New Details On Virginia Teen Turned ISIS Recruiter: ‘We Were Hipsters. We Liked ISIS Before It Was Popular’
The 17 year-old Virginia boy who admitted to running a pro-Islamic State Twitter account befriended a Finland-based fundamentalist two years before.
Abdullah, a 20 year-old Muslim convert, revealed his connection to Ali Shukri Amin and analyzed the phenomenon of online radicalization, speaking with The Daily Caller News Foundation over Skype on Wednesday.
TheDCNF contacted Abdullah via Twitter after he tweeted that he knew @AmreekiWitness, referring to Amin’s Twitter persona. Although Amin’s case drew publicity after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide material support for the Islamic State on June 11, his path toward extremism remains unclear.
The young, fundamentalist Muslims connected over social media, and at certain points, Abdullah and Amin were speaking every day. They used messaging apps like Kik and WhatsApp, as well as Skype. Abdullah scrolled through some Kik messages he’d shared with Amin, showing TheDCNF over video chat.
“We had a really close relationship even though we lived in different countries,” said Abdullah.
Their interactions ranged from discussing Islamic ideology to sharing holiday pictures. Abdullah showed The DCNF a selfie Amin took during a trip to Niagra Falls.
Abdullah was unaware of Amin having any hobbies or enjoying sports, emphasizing Islam was the main focus of Amin’s life. “Islam… draws a person away from useless spending of time. It’s just the way Islam is by nature,” said Abdullah. “He [Amin] was religiously motivated from a young age.”
Amin’s mother and family “did try to call him away,” says Abdullah. “They tried to pull him away from extremism.”
“With young people, it’s easy to have a different online persona. It’s easy to be radicalized without your family even knowing it,” said Abdullah. And he would know.
Abdullah once ran the second most followed pro-Islamic State, English-language Twitter account, using the handle @Mujaahid4Life, according to Newsweek. After converting to Islam in 2012, Abdullah prepared to join al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria in 2013 but was stopped by Finnish authorities.
“When they [converts] don’t know the religion and they don’t have anything to guide them, it’s very easy for them to become radicalized,” said Abdullah.
Yet it wasn’t until Abdullah saw the Islamic State behead British aid worker Alan Henning in 2014 that doubts about the terror group’s methods began filling his mind. In January, he started reading Islamic theology and couldn’t find anything to justify the Islamic State’s actions.
Abdullah says he started to fall out of jihadist circle online in April. After taking a hiatus from social media, Abdullah has now returned to Twitter and seeks to counter the Islamic State’s extremist messages.
“I don’t support any terrorist groups, but I still believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam,” Abdullah told TheDCNF.
During the height of their online connection, Abdullah and Amin were vocal supporters of jihad. “We were like hipsters,” said Abdullah. “We supported ISIS before it was popular. We weren’t floating with the trend.”
Communication dwindled late last summer, when Amin told Abdullah he felt the authorities were watching him and wanted to lower his profile.
Abdullah sent The DCNF a screenshot of text messages he says are from Amin, sent last September. They reveal details about the involvement of law enforcement officials and Amin’s attitude in the months leading up to his arrest.
“They said they’ve been watching me for a year,” wrote Amin.
If referring to the FBI, as Abdullah claims, it contradicts a statement made by Andrew McCabe, assistant director of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. McCabe claimed the agency was first tipped to Amin’s support for the Islamic State in November of 2014, as reported by The Washington Post.
But if Amin’s text is accurate, the FBI had been watching him since at least September of 2013. It also implies agents spoke to Amin directly, although nothing of this nature was revealed by court documents or the press.
TheDCNF contacted another of Amin’s online contacts to investigate further. Mubin Shaikh, a former jihadi supporter, renounced his views and became an undercover agent for Canadian intelligence, working to foil terrorist plots.
After being contacted by TheDCNF via Twitter, Shaikh agreed to speak over the phone Friday. Shaikh says he became acquainted with Amin over social media last year.
He explained his connection with Islamic State supporters online, saying: “I engage them to talk them out of it, as much as possible,” said Shaikh. “[I try to] at least plant seeds of thinking, because a lot of these guys, they don’t think.”
From the start of Shaikh’s conversation with The DCNF, he described Amin as “an angry young man.”
Shaikh says Amin told him the FBI officials were talking to his friends and later visited his home. He didn’t know the date the purported meeting took place. According to Shaikh, Amin’s mother “freaked out” and made him live with a cousin for an indefinite amount of time.
“I told him that this is serious,” said Shaikh. “They don’t just show up for no reason.” The ex-extremist says he tried convincing him to stop, but Amin acted like everything was in God’s hands.
Shaikh said Amin’s perspective was naive and that the young Virginia teen was “too smug for his own good.”
In the latter messages of Amin’s texts with Abdullah, he says: “So Allahu alam [God knows best]. Maybe the duroos [lessons] on Amreekis Twitter was too much for them.” Amin refrained from writing in first person for security reasons, referring to his Twitter handle in third person, according to Abdullah.
“But they have no proof for anything,” wrote Amin, convinced he’d outsmarted law enforcement.
With an apparent sense of defiance, Amin’s allegiance to the Islamic State rose to an entirely new level. He began trying to convert an 18 year-old to radical Islam, according to Amin’s plea agreement, obtained by TheDCNF.
Then, Amin connected Reza Niknejad to an Islamic State supporter abroad in late November or early December. Amin had Islamic State contacts in Iraq and Syria but especially the latter, says Abdullah.
The details of the connection between Amin and Niknejad are limited. They were both born abroad – Amin in Sudan and Niknejad in Iran, becoming American citizens in early youth. And they attended Osbourn Park High School in Manassas. Niknejad graduated in 2014 and Amin planned to graduate last week.
“My understanding was that he [Amin] was a good student,” said Abdullah. “He never mentioned any issues with school because he was such a regular student.” Amin spoke perfect English and also knew the Sudanese dialect of Arabic, Abdullah added.
Although it is unclear whether Amin tried to convert anyone else in his community, Abdullah says Amin sent him two or three private audio links to lessons he taught at a mosque in Woodbridge. The only mosque with a Woodbridge address is Masjid Al-Falah, but a spokesperson did not respond to the DCNF’s calls or email for comment.
Amin connected Niknejad with an Islamic State supporter abroad in December, according to his plea agreement. The jihadi sent Amin a package with supplies to help Niknejad join the Islamic State in early January, but the FBI intercepted it.
Abdullah says he last spoke with Amin in January. Amin mentioned an “Iranian brother” and convert to Islam, but never mentioned Niknejad by name.
On Jan. 14, Niknejad told his family he was going camping, and it was the last time they saw him. An unidentified accomplice, who also attended Osbourn Park High School, drove Amin and Niknejad to Dulles International Airport.
During the ride, Amin told Niknejad how he could connect with Islamic State sympathizers in Turkey, crossing into jihadi-held territory in Syria, according to his plea agreement. A few days later, an Islamic State militant confirmed Niknejad’s arrival to Amin.
“I don’t want to defend Ali. I condemn his actions but I can’t condemn him as a person, per say,” said Abdullah. “He wasn’t an evil person. He wasn’t someone who was evil by his character”
Amin spoke about joining the Islamic State abroad but didn’t think he could do it yet, according to Abdullah. “I don’t remember the exact reasons he gave,” added Abdullah, admitting it could have been in Amin’s future plans.
But he never had the chance. In February, Amin was arrested. After hearing the news, Abdullah says: “I was really sad. He’s [Amin] such an intelligent person. I thought he would have gone away from extremist ideologies.”
The DCNF asked Abdullah why Amin adopted radical Islam, and speaking generally, he said radicalization can be related to identity issues. Young Muslims feel discord between adhering to traditional values while living in a secular, Western environment.
But others are just looking for an ideology to “latch onto,” according to Abdullah.
“I do miss our conversation. I miss him as a person, but what he did was wrong,” said Abdullah. “I do pray he is really able to de-radicalize himself somehow, because he would be a huge help to counter-terrorism,” said Abdullah.
Abdullah asked to remain anonymous, fearing for his family’s safety after coming out against the Islamic State online. “I face a lot of abuse from pro-ISIS supporters,” said Abdullah.
He says no U.S. law enforcement officials have contacted him, despite having had frequent contact with Amin.
The FBI declined to comment on any aspect of this article.
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