The Conversion of James "Youssef" Yee
October 2003

Commentary by Rick Francona

Chaplain Yusif YeeArmy Chaplain (Captain) James Yee was arrested September 10 in Florida on charges of espionage and possibly treason.  Yee, 35, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, converted to Islam in 1991 after conversations with Egyptian officers attending training in the United States.  He was assigned to Saudi Arabia following the end of the Gulf War.  After resigning his commission around 1995, he enrolled in the Abu Nur Islamic center in Damascus, Syria for four years to study the Arabic language and Islam. The Abu Nur center is headed by Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaru, the grand mufti of Syria and a cleric known for his nonmilitant teachings.  In 1993, while he was on active duty, the Royal Saudi Air Force provided Yee funded a trip to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage, or haj.  In 1999, Yee returned to the United States from Syria and was re-commissioned in the U.S. Army as Muslim chaplain, serving at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington.  In November 2002, he was assigned to Camp Delta at Guantanamo to provide religious counsel to the Muslim detainees.  

Yee's story is not new, nor surprising.  Members of the American military were targeted by Saudis in 1990 and 1991 - these efforts likely continue today.  During Operations Desert Shield (the defense of Saudi Arabia) in 1990 and Desert Storm (the liberation of Kuwait) in 1991, there was a well-funded and orchestrated effort sponsored by the Saudi government to convert as many American military members as possible to Islam. 

The primary targets of this conversion effort were American military members stationed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh at major coalition headquarters.  The Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) was also the headquarters of United States Central Command – General Schwarzkopf’s staff.  The Royal Saudi Air Force headquarters was also the headquarters of Air Forces, Central Command (CENTAF) – the primary architects of the air war.  On the same street was the headquarters of the Royal Saudi Land Forces, shared by the US Army, Central Command (ARCENT).  These headquarters, filled with hundreds of American military personnel, were “target-rich” environments for Saudi religious conversion efforts.  It was impossible to enter any of these facilities without encountering a prominent display of Islamic literature, while all signs of other religions – including impromptu Christmas decorations - were strictly prohibited.

Saudi officers appeared to have been directed by their senior military or religious leadership to spot and assess potential converts to Islam among American military members.  Once a particular American was “targeted,” an approach was usually made by what those stationed at the MODA called “the God squad.”  A few Saudi military officers, including a military imam (sort of a Muslim chaplain), would attempt to meet the American in either a purely social setting or at least outside of the work area.  These approaches usually included fairly generous gifts and of course, literature about Islam.  The gifts included expensive briefcases, pens, books and other personal items. 

Americans who decided to convert to Islam were rewarded handsomely.  It has always been Saudi practice to provide stipends to new converts, including all expenses paid trips (pilgrimages) to Mecca (Al-Makkah), and payments reportedly as high as $30,000.  

It appears that the Saudis were successful in at least one case.

Back to the "Commentaries by Rick Francona" main page