Al Qaeda’s Greeley Roots
How the intellectual father of Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network learned to hate America in a tiny Colorado town.
”We are at the crossroads. We may join the march at the tail of the Western caravan…or we may return to Islam and make it fully effective in the field of our own life.
In 1948, he 42-year-old Qutb was assigned by Egypt’s education ministry to travel to the United States to study the American educational system. Typically, a younger man would have been sent on this type of mission, which has led historians to surmise that government officials had other motives. If nothing else, it would get Qutb out of their hair in the short-term. And with a little luck, first-hand exposure to American society might also soften his views on the value of Western influences.
The Ideal American Town
Greeley was founded in 1870 by a group of about 500 utopians led by Nathan Meeker, a New York newspaper editor. He named the town for his boss, Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune publisher, who popularized the phrase “Go West, young man.”
Meeker had visited what was then the Colorado Territory the year before and was taken with the region’s abundance of fertile land and “perpetual” sunshine. Upon his return, he wrote an article on Dec 14, 1869, inviting his readers to join him in building a new community based on high morals and total abstinence from alcohol:
"I propose to unite with the proper persons in establishing a colony in Colorado territory. The persons with whom I would be willing to associate must be temperance men and ambitious to establish a good society. In particular moral and religious sentiments should prevail, for without these qualities, man is nothing”
More than 3,000 readers responded, from which the best applicants were chosen. Each household contributed $155 (about $2,100 in today’s money), which was used to purchase about 60,000 acres of land at the confluence of the Platte and Cache la Poudre rivers on Colorado’s Front Range, about 60 miles north of modern-day Denver.
By the end of their first year in Greeley, the industrious colonists had built houses, dug 36 miles of irrigation canals, started a newspaper, planted a park, and laid out streets 100 feet wide and lined with trees. Much effort was put into living up to Meeker’s belief that, “The highest ambition of a family should be to have a comfortable, and if possible, an elegant home, surrounded by orchards and ornamental grounds, on lands of its own.”
Though its success as a planned community was emulated by other new towns throughout the state (most notably, Fort Collins, Longmont, and Colorado Springs), Greeley’s utopian ideals soon earned it a reputation as the “City of Hayseeds and High Morals.” The latter wasn’t just talk. The town was so squeaky clean that by the late 1870s, Greeley’s city fathers decided to rent out the town’s perpetually empty jail to hunters wanting to store buffalo hides.
In the 1880s, the city invested $20,000 for 50 miles of smooth-wire fence to surround the town in an effort to combat the “bovine blight” of cattle roaming the streets and trampling gardens. (They may have won that battle, but were destined to lose the war. Thanks to the huge feed-lots outside town, today’s Greeley has a distinctive, barnyard aroma.) Cowboys and noncolonists complained the fence’s real purpose was to separate the “Greeley saints” from the nontemperate outside world
By the end of World War II, Greeley had grown to a population of about 20,000. Sugarbeet faming had become the area’s leading industry, with Greeley producing a quarter of the nation’s sugar. The sugar industry changed the town’s homogeneous complexion, thanks to the immigration of Russian, German, Japanese, and Mexican laborers recruited to work the fields.
Still, the town would have been recognizable to its original settlers. It remained dry and committed to an ambitious program of building parks and schools to accommodate its growing population. Had Andy Griffith decided to set his TV show in Colorado instead of North Carolina, he very possibly might have chosen Greeley.
In short, Greeley would have seemed to be the ideal town to introduce the American way of life to a visiting Muslim educator.