American Jihadist (2010) – By Cary Conley

The tagline for this 1-hour documentary reads, "What makes a man willing to kill and die for God?" This film is an exploration for an answer that may–or may not–be hard to come by. Isa Abdullah Ali was born a poor African-American boy in one of the roughest sections of Washington, DC. Born Clevin Holt, his childhood wasn’t the most stable. While he never claimed to be a victim of abuse, at least two of his sisters claim they were sexually abused by an alcoholic father who then left the struggling family on their own.

Clevin learned at a young age that violence equaled power in his neighborhood. Bullied and beat up time and time again–one family portrait clearly shows a young Holt with a black eye–he tells the story of the day he fought back, taking on two thugs at once. "I was never bothered again," he says. Growing up nearly destitute as well as disenfranchised, he joined the Army at 15 to fight in Vietnam. His brief stay in the military was marred by a riot on an army base in South Korea where one soldier was killed. During the ensuing investigation–Holt was suspected of murder, but never indicted–it was discovered that Holt was not 18 and he was sent back to Washington, DC, but not before receiving plenty of military training. It was during this time that Holt learned about Islam, converting to the faith and changing his name. Ali then spent most of his adult life as a jihadist, traveling around the world and fighting for those who he felt needed support. From Beirut, Lebanon, in the early eighties to Afghanistan during the Russian occupation, and finally to Bosnia and Herzogovina in the early nineties, Ali was there to not only fight but also to train young Muslims in the art of war.

American Jihadist is a study of Ali and how he morphed from a disenfranchised black youth to a respected Muslim warrior and suspected terrorist by the FBI and CIA. His story is an interesting one; from the DC ghettoes to the Bosnian civil war, we hear from a man who stopped counting his kills after 170+ but is also a family man who is married with three children and living happily in Bosnia. We hear how violence shaped his life, from the early beatings by a gang in DC to his victorious fight against two of the thugs. He describes the feeling of power he had while slamming one bully’s face into the wall as well as the first time he pulled the trigger of a gun. While he claims to love peace and hate no one regardless of race or religion, he doesn’t hesitate to join a fight when the underdog is being persecuted. Indeed, Ali does seem to be living a rather idyllic life of peace in Bosnia, a place he dearly loves and never plans to leave. He loves his Muslim wife (and former Bosnian soldier he met when he trained her unit 15 years ago) as well as his young children.

The last few minutes of the film show Ali with his family as he talks of the peace and happiness he has found. There are shots of him walking with his two oldest children, playfully squirting water at them when they are hot and thirsty, playing video games with his young son, and holding his newborn infant as the family leaves their apartment. Other shots show Ali with his Bosnian friends, shaking hands and giving out high fives. It seems Ali has finally found true peace and has left the violence in the distant past. But in this expose that explores how someone is transformed into one who seeks out war, the closing shots may be the most telling. Director Mark Claywell is interviewing Ali’s young son and asks him who he wants to be like when he grows up. The boy replies, "Like Bruce Lee."

"Does your daddy teach you to defend yourself?"


Then: "What do you want to be when you grow up, when you’re a big man?"



"I can lock somebody up….or shoot somebody."

And finally: "Do you ever play ‘war’ or ‘army’?"

"I play war games."

"Is it fun?

"Yeah! To kill somebody," the boy says, with a huge grin on his face.

And so the cycle of violence continues. So while Ali professes his tolerance of all peoples and cultures, he is teaching his son hatred and violence, instilling deep within the impressionable youngster that same mistrust that Holt developed a lifetime ago and half a world away.

This interesting documentary is being released on Breaking Glass Pictures’ Vicious Circle label. Selected to well over a dozen film festivals and winner of two awards for best documentary, American Jihadist hits the stores on April 5. For more information, go to or