Siraj Wahhaj was born as Jeffrey Kearse on March 11, 1950 in Brooklyn, New York, where he was raised in the Baptist faith. He studied biology education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.
Wahhaj developed an interest in Islam shortly after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which prompted him to go “looking for more militancy.” He found that militancy in the black separatist movement and became involved with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, under whose mentorship Wahhaj converted to Islam in 1969. Wahhaj was also influenced by such major NOI figures as Elijah Muhammed, Warith Deen Muhammed, and Malcolm X. Under the sway of such individuals, Wahhaj in the early 1970s became a Nation of Islam minister and began promoting a separatist doctrine which held that “white people are devils.” (“I preached it. I taught it,” he now acknowledges.) But before long, Wahhaj became cognizant of NOI’s differences from mainstream Islam, left the organization, and pursued a career as a traditional Sunni Muslim cleric.
Wahhaj claims to have completed his training as a cleric at Umm al Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 1978. But that university was not established until 1981. Prior to that time, it was known as The Colleges of Shari’ah and Education and was a branch of the Jeddah-based King Abdul Aziz University, which was renowned as a hub for young radical terrorists. Indeed, Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, and Wael Jalaidan—all co-founders of al Qaeda—were affiliated with King Abdul Aziz University in the 1970s and early ’80s.
In 1981 Wahhaj founded his own mosque, known as Masjid Al-Taqwa, which initially had a membership of fewer than 25 people and was based inside a friend’s Brooklyn apartment. Today, however, Wahhaj’s large Al-Taqwa mosque is recognized by Muslims all around the world.
On numerous occasions during Masjid Al-Taqwa’s early years, Wahhaj invited Omar Abdel-Rahman, leader of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic Group, to address his (Wahhaj’s) congregation as a guest preacher.
Notwithstanding his ties to King Abdul Aziz University and Omar Abdel-Rahman, Wahhaj, during his first decade as an Imam, managed to cultivate an image as a moderate in the eyes of the American public. As such, in 1991 he was given the honor of being the first Muslim ever to recite an opening prayer before a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives.
That same year, however, Wahhaj, in a speech to the Islamic Association of North Texas, characterized Operation Desert Storm (the U.S.-led military campaign to drive Saddam Hussein‘s invading forces out of Kuwait) as “one of the most diabolical plots ever in the annals of history.” Moreover, he predicted that America would fall unless it “accepts the Islamic agenda.”
“Those who struggle for Allah, it doesn’t matter what kind of weapons [you use], I’m telling you it doesn’t matter! You don’t need nuclear weapons or even guns! If you have faith in Allah and a knife! If Allah wants you to win, you will win! Because Allah is the only one who fights. And when his hand is over your hand, whoever is at war against my friends, I declare war on them…. The Americans are not your friends … The Canadians are not your friends … The Europeans are not your friends. Your friend is Allah, the Messenger and those who believe. These people will never be satisfied with you until you follow their religion …”
Two months later, Wahhaj urged U.S. Muslims to become politically active as a means of augmenting the influence of their faith: “As long as you remember that if you get involved in politics, you have to be very careful that your leader is for Allah. You don’t get involved in politics because it’s the American thing to do. You get involved in politics because politics are a weapon to use in the cause of Islam.”1
In a 1992 sermon, Wahhaj emphasized the importance of jihad to his Al-Taqwa mosque congregation: “I will never ever tell people, ‘don’t be violent, that is not the Islamic way.’ The violence has to be selected…. Islam is the only answer because it is only Islam that we do it for Allah…. [We are] commanded to do jihad…. [W]hen Allah commands us to fight we are not stopping, no one will stop us.”
In an autumn 1992 address to an Islamic gathering in New Jersey, Wahhaj expressed his desire to have Muslims seize control of the United States and replace the country’s constitutional government with an Islamic caliphate. “If we were united and strong,” Wahhaj said, “we’d elect our own emir [leader] and give allegiance to him…. [T]ake my word, if 6-8 million Muslims unite in America, the country will come to us.”
Wahhaj has revisited this theme Islamic dominion over the United States many times over the years. For example, he has said:
Shortly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the U.S. State Department designated Sudan, which had become a safe-haven for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, as a state sponsor of terrorism. In response to that designation, Wahhaj said defiantly:
“May Allah bless Sudan … these are people who want to establish the Shari’ah, establish Quran, and Sunnah, they want to establish the religion and therefore hated by the government of the USA…. I’m not going to make you comfortable because our book, the book we believe in, is not Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People; But it’s the Quran.”
Wahhaj has long supported every facet of Sharia Law, including its call for brutal punishments like the removal of one’s hands as the penalty for theft, and death by stoning as the penalty for adultery. By Wahhaj’s reckoning, such harsh measures are wholly justified by Islamic scripture. As he proclaimed in a May 1992 sermon: “I would cut off the hands of my own daughter [if she stole] because Allah stands for Justice.” On another occasion, Wahhaj said: “If Allah says 100 strikes, 100 strikes it is. If Allah says cut off their hand, you cut off their hand. If Allah says stone them to death, through the Prophet Muhammad, then you stone them to death, because it’s the obedience of Allah and his messenger—nothing personal.”
Wahhaj has been a longtime supporter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that seeks to create a worldwide Islamic caliphate, or kingdom, governed by Sharia Law. In the summer of 1994, Wahhaj attended a Hizb ut-Tahrir conference in London, where Islamists openly called for jihad, denounced democracy, and declared that “the Islamic system is the only alternative for mankind.” Less than a week later, back in the U.S., Wahhaj lauded Hizb ut-Tahrir’s “scholarly brothers” for their “good insight” and “their pushing for the Khilafah [Caliphate].”
In 1995, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White named Wahhaj as a possible co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Soon thereafter, Wahhaj stated during one of his Al-Taqwa sermons, “I’m not frightened by no list, by no government! I thank Allah. I’m honored that they thought enough of me to put me on a list.”3
Moreover, a number of congregants at Wahhaj’s Al-Taqwa mosque were charged and convicted of having provided material support for Islamic terrorists during the period leading up to the World Trade Center bombing of ’93. Wahhaj testified in court on behalf of each of them.
One of those congregants, Clement Rodney Hampton-El (a.k.a. “Dr. Rashid”), was a member of Jamaat al Fuqra, a Black Nationalist organization whose mission is to “purify” Islam through violence.4 Wahhaj, stating that he had known Hampton-El for ten years, called the defendant “one of the most respected brothers” in his entire mosque.
Another Al-Taqwa congregant, Ibrahim El Gabrowny, was a bomb-maker who assisted Islamic Group leader Omar Abdel-Rahman in his terrorism-related pursuits. When U.S. authorities searched El Gabrowny’s home, they found taped messages from his cousin, the terrorist El Sayyid Nosair,5 urging violence and jihad: “Without fighting there will not be justice on earth.… We cannot establish God’s rules on earth except by fighting.” Testifying at El Gabrowny’s trial, Wahhaj voiced flattering admiration for the defendant, who ultimately was sentenced to 57 years in prison.
Yet another noteworthy Al-Taqwa congregant was a diplomat of the Sudanese Mission to the United Nations, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, whom federal authorities described as the “ring leader” of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Ali told an FBI informant that “he ha[d] connections that [would] allow him to drive a car carrying a bomb into a parking lot in the United Nations building.” He also conspired to carry out attacks in Israel and referred to Jews as “sons of monkeys and pigs.” “The sword is to be absolutely used and implemented,” he declared. “This is as a principle.”6 At Ali’s trial, Wahhaj testified about his own favorable impression of the defendant, adding: “We don’t accept the idea of terrorism. Our mosque is open to all, but not to fanatics.” In the end, Ali was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
When Omar Abdel-Rahman was on trial in 1995 for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government, Wahhaj testified as a character witness on the defendant’s behalf. Describing Rahman as a “respected scholar … bold … [and] a strong preacher of Islam,” Wahhaj said that he considered it an honor to have had an opportunity to host Rahman at his mosque.
In February 2001 Wahhaj, along with Ihsan Bagby, founded the Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), an umbrella group for African-American mosques and Islamic centers. Wahhaj went on to serve as the organization’s president, and to this day he sits on its executive committee.
In August and September of 2001, just prior to the 9/11 attacks, Wahhaj was a guest speaker at a “jihad camp” in Pennsylvania, where adult participants took part in paintball practice and learned about the glorious afterlife that awaited Islamic martyrs who died for the cause of their faith. The camp was organized by Safet Abid Catovic, a leader of the Benevolence International Foundation, a “charity” that would be shut down in November 2002 on charges that it had provided funding for al Qaeda.
Soon after the horrors of 9/11, Wahhaj spoke at a convention in Baltimore sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America.
On October 20, 2001, Wahhaj, angered by U.S. government’s post-9/11 efforts to identify and apprehend Islamic extremists, told a meeting of Muslim activists in Houston:
“[T]his [American] government has already sent in[to] every major [mosque], agent provocateurs. Most of you don’t know what that is. All you know is about spies. The government has spies, they have infiltrators. But there’s some difference from being a spy and an agent provocateur. What an agent provocateur does, he goes to a [mosque], he looks just like you. He’s got a beard just like your beard… And their job is to entrap you no different than the prostitute, the police women dressed as a prostitute, whereas he’s coming to the [mosque], dressed as a Muslim.”
With similar derision, Wahhaj has referred to the FBI and CIA as the “real terrorists” whom Americans—particularly Muslim Americans—should fear.
In June 2004 Wahhaj spoke at an event titled “Next Generation Muslims—Education & Survival,” which was organized by the Universal Heritage Foundation, a Florida-based outpost of Islamism and anti-Semitism.
At a 2005 Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) banquet in Georgia, Wahhaj expressed support and sympathy for Rafik Abdus Sabir and Tarik Shah, terror operatives who had recently been indicted for plotting to open an al Qaeda training camp in the United States. Both Sabir (a medical doctor who had pledged to fly to Saudi Arabia to provide medical aid and training for al Qaeda terrorists) and Shah (the son of a former Malcolm X aide who was himself associated with the Nation of Islam) had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
In August 2006 Wahhaj was a guest speaker at an event organized by Young Muslims, where he shared the stage with Mazen Mokhtarm, youth director for the Muslim American Society‘s New Jersey chapter. Mokhtarm has referred to the terrorist group Hamas as a “heroic” organization.
Wahhaj was one of the six Islamic clerics who were involved in the infamous “Flying Imams” controversy of November 21, 2006. Having just attended a conference of the North American Imams Federation in Minneapolis, Wahhaj and five fellow Imams were among the passengers waiting to board US Airways Flight 300, which was scheduled to fly from Minneapolis to Phoenix. Shortly before boarding, a number of passengers in the airport terminal heard the Imams making anti-American comments vis à vis the Iraq War, and praying loudly (with repeated chants of “Allah, Allah, Allah”). Then, when the Imams boarded the flight, they sat in separate sections of the plane; some of them asked for seat-belt extensions (which the flight attendants thought the Imams did not need). When a number of passengers expressed alarm regarding the Imams’ behavior (and concern that the seat-belt extensions might be used as weapons), authorities required the Imams to deboard the plane prior to takeoff. Wahhaj and his cohorts subsequently depicted themselves as victims of “Islamophobia.”
Over the course of his career as a religious leader, Wahhaj has held numerous prestigious and influential posts. He has served as a board of advisors member of the American Muslim Council; a national board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); vice president of the Islamic Society of North America; a member of the Majlis al Shura, a consultative council of Islamic scholars; executive committee chairman of the Muslim Alliance of North America; a board of trustees member of the North American Imams Federation; and a board of advisors member of the North American Islamic Trust (1989-1993).
Since the early 2000s, Wahhaj has been the designated fundraiser at many CAIR banquets. In that role, he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization.7 In October 2009, Wahhaj was a featured speaker at CAIR’s 15th anniversary celebration in Washington, DC. A noteworthy fellow speaker at that event was Jesse Jackson.
In August 2018, Wahhaj’s son, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, was arrested after law-enforcement authorities, in a raid of a New Mexico property that he owned, found 11 kidnapped children as well as evidence that one boy had been murdered there; the authorities said that the land was being used as a “training ground” for school shootings and terrorist attacks. In May 2019, the FBI uncovered yet another terrorist training camp on land owned by the younger Wahhaj, this time a “makeshift military-style obstacle course” in Macon County, Alabama.
Islam scholar Stephen Schwartz has said the following about Wahhaj:
1 Audio, Siraj Wahhaj, “The Muslim Agenda in the New World Order,” Islamic Association of Northern Texas, Dallas, TX, November, 15, 1991.
2 Paul M. Barrett, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), p. 115.
3 Siraj Wahhaj, “Who are the Real Terrorists?” Jumu’ah Khuttbah, Masjid At Taqwah, February 17, 1995.
4 Jerry Seper and Steve Miller, “Militant Muslims seek Virginia base; Group Abandons Communes in West,” The Washington Times (July 1, 2002), p. A1.
5 Nosair was convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He was also tried for, but not convicted of, the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.
6 Steven Emerson, Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America, DVD, Ventura Distribution, 2001.
7 For Example: CAIR Fundraiser, Vienna, Virginia, October 7, 2001; CAIR Fundraiser, Orange County, California, October 19, 2002; CAIR Fundraiser, Anaheim, California, October 4, 2003; CAIR- Fundraiser Southern California, October 9, 2004; CAIR-San Jose Fundraiser 11.7.10; CAIR Fundraiser – Orange County, California, 10.30.10; CAIR–Anaheim, 11.1.08; CAIR Fundraiser – Anaheim, 11.10.07; CAIR Fundraiser, 11.18.06; CAIR-San Francisco 9.17.06; CAIR New York Fundraiser, July 7, 2008; CAIR San Diego, 1st Annual Fundraising Banquet, September 17, 2006.