On the day he planned to make his sacred journey, or hijra, to the Islamic State, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan woke up before dawn at his house in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois, and walked to the nearby mosque to pray. It was Saturday, October 4th, 2014, an unusually cold morning, though Hamzah, a slender young man with a trimmed black beard, was dressed for warmer weather in jeans, boots and a gray sweatshirt. By sunset, he’d be gone for good: leaving his parents, his friends, his country and all he knew for an unknown future in the “blessed land of Shaam,” as he called Syria. He would be taking his teenage brother and sister with him. Allahu Akbar, he prayed with the men in his family, and tried to banish his doubts: “God is great.”
Upstairs in her bedroom in the Khans’ small two-story house, Hamzah’s 17–year-old sister, Mariyam*, finished her own prayers. Ameen. Then, dressed in a long tunic and flowing pants, she wrapped a dark head scarf around her wavy black hair and waited for her brothers to come home. A delicate girl, Mariyam has flashing dark eyes, perfect skin and a radiant smile that, as a niqabi, a woman who veils her face, almost no one other than her family ever sees. Soon, if all went according to plan, Mariyam would likely be married to a jihadi. She inspected her skin for any sign of a stray pimple. What would her husband be like? She hoped he was handsome and bearded, like Hamzah.
When the men returned from the mosque just before 6 a.m., Mariyam waited until she heard her father go back to bed. Then, with just a small window of time before her parents woke up, she stuffed some pillows under the covers to make it look like she was still asleep and reviewed her mental checklist: clothes (five days’ worth), boots, warm socks, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, her niqab, hijab, Quran and two wands of Maybelline Great Lash mascara (just in case she ran out). She put on a black abaya, topped with her favorite leopard-print hoodie, and took a last look at her room. Then, grabbing her suitcase, she walked downstairs, slipped out the door with her brothers, and sped off toward the airport in a taxi.
The three Khan siblings (*Rolling Stone has agreed to change the names of the younger two, since they are minors) had been plotting their journey since the spring, communicating online with people they believed to be ISIS sympathizers in Syria. During that time, they’d secretly acquired passports, visas and, in just the past week, three airplane tickets to Istanbul, totaling more than $2,600, purchased with money Hamzah had saved from his job at a home-supply store. Once in Turkey, the plan was to make their way, by bus, from Istanbul to the city of Adana, a trip of some 12 hours. There, they’d call a number they had been given by an ISIS supporter they’d met online. “And then, uh, I don’t know,” Hamzah later admitted to the FBI.
What services Hamzah intended to offer ISIS were unclear, even to him. According to a rough transcript admitted at his detention hearing, Hamzah later told the FBI that he wanted to play a “public-service role” — delivering food, perhaps, or being a policeman. Maybe “a combat role,” he said, uncertain what exactly he’d do in that capacity. Hamzah had never even held a gun, let alone fired one. His ideology was simple: He wanted to help the Muslims. He never intended to return to the U.S.
“An Islamic State has been established, and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate,” Hamzah had written in a letter he left for his parents, explaining why he was leaving the comforts of suburbia for the khilafah, or caliphate. “I cannot live under a law in which I am afraid to speak my beliefs.”
His 16-year-old brother, Tarek*, took a more strident tone. “This nation is openly against Islam and Muslims,” he wrote in his own goodbye letter. “The evil of this country makes me sick.”
There was a sameness to the letters, as if they’d been copied from a script. All referenced America’s wars in the Muslim world and said they felt responsible for the suffering. “I simply cannot sit here and let my brothers and sisters get killed with my own hard-earned money,” Hamzah said.
“America is openly against Muslims,” one of the Khan siblings wrote his parents. “The evil of this country makes me sick.”
“Living in this land is haram [sinful],” said Tarek, who like his brother — a pizza fanatic who loved Comedy Central and Lil Wayne — complained about the immorality of Western society. All three wrote of eschewing the dunya, or material world (even though “what I love most is comfort,” Tarek admitted), and provided they made it safely, hoped their parents might even join them. True, the area was getting bombed, said Hamzah, “but let us not forget we weren’t put on this Earth for comfort.”
They begged their parents not to call the police. “All of us will be in really great danger if you do so,” Mariyam wrote in her own letter. “By the time you are reading this, we could be captured, or stranded, or possibly even killed,” she added. “I swear this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
On the afternoon of October 4th, federal authorities were on the lookout for the Khan teens as they passed through security screening at O’Hare International Airport. At the gate area for Austrian Airlines, the siblings were pulled aside and questioned by U.S. Customs officials, who then passed them over to the FBI. By that evening, Hamzah was put under arrest and charged with “knowingly attempting to provide material support and resources” to a foreign terrorist organization in the form of personnel — namely, himself. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison, and possibly more if other charges are added.
Hamzah’s prosecution comes at a time when countering the lure of groups like ISIS has become one of Washington’s top priorities. “We have investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states,” FBI director James Comey said recently. Though it is unknown precisely how federal authorities came to target the Khans, it’s no secret that government informants lurk online. Agents customarily make these cases by gathering intelligence and setting traps for unsuspecting targets, many of whom, like Hamzah, are arrested at the airport. According to Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, 33 people in the United States have been detained or questioned in the past year for attempting to aid or join ISIS. Most of these cases have involved kids in their late teens and early twenties. In the case of three Denver-area high school girls, who managed to make it all the way to Frankfurt before being spotted by German authorities and returned to the U.S., the youngest was just 15. Twenty-four cases so far have resulted in federal charges, though, as juvenile records are sealed, it is possible that even more teenagers have been investigated without the public’s knowledge.
The Obama administration has acknowledged a key challenge is countering ISIS’s effective social-media messaging — so much so, one Justice Department official recently conceded, that the DOJ is looking into ways it might prosecute those voicing support for ISIS on Twitter. “It’s a war of ideas — we ought to be able to win,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin noted during a recent talk. Yet he admitted the government doesn’t yet have a cohesive strategy. “How do we explain that an ideology that’s based on enslaving other people, killing women and children, and is fundamentally nihilistic is one you shouldn’t join?”
Though the government has put forth a number of so-called countering violent-extremism initiatives, the most effective tool at the moment seems to be the criminal justice system. Most of these cases, and nearly 200 more brought since 9/11, rest on a broad interpretation of a provision in the federal criminal code known as the material-support statutes. They criminalize a wide range of activities, from supplying weapons, money, personnel or training to providing things like humanitarian relief, conflict-resolution training, and other “expert advice or assistance.”
“All the material-support law requires is that the person supported a group or set of ideas the government doesn’t like,” explains David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and author of Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror. “It is an extremely broad statute, and prosecutors like broad statutes because it’s easier to make a case. The risk is you very likely will send a lot of people who would never have committed violence at all to prison for a long time.”
According to federal prosecutors, Hamzah Khan and his siblings felt a “religious obligation to join the Islamic State. . . . with the hopes of violent jihad.” At Hamzah’s detention hearing in November, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hiller argued that the teens’ “carefully calculated plan to abandon their family . . . and abandon their country and join a foreign terrorist organization” showed, at minimum, their “radicalization.” Hiller also argued that Hamzah be kept in pretrial detention to “protect the safety of the community from the defendant and his intent on leaving Western society and joining ISIL.”
Nowhere in this statement is the assertion that Hamzah’s intent to join the Islamic State also means that he intended to commit harm in the United States. This fear, however, lies at the heart of both the Khan case and virtually all of the other ISIS-related prosecutions, though there is so far little evidence that those who have made it to Syria plan to come home. “What they’re doing is joining a civil war,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “And we have seen people do that through history — whether it was the Spanish Civil War, whether it was American Jews going off to fight for Israel, or American Catholics wanting to join the IRA. But rather than understand the lure in context, we judge it as they’re going to go over and become a terrorist. And then, the next leap is they’re going to become a terrorist against the United States.”
Hamzah’s attorney, Tom Durkin, believes the government’s zeal to prosecute has more to do with the fear of “missing one,” as he puts it, than in a genuine belief that people like Hamzah are dangerous. “The fact is, these kids are not ‘terrorists’ by any criminal-justice definition,” says Durkin. “The problem is, it’s now part of the ‘war on terror,’ and as soon as you declare war on something, that means you have to defeat it.”
Mariyam’s attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it’s a form of magical thinking. “They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia,” she says. “It’s hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way.”
Chicago’s Muslim community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, with a significant portion hailing from the South Asian diaspora. Hamzah’s parents, Shafi and Zarine, naturalized American citizens, were born in Hyderabad, the fourth-largest city in India, and are followers of the Deobandi school of Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni strain that stresses strict adherence to Islamic law and has been influential in jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khans, however, follow a pacifist movement that preaches that Muslims’ true battle is a spiritual one.
An unassuming young man, Shafi was 20 when he arrived in Chicago with his parents, in 1986. In 1994, he returned to India for an arranged marriage with Zarine, then a 21-year-old student at Hyderabad’s main university. Back in Chicago, the couple settled on Devon Avenue, an area famous for being a landing point for immigrants from across the Indian subcontinent. In 1995, their first child, Hamzah, was born, followed by Mariyam in 1996, Tarek in 1998 and another sister in 2000. To support his brood, Shafi, who was still putting himself through college, worked as a customer-service representative at a bank. Zarine, who’d given up her scientific ambitions to marry and have children, worked part-time teaching primary school. By 2005, they joined the migration pattern of many other Indian and Pakistani Muslims and settled in the suburbs west of the city, first in Des Plaines, near O’Hare, and then, after their fifth and final child was born in 2011, in Bolingbrook.
Chicago’s western suburbs have a drab, workaday quality filled with featureless strip malls and equally nondescript homes. Once lily-white, the area’s demographics have followed national trends, and South Asians now comprise almost six percent of the population. In the past decade, at least 15 new mosques and Islamic cultural centers have sprung up throughout the area, quickly assimilating into the landscape: mosque, 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, church, Walmart, halal butcher, Taco Bell, synagogue, Planet Fitness.
Uninspiring though it might be, the Khans found much to appreciate in the suburbs. In America, you got what you paid for: a house, a car, clean streets, medical care. They appreciated the kindness of Americans and, as Zarine often noted, their “respect for hard work and human life.” And yet, neither she nor her husband was ever fully comfortable here. The violence of popular culture in particular bothered Zarine. When Hamzah was about eight, the television broke; the Khans decided not to replace it. Though they had a computer with Internet access, Shafi and Zarine monitored their children’s online habits, allowing them to watch cartoons and read the news, but never to surf the Internet alone. “We wanted to preserve their innocence,” Zarine later noted to the Washington Post.
On September 11th, 2001, Zarine and Shafi had been living together in Chicago for seven years. Hamzah was six, Mariyam four; the younger two siblings were toddlers. The Khans, who were horrified by the attacks, tried not to watch the news. Sometimes, Zarine would hear about women’s scarves getting pulled off in public, though it never happened to her. She did, however, get random stares while shopping. Given what happened on 9/11, that was “understandable,” she rationalized. But in Chicago, as in most cities across the country, there were more overt examples of discrimination. Everyone had heard the stories of people who had been hassled or detained at the airport, or whose immigration papers were mysteriously held up. Many Muslim families knew of at least one child who’d been teased and called “Osama” or “terrorist” on the playground. It was assumed, in an era of FBI stings (including several in Chicago), that if a stranger entered a mosque during Friday prayers and started spouting extremist rhetoric, he was likely an informant.
Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing “academic excellence in an Islamic environment.” Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it’s also a safety issue, he admits. “To be honest with you, I don’t want my kids being told they’re terrorists.”
“ISIS’s message is, ‘Come and help us build a utopia that will protect every single Muslim,’” says one expert. “This is very seductive.”
The problem with this approach, notes Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, is by “cocooning” one’s children in Islamic schools, parents run the risk of setting them up for profound isolation. When they emerge, he asks, “will the kids be prepared for what they see?”
By all accounts, the Khans enveloped their children in a tight and loving cocoon. Other parents would remark on the manners and obedience of the Khan kids, who got good grades, volunteered at the mosque religious school, day care and summer camp, and were relentlessly polite and helpful. Religion played a central role in their lives, and they made an effort to pray five times a day. But they were also regular American kids who grew up on a steady diet of cartoons, Marvel superhero comics and young-adult fiction: The Lightning Thief, the Maximum Ride series, the Legend trilogy. Mariyam, who as a child loved Muslim Scouts Adventures, a cartoon series broadcast on the Islamic-themed website MuslimVille.tv, was also partial to the very American animated hero Kim Possible. Hamzah loved Batman. Their brother Tarek idolized Wolverine. Anime fanatics, they were desperate to learn Japanese and, at one point, created their own fake Japanese language, which they used as a secret code.
When Hamzah was 10, he left school and enrolled in a local Islamic institute to memorize the Quran, a process known as becoming a hafiz. He spent roughly two and a half years learning the 600-page text in Arabic, until the phrases rolled off his tongue like poetry. It’s not uncommon in highly religious Muslim families, particularly those from the South Asian community, to put their kids through this program, which is both a sign of piety and great prestige. As Hamzah spoke only English and Urdu, however, he had little idea what the words, in Arabic, actually meant.
Of the Khan kids, Hamzah was probably the most sensitive, a dreamer. He loved to draw and had a particular soft spot for children, serving as treasurer of his school’s UNICEF chapter. The stories of refugee families in places like Syria, Gaza or Sudan moved him so much that he decided to become a pediatrician so he could work with Doctors Without Borders. But he quickly realized he couldn’t endure eight years of medical school, and after graduating from high school in 2013 and enrolling at Benedictine University, he decided to study engineering and computer science. By October of his freshman year, it seemed that he was already feeling the pressure. “Calc and Chem exams, back-to-back,” he tweeted one day. “Need duas [prayers]!!”
One of Hamzah’s teachers at CPSA, who spoke to Rolling Stone anonymously (the school has refused to comment on the Khans and has instructed its faculty to do the same), doubts Hamzah had the skills needed for a scientific career. “He wasn’t cut out for engineering,” he says. “He always came across as really naive, just kind of simple.” Sexual innuendos went over his head. Though he had a circle of friends, he lacked the go-along-to-get-along sensibility that others took in stride. According to the teacher, cheating has occasionally been a problem at CPSA, where tremendous pressure is put on kids to excel in the sciences, but Hamzah never took part. “That’s part of that innocence,” he says. “The rest of the kids are like, ‘Look, you can’t always be this goody-two-shoes.’ ”
Hamzah saw in Islam a world of infinite wisdom whose rules and ancient history intrigued him. Steeped in the stories of Muhammad, his companions, and the sultans and caliphs who came after them, Hamzah viewed those days as a “simpler” era when Islam flourished across a vast empire, or Caliphate, and the Muslim ummah, or global community, was united. By college, though he still enjoyed making funny videos with friends and listening to rappers like Waka Flocka Flame, he’d begun to see those pursuits as shallow, lacking the honor and romance of being a true champion of the ummah. In 2014, he created a Tumblr page he called “Torchbearers of Tawheed,” dedicated to “posts about important events and people from Islam dating from the period of Muhammad [peace be upon him],” though he sometimes posted his own poetry, too. On Twitter, he dubbed himself @lionofthe-d3s3rt – a take on his name, which means “lion,” and a reference to historical freedom fighters in the Middle East. He trimmed his beard in the manner of an Arabian prince, and then, because it looked so good, he posted a picture on his Google+ page, standing in front of a suburban home, his black hair wrapped in a Saudi-style headdress, chin raised, eyes fixed on some distant point. Mecca? Chicago? Burger King? Who knew?
Mariyam, while equally invested in her dreams, was more focused. A voracious reader, she made her way through most of the young-adult novels on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and spent hours making plans. She was going to be an astronaut. Then she decided she’d rather be a paleontologist, or a surgeon. Like her brother, she also became a hafiz, which in her case took three years, as she was meticulous about the Quran, memorizing each phrase and passage backward and forward until she could recite it without error. “I like things to be perfect, and I like to be the best at them,” she says. This was obvious by simply looking at her, if she’d have allowed it.
Though wearing the niqab isn’t generally required in Islam, Mariyam, like her mother, chose to cover all but her forehead and her eyes. In public, Mariyam, a tiny five feet two, appeared as a mute appendage to Zarine, to whom she is fiercely attached. But at home, where she covered only her hair, she was a different, more dynamic girl: intellectually curious, chatty, sometimes angst-ridden and moody. She was concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worried about the suffering of Muslims — especially the children — wherever they were. She also worried about the usual teenage things: her hair, her skin, her weight. Embarrassingly, she now admits, she was obsessed for a while — OK, for about three years — with Linkin Park, whose lyrics she memorized and wrote everywhere. There were also the boys-suck ballads of Taylor Swift, more of a secret passion. Boys themselves were strictly off-limits in the hyperconservative interpretation of Islam imparted by her parents. She could still laugh, joke, ride bikes and climb trees with her brothers, but once she hit puberty, strange boys were to be avoided unless she needed to ask someone for directions.
This, for the most part, was OK, because more than anything, Mariyam was painfully shy. Her niqab was her shield, and behind the veil she could observe, which she did, keenly, but didn’t have to engage. This shyness, combined with her innate perfectionism, created a deep well of anxiety that struck her immediately after she finished memorizing the Quran. She’d missed the entirety of middle school, though she’d tried to keep up through home-schooling. As a result, all the torment of those awkward early-teenage years, the best-friendships, rivalries and petty jealousies — all of that had passed her by. So she told her mother she didn’t want to go back to school. Zarine begged her to change her mind. “I used to tell her every single day, ‘You’re going to regret this when you’re in college,’ ” Zarine recalls. “ ’You’re going to say, “I missed high school life.” ’ ” Mariyam insisted she’d be better off being home-schooled and enrolled in a correspondence program. And so, ninth grade passed and then 10th.
Apart from her studies, her outlets were baking, drawing and watching YouTube videos. She developed a passion for elaborate Arabic eye makeup, which she’d experiment with in her room, trying the Indian-princess look one day, a sultry Arabian look the next, always making sure to take it off before anyone could see. Though she never admitted it, the loneliness was excruciating. After a while, even a trip with her mother to Walmart was exciting.
And then, at 16, Mariyam began to change. She stopped listening to music, stopped watching anime and reading novels. She no longer missed her friends or worried about whether she should return to high school — she knew there was no point. The only thing that mattered to her was religion. While her brothers and sister were off at school and working on projects for the next science fair, she would rush through her lessons in order to curl up in a corner and read the hadiths, the second-hand accounts of the teachings and proverbs of Muhammad, as well as books by many other Islamic scholars.
Her favorite heroes were men like Muhammad al-Fatih, Muhammad bin Qasim and Saladin — all famous Muslim warriors who waged valiant jihad in defense of Islam and its expansion. The term “jihad” refers to two distinct Islamic concepts — the greater jihad, or the daily struggle to live a godly life, and the lesser jihad, which most scholars agree refers to war, and not just a spiritual or existential one.
Mariyam envisioned herself as less a warrior than a protector. In her private musings, she could take on a fierce edge, frustrated by the refusal of American Muslims to even mention jihad for fear of being misunderstood. “When talk of jihad comes up, [the men] turn their faces away, or look down and avoid your eyes, or attack you,” she wrote in an undated note, referring to the men of her community as “cowards” and the women as “selfish.” The righteous path was clear to her; why would none of them see it? “They don’t want to believe,” she said. “They lash out at you, mock you, and ridicule what the best people on the face of this Earth loved and carried out with passion flaming in their hearts. Will they say the same when it is their children whose skulls are being crushed, their husbands who are being tortured, their fathers who are slaughtered, and their mothers who are raped?”
For, if that level of violence seemed far-fetched in America, it wasn’t the case in Syria, or Iraq. And maybe it wasn’t even that far off in Chicago. In 2012, there had been a hate crime at CPSA, when a 7-Up bottle filled with acid was hurled at the building during Ramadan prayers. That same year, the area’s U.S. congressman, Republican Joe Walsh, noted while campaigning for re-election that Muslims were “trying to kill Americans every week” in the United States. A few days later, a man terrorized an area mosque with a pellet gun.
For some Muslim kids, the prejudice, discrimination and violence only reinforced what they may have felt all along. “If you’re a Muslim-American teenager, America has been at war with the Muslims for as long as you’ve been conscious,” says Omer Mozaffar, an Islamic scholar and Muslim chaplain at Loyola University in Chicago. “That’s just the frame around how they see the world. It’s on the news, it’s online, it’s on your Xbox — I mean, just look at Call of Duty, where they are fighting the Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just in the air.”
And yet, what could Mariyam, or Hamzah, or any other disaffected Muslim teenager do about it? There were thousands just like them on Twitter and Facebook, a whole universe of kids who debated the hadiths, and talked about anime, and agonized over the latest atrocity in Syria, and also shared pictures of lions, or dinosaurs, or baby tigers, or their baby sisters. They came from the same drab sort of wastelands as Bolingbrook: from Perth, and Cardiff, and Manchester, and Portsmouth, and the immigrant ghettos of London, as well as those in cities like Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Minneapolis, Denver — and many of them were born in these cities, too. And yet they never felt fully American, or British, or Australian, or French (even though they were), but they also didn’t feel totally “Muslim” either, or at least not like the lions and lionesses of Islam they thought they should be.
“Brothers and sisters, the pain is real,” one supposed witness to Syrian bloodshed wrote on his widely read blog, issuing a siren call to all the akhis and ukhtis, or brothers and sisters, in the dar al-kufr, or land of disbelief, who yearned to be in the dar al-Islam, or land of Islam — wherever that was. “News of atrocities no longer reach us by the week or by the day. Instead, we hear of new massacres, transgressions and oppression against our brothers and sisters in faith, every couple of hours of every day. If you are tired of and cannot bear seeing, reading, hearing of and witnessing those atrocities anymore, then, undeniably, the time has come for you to act.”
An unprecedented number of young Muslims heeded the call. “I swear by the one who holds my soul in his hands, I will not give this up even if the entire world turns against me,” Mariyam wrote, with all the passion her 17-year-old heart could muster.
Mariyam Khan spent most of every day alone, “thinking,” she wrote on her Ask.fm page. While perusing Islamic forums, she discovered Kalamullah.com, a British-based Islamic website that aggregates a wide range of Islamic material. Those looking to read or listen to the speeches of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki can do so there, but Kalamullah also posts information from various human rights groups, and, perhaps of particular resonance for Mariyam, a link to daily video updates from Syria.
By 2013, Mariyam had become immersed in the crisis in Syria, or Shaam, as she now called it, which is also what the Islamic State called the territory — encompassing large swaths of Syria and Iraq — that it would later dub the caliphate. Taking the cause as her own, she joined in a hashtag campaign for a Muslim prisoner and retweeted photos of victims of violence in the Middle East. She was influenced by Islamic forums that promoted a stridently anti-Western view — all non-Muslims were “kuffars,” all Shias “apostates,” and all mainstream imams, Islamic scholars and virtually any Muslims who “watered down their religion” were “coconuts”: brown on the outside, but white at the heart.
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the “caliphate,” ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new “Islamic State,” where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. “In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was ‘Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,’ ” Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. “This time, the message is ‘Come and help us build a new state, your state . . . a Sunni political utopia . . . that will protect every single Muslim. . . .’ This is a very, very seductive message, and it’s also a positive message.”
All of the Khan kids were active on social media, but for Mariyam, it was more than just an outlet — it was her voice. Mariyam’s life was full of rules, but online she could be anyone she wanted to be: a good Muslim girl, an advocate for the oppressed, even, in a way, an honorary boy who, veiled in the anonymity of the Internet, was free to engage with a bubbling new subculture of people, mostly young men, who she’d never have been able to look at, let alone speak to, in real life.
She found them on Twitter, sometimes identified by the black jihadist flag they used as their avatar and their noms de guerre that began with “Abu,” for men, and “Umm,” for women, occasionally with their nationality tacked to the end of their names: al-Amriki, for Americans; al-Britani, for the Brits. As Mariyam observed, and later took part in, they engaged in lengthy conversations with their followers, debating the value of various jihadist groups, promoting the latest ISIS video or heroic nasheed, and, if you were lucky, the most influential of this group, who served as unofficial recruiters, might send you their personal Kik or Surespot handles so you could continue the conversation more securely.
Getting to that point required that one show loyalty to the cause, which Mariyam did, tweeting her love for videos like “Saleel al-Sawarim IV” [“The Clanging of the Swords IV”], which heralded ISIS’s operations in Iraq and featured scenes of foreign fighters burning their passports, as well as executions and a beheading. During her brother’s detention hearing, federal prosecutors noted Mariyam’s “twisted delight” at the ending of “Saleel al-Sawarim,” which she tweeted about with emoticons of a heart and a smiley face.
To converse with ISIS jihadis, Mariyam also had to understand their language. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dr. Amanda Rogers, who studies ISIS propaganda, the English-speaking ISIS network has its own vernacular of Arabic buzzwords that followers use, interspersed with Western terms, as a sort of in-group code. Those who made it to Syria were “on the haqq,” or living the truth. They might also be “on the deen,” a term, referencing a person’s faith, that meant embracing it fully, with body and soul, as Muslims did during the days of the Prophet. To travel to Syria was to make hijra, or migration, referring to the original journey of Muhammad and his followers to Medina and inextricably tied to the idea of persecution; indeed, one of the conditions that makes hijra mandatory for Muslims is oppression by the country or system under which they live. Hence, a decision to make hijra and join the other emigrants, or muhajireen, was not just a decision: It was a sacred and liberating duty. Shaam (or Sham, as it’s often written) referred to greater Syria, but also to so much more: It was not just a place, Mariyam learned, it was the place, and only the very best people — the true muhajireen — would gather in Shaam.
The most famous of the Western, English-speaking jihadis, and a rock star to homebound girls like Mariyam, was Abu Abdulrahman al-Britani, otherwise known as Ifthekar Jaman, a British 22-year-old of Bengali descent who migrated to Syria in 2013 from his home in working-class Portsmouth. Jaman was the first of a group of young men that dubbed themselves the Bangladeshi Bad Boys Brigade who decided to make hijra, and he was also the first one of them to die. But before he did, indeed before he’d even left England, he amassed a fairly large Twitter following, putting out what often seemed like an endless stream of photos and videos of himself answering questions about Islam and applying black kohl around his eyes, which made him look like Aladdin. He grew his beard long, in the manner of Osama bin Laden, who, he once said, struck him as “a really nice guy.” In his most famous video, he offered a 90-minute tutorial, full of digressions onto virtually every subject, on how to tie a turban.
Jaman, for those looking back now, offers an object lesson in what could have befallen the Khans, had they made it to Syria. Desperate to become a jihadi and motivated to help the suffering, he’d bought a one-way ticket to Turkey, finding his way to Aleppo, where, after being rejected by another rebel group for not having the appropriate contacts, he met an Algerian fighter from ISIS. “I hadn’t even heard of them,” he told Shiraz Maher of the New Statesman, “but I checked them out and they were great.” Because of his good looks and his utter lack of military training, he was snatched up by ISIS’s propaganda wing, if not to be an actual jihadi, then to play one on Twitter.
Before long, Jaman, with his hundreds of Twitter followers, became ISIS’s most charismatic English-language salesman: taking selfies with his AK-47 (though he had never used it in combat) and promoting the chilled-out side of the caliphate, which he called “five-star jihad,” full of stolen war booty, or ghaneema, cuddly kittens and villas with swimming pools. A host of wannabe Ifthekar Jamans began to stream into Syria, and even more began to contemplate it. And he kept the encouragement coming. “The reason why I share so much is to show you how it is, the kittens, the landscape, etc, hoping to make you see the beauty of it & come,” he wrote. True, the Western jihadis weren’t of much use on the battlefield, having “no skills,” as he admitted. But even if ISIS didn’t need them, he reminded his followers, “You need this.”
Mariyam had followed Jaman on Twitter even before he went to Syria, and she paid careful attention to his progress, as well as to his friends’, who in a virtual context became her friends, too. “What are you waiting for?” these jihadis would write to the kids in the West. “Come to the land of honor. You are needed here.”
Jaman’s sojourn in the land of honor ended abruptly on December 15th, 2013, when having finally been granted his wish to take part in an “operation,” he was killed during the first minutes of his very first battle.
On Twitter, Jaman’s fans exploded in exhortations of joy, for the most part — for he had become a shaheed. Then, two months later, one of Jaman’s newfound “brothers,” a Briton named Anil Khalil Raoufi, a.k.a. Abu Layth al Khorasani, was also killed. Mariyam by now felt a part of the group. “Inna lillah Wa Inna ilayhi Raji’oon” — To Allah we belong, and to Him we shall return — she tweeted. “Abu Layth has been martyred.”
But he wasn’t really dead, Mariyam believed, because that is what she’d read and what Jaman and his friends reminded people constantly. Martyrs, unlike ordinary people, lived and breathed in Jannah, the highest plateau in heaven, not as young men with 72 virgins — this concept, in fact, seemed to figure very little into anyone’s thinking — but as beautiful green birds (or #greenbirds as it went on Twitter) that, according to some hadiths, would fly through the trees, eating from the fruits of paradise, and live in golden lamps hanging from a divine throne, before Allah returned their souls to them on the day of Resurrection.
That, among other reasons, was why all the martyrs died smiling.
This was the message making its way across social media, and there was even photographic proof of this phenomenon: dozens of pictures of newly dead young men, all wearing beatific smiles. Sometimes these photos were tweeted with captions noting how the smell of musk emanated from their bodies, or how their wounds continued to bleed for days, even weeks, after they had died. Martyrs’ bodies, some said, didn’t decompose. And there were more miracles in Syria: orchards sprouting endless quantities of fruit, mortar shells that, in ISIS-held territory, would fall and leave no damage. One jihadi wrote that, despite a lack of water and hygiene products, neither his clothes nor his hair nor his body ever smelled.
Many of these amazing tales were compiled in an e-book, Miracles in Syria, that told the story of the British jihadis during the early days of the war. A prominent figure in the book’s narrative was Abu Qaqa, one of a group of young men from Manchester who, inspired by Jaman’s stories, had come to Syria in September 2013. Ostensibly a gifted communicator with a feel for the deen, Qaqa — or whoever might have been using his account — maintained a presence on Twitter, Tumblr and Ask.fm. After injuring his leg in the same battle that claimed Jaman’s life, he decided to build a brand of his own. By the spring of 2014, Abu Qaqa and another British jihadi, Abu Fariss, were ISIS’s unofficial English-language scribes, reporting on the steady influx of pilgrims (“on average each month around 2-3 hundred and that’s not including the women,” Qaqa noted), answering questions from would-be recruits — yes, Qaqa told one young man, it was possible to buy “quality hair products” in Syria — and generally serving as witnesses and cheerleaders for hijra, which they reminded all who wrote, was incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female.
Hamzah and Mariyam were both in private Kik communication with Abu Qaqa, their main contact in Syria. Mariyam also followed and exchanged tweets with another English-speaking jihadi, Abu Hud, otherwise known as “Paladin of Jihad.” Unlike Qaqa, a somewhat remote figure who presented hijra as a sacred obligation, Abu Hud came across as a friendly bro, who was shameless in trying to enlist Western akhis and ukhtis for what he promised would be the greatest experience of their lives. His astonishingly detailed Tumblr series, #DustyFeet, was almost a Lonely Planet guide to hijra, giving kids who might never have roughed it instructions about what kind of backpack or pocket knife to bring, how to get physically fit, even how to squat — the last of particular relevance, he noted, because the Prophet, who didn’t have the luxury of “high-rise, ‘European’ sit-down flush toilets,” had teachings on this particular biological need. Travel light, he advised, while also providing a comprehensive list of packing do’s and don’ts — yes to warm socks, solar chargers and camelback water carriers, no to laptops, which could be “more incriminating than tablets and phones.”
His followers, invited to “ask me anything,” deluged him with questions, often using code words like “going on holiday” for their intention to come to Syria. “Is having glasses too much of a disadvantage,” one asked, “or is it a must to do lasik?” (Abu Hud advised him to skip the surgery and “buy prescription goggles.”) Another was curious if the medical marijuana he smoked for his chronic anxiety would be a problem. (Abu Hud, though not entirely sure, doubted ISIS’s leadership would condone weed — though he offered to ask.)
A particularly skilled manipulator, Abu Hud always reminded his fellow brothers and sisters that he, most of all, needed to heed his own advice, while at the same time nudging them toward a decision to “get your feet dusty,” a code for hijra. “You might be shedding tears thinking that you are sacrificing a great deal, but remember, your brothers and sisters are shedding blood,” he said, and later quoting the Prophet: “Whoever dies in a state whereby he never participated in jihad, nor did his soul ever desire this, then he has died on one of the branches of hypocrisy.”
Certainly, Mariyam’s soul desired jihad, though she knew she’d never be allowed to fight. Her role, she understood, would be as a wife who would help raise the next generation of mujahideen. She’d be restricted in her movements — ISIS women do not leave their homes without a mahram, a male family member who acts as their guardian, or without permission from their husbands, in which case they travel in groups — but that wasn’t so different from how she lived now. She never went anywhere alone. In fact, in some ways, life in a city like Raqqa might be better. She’d have a whole community of sisters, a group of ready-made friends, just waiting. And everyone, it seemed — at least everyone she talked to — was under 25.
The recruitment of women into ISIS is particularly complex, says Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank specializing in preventing and countering violent extremism. “It’s not that the women who are going there aren’t smart,” she says. “Some of them are extremely driven” — one ISIS wife is a doctor — “but somehow they’re convinced that this life is a calling. Most of these women are expecting when they get to Syria that they will be able to live as the ‘perfect Muslim woman’ as described by ISIS, which is very clear on their expectation about women: They will be married early, they will be serving the fighters, they will be helping to establish the state. And these girls are fine with it. They’re going to be part of the generation that builds the caliphate brick by brick.”
This impression has been relentlessly promoted by a select number of highly influential female recruiters who, like Abu Qaqa or Abu Hud, write extensively online about how to make hijra to Syria. Mariyam followed several of these women and was particularly enamored of the writings of a 20-year-old Scottish woman named Aqsa Mahmood, who blogs under the handle Umm Layth. Umm Layth is believed to have been instrumental in helping a number of Western girls get to “the lands of Jihad,” as she calls it, and her advice was both detailed and practical, advising them to bring their own makeup and jewelry (“Trust me, there is absolutely nothing here”), as well as an abundance of clothes and shoes, which contradicted Abu Hud’s advice. But Umm Layth was, after all, an ukhti. “There are clothes here, but Wallahi [I swear] the quality is really bad,” she said. “It’s a miracle if you find a top or trousers which last longer than a month. . . . The shoes here are also bad quality, in addition they only seem to have 3 sizes here.”
Umm Layth also explained their living conditions: Once in Syria, they’d be given a house, though as there was a waiting list for homes, they might be temporarily relegated to the “sister’s makar,” or headquarters, while their husbands lived with the men. There was no housing for single women, she reminded them, emphasizing the necessity of marriage simply to exist in ISIS society. And there was no way a woman could take part in combative jihad, she added. But hijra wasn’t just for fighting. In fact, their role was “even more important as women in Islam,” for if there weren’t women willing to “sacrifice all their desires and give up their families and lives in the West in order to make Hijrah and please Allah, then who will raise the next generation of Lions?”
These comments were written during the six months after Umm Layth first arrived in Syria, in November 2013. By September 2014, her missives had veered away from the practical to something more resembling fantasy. “There is something so pleasurable to know that what you have has been taken from the Kuffar and handed to you personally by Allah . . . as a gift,” she noted on her Tumblr, and then went on to list the war booty: refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, milkshake machines, “and most importantly a house with free electricity and water provided to you due to the Khilafah, and no rent included. Sounds great, right?”
It did, to Mariyam. And she became convinced that, just as Umm Layth said, “all those who have left their luxuries behind and made sincere hijra . . . will be taken care of.” In fact, Umm Layth promised, whatever they had in the dar al-kufr, “[Allah] will replace it with something even better.” It would be an amazing world of brothers and sisters, and she shouldn’t have too many regrets, for as Umm Layth, using techniques common to all religious cults, reminded the girls the family they’d get in exchange for leaving their other family behind “are like the pearl in comparison to the shell you threw away into the foam of the sea which is the Ummah.”
Mariyam wasn’t so worried about leaving her family — well, except her parents. Her brothers would come with her. As the oldest, Hamzah would likely be responsible for serving as his sister’s guardian, and he would also quite possibly be responsible for selecting her husband. He was of two minds on all of this. On the one hand, as he wrote his parents, he was motivated “to take as much of my family to live in the land of Islam.” And yet he wavered, wondering if hijra was really necessary. Hamzah might be willing to swear allegiance to ISIS, but even as he’d applied for passports and visas, he seems to have had his doubts. Did he actually have to go to Syria, he asked a British advocate of jihad named Abu Baraa, or could he just pledge and stay at home? Abu Baraa (who does not admit to pledging allegiance to the Islamic State) assured him that hijra wasn’t an absolute requirement, though, referencing the teachings of the Prophet, he added it was better to live a single day in obedience to the caliph than “to live and die in [ignorance].”
“I get questions like that from people all over the world,” Abu Baraa, who is 31, tells me from London recently, when we spoke on the phone. “Under certain conditions, living in an Islamic State is compulsory. For instance, if you’re not able to express your own beliefs in opposition to the beliefs of the people you’re living amongst, you’re obligated to go somewhere else. If you can’t fulfill your duties [as Muslims], if you are tempted to sin — all of these are circumstances where someone would be obliged. And for many Muslims living in America, one or all of these would apply to them.”
Abu Baraa is a former member of Al Muhajiroun (the Emigrants), a now-banned Islamist group led by the radical Anjem Choudary. Baraa has been arrested multiple times in England and is currently on bail on suspicion of supporting terrorism, resulting in his passport being rescinded by British authorities. Were that not the case, he too might have moved to the caliphate. Instead, as America prepared to begin airstrikes last summer, Abu Baraa reminded his YouTube followers that the world was divided into two camps. “Make sure you’re on the side of the Muslims,” he said. “You shouldn’t be on the side of the kuffar, nor should you be on the fence, neutral, saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ You have to defend the Muslims.”
Hamzah decided he had to be on the side of the Muslims. “Me, living in comfort with my family while my other family are getting killed is plain selfish of me,” he’d later write to his family. “I want to be ruled by the shariah, the best law for all mankind.”
The Khans are a close-knit family, and leaving their parents was an agonizing thought. Umm Layth had an answer for this. “There is no way you can make this easier for your parents,” she wrote on her blog. “Your parents will be hurt, you will be judged and viewed by society and it will not matter an inch. . . . The say of Allah is greater than that of all mankind put together.”
Day after day, wholly unknown to their parents, the Khans devoured steady streams of encouragement from the likes of Abu Qaqa, Abu Fariss, Umm Layth and their other new friends. “Don’t tweet about dawlah [the Islamic nation state] or jihad; don’t tell all your friends; don’t tell your family,” advised Abu Fariss on his Ask.fm page. Be careful online, he said, but also be careful in real life: “Don’t act suspicious. Don’t let your attitude change you because people will notice a change in you.”
And don’t worry if you don’t want to fight, a number of jihadists made clear, echoing Baghdadi’s own June 2014 call to Muslims to help build the Islamic State. “There’s a role for everybody,” one Canadian jihadist named Andre Poulin, a.k.a. Abu Muslim al-Canadi, was filmed saying in an ISIS recruitment video released in July, perhaps a year after Poulin was believed to have died in battle. “Mujahideen are regular people,” he said, who, if they couldn’t fight, could give money, or assist in technology, or “use some other skills.” This message was also conveyed to a degree in a five-part Vice documentary on the Islamic State that Hamzah, who subscribed to the Vice News channel on YouTube, didn’t like. “Man, I thought these Vice documentaries about IS will be good, but they suuucckk,” he tweeted on August 8th.
Right up until he left for his hijrah, Hamzah seemed to be ambivalent about the brutality of the new caliphate. “ISIS’s actions are just going to make our lives harder,” he wrote on September 2nd, 2014, the day the video showing the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff was released. A month later, just two days before they were scheduled to leave, he wrote, “Sometimes I wish I could just go to the desert to Mauritania, live under a sheik, study the Quran and be a shepherd, a simple life away from all this craziness.”
But for one reason or another — religious conviction, empathy, passion, naiveté, idealism, adventurism, maybe all of these — they decided to go. And so, just as Umm Layth and Abu Qaqa, and all the other muhajireen had advised, the Khan siblings quietly gathered their sleeping bags, some snacks and other gear, said nothing to their parents about their plans, and then the night before they left, sat down to write them letters.
Because of Mariyam’s perfectionism, she wrote two. “I didn’t realize how hard it is to leave your family, especially your parents and even more especially, your mother, behind,” she wrote in the most honest of the notes. “My heart is crying with the thought that I left you and that I will probably never see you again. . . . I love you more than the world, I swear I do.”
On January 13th, 2015, about a week after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, Hamzah Khan was formally arraigned at the Dirksen federal courthouse in Chicago, and pleaded not guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS. After the brief 10-minute hearing, the Khans’ lawyer, Tom Durkin, introduced Hamzah’s mother, Zarine, a tiny woman dressed in a dark coat and a paisley head scarf, her face uncovered in public for the first time in 20 years. “As parents, we feel compelled to speak out about the recent events in Paris, where we saw unspeakable acts of horror perpetrated by the recruiters for jihadist groups in the name of Islam,” she said shakily, and then denounced the vi
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