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Shakedown by Jamaica's radical sheik

By Drew Griffin and Todd Schwarzschild, CNN Special Investigations Unit
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Radical cleric now living in Jamaica
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sheik Abdullah El-Faisal, raised Christian in Jamaica, converted to Islam at 16
  • El-Faisal's radical message is said to have directly influenced convicted terrorists
  • Deported from Kenya in January, he is now on the no-fly list and stuck in his native Jamaica
  • El-Faisal's "agent" told CNN an interview would cost $15,000; CNN does not pay for them
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(CNN) -- He has influenced convicted terrorists such as Richard Reid, the so-called shoe-bomber. His sermons were found in the apartment of suicide bombers who struck London, England, in 2005. Even one of the 9/11 plotters is said to have been a follower of Sheik Abdullah El-Faisal.

Now in Jamaica, El-Faisal is less than a two-hour flight from the United States. No airline will allow him on board; he is widely thought to be on U.S. and UK no-fly lists. But history suggests El-Faisal might not need to travel to be influential among jihadists bent on violence against the U.S. and other Western nations.

The authorities on the Caribbean island keep tabs on him. Jamaica's Muslim leadership has banned him from preaching in established mosques, just in case his radical rhetoric stirs a Jamaican jihad. That's why we came here, at El-Faisal's invitation, to find out his plans.

Little did we know his plans included raising money from a most unusual source -- CNN.

Trail of terror

Sheik Abdullah El-Faisal grew up in Jamaica as a Christian, but he converted to Islam at 16, he says, after visiting the South American nation of Guyana.

He then went on to study Islam in Saudi Arabia before moving to London. That's where his career as a firebrand preacher took off among English-speaking, radical Islamists. In the 1990s, his sermons at the Brixton Mosque in south London, a hotbed of radical preaching, were often taped and shared among converts to Islam. Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for his role in the September 11 attacks, and Richard Reid attended the mosque at the time.

El-Faisal's message included calls for killing Americans, Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers (anyone who doesn't believe in Mohammed and Islam). British counterterrorism officials began to take note of the preacher known as "The Jamaican."

They uncovered tape recordings in which El-Faisal encouraged Muslims to take up jihad, with titles including "No Peace with the Jews," "Declaration of War" and "Them v. Us."

British authorities say they found one of El-Faisal's taped sermons in the apartment of Germaine Lindsay, a fellow Jamaican and one of the suicide bombers who attacked London's subway system in 2005. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student charged with trying to blow up an airliner as it was approaching Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day, mentioned El-Faisal in a blog he wrote while in London.

British prosecutors decided El-Faisal's sermons went beyond rhetoric.

In 2003, he was charged with soliciting murder and was sentenced to seven years in prison. But four years later, he was released and deported to Jamaica. He didn't stay there long, making several visits to Africa to preach and lecture.

Kenya deported him in January after he addressed Somali immigrants, fearing he would incite terrorism. His arrest led to riots in which five people were killed. But the Kenyan government had to spend a reported $550,000 to get rid of him; no commercial carrier would take him back to Jamaica. So Kenya had to hire a private jet to fly him home.

Meeting the with sheik

Sitting at a poolside banquet table in the courtyard of our hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, it is difficult to understand how he poses a threat to anyone.

It's Friday night, and this is about the last place one would expect to meet a man who claims to be an Islamic scholar. Across the pool, a crowd of nearly 100 people watch a karaoke contest that, at times, turns into a gyrating dance show.

Sheik Abdullah El-Faisal has agreed to meet us to discuss the possibility of an interview. It is not the discussion we intended to have.

He's 46, slight and nervously shakes his left leg while stroking a stringy, black triangular beard. And he is happy to tell you he is a changed man. But he won't tell you that on camera unless he gets paid.

Since February, El-Faisal has been living -- isolated -- in a modest house down a dirt road above the town of Hopewell, just west of Montego Bay.

CNN has been attempting to interview El-Faisal since he arrived in Jamaica. After months of to and fro, El-Faisal finally consented. At least that's what we thought.

Preacher wants to be paid

Producer Todd Schwarzschild arrived with a crew on Thursday, May 13. That afternoon, CNN met with the contact for El-Faisal, who was now being called his "agent." And the agent announced if we wanted an interview, the price would be $15,000.

CNN does not pay for any interviews. There would be no negotiations.

When I arrived the next day, I was ready to explain this to the "agent" and also explain that his demand for money would be outlined for all of CNN's readers and viewers to see.

Friday night, as we sipped our Red Stripe beers at the poolside bar, Todd got a call. The agent was coming over and he was bringing El-Faisal. We would "negotiate" a deal, he said.

Sheik: Teachings misinterpreted

When they arrived, I pulled my white plastic banquet chair as close to El-Faisal as I possibly could. The noise from the amateur crooners was deafening. And without any cameras rolling and my producer still trying to negotiate with El-Faisal's agent for an interview, I conducted my own.

El-Faisal says he is no longer the radical cleric jailed in Britain.

"That was the old sheik," he tells me. "I have reformed since then. I have become wiser. I no longer say things that offend people."

El-Faisal says he really never meant to offend anyone.

"The British misinterpreted my teachings," he said. "I spoke of jihad, and the British thought that meant killing."

I pointed out that "killing" is exactly what he did say in Britain, and on the tapes listened to by radical followers across the world.

I pointed out his exact quotes: that Muslims should fight and kill Jews, Christians, Americans, Hindus and other nonbelievers.

"The way forward can never be the ballot. The way forward is the bullet." That's a quote from one of his speeches recorded by British authorities.

And in the United States, a group called Revolution Muslim looks up to El-Faisal as its spiritual leader.

Last year, one of the group's leaders told me "Allah used the word to terrorize, so we terrorize the Kaffirs (non-Muslims)." It turns out that quote actually came from El-Faisal himself.

El-Faisal casually dismissed the Revolution Muslim group. He says he does not encourage people to kill, never has and never will.

When I told him that a blog on RevolutionMuslim.com had praised alleged Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Major Nidal Hasan, he told me he "would not congratulate" the attacker.

I asked whether he felt any guilt that one of the July 7, 2005, London subway bombers, a fellow Jamaican who followed his teachings, had committed suicide while also killing dozens of innocent civilians. He said it made him sad that "the brother killed himself."

When I pressed whether he felt any personal responsibility for influencing the suicide attack, the sheik became agitated.

"How can they prove I influenced them to try and commit terrorism?" he asked. "I did not direct anyone to try and blow up a plane; I did not tell the London bombers to do what they did."

"It makes me sad they committed suicide and that they killed innocent people, 52 of them." El-Faisal says all the so-called terrorists who have listened to his preaching have most likely listened to other preachers, too. He feels he is being singled out and is now confined to his native Jamaica without any direct means of support.

Negotiations continue

I talked to El-Faisal twice after meeting him poolside at the Kingston Hilton. Both times I again asked the sheik to honor his agreement to be interviewed by CNN. Both times he referred me again to his "public relations" agent.

On the day before we left, that "public relations agent" asked that if we would not pay for the interview, would we at least cover his expenses. We were then sent an itemized bill for $5,000, covering the cost of hiring a fleet of private vehicles to shuttle El-Faisal from Montego Bay to Kingston and back.

My answer was no.

On Sunday, I picked up the phone one last time, called El-Faisal directly and told him I was boarding a flight in two hours. I asked would he please consent to an interview.

"What did (my agent) say?"

I told El-Faisal his agent has now dropped his price to $5,000, "just to cover your travel expenses," I said, "supposedly the cost of hiring two cars and a van to drive you around."

"Well what can I do? I must follow his advice."

El-Faisal was getting very hard to hear. The background noise included voices and music.

"Where are you?" I asked him.

"I am on a bus coming home."