If there's one question that needles Walid Shoebat it is, "When did you become a terrorist?" His face tenses and he shifts impatiently in his seat. "All Western journalists ask that," he says. "You're involved the moment you're born."
Shoebat's point is that becoming an Islamic militant does not start with hurling Molotov cocktails. The process starts with childhood indoctrination, with fatherly bedtime stories about the glory of martyrdom and fighting Jews. For Shoebat, "It's not just putting a bomb, it's the willingness to put a bomb."
The importance of ideology is what Shoebat tries to teach Americans now, having himself gone from Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist to pro-Israel Christian. He does that with two other men who converted to Christianity after carrying out Islamic violence. Together, they take the name, the "3 Ex-Terrorists." Their website flashes an explanation: "They don't sing, but they speak the truth."
WORLD interviewed the men on June 21, the day after a high-security Philadelphia event where they discussed Islamic indoctrination taking place on U.S. soil. Their outspokenness against Islam has made them targets of attacks and threats, and only two of the men, Shoebat and Zachariah Anani, made it to Philadelphia. The third, Michigan-raised Ibrahim Abdallah, stayed home after his parents threatened to take away his children if he attended.
The day after, Shoebat and Anani told their stories at a friend's cozy architectural office in downtown Philadelphia while juggling media phone calls and afternoon schedules. As Shoebat paced up and down with his cell phone, answering a radio interviewer, Anani quietly explained how he became a Christian.
Born in 1958, he grew up in Beirut in a family of Muslim clergy and began Islamic school at age 3. Several Palestinian refugee camps surrounded his neighborhood, and when he was 13 he joined a militant Shiite fragment group that received training and arms from one of the camps. He trained with more than 900 boys and fought for four years.
But by his second year in training, Anani said he lost his religious zeal. The pressure will "either create a very zealous, fanatical lunatic, or it turns you only into a fighting, killing machine." He was the latter.
To illustrate, Anani tells the story of an intensely devout Muslim who joined his regiment. At 3 a.m., the recruit knocked on fighters' doors to rouse them for prayers. Do it again, Anani warned the young man, and he would die. The next morning, Anani heard the knock again. Pulling a gun from under his pillow, he aimed the barrel at the area where the recruit's chest would be behind the door, and shot the man. Then he went back to sleep.
The splintered Islamic groups battled each other "99 percent of the time," he said, and he only got to fight Christians in his last year. But if two or three fellow militiamen witnessed a killing, the fighter responsible received one merit point. Anani says he built up 223.
By the time he was 16 he had moved up to troop leader in charge of his own regiment, but he felt hollow. Leaving a Beirut movie theater one day, he stumbled across a street crowd. Thinking it was a fight, he rushed toward it, only to find an American missionary in the middle evangelizing.
He quickly turned to leave, but stopped dead when he heard the preacher say Jesus Christ can give a person life. "Do you believe what you are saying?" he challenged the preacher when he finished talking. He recounted how a girl he fought with died helping a wounded fighter whom Anani had ignored.
He asked: Why did she die when she helped, and I did not? "Why were you the one who survived?" the preacher countered, perhaps suggesting he had been spared for a purpose. The preacher also shared the gospel, and his words rang in Anani's head all night. The next day, he decided to trust in Christ for salvation. Filled with fervor, he quickly told his parents that he was converting to Christianity.
Anani at that time was "180 pounds of muscles" with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. "I thought I was Mr. Incredible," he said. He would soon need to act like a superhero, staving off Muslims out to kill him for apostasy. Anani points to a vertical scar on the back of his neck, just under his hairline. It is the almost fatal knife wound he got from an attacker in 1988. Taken to a Christian hospital, a doctor wrote on his chart, "Dead on arrival seven minutes ago," but decided to keep trying to revive him, eventually succeeding.
"I've been beaten, knifed, shot at, hit with a truck," Anani said, some 15 attacks in the last 30 years. He un-tucks his white shirt and points to a round bullet wound beside his belly button. Peer closely enough at his neck, and you can see a faint white line under his Adam's apple, the scar from a decapitation attempt.
Shoebat has also found that leaving Islam is a dangerous business. Last year, he moved his family after his brother issued a nasty phone call to his wife: "Tell your filthy husband he's been speaking against Islam and we know where you live." The threat came, Shoebat said, after his brother visited and saw a book of his on the Holocaust.
Shoebat was born in Bethlehem in 1960 to an American mother and Jordanian father and joined the PLO at 16. Rioting and stoning Jews were frequent activities. During his first year with the PLO, he and his friends caught an Israeli soldier who they beat until he struggled free: "We're kids and we [were] bashing his head with a nail."
While still 16, Shoebat spent three weeks in Jerusalem's central prison for incitement and violence against Israel. Behind bars, however, he met some hard-boiled militants, including a bomb-maker. Upon his release, Shoebat had a mission to plant a bomb. He carried it concealed in a loaf of bread to the target, an Israeli bank. But losing heart when he saw some Arab children playing nearby where he thought they might be hurt, he tossed the loaf onto the bank's roof, where it exploded but did not wound anyone.
Moving to Chicago to attend Loop College in 1978, Shoebat burrowed deeper into Islamic militancy. He grew disgusted with the fractured Palestinians, opting instead to join the Muslim Brotherhood. "I hated the PLO," he said. "I wanted to unite the Muslim world."
But austere prohibitions, where not even music was allowed, soon wearied him and he drifted into being a secular Muslim. In 1993, when Shoebat was 33, he tried to convert his Roman Catholic wife of one year to Islam. Instead, he is the one who switched religions.
Trying to prove that Jews and Christians had corrupted the Bible, he bought one and began comparing it with the Koran. He began in Genesis, marveling at how the fall of man explained human imperfection, pondering the prophets and wrestling with how an innocent man could die for another's sins. A humble hamburger helped solve that mystery: "This cow is innocent," he pondered as he ate. "It died so I can live." Within a year, he was a Christian and passionately pro-Israel.
Trained as a software engineer, he now runs the Shoebat Foundation, which publicizes his militant past and the way Islamic beliefs about Jews, Christians, and Israel fuel global terrorism. Both Shoebat, who lives in the United States, and Anani, who lives in Canada, receive regular death threats and are careful to protect their families. But they are not about to keep quiet. "We take a very strong stand [as] ex-Muslims that death threats, family threats, loss of land, loss of life does not deter us," said Shoebat. "We have to continue-tomorrow somebody is killed, decapitated: continue. You don't stop. You can't stop."