrong in the jungle: There is no rain. So he wants to see what went wrong so they can bring back the rain. The three of them get together and the lion goes first. "What I did was I saw an antelope and I killed it and ate it." OK, OK—they all agree that's alright. The tiger goes second. He says, "I saw a rabbit, I chased it down, killed it and ate it." OK, OK—they all agree that's okay. The zebra goes last. "What I did, I saw this patch of grass and I ate a little bit to kill my hunger.." "Get him!" the lion and tiger say in outrage.
So, the question should be who is the first to be blamed? Tell both sides of the story.
What did you think of the San Bernardino attack?
The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the attack in California was I hope they're not Muslim. I thought this for several reasons. First, the victims are civilians—they have nothing to do with it. My religion prohibits attacks on civilians. Unfortunately, many Muslims don't know much about Islam.
Second, every time you enter a country with a visa, the visa you receive is a contract. To break a contract is prohibited by Islam. You have to respect the law of the land that you live in. Third, in all my years of watching the news, all the media seems controlled. They know how to use an incident to put more wood on the fire and not give the incident justice. When it's Muslims committing these acts of violence, it's 24-hour coverage. But when it's not Muslim, it goes away quickly.
What about the Planned Parenthood attack?
What this man did is worse then what the doctors do. If this is what he's angry at, taking life, he did worse. Islam doesn't believe in abortion—all life is precious….[But] what he did was kill adult people who are grown. How is he trying to solve the issue?
If the government says it's alright, then you lost and have to accept it. That's part of life. They should try to solve the problem with the government, not the doctors performing what the government says is legal. You see there are symptoms to problems you can cure, which is a temporary cure. Or you can cure the root of the problem, which is permanent.
For every action, there's a reaction. If you throw a ball against a wall, it's going to come back at you. If you throw a ball hard, it's going to come back at you hard. This is the problem with all sides in these wars. We hit you, you hit back. We hit you hard, you hit back harder. Back and forth, back and forth. Nobody wins. Both sides end up with death and destruction.
But aren't Arabs forming these terrorist cells to attack Westerners?
The Arabs are not radicalizing themselves. Your government action is radicalizing the Arabs. The Muslim people of France and Europe see the pictures, days and nights of bombs. The refugees, the millions running away from war. It's horrible pictures. Do you think they should say, "Vive la France!"?
See, the Arabs want to live the way they want to live. Every century we've suffered under dictators and tyrants backed by the West. We want to live a decent life, that's all. They [the West] want us to live under man's law. We, the Arabs, we can't live like the West. We're different from them. The only thing that keeps us just is Islam. Because in Islam, the peace, the justice, comes from the sky. The one who created earth and man, he knows best.
If we have an Arab leader without Islam, he turns into a dictator. ISIS declares an Islamic State because after a century of living under dictators, the US left and put in a new one. This was their cure for the symptom. A temporary cure. Then ISIS came and the problem is even worse.
How can we solve the problem?
To solve the problem from the root, everyone has to become human. They need to talk, human to human. Let the people decide what they want. Leave them alone. Everyone can come together and say enough is enough. How long are we going to keep this action up? For the rest of our lives?
It's the law of the jungle that we're living in right now. We were given more sense than this. We walk on two legs, with our heads high. But right now, we are walking with our heads down. We need to lift our heads up, and use the brains God created for us.