Everybody likes playing presidential politics. Even the editors of Paintball Times magazine plan to handicap the election for the highest office in the land.

“We’ve picked the winner every time since 1992,” says Mohammed Alo, the editor and founder of the online publication, which boasts 2.5 million hits per month.

During the last election cycle, for the first time, the magazine not only picked a winner but also endorsed a candidate. Alo, a native of Toledo, Ohio, directed eligible voters in the U.S. paintball community, a group estimated at 25 million, to vote for George W. Bush over Al Gore.

It wasn’t a close call for the paintball prognosticators.

“We definitely would not want to play paintball with Gore, except to plaster him,” read the endorsement in the fall 2000 issue. “Gore is the type of paintball player that would tell all sorts of heroic stories after a game, none of which [would be] based in reality. He would whine, complain about his equipment, drop all his paintballs, and lose his temper. He would argue with field owners, shoot at his own teammates, and even surrender. He would probably be banned from most paintball fields after the first experience.”

Bush, meanwhile, “comes across as the type of guy that we’d love to play paintball with. Bush is the type of paintball player that would lend a helping hand, even if you were on the opposite team. Furthermore, Bush would actually be a leader on the field. He wouldn’t sit back and let everyone else plan and decide, he’d rather jump in and offer suggestions. Bush would be a good ‘buddy’ in our two-buddy strategy of playing; reliable, ready, and robust. Definetly [sic] a player to depend on. We like that in a candidate and in a paintball player. If you have read the issues that we feel are pertinent to the paintball community, you will definetly [sic] agree with us that, Governor Bush ought to be President Bush.”

This time around, however, the decision might not be so easy. For all the support Bush received from its practitioners, the game has been tarnished during his tenure. In the post-9/11 world, some branches of the federal government view playing paintball as more than playing paintball.

The tarnishing resulted from the indictment of 11 D.C.-area paintballers on terrorism charges in June 2003. The men, nine of them U.S. citizens, all of them Muslim, were charged with 41 counts related to waging war on India (in violation of the Neutrality Acts, which prevent citizens from plotting against nations with which the United States has peaceful relations) and planning jihad against America. Prosecutors alleged that the defendants had pledged their support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a purported Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist group with purported ties to al Qaeda.

According to the prosecution, a key component of their training for the holy war against Americans came in spring 2001, or several months before the World Trade Center attacks, on a Northern Virginia farm owned by the family of one of the defendants. There, the indictment alleges, the men “used paint-ball weapons and equipment to practice small-unit military tactics and simulate actual combat in preparation for Jihad.”

News of the arrests of the group—which was quickly dubbed “the Paintball Terrorists,” “the Paintball 11,” or “the Paintball Jihadists” in media accounts—dominated discussion in the paintball community, says Alo. The immediate reaction to the reports among legitimate gamers, he says, was that the whole thing was a gag.

“What does paintball have to do with any sort of military training? We couldn’t see that at all,” he says. “A lot of our players are ex-military guys, and they know it’s not even close to real combat. It’s like playing tag. In warfare, you can’t hide behind some grass or a piece of wood or a bush. You can in paintball. Paintball has been trying for years to shed the war-game image—that’s why in the magazine we call them ‘markers’ now, not ‘guns.’ We really thought [the fact that paintball was included in the indictments was] a joke at first.”

Defense attorneys were about as incredulous when they read the paintball portions of the case.

“Sometimes paintball is just paintball,” said John Nassikas III, attorney for defendant Randall Todd “Ismail” Royer, a U.S. citizen and Falls Church resident.

“Anybody who thinks that they can train for combat by learning the skills of paintball will have a very short life expectancy,” says John Zwerling, who represented defendant Seifullah Chapman, a U.S. citizen and Alexandria resident. “That would be like learning war skills by playing dodgeball. It’s insane.”

Alas, the government wasn’t joking about the value of paintball to the alleged jihadists. Six of the 11 pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and were given sentences of up to 20 years in prison. At the trial of four of the defendants held earlier this year at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg put a commander of the Marine Corps Officers Training School in Quantico, Va., on the stand to testify that every student there spends “several days” training with paintball equipment to prepare for real combat.

There was more than paintball evidence presented to Judge Leonie Brinkema. (Defense attorneys declined a jury trial for fear that their Islamic clients would have little chance with a jury assembled so soon after the 9/11 attacks and so close to the Pentagon.) Some of the defendants, including Chapman, had visited Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps in Pakistan before 9/11 to train to battle against India in Kashmir. After the attacks, the prosecution asserted, the defendants’ focus changed from aiding the Islamic movement in Kashmir to fighting Americans in Afghanistan. Group members attended anti-American lectures by radical Islamic speakers, Kromberg said. An alleged trip to Afghanistan to wage that battle was called off, prosecutors said, but only because the Taliban crumbled so soon after the U.S. military campaign there.

Zwerling says the government had to include the paintball playing as combat training in order to make the weapons counts against Chapman, a former U.S. Marine, stick.

“My client owned guns, which were legal and registered weapons,” says Zwerling. “But for the paintball, two out of the three gun offenses wouldn’t have been criminal. They claimed that because he was helping others to play paintball, he was conspiring to train people for violent jihad, which therefore made his gun ownership illegal.”

Brinkema rejected Zwerling’s motion to dismiss the charges on the ground that the defendants were being prosecuted because they were Muslim. Instead, she accepted most of Kromberg’s argument. In finding Chapman guilty of providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba and of weapons violations, Brinkema said, “the court finds that the paintball exercises were an integral part of many of the conspiracies charged in this case as they were treated as part of training for violent jihad.” Citing mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, she gave Chapman an 85-year sentence.

Paintball Times used the arrests and trials to enhance a prank. Editors punk’d readers with an April 1 column announcing that the Congress had voted to ban paintball. Soon enough, paintballers were e-mailing Capitol Hill with pleas to restore their right to splat each other. “I think the terrorist stuff probably helped make our April Fools’ joke more believable,” Alo says.

But the trial and convictions aren’t all fun and games to Alo, who has played paintball since he was 12 years old. Along with his leadership role in the paintball realm, Alo, now 28 and in his third year of medical school, is very involved in the Muslim community, and he has served as a spokesperson for Islamic groups. He’s noticed lately that the youth organization at his local mosque no longer holds what was “an annual outing or two” to a local paintball park, and he understands why.

People [in the Muslim community] are hesitant,” he says. “Whereas before they would go play paintball, now they’re worried about being scrutinized, especially after hearing about the so-called paintball terrorists.”

Alo says that the case had no impact on his own paintball playing. He doesn’t think that folks view him differently because he’s a paintball player. His religion, however, is another matter.

“I’m against terrorism, and in no way would I criticize the Department of Justice for prosecuting [the group] if they have evidence on them besides just playing paintball,” he says. “If those guys are involved in any way in terrorism, use the full extent of the law against them. I would not want to be quoted in any way as being pro-terrorist or saying anything that would lead anybody to believe in any way that I’m not against terrorism. Especially since my name is Mohammed. If my name was Joe Schmoe, maybe things would be different.”

Alo is planning to announce his magazine’s presidential prediction and endorsement within the next few weeks. —Dave McKenna