From keeping crack cocaine off Chicago's streets in the mid-1980s to becoming the first Americans convicted of domestic terrorism, the El Rukns have had one of the most fascinating gang stories with global reach.
They sold synthetic heroin. They prayed in a mosque. They held community meetings. They got arrested for murder. In the 1970s and '80s, the El Rukns teetered among contradictions. Leader Jeff Fort, aka Chief Malik, sat on a throne at the South Side headquarters. Law enforcement and federal prosecutors zealously pursued them.
But their real legacy is a federal conviction that tied them to Muammar Qaddafi. Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. government indicted members of the El Rukns for plotting domestic terrorist acts on behalf of Libya for $2.5 million.
Lance Williams and I explore the domestic terrorism trial in our new book, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang. Our purpose is to tell a story that looks at the social and political underpinnings of the notorious street organization.
As a youth, Fort flirted with the struggle for civil rights and black power as a Blackstone Ranger (the Stones), but he also had a predilection toward criminal activity. The Stones evolved into the secretive, selective El Rukns after Fort emerged from prison in the mid-1970s with an orientation toward Islam.
El Rukn is an Arabic term that refers to "foundation." Law enforcement didn't relent despite the name change. Prosecutors tried out new "war on drugs" policies on the El Rukns, and Fort got sent to federal prison yet again in 1983.
That didn't satisfy federal authorities. They got a wiretap put on his prison phone, determined to further disrupt the El Rukns. But agents listened in on coded language that caught them by surprise.
The U.S. government contended that they heard Fort on tape belittle Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan for getting money from Qaddafi. In turn, Fort yearned for some of that Libyan largesse for the El Rukn Nation. Farrakhan had received a $5 million loan from Qaddafi in the early 1980s to start a line of black personal-care products.
The feds set up a sting in which an undercover agent approached a group of El Rukns with the prospect of selling an M-72 Series Light Anti-Tank Weapon.
For many, the consensus was that Fort wanted to find a way to procure, or con, money from Qaddafi. But the El Rukns gave the feds fodder by having contact with a country on the enemy list. The 1987 terrorism trial proved to be highly sensationalist.
Metal detectors and a state police dog greeted entrants at the door. Some jurors said they received threatening phone calls and alternates had to step in. In and out of court, the El Rukns sported red fezzes, cornrows, fur coats and white flowing robes. "This case concerns organized crime, with a twist of terrorism," the prosecutor said in closing statement.
The jury found all six defendants guilty.
The government effectively destroyed the El Rukns as an organization. But their ardency led to prosecutorial misconduct and the overturning of some of the El Rukn drug cases. Two witnesses were given preferential treatment and tested positive for drugs while in custody in 1989. Today the El Rukns still claim a couple of hundred loyal members, but they have aged and aren't involved in criminal activity. They also don't have any power on the streets.
The biggest lessons come from the War on Terror banner under which we now live.
United States v. Jeff Fort et al. laid groundwork for the government to link street gangs to radical Islam and terrorism, even more so after Sept. 11. Two decades after the El Rukns trial, another South Side Chicago man, charged with plotting to work with al-Qaida operatives to blow up the Sears Tower, ended up with a similar fate to Jeff Fort's. In fact, prosecutors evoked Fort's name during the trial, comparing Narseal Batiste to the convicted Fort.
Like the El Rukns, Batiste fell into an FBI trap. This time a man claiming to be an al-Qaida operative from Yemen who met with the bankrupt Batiste was actually a paid informant. Although Batiste wasn't in a gang, his boasting fit a certain profile for which the feds searched. This nerdy kid-turned-community organizer ended up in the crosshairs of a federal government wanting to allay the nation's fears of homegrown, radical terrorism.
Batiste and his ragtag followers became known as the Liberty City Seven. After two mistrials, five of them were convicted in Miami of conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaida and conspiracy to wage war against the U.S.
In both cases, Fort and Batiste got duped in the name of homeland security. In our post-9/11 world, I wouldn't be surprised if similar cases emerge.