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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

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)

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)