Madam's Organ Trash
Man Tops the Army's
Forget the land mines buried under Bosnia's roads and fields; according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the "most substantial" threat to the American forces in the Balkans is the garbage man from Madam's Organ.
Last summer, Isa Abdullah Ali was tending the grounds at Howard University by day and hauling the trash at the Adams Morgan blues joint by night. Now his photo is pinned up in Army tents all across Bosnia, the military equivalent in infamy of a spot on the post office wall.
As far as the U.S. Army is concerned, Ali is Kevin Holt, terrorist. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry spoke on CNN last week to update the American public on the danger Ali poses to our boys overseas: "The only American we have information about, we have concern about, is Holt. He has been identified with terrorist groups in the past...for more than 10 years, including in Lebanon. He is involved with radical Islamic groups. He is wanted in the United States for questioning for terrorist activities. Therefore, we take his possible presence in the country very seriously. We have alerted troops to look out specifically for him."
So, is Ali, the polite, friendly Madam's Organ fixture, an authentic bomb-throwing, machine-gun-toting John Rambo? "Well, he looked like a terrorist, whatever a terrorist is supposed to look like," muses Madam's Organ bartender Pat Tracy. Tracy remembers that Ali often wore an olive-green cap and a red bandanna. He is an imposing 6-feet-5-inches of muscular presencethe kind of guy you want behind you when you need to throw a rowdy drunk onto the street.
But how many terrorists do you know who give 30 days' notice when they quit their job? Ali even found Madam's Organ a replacement trash-hauler before he left for the Balkans in August. He wasn't secretive, impenetrable, or paranoid. He was hiding out from no one; he slept in the same bed every night and told his acquaintances exactly what he was doing with a plane ticket to Zagreb and a weapons clearance from the State Department. Ali divulged that he would be paid $2,000 to train groups of Muslim rebels, hardly the going rate for a top-of-the-line mercenary. "He could've made more than that by staying and hauling more trash here," declares Madam's Organ owner Bill Duggan.
But money has never been Ali's motivation. Born Cleven Holt, the Madam's Organ terrorist enlisted in the Army in 1972. He was 15 years old, and he had doctored his birth certificate, hoping to be sent to the battlefields of Vietnam. Instead, he was assigned to South Korea as a cook. Shortly after his return two years later, Cleven Holt found Islam and legally adopted the name Isa Abdullah Ali.
Ali took his faith very seriously. He was a devout Muslim, but he "didn't wear his religion on his shirt sleeve," says Tracy. Ali abstained from pork, though he did drink a bit at the bar. (He always switched to Coke after a beer or two.) According to Tracey, Ali was married and spurned other women's advances.
Ali pledged his allegiance to the Shiite faith and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Shiites believe that heaven's gate is open to a warrior martyred for God. Ali believed himself blessed by God with special abilitiesthe gift of war-makingand he decided to put his talents to work for his Muslim brethren. His résumé reads like a vintage 1980's list of the world's hottest hot spots. He journeyed to Afghanistan, where he aided the Mujahedin rebels against the Soviet Union. He traveled to Lebanon in the mid-'80s to train soldiers of the Shiite Amal militia for attacks into northern Israel.
His odyssey nearly ended there. A 1986 assassination attempt in downtown Beirut left him with a bullet in his right leg and a dozen scars across his torso. ("His chest looks like a fucking pin cushion," recalls Tracy.) This brush with death only strengthened his conviction that he was on a mission from God. "Isa died once already in Lebanon, so everything past that is just gravy," says Duggan. He and the steady patrons of his 18th Street bar speak about Ali in a familial way, as a kind of local-boy-makes-good. His appearance on the national news made great fodder for happy-hour banter for the regulars who considered Ali one of their own.
Ali believed that he was spared to fight another day, so he bode his time until he had raised enough money to head off to help Bosnian Muslims defend themselves against the Serbs. When Ali left for Bosnia, "he figured he was going to die," says Tracy.
But now that peace has broken out, Ali may have found himself in a tough spot. The peace accords call for the removal of all "foreign elements" from the area; he's a mercenary in a war that seems to have ended. U.S. officials fear that Ali could team up with Muslims who believe the peace accord concedes too much to the Serbs. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the Army is worried that Ali might infiltrate an American base on a sinister mission: "Because he's an American citizen, he is fluent in English and can blend in easily, and quickly penetrate U.S. bases. He is viewed as a potential terrorist threat." The Pentagon desk jockey would not go any deeper into the reasons that U.S. forces are on alert for Ali, just that "he is known to have expressed sympathy for extremist causes."
Meanwhile, Madam's Organ regulars are hoping their garbage man and compatriot will return, but they're not holding their breath. The trash still gets tossed out back, and the drunks still get tossed in the street. The network news flickers on the TV set above the dim bar; Ali's capture just might be the next story.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he came back, but I don't expect it," says Tracy, as he drags on a cigarette. "It wouldn't surprise me if they caught him." CP