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Father of Pro-Islamic State Teen seeks Answers for missing son: FBI believes Zacharia Yusuf joined Islamic State

Abdurahman blames Somali education centers, which he said do not protect children from radical religious thought

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Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, right, does volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity in northern Minneapolis as a teenager. VOA

It was midmorning Nov. 9, 2014, when two FBI agents visited the Minneapolis home of Yusuf Aden Abdurahman. They asked if he knew the whereabouts of his son, Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20.

“To our knowledge, he is in town, in college,” the elder Abdurahman told them.

The agents informed him that the FBI had stopped his son at JFK airport in New York as he prepared to board a flight to Athens via Moscow. He hadn’t been arrested, the agents said, but the FBI had reason to believe Zacharia had planned to make his way to Syria to join Islamic State.

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Abdurahman and his wife looked at each other. “I felt the sky has fallen on us,” he said.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20, shown in a 2015 photo from the Sherburne County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office, is among seven Minnesota men of Somali descent that have been charged with attempting to join the Islamic State group. VOA
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20, shown in a 2015 photo from the Sherburne County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office, is among seven Minnesota men of Somali descent that have been charged with attempting to join the Islamic State group. VOA

That was nothing compared to the feeling five months later, when Zacharia was arrested, this time for co-planning a scheme to obtain false passports, travel from Minnesota to Mexico, and fly overseas to hook up with IS, an organization the U.S. government has designated as a foreign terrorist group.

In September 2015, Zacharia pleaded guilty to conspiring to travel to Syria in an effort to provide material support to IS. He is one of six who pleaded guilty to the same charge; they await sentencing in November. Each could get up to 15 years in jail.

Seeking answers

Zacharia’s attempt to join IS has led his father to question how his son could have been radicalized into an Islamist militant. It’s a problem that has plagued Minnesota’s Somali-American community for a decade since the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab began recruiting in the state.

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Zacharia did not seem a likely recruit for such groups. He was born in Minneapolis in 1995, part of the first generation of Somali-Americans to be U.S. citizens from birth.

Abdurahman says he was close to his son, played games with him, took him to movies. He says he and his wife loved Zacharia and pushed him to succeed. “We came to live in a country different in culture to ours, so we ran and worked hard to get him into education,” Abdurahman said.

The work seemed to be paying off. After nine years of public school, Zacharia attended a local Somali charter high school and graduated in 2013. After a year off, he enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College with the goal of becoming a software engineer. He also got a job at Hennepin County Hospital.

But IS sympathizers got their hooks in him anyway, his father said. Abdurahman blames Somali education centers, which he said do not protect children from radical religious thought.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman at his graduation from the Heritage Academy of Science and Technology, a school of mostly Somali-American students, in Minneapolis in 2014. VOA
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman at his graduation from the Heritage Academy of Science and Technology, a school of mostly Somali-American students, in Minneapolis in 2014. VOA

“When something happens among these students it stays among them, there is no one from a different culture who says. ‘No, I don’t see it that way, this is the correct way … what you are involved in is not religious, don’t do crazy,'” he said.

Deqa Hussein, whose son also pleaded guilty to the same charges as Zacharia, agrees.

“I took him to Quran school when he was 16 years old. At 18 years old, the FBI contacted me and said your son is palling around, walking with, dining with a group of people whom we are suspicious of,” she said.

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Hussein adds that she is not saying the teachers or imams recruited her son for Islamic State. But they didn’t safeguard him either.

“There are people who live with us in this country, who look like us, who have the same religion as us, but differ in interpretations,” she said. “The people who recruited my son have used Quran school and mosques as a cover.”

Hiding responsibility

Sheikh Ahmed Tajir, the imam of Ummatul Islam Center, says the criticism is not justified.

“Somali-chartered schools … and Quran schools play an important role,” he said. “The management are Somalis, the children meet their cousins and uncles in these schools, and they protect our good culture.”

He defends mosques, as well.

Map. VOA
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. VOA

“The mosques deserve honor and respect,” he said. “They are doing the work of religious ministries. They deserve blessing, they produce hundreds of Quran memorizing students, and they bring back hundreds from falling off the train.”

But Abdirizaka Bihi, a Minneapolis community leader, says mosques should not be in denial. Bihi’s nephew Burhan Hassan traveled to Somalia in 2008 to join al-Shabab and died there.

“Most of the young people who traveled to join ISIS or al-Shabab, [it’s] known which mosques they used to go to and the messages they used to hear. We should not hide from it,” Bihi said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

“A young man who was born here, who goes to cinemas in the Mall of America or a university is not just going to wake up one morning, go to Google and then say I’m looking for al-Shabab and ISIS, or I want to find out somewhere I can blow myself up. There are people who mentor and prepare them,” Bihi said.

Abdurahman says he is very pleased that his son was arrested before he traveled to Syria. He now regularly visits his son in prison. He says Zacharia regrets what he has done.

“He has missed playing with kids, school, friends and the family, and above all, his actions interrupted his plans to marry,” he said. “A girl was ready to marry him, but now who is going to wait for a loser?” (VOA)

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We Will make you Zero To Hero: This is how Jihadist ISIS Lures Western potential Recruits

The Chicago Project on Security and Threats has concluded that ISIS often targets Western recruits with heroic outcomes

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ISIS actively Lures Recruits from the West for its Jihadi Agenda
FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria, June 30, 2014. VOA

Beyond the slick, Hollywood-style cinematics, the Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos suggesting they, too, can be heroes like Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard.

That’s the conclusion of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which analyzed some 1,400 videos released by IS between 2013 and 2016. Researchers who watched and catalogued them all said there is more to the recruitment effort than just sophisticated videography, and it’s not necessarily all about Islam.

Instead, Robert Pape, who directs the security center, said the extremist group is targeting Westerners — especially recent Muslim converts — with videos that follow, nearly step-by-step, a screenwriter’s standard blueprint for heroic storytelling.

ISIS targets Western recruits with Hollywood style heroism
Islamic State is recruiting Westerns by using Hollywood-style cinematics, like that seen in the story of “Wonder Woman,” in which a character learns his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero. VOA

“It’s the heroic screenplay journey, the same thing that’s in Wonder Woman, where you have someone who is learning his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero,” Pape said.

Heroic storytelling

The project at the University of Chicago separately has assembled a database of people who have been indicted in the United States for activities related to IS. Thirty-six percent were recent converts to Islam and did not come from established Muslim communities, according to the project. Eighty-three percent watched IS videos, the project said.

Bruce Willis in movie Die Hard 4.0
FILE – U.S. actor Bruce Willis poses for the photographers during a photo call for his new movie “Die Hard 4.0” in Berlin, Germany, June 18, 2007. VOA

The group’s success in using heroic storytelling is prompting copycats, Pape said. The research shows al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate has been mimicking IS’ heroic narrative approach in its own recruitment films. “We have a pattern that’s emerging,” Pape said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials aren’t sure the approach is all that new. They say IS has been using any method that works to recruit Westerners. Other terrorism researchers think IS’ message is still firmly rooted in religious extremism.

Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, agrees that IS makes strong, visual appeals resembling Hollywood movies and video games, making its media operation more successful than al-Qaida’s. And IS videos can attract hero wannabes, she said.

“However, these features of IS media are only assets to a core message it uses to recruit,” Katz said. “At the foundation of IS recruitment propaganda is not so much the promise to be a Hollywood-esque hero, but a religious hero. There is a big difference between the two.”

Promise of martyrdom

When a fighter sits in front of a camera and calls for attacks, Katz said, he will likely frame it as revenge for Muslims killed or oppressed somewhere in the world. The message is designed to depict any terror attack in that nation as justified and allow the attacker to die as a martyr, she said.

The promise of religious martyrdom is powerful to anybody regardless of whether they are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, steeped in religion or not at all, she said.

Pape said he knows he’s challenging conventional wisdom when he says Westerners are being coaxed to join IS ranks not because of religious beliefs, but because of the group’s message of personal empowerment and Western concepts of individualism.

How else can one explain Western attackers’ loose connections to Islam, or their scarce knowledge of IS’s strict, conservative Sharia law, he asked. IS is embracing, not rejecting, Western culture and ideals, to mobilize Americans, he said.

“This is a journey like Clint Eastwood,” Pape said, recalling Eastwood’s 1970s performance in High Plains Drifter about a stranger who doles out justice in a corrupt mining town. “When Clint Eastwood goes in to save the town, he’s not doing it because he loves them. He even has contempt for the people he’s saving. He’s saving it because he’s superior,” Pape said.

“That’s Bruce Willis in Die Hard. That’s Wonder Woman. … Hollywood has figured out that’s what puts hundreds of millions in theater seats,” Pape said. “IS has figured out that’s how to get Westerners.”

12-step guide

Pape said the narrative in the recruitment videos targeting westerners closely tracks Chris Vogler’s 12-step guide titled “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” The book is based on a narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama and other storytelling.

Step No. 1 in Vogler’s guide is portraying a character in his “ordinary world.”

An example is a March 25, 2016, video released by al-Qaida’s Syria branch about a young British man with roots in the Indian community. It starts: “Let us tell you the story of a real man … Abu Basir, as we knew him, came from central London. He was a graduate of law and a teacher by profession.”

Vogler’s ninth step is about how the hero survives death, emerging from battle to begin a transformation, sometimes with a prize.

In the al-Qaida video, the Brit runs through sniper fire in battle. He then lays down his weapon and picks up a pen to start his new vocation blogging and posting Twitter messages for the cause.

‘Zero to hero’

Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it doesn’t surprise him that IS would capitalize on what he dubs the “zero to hero” strategy because the organization is very pragmatic and accepts recruits regardless of their commitment to Islamic extremism.

Heroic aspirations are only one reason for joining the ranks of IS, he said. Criminals also seek the cover of IS to commit crimes. Others sign up because they want to belong to something.

“I’ve never seen a case of radicalization that was 100 percent one way or the other,” Levitt said. (VOA)

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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

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Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Will the Latest Message From Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Provoke New Attacks in the West?

IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses in United States and Europe

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This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA)

Washington, September 30, 2017 : U.S. intelligence officials examining the latest audio statement claiming to be from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi say, so far, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

However, there are questions as to whether the message from the leader of the collapsing, self-declared caliphate will cause IS operatives to spring into action. Some analysts see Baghdadi’s continued call to arms as almost a shot in the dark, aimed at rekindling interest despite the terror group’s fading fortunes in Syria and Iraq.

The still-early U.S. intelligence assessment comes just a day after the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing issued the 46-minute audio recording featuring Baghdadi, in which he calls on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

“Continue your jihad and your blessed operations and do not let the crusaders rest in their homes and enjoy life and stability while your brethren are being shelled and killed,” he says.

islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter takes cover behind a wall on a street where they fight against Islamic State militants, on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria (VOA)

Despite such threats, U.S. officials say the release of the latest audio message is not changing Washington’s approach.

“We are aware of the tape,” a National Security Council spokesman said Friday. “But whether it’s al-Baghdadi or any member of ISIS, the Trump administration’s policy is destroying ISIS in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

Still, intelligence and counterterror officials, both in the United States and in Europe, warn that IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses on the ground.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week, calling IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

And while Western counterterror officials say the expected wave of returning IS foreign fighters has yet to materialize, the experience and skill sets of the operatives who have made it back home are ample reasons to worry.

But some caution the new Baghdadi audio message may have more to do with the terror group’s long-term strategy than its desire to carry out attacks in the near term.

“The broadcast boosts morale by contextualizing the hardships facing the group as their losses accumulate by reminding Islamic State militants and their supporters that day-to-day actions are part of a broader struggle, and metrics of progress shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum,” according to Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI).

ALSO READ  intelligence officials , Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Furqan, war, enemies, threats, US officials, raqqa, National Security Council, isis, Iraq, Syria, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, terrorism, Terror Asymmetrics Project ,

Parker also believes that while it is “extremely unlikely” the latest Baghdadi audio will spark or accelerate any IS plots, it might prevent fraying within the organization’s ranks.

“Baghdadi’s silence during the final days of IS’s battle for Mosul was a sore point for many IS fighters and supporters who felt confused and abandoned by their leader,” she added. “This statement was likely released in part to avoid that sentiment with respect to the fight to retain ground in Raqqa.” (VOA)