McLEAN, Va. – Randall Royer grew up in the Midwest, a suburban St. Louis kid. By the time he was 21, he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Ismail Royer, fighting in Bosnia alongside fellow Muslims against Serbian ethnic cleansing.
By the time he was 31, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping friends who wanted to join the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now age 44 and out of prison, he remembers Bosnia as both a highlight of his life and the place that launched him on a disastrous path.
"There was so much meaning and purpose in what I was doing," he said of the Bosnian war. "I spent so much time trying to recapture that feeling of Bosnia. It never came back."
He remembers with pride the gratitude expressed by the Bosnian families whose homes he defended and says the war is one of those rare conflicts where there was a clear good guy and bad guy.
Royer's search for the next Bosnia led him to Pakistan, where he joined the fight over Kashmir — a conflict that he said he viewed with ambivalence. Eventually, he came back to the U.S. and served as a spokesman for some of the nation's most prominent Muslim civil rights groups.
Royer was one of about a dozen young Muslims from the D.C. area who played paintball in the northern Virginia woods as a means of preparing for holy war. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a few members of the group traveled to Pakistan, and with Royer's help, got in touch with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taibi. Royer's friends' ultimate goal was to join the Taliban and help fight U.S. soldiers.
Royer pleaded guilty in 2004 to aiding and abetting use of a firearm in a crime of violence and aiding and abetting the carrying of an explosive.
He was never convicted of a terrorism-related charge — a distinction that is significant to Royer.
"When I look back at myself, I don't see myself as an extremist," he said. "I see myself as being naive, romantic, a Don Quixote kind of guy."
He points out that he has a long history of speaking out against al-Qaida, and he is equally critical of the Islamic State, which is now responsible for motivating and recruiting most of the lone-wolf terrorists who have popped up in the U.S.
Michael Jensen, a researcher with the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said he also sees a difference between Royer and the more modern iteration of Islamic extremists. He said Royer was drawn to localized conflicts like Bosnia and Kashmir, as opposed to the global jihadist vision espoused by al-Qaida or the Islamic State.
Royer said what drew him to Islam in the first place was his view that it could be a vehicle for social justice. In the Muslim world, though, he said a quest for social justice gets twisted into a sense of victimization and even a persecution complex.
"If you're constantly blaming other people, you'll never change," he said.
Tariq Nelson, a friend of Royer for more than 20 years, said Royer's desire to right wrongs on a global scale ultimately led him down the wrong path.
"He was an idealist who got caught — they all got in over their heads," Nelson said. "To an outsider it sounds strange. Nobody wanted to be a terrorist. In fact they were anti-terrorist."
When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Royer said his Muslim identity led him to struggle with the question of whether being an American and Muslim were compatible.
An Islamic scholar from northern Virginia, Ali Al-Timimi, advised the paintball group in the days after Sept. 11 that an apocalyptic clash of Muslim and Western civilizations was approaching, and that Muslim men should "go be with the mujahedeen." It helped prompt Royer to return to Bosnia, and it prompted others in the group to seek Royer's help in joining Lashkar.
In hindsight, Royer said, it was "colossally bad advice." Al-Timimi was convicted of soliciting treason and sentenced to life in prison.
While Royer was behind bars, he continued to do what he had always done. He debated philosophy and theology, and often found himself as the advocate for moderation and tolerance.
He said he carried on debates with some of the most notorious criminals, including al-Qaida "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, passing notes from cell to cell because prisoners in his unit were kept in isolation.
He plans to publish his correspondence with Reid, and wants to be a voice against Islamic extremism. He is learning social media and this week spoke to students at the University of Southern California about pathways to extremism.
He figures that if he can get through to hardened criminals, he can get through to others.
"I think I was getting somewhere with Richard Reid," he said.