Ujaama's conversion: A passion for business, then zealotry for Islam
Seattle Times staff reporters
His message was simple: Stay off drugs, stay out of gangs and find a service to sell.
Ujaama was a charismatic young man planted firmly in the mainstream of American capitalism. He had a knack for inspiring kids and raising money for worthy causes. His work in Seattle's Central Area earned him the support and admiration of community leaders.
"He was the best and the brightest — articulate and committed," said Norwood Brooks, a former Seattle comptroller who now heads the Seattle Vocational Institute.
Today, Ujaama is in federal custody as a material witness in an investigation of terrorism. The investigation has produced a starkly different image of this man a decade later: A zealous Islamic convert sharply critical of the United States. A follower of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a London-based militant cleric who supports Osama bin Laden. A expatriate outraged by what he calls the genocide and "acts of terrorism" committed by America's leaders against the world's Muslims.
And a man suspected by the FBI of working in support of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Ujaama denies any ties to terrorism. In an e-mail to a Seattle newspaper columnist, he dismissed the federal investigation as a "fascist witch-hunt."
Friends and supporters of Ujaama express profound distrust of a Justice Department that has engaged in roundups of terrorism suspects and has cloaked many of its proceedings in secrecy. They point out that speaking out against U.S. foreign policy is not a crime.
The Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is monitoring Ujaama's case and may take the case to its national office if "there is the slightest inference that justice and due process is not being served," said local president Oscar Eason.
The FBI investigation centers on Ujaama's life in recent years — years that to many Seattle acquaintances are largely a mystery.
Some friends and family members say that in his conversion to Islam, sometime around 1997, Ujaama found new purpose and direction, turning to the Muslim religion with the same passion with which he has embraced boot-straps capitalism.
Ujaama, born James Earnest Thompson in 1965 in Denver, grew up in Seattle's Central Area. His mother, Peggi Thompson, was a social worker who worked at the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), where young James spent many hours bagging groceries for the food bank. "He was extremely personable, and very curious and socially conscious," said King County Councilman Larry Gossett, who worked at CAMP.
By the age of 14, Ujaama had already started his first business, a home-maintenance company. He attended Ingraham High School and spent two years at the University of Washington.
In his early 20s, he bought a small computer store in the University District and sold it six months later for a $6,000 profit. He then began a campaign to help other young people enter business, using a "Be Your Own Boss" slogan. He invested $1,500 in T-shirts, buttons and sweatshirts that bore the slogan.
He wrote a book, "The Young People's Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs." In the foreword, he wrote, "When a person lacks knowledge and vision, that person becomes a soldier in the wrong war, an enemy to others and to themselves." He began to make a name as a motivational speaker. Through much of 1993, he taught a class at Seattle Vocational Institute funded by a grant from the city of Seattle.
Portia Carter, his supervisor at the time, said Ujaama "made kids think big, and have big plans."
Ujaama's younger brother, Jon Thompson, was first in the family to embrace Islam. Now known as Mustafa Ujaama, he converted while in the military, according to friends and relatives. James, who by then was apparently moving between Seattle and Denver, followed.
The brothers attended a small mosque — known by local Muslims as a prayer center — that occupied two storefront locations, under two different names, on the 2200 block of Union Street. The mosque drew a potpourri of worshippers — black and white American converts and Muslim immigrants from Somali, Gambia and other nations.
Some of the activities of this mosque have come under scrutiny by the FBI and a Seattle-based federal grand jury. They are examining allegations that James Ujaama and possibly several other mosque members helped scout a ranch in southern Oregon as a potential training camp for Islamic terrorists.
One of the mosque's former leaders, Semi Osman, lived on the Bly, Ore., ranch in the fall of 1999. He has been charged with immigration and weapons violations and is under pressure from prosecutors to cooperate in the terrorism investigation.
In the Central Area, however, the Union Street center — known first as Dar-us-Salaam and then as Masjid al Taqwa — earned praise for improving a tough block frequented by drug dealers.
"They were good tenants, good guys, and did a lot to clean up the neighborhood," said Tom Bangasser, a partner in a real-estate group that leased the mosque building.
Some people, including members of the mosque, thought the patrolling went too far. Some members were armed and took it upon themselves to enforce Islamic law by physically confronting Muslims in violation.
"They were drifting off and being corrupted, using drugs, chasing women," said Abdul Hakim, an African-American Muslim convert. "We saw to it to set them straight. That was our job."
In November 1998, according to a Seattle police report, a Somali man said he was pistol-whipped by a member of the mosque at a nearby pool hall. The man suffered a broken nose, but no charges were filed because the man left the area after reportedly being threatened.
"It's true that some people believe African-Americans are extreme in the way we practice Islam," Hakim said. "But that's because many of us were saved by it."
In recent years, Ujaama has often been in London, returning occasionally to Seattle and Denver. He has a son in Seattle and a wife and child in London.
Visiting family in Denver, he often talked about religion, said his aunt, Diane Jones, "almost to the point of being a fanatic." He marked up Bibles, pointing out what he called errors, and asked his family to convert to Islam.
On one visit to Seattle, he ran into trouble. In December 1999, Ujaama was arrested and charged with shoplifting a videocassette recorder from a Wal-Mart store in Renton. He failed to appear in court, and a warrant for his arrest remains active.
In his e-mail to Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr., Ujaama said he was a victim of "harassment and racial profiling" in the incident.
In London, Ujaama attended Abu Hamza's North London Central Mosque, a vortex of radical Islam in Europe. Over the years, he acquired skill with computers, including building Web pages — a skill Abu Hamza says was put to use setting up a Web site for the London mosque.
Within the past year, Ujaama launched a Web site called Stopamerica.org, which advocates opposition to American foreign policy. The site features grisly photos of children alleged to have been maimed by U.S. attacks in Muslim nations.
"We want the killing to end and American foreign policy makers brought to justice," it states. "The destruction of America's World Trade Center and attack on its war room has been described as the greatest act of terrorism by many and an act of heroism by others."
In his e-mail to Jamieson, Ujaama said: "This is surely a runaway government administration that I strongly believe knew about the events of September 11 prior to the attack on New York, and refused to intervene in lieu of economic and political gains."
What lies ahead for Ujaama, in detention in Denver, remains unclear. He has not been charged with any crime. But in his e-mail, he seems prepared for tough times in what he called a "bogus investigation."
"If my brother and I end up being indicted or jailed," he wrote, "we will understand that many famous and great leaders before us suffered the same consequences."
Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Kelleher and the Denver Post contributed to this report.
Information in this article, originally published July 24, was corrected July 25. The book written by James Ujaama is titled Young Peoples Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs. In an earlier version of this story the title was incorrectly reported as The Young Peoples Guide to Starting a Business Without Starting Drugs.