MINNEAPOLIS — Reading back over Abdi Nur’s Twitter feed, his chilling progression from the basketball courts of South Minneapolis to the battlefields of Syria is clear.
Early last year, he began posting stern religious pronouncements and snippets of scripture. By April 2, a day after turning 20, he hailed Islamic fighters: “If the sky would be proud of the existence of the stars, the land should be proud of the existence of the Mujahideen.”
On May 29, the day he disappeared, he posted, “I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” Soon he was in Turkey, rebuffing his mother’s and sister’s anguished pleas to come home. In late July, he declared, “What A Beautiful Day in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. Last Aug. 7, he posted a picture of himself online with his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov.
Mr. Nur had become one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.
A slightly built man with an easy smile, he is a rare example of an American fighting for the terror group whose story can be pieced together from online postings, interviews and public records. His case suggests that the Islamic State may rely on recruiters inside the United States and shows how hard it is to predict who will be swept away by ideological fervor.
Mr. Nur was enrolled in community college outside Minneapolis and spoke of becoming a lawyer. Then he started visiting a new mosque and dressing in more traditional garb. He plotted his getaway with a friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, but their fates starkly diverged. Mr. Yusuf was stopped as he tried to leave the country and is now in a Minneapolis halfway house, part of a closely watched experiment to spare him a long prison term and give him a role dissuading others attracted to terrorism.
The number of Americans drawn to the Islamic State remains modest, especially by comparison with the 3,000 or so who have joined the group from Europe. More than two dozen men and women have been stopped by the F.B.I. and charged before they could fly away. Social media posts and court records suggest that perhaps another two dozen have made it to the group in Syria, though even intelligence agencies do not have an exact count. At least four Americans have died fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
With no clear pattern among recruits, law enforcement officials have scrambled to identify people attracted to the terror group in time to intervene — blocking their travel or potentially stopping a plot at home.
Most of the American ISIS volunteers display an earnest religious zeal, usually newfound. In an incongruous touch, several have visited malls to buy athletic gear before leaving for jihad — Mr. Nur, for instance, went to Macy’s for Nike apparel, the F.B.I. discovered.
The majority of the Islamic State recruits are men, but there are quite a few women. The volunteers include teenagers too young to drive and middle-aged adults with families and careers; petty criminals and diligent students. A substantial minority are converts to Islam, while others are the children of immigrants with roots in 10 Muslim countries.
The only cluster in the country is in Minneapolis, where two dozen young men with Somali roots departed in recent years to fight with the Shabab, the affiliate of Al Qaeda in Somalia. Now, to the distress of Somali elders, more than a dozen others have left or have tried to leave to join ISIS.
But the trickle of volunteers has come from across the country. On Tuesday, a 47-year-old Air Force veteran with a checkered work history was charged in Brooklyn with trying to join the Islamic State. Two weeks earlier, a computer-savvy 17-year-old boy in Virginia was charged with helping a man a few years older make contact with the terrorist group and get to Syria.
A 50-page guide for Islamic State volunteers was distributed online in February, offering practical travel advice on what to pack, and more tailored counsel on how to avoid detection by the authorities.
The cases raise a pressing question: Is the slick online propaganda that ISIS has mastered enough to lure recruits, or is face-to-face persuasion needed? A federal grand jury in Minneapolis is investigating whether an Islamic State recruiter gave Mr. Nur and Mr. Yusuf cash to buy plane tickets.
“No young person gets up one day and says, ‘I’m going to join ISIS,’ ” said Abdirizak Bihi, 50, a Somali activist who has worked against radicalization since his nephew left Minnesota in 2008 and was killed fighting for the Shabab.
“There has to be someone on the ground to listen to your problems and channel your anger,” Mr. Bihi said. “Online is like graduate studies.”
Travel Guide for Jihadists
Biographies are most complete on those caught at airports trying to leave the United States. Michael Todd Wolfe, 23, a convert to Islam from Texas with a record of assault and theft charges, for example, was stopped at the Houston airport. He had agonized over whether he would fit better with the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
F.B.I. agents were waiting at the Denver airport for Shannon Conley, a 19-year-old who thought she could use her skills as a nurse’s aide to help ISIS fighters. She hoped to marry a Tunisian recruiter for the Islamic State whom she had met online.
Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, took his younger brother and sister with him to O’Hare airport in Chicago, where agents intercepted them. He left his parents a long letter saying he could not stay in the United States because his taxes might be used to kill Muslims overseas.
Recruits have a remarkable ISIS travel guide to draw on, called “Hijrah to the Islamic State” — hijrah meaning “emigration” or “journey.” Distributed on the web since February, the 50-page book mixes Fodor’s-style advice on electrical plugs and packing — “I also advise a backpack with many small pockets” — with more tailored counsel, including the Twitter accounts of 15 men and three women with ISIS in Syria who offer guidance.
“Use a software to ‘hide’ all jihadi material you might be bringing,” the book warns, in flawed English. It advises travelers on what to tell suspicious officials in Turkey, the usual transit country. It comically alters a Turkish visa form to add a new checkbox for “purpose of trip”: “Commit jihad in Syria.” It advises travelers to check “tourism” instead.
For the most part, the Americans who have reached ISIS can be glimpsed only through their occasional online appearances, hidden behind screen names. Anat Agron, who studies the online trails of English-speaking foreign fighters in Syria for the Middle East Media Research Institute, said she had tracked six men and three women who credibly claimed to be Americans now with ISIS.
Ms. Agron also found a young woman who calls herself Chloe, a Muslim convert from San Francisco who appears to have married a Welsh fighter who joined the Nusra Front. Both posted pictures of their cat on Twitter, along with expressions of marital devotion. Chloe’s posts are mostly religious exclamations or lighthearted remarks about her life in Syria, including the niqab, or face veil.
“At the market being hugged by every little kid with a niqabi mother lol #niqabproblems#notyomama,” she tweeted on March 8. Another woman calling herself “Umm Jihad” posted a picture of an American passport, along with the passports of three other Western women. “Bonfire soon,” she wrote on Twitter, “no need for these anymore.”
A man posting online as Bandar al-Californi documented his preparations for hijrah in a long-running Twitter series. “I have much to do yet. Learn Arabic, save money, plan my course,” he wrote last November, adding that he was giving himself six months to leave.
Abdi Nur in an image posted to Facebook in August. Mr. Nur, who used “DustyFeet” and other screen names, was upbeat in his early Twitter posts from Syria but later hinted at homesickness.
“What an honor,” he tweeted to a self-described Islamic State fighter. “I hope to be in Sham soon,” he added, using a name for greater Syria. His Twitter account was suspended late last year, making it hard to say if he had succeeded.
Then there are those who encountered the violence of the Islamic State and the brutal war it is fighting. One American from Pennsylvania and three from Minnesota have died in combat with the group. Last month, when masked militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, their leader spoke to the video camera in American-accented English, leading to speculation that he might have lived in the United States.
On March 2, ISIS-linked Twitter accounts claimed that a suicide truck bombing outside the Iraqi city of Samarra was carried out by “Abu Dawoud al-Amriki,” a nom de guerre that indicated he was an American. Officials say they have not been able to determine the bomber’s identity.
‘Who Brain Washed You?’
Because Mr. Nur, the Minneapolis man, is active on social media and has been charged in absentia with supporting ISIS, his story is easier to follow than most. His family declined to be interviewed. “They are devastated,” said Omar Jamal, a Somali-American activist in Minneapolis who spoke to family members. “They are afraid.” They are worried that anything they say might somehow endanger their son in Syria or relatives in Somalia, he said, in addition to attracting a hostile reaction from neighbors and co-workers.
Mr. Nur’s immigrant parents most likely did not see that by late March of last year, he was posting a quote from Anwar al-Awlaki, the late American recruiter for Al Qaeda: “We are fighting for truth and justice and you (americans/westerners) are fighting for oppression and worldly gain.”
Somehow “you” had become his fellow Americans. “We” were the jihadists. It was a few weeks after Mr. Nur and Mr. Yusuf had begun visiting a new mosque in Bloomington, outside Minneapolis. It was there that they became interested in ISIS, which was not yet associated with the videotaped beheadings of Westerners that would come later.
A passport specialist, suspicious when Mr. Yusuf applied for an expedited passport and seemed vague about its purpose, alerted the F.B.I. On May 28, agents intercepted Mr. Yusuf at the Minneapolis airport and kept him from boarding. They found that the blue Volkswagen Jetta that had dropped him off belonged to the boyfriend of Mr. Nur’s sister. But when they searched for Mr. Nur late on May 29, they learned he had left the country hours earlier.
Word that he was missing was a blow for the city’s large Somali community. “It went out like wildfire that he had left and nobody knew where he had gone,” said Abdirizak Warsame, a friend and, like Mr. Nur, a 2013 high school graduate. They had played basketball together just a few days earlier. “I had no clue,” he said.
The next day, May 30, Mr. Nur’s older sister, Ifrah, walked to the police station near the family’s apartment to report his disappearance. Over the next day or so, she managed to reach him in Turkey via messages on Facebook and an app called Kik. Their exchanges are recorded in court papers.
She challenged him, saying that their father “went into shock” and telling him that “going to kill poor people is not the answer.” She made an emotional appeal: “respond to me I love u and can’t live knowing this.” He gently put her off, saying that “if I didn’t care I wouldn’t have left but I want jannah” — paradise — “for all of us.”
During his early months in Syria, Mr. Nur was upbeat and posted frequently online. He was teaching English (“Got a Full Class”), trading tips on handguns and pistols, expressing excitement about fighting Kurdish forces (“Never Felt So Hyped”) and praising the “amazing brothers” with him. On Aug. 7, he answered questions on the website Ask.fm, including some from angry friends in Minneapolis.
“Who brain washed you?” one asked.
Mr. Nur was unfazed. “The Words of Allah, The Quran, that’s what brain washed me,” he wrote.
ISIS Recruits in the United States
Since 2013, 29 people in the United States have been charged or detained as juveniles on allegations of supporting the Islamic State, usually after trying to travel to Syria to fight for the terrorist group. Two dozen other Americans are believed to either be with the Islamic State or to have been killed in the fighting.
Source: Federal court records
The New York Times
But there were hints of homesickness — multiple messages about the mothers of jihadists — and his posts fell off. “Oh Mother Be Patient,” he wrote, suggesting that they would be reunited in the afterlife.
Experiment in Rehabilitation
Since then, two related dramas have unfolded in Minneapolis. The federal grand jury investigating recruitment has called many young Somalis as witnesses. According to people who have talked to him, Mr. Yusuf said he received $1,500 for his plane ticket to Turkey from a young acquaintance who claimed he got it from a local man.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Bloomington mosque, Al Farooq Youth and Family Center, have publicly accused Amir Meshal, a 31-year-old mosque volunteer, of encouraging militancy among the teens there.
“When they learned in June that this particular individual was spreading radical views, they had him banned from the premises,” said Jordan Kushner, a lawyer for the mosque. A complaint filed with the police speaks of “concerns about Meshal interacting with our youth.” Officials at a second local mosque made a similar complaint about Mr. Meshal in local media.
Mr. Meshal, an American citizen originally from New Jersey who has been involved in a long-running lawsuit against the federal government, said in a statement, “I would never suggest that anyone join ISIS or any other group that kills innocent people, nor would I provide money to do so.”
In his 2009 civil rights lawsuit, Mr. Meshal accused F.B.I. agents and other American officials of threatening him while he was imprisoned secretly for four months in 2007 in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. By his account, he was studying Islam in Somalia when fighting broke out; the government claims he got weapons training and helped translate for leaders of the Shabab.
His lawsuit was dismissed last year, though the judge called his treatment “appalling.” The case is now on appeal.
Mr. Yusuf, Mr. Nur’s co-defendant, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for terrorism and faces a maximum sentence of 15 years. But in an experiment being watched nationally, Judge Michael J. Davis of Federal District Court agreed to a presentence plan to divert Mr. Yusuf to a halfway house with the support of Heartland Democracy, an education nonprofit in Minneapolis. He worked at Best Buy and attended community college until late November, when he was jailed for a time in connection with his attempt to travel to Syria. His supporters are now working with the court to get him back in classes and eventually back in a job.
The idea, said Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, is to gradually reintegrate Mr. Yusuf into the community, and possibly give him a role in countering the radicalization of young people.
“Ideally, Abdullahi will be able to tell his story in a way that is useful to young people who are frustrated and disengaged,” Ms. McKinley said. His lawyer, Jean M. Brandl, said her client was not prepared to speak publicly.
Federal prosecutors opposed giving Mr. Yusuf a break, noting that he had lied to F.B.I. agents at the airport. But Judge Davis, who knows the Somali community well enough to ask about clans and sub-clans, went along with the plan, intended to reduce the chasm between Somalis and law enforcement officials. Parents and friends concerned about a young person drawn to the Islamic State are more likely to call the police, advocates say, if they believe there is an alternative to a long prison sentence.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Mr. Nur, or someone using his account, still occasionally posts on Twitter. If he has regrets, he does not acknowledge them. In January, he praised the two gunmen who attacked a satirical newspaper in Paris: “Well well well done Iqwah,” or brothers, he wrote. On March 2, he posted a photograph of Beretta handguns, adding: “How Sweet Does That Look.”
His most recent post came on March 8. “All Warfare,” he wrote, “Is Based on Deception.”
Correction: March 29, 2015
An article last Sunday about Americans recruited by the Islamic State misstated the affiliation of the husband of a Muslim convert from San Francisco who calls herself Chloe online. He is a fighter with the Nusra Front, not the Islamic State. Because of that error, the article also misstated the number of American women that Anat Agron, a researcher with the Middle East Media Research Institute, said are associated with the Islamic State. It is three, not four. The article also misstated the current status of Abdullahi Yusuf, who was caught trying to leave Minneapolis for Syria and is awaiting sentencing. He does not currently work at Best Buy or attend community college because his work and studies were interrupted when he was jailed for a time starting in late November. (His supporters say they are working with the court to get him re-enrolled in classes and eventually back to work.)
© 2016 The New York Times Company