By Kitty Caparella
SAYFULLAAH Al-Amriykiy was reeling after he read a Daily News story last August about Nasir Daymar Gould, a 30-year-old West Philadelphia native, and five other U.S. citizens locked up for two months in a Yemeni prison.
“I knew exactly what he was going through,” said Al-Amriykiy, 53, a world-renowned jujitsu grand master.
Al-Amriykiy himself had been imprisoned in Yemen. The story about Gould prompted unspeakable flashbacks.
That’s when Al-Amriykiy and two of his martial-arts students – Anwar Whittaker, 25, of West Philadelphia, and Abdul Kareem Wright, 31, of Frankford – felt compelled to warn fellow Muslims of the perils of studying Islam in Yemen.
This two-part story of their harsh experience is based on interviews with all three of the men.
The trio had – like Gould – traveled to Yemen to study Arabic and the Quran. They made their trip in 2001, shortly after 9/11.
They were unexpectedly thrown into Yemen’s Central Prison without charges. They were made to eat putrid food. They feared they would be killed, and that each day would be their last. Finally, their families raised money to free them.
While Yemen officially condemns terrorism, it remains a terrorist hotspot in the Middle East – and one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with a per capita income of $400 a year.
Last year, Gould was one of 21 Americans locked inside Yemeni prisons, part of the 3,500 U.S. citizens jailed in foreign countries each year.
Christoph Wilcke, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch, said that it is not unusual for students of religious studies to be at risk for arrest.
The State Department warns U.S. citizens “to defer nonessential travel” in Yemen.
Al-Amriykiy’s journey to Yemen began in early 2001 with a simple desire to learn more about Islam.
He had been an imam – a Muslim cleric – for five years at Al-Dirr-Wat-Taqwa Masjid, a mosque at 52nd Street near Market, just below his third-floor martial-arts studio.
Like many American Muslims, he wanted to know more. He wanted to speak Arabic fluently and to study under one of the most revered Islamic scholars in the Middle East.
His friend, Jauhar Ahmad, a Bangladeshi imam who ran a mosque in Jamaica, Queens, recommended studying under Shaykh Muhammad Al-Imaan, an Islamic scholar at a rural religious camp in Yemen.
Ahmad offered his home in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, as a place for Al-Amriykiy to stay.
Al-Amriykiy didn’t expect problems. He followed the news, but understood that Yemen and the U.S. were cooperating in a joint investigation of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors.
Al-Amrikiy’s excitement about his trip was so contagious that Whittaker and Wright, two of his martial-arts students at Warrior Within Dojo Studio, wanted to go, too. For months, they saved money and planned the trip.
By early September, the trio had obtained 30-day visas to Yemen.
Whittaker, an 18-year-old graduate of West Philly High, had quit his $600-a-week job selling cars in the suburbs. And 24-year-old Wright, a 1995 grad of Kensington High, had left his job cleaning movie theaters.
Then, fate intervened – 9/11. Three days before their flight, terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Shanksville, Pa., killing nearly 3,000 people.
The trio were distraught over the incident. Their dream was on hold. But they were so excited about their trip, they ignored official and friends’ warnings to delay it further.
On Sept. 22, 2001, they landed at Sana’a International Airport. In customs, Yemeni authorities tried to send them back. However, Ahmad, who was already in Yemen, paid a $750 bribe to admit them into the country, said Al-Amriykiy.
The culture and living conditions were a shock to the three Philadelphians.
Whittaker felt so uncomfortable that he wanted to return home immediately, but no flights were available.
His braided-corn row hairstyle stunned locals, who called him a girl, he said. Whittaker said a child pointed at him, and yelled: “Anta Yahud” – “You’re a Jew.”
On the morning of Oct. 13, 2001, Al-Amriykiy and Whittaker decided to hike a nearby mountain. They set off at 6:30 a.m. to get a panoramic view of Sana’a. Wright, a North Philadelphia native, was too sick to go.
While climbing, the two saw a shepherd pass them and an elderly woman tending a flock of animals. Then they noticed a bunker on top of the mountain.
An old man called for them to come down. At the foot of the mountain, three men pointed AK-47s at the Americans and pushed the petrified men to the middle of a field.
“I thought they were going to shoot us with the AK-47s,” said Al-Amriykiy.
The jujitsu master calculated how to take on two gunmen so Whittaker could escape, even though he knew he’d be killed by the third.
Suddenly, the old man shouted Arabic at the gunmen, who relaxed. The gunmen took the Americans to two locations where they were repeatedly interrogated. At the second stop, a colonel tried unsuccessfully to reach Ahmad, their Bangladeshi friend, to vouch for them.
Four armed guards then drove them to Yemen’s intelligence agency, the Political Security Organization (PSO), described recently by the Fund for Peace as “a haven for Islamic militants associated with al Qaeda.” The agency answers directly to Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih.
Inside the PSO, Al-Amriykiy passed a room with blood-splattered walls, where cables attached to batteries sat on a bloody floor.
“I thought they were going to torture us,” he said.
Instead, the men were led, one at a time, to the nearby Central Prison. A gunman repeatedly poked Al-Amriykiy with a rifle, told him not to turn around, and struck him with his weapon when he did.
In a huge yard separating the PSO from the prison, Al-Amriykiy was blindfolded and ordered to stand against the prison wall. He feared he was about to die.
An official, sitting at a desk in the courtyard, ordered him to remove his blindfold and stare at a camera videotaping him.
Then the official shouted the same questions repeatedly:
Who are you? What agency sent you? Your occupation? What are your parents’ names? When did you arrive?
Hours after standing and answering the same questions, he was taken below ground to what looked like a dungeon. Al-Amriykiy was questioned again, by a colonel. He even offered the prisoner hard bread, but when the colonel bit into it, one of his teeth fell out.
Al-Amriykiy had no idea what had happened to Whittaker, and the colonel wouldn’t tell him.
“No one knew where we were,” said Al-Amriykiy. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be here for the rest of my life,’” I was worried about my pregnant wife. I thought I was never going to see my family again.”
Silently, Al-Amriykiy prayed: “Oh God, if that’s what you have for me, I accept it.”
The next morning, Whittaker, imprisoned in another section of the dungeon, asked to use the bathroom. A guard gave him an assigned time, 8 a.m. Prisoners could only use the toilet three times a day and shower once.
“I can’t live like this,” he thought. He had never been arrested, let alone jailed. Yet the 6-foot-1 teen began plotting how to overtake the much-shorter guards.
“A guard grabbed my arm, I snatched it back. That’s when I lost it,” said Whittaker, recalling his frenzied raving and crying.
Suddenly, a guard showed up at Al-Amriykiy’s cell as he lay on a thin mattress on the stone floor.
“Come,” urged the guard in Arabic.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, something happened to Anwar,’ ” said Al-Amriykiy. “I see six guys with sticks. Anwar’s frantic, screaming, he’s not going into the cell. He was scared. He broke down crying. The guards didn’t know what to do.”
Al-Amriykiy looked into Whittaker’s windowless cell. It was the size of a small closet with a single bulb. The wall was smeared with feces and “stuff written in blood, like somebody was counting,” he added.
He asked a guard if he could get the other guards with sticks to back off, so he could talk to Whittaker, who feared he was about to be killed.
Then, Al-Amriykiy asked the guards if Whittaker could stay with him. His cell, at least, had a window.
Al-Amriykiy wanted to keep the worried teen’s mind occupied. They recited the Quran. They practiced jujitsu.
The next morning, the two were fed the same kind of hard bread that cost the colonel a tooth. They called it “rock” bread. Later that day, they were given slimy rice and okra, a menu that was repeated daily.
“We had nothing to drink but stagnant water” in a filthy soda bottle, said Whittaker.
The teen became sick, bent over in pain with severe dysentery. Once in the bathroom, he wouldn’t leave. A guard asked Al-Amriykiy to get his friend.
“He probably needed a doctor,” said Al-Amriykiy.
He asked the guard to allow Whittaker the time he needed because he was ill.
Whittaker stopped eating for days.
They feared this was it. They would die in the dungeon, and their families would never know.
As 2 gained freedom in Yemen, 3rd lost it
IN FALL 2001, Patricia Johnson, a legal attache with the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, arrived at that nation’s Central Prison to check on two jailed Philadelphians – and to deliver a warning.
A week earlier, Sayfullaah Al-Amriykiy, an imam at a mosque at 52nd Street near Market, and his martial-arts student Anwar Whittaker, had hiked up a mountain and were taken into custody by the military without charges.
The two had traveled to Yemen with another Philadelphian, Abdul Kareem Wright, to study Arabic and the Quran at an Islamic camp in Marba’. The camp had been recommended by a friend – but they were ensnared in the intrigue that followed the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S.
At the prison meeting, Johnson warned Yemeni Col. Mohammed Ali, who had interrogated the Americans, and other officials that Al-Amriykiy was a renowned karate sensei, or teacher, who was on the U.S. team that won the World Cup in Panama in 1994.
Yemeni officials gasped.
The accolade was intended both to impress the captors – and to warn them that the United States was monitoring the American prisoners’ treatment.
Later, the colonel asked Al-Amriykiy, who was imprisoned in a below-ground dungeon: “Are you all right?”
“You didn’t put me in here. God put me in here,” Al-Amriykiy told him. “God will get me out. You can’t help me.”
The puzzled colonel asked: “Why do you talk like this?”
In her next visit, Johnson asked the colonel if she could give Al-Amriykiy and Whittaker 5,000 riyals of Yemeni currency – about $25 – to buy food.
Guards, however, charged a “fee” – three times the cost of the food – to bring it in. The two Americans asked for chicken and rice, grapes and cartons of juice.
The night of the pair’s arrest in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, their friends, Wright and Jauhar Ahmad, a Bangladeshi imam who ran a mosque in Jamaica, Queens, became frantic looking for them.
Finally, Ahmad paid for information to find them. He learned that Yemen’s intelligence agency, the Political Security Organization (PSO), wanted money for their release. Thus began negotiations. Each man’s family was forced to raise $2,500. Ahmad paid $5,000 to the PSO.
None of the Americans had ever been arrested in the United States. But they quickly learned firsthand about political graft in Yemen that would be documented in an investigation by an outside agency seven years later.
The annual report of the Fund for Peace last year described corruption at every level and branch of the Yemeni government, particularly with the police, who were responsible for “arbitrary arrests, torture and murders,” and horrible prison conditions.
“Police often bargain directly with families and tribesmen concerning the release of prisoners,” according to the report.
Al-Amriykiy had another word for the bargaining: “extortion.”
The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Yemen, one of the poorest and most terror-plagued nations in the world – a warning that the three Philadelphians in their zeal to learn more about Islam did not heed.
After 14 days lying on the dungeon’s cold stone floor, and the bribe payment, Al-Amriykiy and Whittaker were released. Col. Ali asked for their e-mail addresses. Johnson and a Yemeni translator who worked for the U.S. embassy invited the two to lunch. Al-Amriykiy asked Johnson for a letter of explanation from the embassy and sought a letter of apology from Yemeni officials.
Johnson agreed to give him a letter saying that they were jailed wrongly, but she advised him that the Political Security Organization would never admit it had made a mistake, he said.
In Sana’a, the two had a brief reunion with their friends Wright and Ahmad while preparing to return to the United States.
Despite what had happened, Wright decided to stay. He set off alone to the rustic Islamic camp in Marba’. At the camp administration office, he was required to turn in his passport.
For five weeks, Wright lived in nearly primitive conditions with 30 men, one hot plate and no bathroom in a dorm. Given a bucket, he filled it daily to wash himself and used an outhouse, as the weather turned cold in late fall. Hot water was available only on Fridays.
He ate meat or chicken only once a week – Fridays – and dropped 25 pounds, down to 170 on his 6-foot-1 frame.
With so little distraction, he said, “I was getting on a roll, learning Arabic with a private teacher, and studying the Quran in Arabic.”
Each day, he prayed five times – from before sunrise to nightfall. He memorized a part of the Quran. At 10 a.m., he studied Arabic with a private tutor. At noon, a sheik taught a lesson on the daily hadith, the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, which Wright then memorized. Later, the sheik questioned the students about the hadith.
After a dinner of beans, rice, okra and other vegetables, Wright continued his studies.
“This was not a place where you got to learn how to shoot a gun. Only the guards for the sheik had guns,” said Wright.
But he soon discovered that spies at the camp had notified the military that an American was there. Three soldiers with AK-47s showed up to take him into custody – without charges – and jailed him.
“I was the only American,” he said. “They just locked me up and gave no reason why.”
The next day, they transported him to Sana’a. Like his friends, Wright was blindfolded, questioned and thrown into Central Prison. He was assigned a cell with 15 other Muslims – from Egypt, Indonesia, Djibouti, Belgium, France and Saudi Arabia – all of whom had visas to study Islam.
“I was prepared for the worst. Maybe they’re going to kill me,” said Wright, who suspected one cellmate – chummy with the guards – of being a spy.
An elderly man from Saudi Arabia was found hanged in a cell.
“The inmates believed the guards hung him,” Wright said.
“The guards questioned me, and tried to say I wanted to go to Afghanistan, but I told them: ‘I don’t want to go to Afghanistan. I came to Yemen to study.’ ”
Christoph Wilcke, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch, said some students of religious studies drift into radical circles, such as John Walker Lindh, a California teen who studied Arabic in Yemen in 1998. Lindh is serving a 20-year federal sentence for being a member of Afghanistan’s Taliban army.
Eventually, Johnson, the U.S. legal attache, was able to negotiate Wright’s release. She provided him with a $1,000 airline ticket home.
But Yemeni soldiers treated him like a terrorist. His passport was stamped with a black mark, indicating that he could never re-enter Yemen.
He was handcuffed until he was on the plane. At a stop in Germany, a passenger told him: “You know terrorists don’t travel with luggage.”
“They called me a terrorist!” Wright said in disbelief. “I had nothing, no clothes, no jacket, just enough money for the bus to Philadelphia.”
Wright was in for a bigger shock when he got home.
Al-Amriykiy and Whittaker arrived at Newark’s international airport on Oct. 28, 2001. “I wanted to kiss the ground,” said Whittaker.
“I don’t want to leave the country at this point. Not anymore,” he added.
“I didn’t have time to kiss the ground,” said Al-Amriykiy. “I wanted to find the fastest way back to Philadelphia to get in my own house and my own bed.”
The two hopped in a taxi to Philadelphia – ironically, driven by a Muslim, who grew more horrified as they described their ordeal. When they arrived home, the cabbie gave them a reduced rate.
Al-Amriykiy’s first wife under Islamic custom, Zaynah Watkins, 49, tried to raise money for his release, but was shocked by the indifferent response.
“Muslims I was close to just brushed it off,” Al-Amriykiy added.
His second wife (he is legally married to neither), Tahira Groce, 29, cried and worried that her unborn child would never see his father.
“I was devastated,” said Groce. “The only person I wanted to be around was the other wife.”
When Wright arrived at JFK International Airport on Dec. 11, he was shivering from a blast of frigid air, while wearing a long, thin shirt called a khamis, pants and open sandals.
“The way he came home was so sad,” said Al-Amriykiy. “When I saw his face, he looked angry with the whole world. I knew how he felt.”
“We went to buy him a coat and made him feel welcome,” he added.
Later, Wright stopped to see his mother in Philadelphia. His stepfather opened the door and was taken aback.
The State Department had mistakenly notified his stepfather that Wright was dead – in Yemen.
Years after returning from Yemen, Wright and Al-Amriykiy were contacted by FBI agents.
FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver would neither confirm nor deny FBI contact with anyone.
But Klaver cited the bureau’s top two priorities: counterterrorism and protecting the U.S. from foreign intelligence operations and espionage.
“They wanted to question anyone [who went] to countries not friendly to America,” Wright said. He told the agents he was a Sulafi, who practices an early form of Sunni Islam, common at the time of Muhammad.
” ‘One thing we know about Sulafis,’ ” Wright recalled an agent saying. ” ‘You stick to the Quran and the Sunnah [Islamic law], but those other people . . . ”
Yemeni prison was not at all like America’s prisons with “three meals a day, and playing ball with everybody,” said Al-Amriykiy.
“There, innocent people are tortured and persecuted” and imprisoned for no reason.
“American prisons are like Beverly Hills,” says Wright, who is now studying to be a paramedic.
The nightmare shared by Al-Amriykiy, Whittaker and Wright in Yemen’s prison made them want to warn other Muslims fo the danger.
They even offered to speak at area mosques, but no one took them up on their offer.
“If you want to study Arabic or the Quran, you have to be sponsored by an Islamic school or religious scholar in the Middle East,” said Al-Amriykiy.