TAMPA — He is the cameraman in a few YouTube videos showing terror suspect Sami Osmakac railing against infidels. At times, he and Osmakac trade places, one filming and the other talking.
His rhetoric is as passionate as Osmakac's. He too tells Muslims to follow a righteous path and criticizes nonbelievers. But Russell Dennison said he is something Osmakac isn't — a proud American.
"I'm a Muslim by faith," said Dennison, 30, a convert to Islam who also uses the name Abdullah Abdul Malik. "But I am an American by birth and proud of that."
Like others in Tampa Bay's Muslim community, he is caught in the whirlwind of publicity surrounding Osmakac's arrest on Jan. 7. The FBI says Osmakac plotted to get guns and explosives to target sites in Tampa. Osmakac acted alone, federal authorities say.
Dennison does not have any connection to Osmakac's plans, according to court documents. And in a brief interview, Dennison said he rejects violence and applauds the FBI's arrest of Osmakac.
As a local Muslim who knows Osmakac, made videos with him and was banned from a Pinellas mosque with Osmakac in 2010, Dennison now rejects that association. And Dennison himself is a compelling figure, a U.S. citizen and former convict with a striking red beard who often produces videos that he posts online extolling Islam and criticizing Christians and Jews.
Dennison's history offers a fascinating picture of the life of an American-born Islamic convert who is part of a vigorous Internet community debating questions of faith by video.
The Pinellas Park man said he traveled to Egypt as a tourist and to learn Arabic in 2010, but was detained by Egyptian police.
Dennison said he now fears the publicity of Osmakac's case may endanger his safety. He insists he's simply a devout Muslim trying to live a good and modest life.
"My government has done the right thing" in arresting Osmakac, said Dennison, who emphasized he had nothing to do with the alleged plot.
• • •
The first part of Dennison's life was spent on the street in the Philadelphia area, where he ran with a bad crowd and sold drugs.
In an Internet video recounting his past, Dennison said a Muslim man gave him a Koran about seven years ago, right before he served a year in a Pennsylvania prison on drug charges.
"The book, it like spoke to me," he said in the video filmed near the St. Petersburg waterfront. "It was the truth. It answered all my questions. It gave me guidance."
Dennison said Allah gave him a sign — a light shined out of the book for 45 minutes.
Dennison said he moved to Pinellas in 2006 when he got out of prison. He had family here.
"I was kind of locked up in a dungeon," Dennison said. "Allah had rescued me."
Dennison got a job in 2007 at Dick Norris Pontiac GMC in North Pinellas. He claimed he was fired in 2008 for refusing to trim his beard, citing his religious beliefs.
"As my faith increased and my knowledge of the religion increased," Dennison later told lawyers, "I realized that as a Muslim I need to have a Muslim identity and I cannot bow down and submit to somebody to tell me to shave off my beard."
He filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the dealership, which denied any bias against Dennison. The suit was settled in September. Its terms are not public.
• • •
It is unclear how Dennison met Osmakac, 25, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Kosovo.
But the pair appeared together in several Internet videos, in addition to their own.
"Everybody out there, as well as myself, we are all going to be held accountable for what we do in this life," Dennison said in one video. "And we need to become strong. … Islam is not passive. It's not just about words or beliefs. It's about action. … Give victory to Allah and humiliate the systems of (infidels). … Allah did not make his religion weak."
On Nov. 12, 2010, leaders of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County said they learned Dennison and Osmakac had filmed a video on mosque property in Pinellas Park.
Mosque elders met with the men and told them they could not film there.
Dr. Ahmad Batrawy, a founder of the mosque, said Dennison "got kind of mad and started cussing at us and calling us infidels," Batrawy said.
Pinellas Park police were called. Batrawy said they issued Dennison a trespass warning, which means he could be arrested if he returned to the mosque.
Batrawy recalled Osmakac telling police that if they were going to give Dennison a trespass warning, they should give him one, too. The officers obliged.
In a video posted online in August, Dennison recounted a 2010 trip to Egypt. He said he was a tourist, but wanted to learn Arabic and see ordinary Muslims.
"I wanted to learn by mingling with the people," he said.
But as he left his hotel one day, Dennison said, he was arrested by Egyptian police, who detained him for questioning for three weeks.
Dennison said he was interrogated about Palestine, groups, "the wars" and about the Egyptian government. "I told them the truth," he said. "I call people to Islam. I like to read. I like to study. I don't call people to any violent activity nor do I take part in any violent activity."
He said he was released, but then arrested again and deported to the United States. When he arrived in New York, he said, Homeland Security questioned him.
"They told me … 'We know you make videos, we know you are very into Islam,' " Dennison recalled. "I am not a threat to any of these people. … But they just wanted to know what happened. … They have to do their job. They want to keep their country safe."
Details of the Egyptian trip could not be verified with federal officials.
On Thursday, Dennison said he was released with the help of the U.S. Embassy. But he declined a substantive interview and said the Tampa Bay Times was violating his privacy by naming him.
"You will jeopardize my safety," he said, "but also the future good I may be able to do."
Contact William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org.