On today’s show, our colleagues Kate Trinko and Daniel Davis interview Mohammed Khalid, who made the record books as the youngest person in the U.S. to be prosecuted for terrorism. Khalid now is an activist who fights Islamist extremism. Stay tuned for his story.

We also cover these stories:

  • A suspect armed with what police say were two large “machete knives” goes on a stabbing spree Wednesday in Southern California.
  • Some customers of Equinox Fitness and SoulCycle call for boycotting the companies over the owner’s plan to hold a fundraiser for President Donald Trump.
  • Universal Pictures pulls ads for a new movie that shows billionaires hunting “deplorables” for sport.

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Kate Trinko: Joining us today is Mohammed Khalid, an activist against Islamist extremism. He just spoke at The Heritage Foundation at a panel, and he’s joining us in studio. Thanks for being here.

Mohammed Khalid: Thank you for having me.

Trinko: Okay. So first off, you actually made … This is a weird way to phrase it, but you actually made the record books as the youngest person in the U.S. prosecuted for terrorism charges.

With that background, when did you first come to the U.S. from Pakistan, and what were your impressions of the U.S.? What did you think of it?

Khalid: I came to the United States in late 2007 with my mom and my siblings. We finally joined our dad who kind of sponsored us to come in to the country.

By first beginning impressions of the country, were this dreamland, that magical kingdom like Hogwarts where it feels like Narnia, because that’s all I was exposed to in Pakistan. And these are movies.

And, of course, the media representation of the United States was the only thing that I was familiar with. So that’s what I was hoping to find when I first came to the United States.

Trinko: And how old were you?

Khalid: I was about 13 years old at that point.

Trinko: And when you first came, I mean, I can’t imagine moving at 13. Did the reality turn out to be as magical as you thought it would be?

Khalid: No, no. It wasn’t. I began to see the United States as a very … Of course, it was a very developed place, for sure. But at the same time, I think there was not that much emphasis on the community mindset that I kind of had in Pakistan because everyone kind of knew each other, I think.

So just navigating this very seclusive, isolated, individual environment was kind of difficult for me to kind of process. But slowly but surely I think I was able to, when I enrolled in high school and began to talk with people, I was able to make some sense of maybe the society being a little bit different and my ability to kind of reconcile that. But I wasn’t sure how that would have gone.

Daniel Davis: So at what point did you become interested in the world of Islamist extremism, and how did that transition come about?

Khalid: So in high school I was subject to a lot of bullying and taunts because my first name is Mohammad and I happened to be … A lot of students would just jokingly refer to us name of terrorism. And I kind of wanted to know more answers to that, why people were kind of associating my name with terrorists.

So I just went online, began some YouTube searches about meaning of religious identity and religious ideology. One thing led to another. I started watching YouTube videos that would portray the West in a civilizational struggle against Islam and Muslims in general. And that is where I met online extremists who kind of made sense to my personal journey.

Davis: And did you have a devout Muslim background coming into that?

Khalid: I was born a Muslim, so I did memorize a few chapters of the Quran. I had never really read the religious teachings or the religious aspect of religion itself. That happened afterwards. And the meaning of religion and the meaning of religious phrases and texts definitely happened after when I began my searches online on YouTube.

Trinko: So what online really spoke to you? What resonated from the extremists?

Khalid: The portrayal of or the depiction of the world as two, in two divides, like this black and white world. I think that kind of spoke to me and that kind of made sense in the way what was happening to me.

A lot of content struggle that I faced in high school were, I mean, they were isolated, but they were also kind of directed towards me personally. So I kind of felt that I needed to understand what was happening to me.

In that understanding, I began watching YouTube videos that kind of portrayed bombings and these killings that were, according to the videos, being done by the United States against Muslims in general, drone strikes, for example, and all these air attacks.

I began to see that as reality. I began to see that as something that was actually happening in the world. And that spoke to me about our role as Muslims to kind of speak up and even advocate against those kind of things. And that’s where online extremists kind of came in and swooped in, and they introduced me to Islamist ideology.

Davis: And were you keeping that kind of secret? Or were you talking about it with your family and your friends?

Khalid: Oh, this was definitely something that was not known to my parents at all, even my friends. I did not speak to anyone in high school about it. I did not speak to my own parents. My family was not aware what was happening to me.

And, I mean, people online were just my brother and sisters. So they were just more than friends to me. And eventually that became part of my larger family, and I dissociated myself from my own family.

So sitting in my basement in my family’s house, not talking to my own parents, not talking to my own siblings, but just going online, spending hours upon hours talking to these people and trying to make sense of the world and the twisted ideology that it was part of.

Trinko: And obviously this was a hypothetical, but do you think if your high school experience had been different, if there hadn’t been bullying, do you think you still would have fallen into this online world or not?

Khalid: I think I would not have had the motive if I was not bullied in high school to kind of know or learn more about the meaning of religion itself. It’s very possible that things would have turned out differently because I would not have the motivation or the instigation to explore more about religion because, of course, there would be taunts at that point.

But I think the presence of online extremists is just so monumental in terms of what they join, in terms of their inspiration. I think it’s very hard to escape from it if you’re trying to look for the meaning of religion and religious components, especially when it comes to Islam.

Davis: So you said you got warnings from the FBI about your online activity. Tell us about that.

Khalid: Sure. So the FBI kind of became interested with me as I went more into deep web area, and I began to cruise online extremist forums that were password protected.

A lot of my activities were not known, or they were not visible in the public. So the FBI kind of wanted to know more about my interactions of people I was communicating with and what I was saying and how those communications were and the nature of those communications. We had a lot of individual private meetings back and forth prior to my arrest.

Trinko: And I guess I’m just thinking I’m a very rule-follower type of person. I would be completely freaked out if I was on the FBI’s radar. Did you ever have moment where you thought, “Maybe I should backtrack now?” What were you thinking during those meetings?

Khalid: Right. Right. So I did not really think of the FBI as something that was serious threat to be taken into because, again, I was about 14 or 15 years old at that point. So still new to the country, still reconciling my place in the country, and not knowing what institutions are actually part of, which ones to take seriously, which ones to not.

But the FBI, I just saw them as part of the other as some … these people who had to be … whom I had to get off my back because they were just interested in something that I would have to tell them the answers to, but I would not have to take them as seriously as they should have.

I mean, of course I realize, I guess, the biggest reality came crashing down upon me on the day of my arrest when I actually found out there will be consequences for what I’m doing.

And throughout my time in prison, I mean, that definitely gave me, I guess, the light in terms of knowing, “Well, the FBI was not kidding around when it came to my extremism or when it came to dissuading me from the path.” Because they had warned there may be consequences, but I just did not take them seriously.

Trinko: And did the FBI contact your parents or tell them about this?

Khalid: Correct. The FBI did come to my house in front of my parents. They would not tell my parents what the meetings between them and me were about. Mostly also because I did ask them not to tell my parents, so they respected that for some reason.

But we would just go to a isolated room or we would just go to different areas like restaurants, for example, and just talk about whatever they would want to know and they would kind of talk to me about my life and what I was doing online mostly.

Davis: So tell us about your actual arrest and the trial that came after that.

Khalid: So a day after Independence Day on 2011, so July 5 is when I was arrested, I lost my independence on that day. I was taken to a juvenile facility and tried as an adult and charged with one count of conspiracy to provide material in support of a terrorist. And I faced up to 15 years behind bars.

Davis: And you were how old?

Khalid: At that point I was 17 years old.

Davis: Wow.

Khalid: So I was tried as an adult, sentenced five years, and then after serving those five years I was transferred to immigration custody where a protracted legal battle over my citizenship ensued.

After some proceedings I was finally released under supervision subject to three years of probation. And that was finalized and that was finished. Very recently I obtained my U.S. citizenship after the legal fight was won.

Trinko: And what was the terrorism plot that you were charged in conjunction with? What was it about?

Khalid: So the plot was, it was a very famous plot with a woman best named by … Jihad Jane. Her name was Colleen LaRose. The plot was to kill a Swedish cartoonist … Was it Danish? Danish or Swedish. I forgot. But his name was Lars Vilks.

He had drawn characters of prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found offensive at that point. The plan was to kind of eliminate him or kill him. So did recruit people from the United States as well as Europe to travel to Europe and partake in also this organized group that another individual by the name of Black Flag had aspired to create. And he wanted us to kind of be part of that.

So I kind of sent out questionnaires. I was only involved in translated jihadist propaganda. So I just took that a step further and received some materials from Colleen LaRose. And that I forwarded to her while she was actually traveling in Europe. So that was the actual nature of the crime.

Trinko: Was there ever a moment when you were planning it where you thought, ” … We’re trying to kill a man here, and am I really OK with that?” I just would love to understand more of your thinking at that time.

Khalid: So at that point, I think I tended to be very stubborn in my actions. … At the same time, I was also a juvenile. So I don’t think I completely understood what the consequences of my actions could have been. A lot of it was aspirational instead of on the field or stuff could have potentially happened.

But I do realize and I do understand that it was something that was serious. It could have potentially killed this innocent person. But … hindsight is always 20/20, right? At this point, I mean, yes, it was wrong for me to do, but at that point I did not really see it as something that could have even … At least I did not take it as seriously as I should have at that point.

Trinko: Did you ever think about his family or his friends?

Khalid: I did not, no. Because in this “us versus them” world that Islamist ideology is a part of, you forget about families and friends. You don’t look at the other person as a human being. It’s just part of the enemies. But either they’re with us or they’re against us.

Davis: So when you were in prison you started to change your mind about Islamist extremism. How did that come about?

Khalid: I was actually encouraged to speak about my life, about my journey by correctional officers in the juvenile facility themselves. So they wanted to understand what had happened to me and what my thoughts were.

I was a recluse. I did not want to talk to them. But they kept on insisting. And eventually to start the conversation they began expressing about their lives, their dreams, and their hopes, and their struggles. And that’s something that kind of really made sense to me personally in terms of that humanization aspect that was missing from my life.

So I did open up to them, and that was the beginning of my de-radicalization process, basically.

So they actually encouraged me to read an English copy of the Quran, which I did for the first time. And I finally was able to disavow my beliefs and my views. It was not a easy thing to do, of course. It took a lot of self-reflection. But they definitely put me on that path by just humanizing.

Davis: And was that because your just reading of the Quran led you away from this extremism? You felt like that was a fair reading of the Quran?

Khalid: Yes. I think there’s a lot of … cherry-picked words that are actually used by extremists. It happens in every single form of extremism, but especially like Islamist extremism I think that there’s a tendency to cherry pick verses of the Quran and use that as a part of propaganda strategy, [which] was something that I was involved in.

But reading the Quran in its context I think definitely made sense. And the humanization part which kind of spoke to the spiritual side of religion for me kind of definitely helped me move on from that black and white mindset that I had.

Trinko: And are you a practicing Muslim right now?

Khalid: I am.

Trinko: And what does your faith mean to you?

Khalid: I think faith is, it’s a guiding post. I don’t think it’s an end all towards everything. I think we all are believers in something. I mean, no one does not believe in anything. But at the same time I think a lot of times some people have a tendency to just use faith as this end all thing that kind of, I guess, that kind of just separates them from the reality of what they are in, I guess, if that makes sense.

So the spiritual side kind of focuses more on the connections, more focuses on what we have common [with] other people. But I think a lot of times that religious side is kind of just narrowed down in its interpretations to kind of be this part of these extremes that you can be part of. Either we all go to heaven or the disbelievers go all in hell.

I like the thing we all will have our judgment with God, which is, I think, what Islam kind of speaks about. It speaks more about we all are going to have our reward with God in whatever form he is.

Davis: So there’s a debate here in U.S. about assimilation and whether we have an assimilation problem. What’s your take on that?

Khalid: I think the issue is more about integration. I don’t like the word “assimilation.” I think the issue’s more about integration with the society. And I think that’s a debate that’s happening within the Muslim communities in terms of how far they want the Muslim identity to be part of the American identity.

In the conference today, we spoke about the African American Muslim identity and how there’s a lot of initiatives on that aspect already. I think that could be branched out to other cultural groups, so whether they’re Arabs, whether they’re Hispanic, or whether they’re African American, I mean, a lot of groups can kind of work together in terms of developing and enhancing their American Muslim identity while being part in this country that is the greatest country in the world, in my opinion.

Trinko: Now, to return to your conversion as it were to not being an extremist, it sounds like it happened really suddenly. And I believe you mentioned at The Heritage Foundation panel that you also discovered, I believe, that you were diagnosed with Asperger’s. Is that correct?

Mohammad: Correct.

Trinko: And did that play a role? Did you understand yourself differently?

Khalid: Yes. Having a Asperger’s diagnosis helped me understand why I was so socially recluse in high school, why I was not willing to confide in other people or even talk to people.

It also made sense in the sense of letting me know why I was focusing so much on the internet and not on the human side of things.

So just knowing that had the characteristics of a disorder but also using my weaknesses as a form of strength in terms of forcing myself to get to know people, whether they were prisoners or the staff members behind bars, which is the only thing I could have done at that point, I think it was meaningful and very instrumental in helping me shape my worldview and my viewpoint.

It’s easy to imagine that change being so sudden … But there was a lot of internal struggle within me that I had to reconcile and that I had to finally make a decision if this is the path that I want to take and what are the consequences for that path are, whether they are going to be receptive to something that I want to live the rest of my life with, if that makes sense.

Trinko: Yeah. Was it something that happened over months, over years? Were there times where you were like, … “I think I’m going to be less extremist,” but then you would swing back and be like, “No, I miss the black and white thinking. This isn’t the way to go.”?

Khalid: I think it definitely happened over the course of a couple of months. It didn’t happen just in a few days. But it definitely, speaking with the correctional counselors in the juvenile facility in which I was incarcerated for a couple of months. And then just continuing that conversation with other officers and other prisoners when I was in bureau prison custody in a adult institution, I think led me on a path to finally renounce my views and understand the world as more than just being black and white.

I like to say that the world became more colorful for me while I was behind bars, which is unfortunate. But I do fully believe that I needed the reality of prison to come to terms with my actions.

Davis: What advice would you give to Americans who are not Muslim, engaging with Muslims in a way that encourages people away from extremism? What can non-Muslims do?

Khalid: I think a lot of times, non-Muslims and Muslims do have the possibility of working together on a lot of interfaith issues, I believe. Because a lot of times Islamist ideology kind of capitalizes on this “us versus them” divide, just portioning everyone who’s not part of the Muslim faith as just someone who’s just part of the other.

So understanding the person behind that other label, understanding whether they’re Jews, Christians, atheists, agnostics, whoever they are and just communicating with them on a human level, just sharing about something as personal as what some biggest struggle that you faced or some biggest challenge that you dealt with can be very meaningful to someone who happens to be Muslim and who’s also reconciling their place in this country.

It is difficult. I think sometimes to be a Muslim in an atmosphere that’s polarized, there’s a lot of attacks or bigotry sometimes directed against Muslims. But I think in the end it’s about balance and bringing out the ideals of the American dream that I think we all aspire towards.

Trinko: And you were radicalized at a very young age. And it just seems like we talk a lot in this country about sort of the crisis of young men and being troubled and looking for meaning. It connects with all sorts of issues from extremism to not finding jobs, etc.

I’m curious just because of what you’ve been saying if you’re familiar with Jordan Peterson, and if you have any thoughts on what he has to say.

And also, what would sort of be your advice to parents of young male teenagers who seem troubled, and can they monitor their online activities? What in retrospect would you say?

Khalid: I think, in a way, all of us are looking for a meaning, sense of a purpose, and belonging in this world. And I think being a young person, you’re in a particular spot to develop your identity, develop your place in the world and how you relate to the world.

I went wrong in that case, right? I did not find the right company and the right community in which I could be a part of and contribute to the community.

Instead, I became a part of the extremist circles and proliferated and propagated in extremist ideology. I think a lot of times if you have the necessary guidance, whether it’s from our parents or even … Not just our parents, but also our teachers and our people who go with us to school or go with us to our legislatures.

I mean, if it’s just a basic conversation about life, just getting to know the other person, also getting to know the person beyond that culture, right? Not just, for example, I’m Pakistani. So not just a person [who is] Pakistani but also a person who may have happened to be from Spain or who may happen to be from Australia. Just connecting what makes us more human, I guess, definitely helps in that understanding of the world as more inclusive and more diverse than just being secluded to your own culture and having that identity within the same religious circle that it may not be. Does that make sense?

Trinko: It does. And do you have any thoughts on Jordan Peterson?

Khalid: I’ve heard a few talks about Jordan Peterson, but I have not really.

Trinko: Some of the stuff he says just seems to be relevant to what you’re saying. So if you ever read him, let me know.

Khalid: OK.

Davis: All right, Mohammed Khalid, thanks so much for your time and for sharing your story here.

Khalid: Thank you for having me.

Trinko: And thank you for being so honest. I know we asked you a lot of probing questions.

Khalid: Of course.

>>> Related: Former Islamist Extremist Describes His Escape From the Ideology