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Rejecting radical Islam -- one man's journey

  • Story Highlights
  • Man says he became radical Muslim during college a decade ago
  • "Ideas that I once thought unthinkable ... seemed like good ideas to me"
  • Oregon group he worked for has since been shut down by the government
  • Organization maintains it's a charity, seeks to have name cleared
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Editor's note: This is part one of a series of reports CNN.com is featuring from an upcoming, six-hour television event, "God's Warriors," hosted by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross was born to Jewish parents in Ashland, Oregon. A college friend introduced him to Islam.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The path to faith often takes unexpected twists. In the case of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the road went through three of the world's major religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- and ultimately brought him to the FBI.

Born to Jewish parents who call themselves mystics, he grew up in what he calls the "liberal hippie Mecca" of Ashland, Oregon, a town of about 20,000 near the California border. It was in this ultraliberal intellectual environment that a young Gartenstein-Ross experimented with a radical form of Islam that eventually led him to shun music, reject women's rights and even refuse to touch dogs because he believed this was "according to God's will."

"I began to pray for the mujahedeen, for these stateless warriors who were trying to topple secular governments," he said.

His journey began in 1997, when as a junior at Wake Forest University, he began to examine his own spiritual identity after experiencing a couple of brushes with death caused by illness. "That kind of thing can cause spiritual discomfort and make you reevaluate what it is that you're living for," he told CNN in an upcoming documentary called "God's Warriors." Video Watch behind-the-scenes with CNN's Christiane Amanpour »

A college friend introduced him to Islam and he was intrigued by its peaceful message. "Islam was a very simple faith and as I learned more and more about it, it seemed more and more fascinating to me," he said.

That fall, he called home to tell his parents he was planning to become a Muslim.

"We felt it was OK," his father Moshe Ross said. "We were glad that he was going to study something and hopefully seriously. And we were happy with Islam."

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When Gartenstein-Ross returned to Ashland, he got his first taste of radicalization when an imam at a local makeshift mosque blasted Western society.

"His argument was that the West was so inherently corrupt, so inherently anti-Islamic, that if we stayed in this society, then inevitably our faith would be eroded," said Gartenstein-Ross, who chronicled his experience in a book called "My Year Inside Radical Islam."

The humble mosque would soon move to a hilltop headquarters in Ashland, thanks to financial support from a Saudi Arabian charity known as the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which has since been shut down by U.S. and Saudi authorities for alleged terror ties. Lawyers for Al-Haramain have denied those charges and have filed suit against the U.S. government seeking to have its name cleared.

Gartenstein-Ross said a man named Pete Seda, who ran the charity's local office, offered him a job. Seda became his mentor and within a few months Gartenstein-Ross said he found himself agreeing with extreme views. At Al-Haramain, he said he saw the religion which he had embraced for its tolerance become obsessed with rules and ideology.

"What I didn't expect was that over time my ideas would fall into line with theirs," he said. "I wasn't to shake hands with women. I wasn't to pet a dog. I wasn't to wear shorts that came up above my knees. But conversely, my pants legs couldn't be too long."

But at times, he still had doubts about some beliefs espoused at the mosque. Whenever he questioned the rules, his co-workers would tell him his own views were irrelevant. The view was that "your moral inclinations do not matter. All that matters is whether this is what's right according to God's will," said Gartenstein-Ross.

In 1999 he left his job at Al-Haramain for law school at New York University. Away from his co-workers, he was free to question the radical doctrines he'd learned in Oregon and meet with others about spirituality, including Christians. A year later, he converted to Christianity and was eventually baptized in the Baptist church.

It was a decision he took extremely seriously because he said his colleagues at Al-Haramain had preached that leaving Islam was punishable by death.

"This conversion out of Islam toward Christianity was certainly not one I took lightly in any way, because I realized there could be repercussions from it," he said.

The Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation would come up in his life again, but in a very different fashion. His first job after law school was as a clerk with the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. He had to undergo a background check and listed Al-Haramain as a previous employer. Soon, the FBI was quizzing him about the group.

Two years later, in 2004, federal agents raided the Ashland offices of Al-Haramain. When he learned of the bust, Gartenstein-Ross says he contacted the FBI. "I knew about some of Al-Haramain's contempt for U.S. tax law. I knew about the support these guys had for the mujahedeen in Chechnya," he said.

His mentor, Pete Seda, and another top Al-Haramain official now face conspiracy and tax fraud charges for allegedly helping provide $150,000 in funds meant for Muslim fighters in Chechnya. Lawyers for the group say it renounces terrorism, and in a lawsuit filed against the government last week, Al-Haramain says it's a "charitable organization that seeks to promote greater understanding of the Islamic religion."

Seda on Wednesday voluntarily returned to the United States to fight the charges and entered a plea of not guilty.

As for Gartenstein-Ross, he is now a counter-terrorism consultant who works with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank formed after September 11, 2001, that lists former FBI director Louis Freeh, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Joseph Lieberman among its "distinguished advisers."

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He acknowledges his experience is atypical -- that most American Muslims are well-assimilated into American society and don't embrace radical Islamic ideas.

"There is a lot that's going right about Islam in the United States, and a lot of the conversations I've had with moderate Muslims and other Muslims in the past year-and-a-half have been encouraging in terms of what's happening with Islam in America," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN producer Brian Rokus contributed to this report.

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