Alleged ‘Dirty Bomber’ and I Would Have Been Prison Buddies

By Joe Loya
Pacific News Service
June 13, 2002

For PNS contributor and ex-con Joe Loya, “dirty bomb” suspect Abdullah al Muhajir — a Latino who converted to Islam after release from prison — is familiar. Loya met and used to sympathize with many Latino Muslims during his incarceration, and he explains what a Brooklyn-born former gang member might see in al Qaeda.

Oakland, Calif.–I watched with interest the recent announcement of the arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir — born Jose Padilla — a U.S. citizen and former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and is accused of plotting with al Qaeda to explode a “dirty bomb.”

He and I could have been good friends in prison.

Seven years ago, from my federal prison cell, I watched on television the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. My first thought: “Good, the U.S. government needs to suffer some casualties in this war on crime. They need to learn that it ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.”

It was easy for me as a federal prisoner to affiliate myself with the enemy of my enemy. I justified McVeigh’s murder of innocent people as “collateral damage.” People of good conscience, I rationalized, used the same justification to blast the innocent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Prisons are full of political throwbacks who haven’t seen freedom in 20 or 30 years. You see older men in a time warp, wearing widely flared bell-bottom pants that were fashionable when they were last out on the streets. Some prisoners’ politics are similarly dated.

In federal custody, I knew a Mexican mafioso named Qeto who fasted for Ramadan as an expression of solidarity with Palestinians. He wasn’t Muslim, but in his mind the Palestinians had their homeland stolen and were oppressed in much the same way as Mexicans.

Qeto fancied himself a Marxist revolutionary of the Che Guevara stripe. He was committed to a reconquest of the U.S. Southwest — the mythical birthplace of the state of “Azatlan.” He passed out Chicano scholar Rudolfo Acuna’s book “Occupied America” to semi-illiterate Mexican gang members.

Acuna espouses the separatist gospel that “Anglo control of Mexico’s Northwest territory (the U.S. Southwest) is an occupation.” In Qeto’s imagination, he and the Palestinians had a similar “stolen lands” quarrel with all imperialist governments of the world.

Once, when I was locked in my cell during the Gulf War, I heard an excited inmate named Toro yell out to Qeto that he’d seen the war footage and that “we” were blowing the Iraqis away. “Who is the “we” you are talking about?” Qeto shot back. “You have solidarity with a government that has you locked in handcuffs right now?”

It would have been easy for Jose Padilla, doing time in Illinois, to become politicized by a radical leftist like Qeto. No doubt he was preached to by some aging supporter of the Chicago-based FALN, a Puerto Rican group that planted bombs against “the imperialist state” in the 1970s.

Latino Muslims were common in prison. My friend “Panama” was one of them. He spoke in broken English, wore a traditional Muslim cap and prayed five times a day.

There resides in the Latino consciousness at least three historical grudges, three subsidiary selves: the Muslim Moor, the Catholic Spanish and the indigenous root. You see the internal antagonism manifested when the light-skinned, middle-class, Catholic Mexican-American girl from Reseda goes to Stanford and goes indigenous, adopting a new Aztec princess name, Xochi.

The old Latin American revolutionaries converted to atheism, but the new faux-revolutionary Latino-American prisoner can just as easily convert to Islam. In the end, both choices resemble an adolescent’s rebellion against a parent’s authority.

I understand that rebellion, the desire to highlight my indigenous roots over the Conquistador in me. There was a time in prison when I contemplated getting out and fund-raising for Mexico’s revolutionary Zapatistas by robbing American banks. I was a thief, but I wanted to be a criminal soldier with a cause, like Zapata and Pancho Villa.

U.S. law enforcement is partially to blame for the phenomenon of the street gang member dreaming of becoming such a warrior. Law enforcement has employed the metaphors and language of warfare to fight drug addicts and petty thieves. It was only a matter of time before simple thugs like me and Qeto began to see ourselves at war with the U.S. government.

Although I was Mexican-American, the FBI named me “The Beirut Bandit” when they were chasing me, because tellers said I looked Lebanese, or Iranian, or Pakistani. Like Jose Padilla, once upon a time I could have entertained the thought of lending criminal support to the Palestinians or other Arab groups, whom I resembled in appearance and shared grudges against the United States.

Today, Jose Padilla and I could no longer be friends. On television — free from prison walls — I saw the World Trade Center attack and was repulsed. My heart doesn’t celebrate mayhem like it once did. I’m no longer at war with the government, or with myself.

Loya ( has written a memoir on his time in prison, due to be published by HarperCollins in the fall of 2003.

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