EXCLUSIVE STORY FROM VOCATIV: In recent months, as ISIS began executing Western hostages and dialing up multiple threats to attack property and citizens in the U.S., Vocativ’s analysts have been using our deep web technology to uncover a potential ISIS presence in America.
Two Americans have been charged in the past month with allegedly attempting to hatch attacks against American targets on behalf of ISIS, and an Oklahoma man named Alton Nolen beheaded a co-worker last Thursday at a food distribution plant. Colleagues say Nolen had been actively trying to convert them to Islam, and his Facebook page is riddled with radical missives like “Sharia law is coming!”
Over the past few weeks, Vocativ’s analysts have been able to home in on a network of ISIS supporters in the U.S. We’ve found dozens of Americans who openly support the militant Islamic group.
In many ways, they’re just like you. They post selfies on Twitter and Facebook, share memes, hang out with friends. They talk about their favorite TV shows, movies and music. They share news about their families.
But they’re also pledging support to the brutal regime seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East.
One American ISIS supporter is a young man from New York City who is now studying at a prominent Jesuit university in the Midwest. (Vocativ has chosen not to reveal the names or specific location details of the ISIS supporters we’ve identified.) The ISIS flag serves as his Facebook profile banner, and he has also posted a picture of a man wearing a balaclava and carrying a sword on his back with the phrase “Under the Shade of the Sword,” a reference to an infamous book about the clash of Christianity and Islam. A favorite quote—”How can you defeat an enemy who looks into the barrel of your gun and sees paradise?”—is attributed to a Russian general speaking of the Chechen mujahideen.
It’s a stark contrast to the rest of his profile, which features smiling graduation pictures and outings to a pool with a young woman.
We reached out to the university student, but he did not respond to our queries. We did, however, speak with his mother by phone. She says the family moved to the Midwest from New York five years ago. The family is originally from East Africa, but she says her son, who was born in the U.S., has never left the country. He is a freshman in college, where he is on scholarship and majoring in chemistry. He is beginning to make friends with other chemistry majors at the school, she says.
She says he hopes to go on to graduate school and get a job with a big American company. “He says he wants to work for P&G [Proctor & Gamble],” she says. Asked how we could reach her son, she says he is “never doing anything but studying” and “doesn’t have a phone.”
Minutes after we spoke with the mom, her son’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were taken down.
We called the police department in the city where the teen’s university is located. A police spokesperson says the student we identified had “potentially put out questionable messages through social media.” The spokesperson says at the very moment we’d called, members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force—which consists of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement—were meeting to determine the threat level posed by the student: “I am sitting here right now with a couple of agents who have received some information and begun working on something.”
A second ISIS supporter was raised in the Midwest and currently lives in a large Texas city. His page is filled with photos of ISIS flags and banners, propaganda videos and portraits of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as statements of disdain for the U.S.
The man describes himself as a married college student majoring in engineering management. He has also posted a number of selfies, often wearing a flowing black djellaba with an ISIS emblem embroidered on the front. In many of these photos, he is seen out on city streets, distributing propaganda for the militant group.
Earlier this year, the man was kicked off the property of a prominent local mosque for spreading extremist messages, and was turned away multiple times when he tried to return. During one such incident, which he filmed selfie-style, he shouted the name of al-Baghdadi as he was being led away. He has also posted pictures of the ISIS flag juxtaposed with the American flag to one of his social accounts; one of the photos was taken at a park in a major city in the Midwest.
We asked the FBI about the Texas student. They say their field agents were reviewing videos, photos and other media of the young man that were circulating online, including images showing him in ISIS garb waiting in line at a deli and sitting in the back seat of a squad car after police detained him. “We were made aware of the social media reports of that individual,” a spokeswoman says. Vocativ reached out to the man, but has not heard back.
A third American ISIS supporter we identified is a woman who lives in Minnesota. She has posted a number of ISIS propaganda videos, as well as pictures of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric and senior Al Qaeda operative who died in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. She also talks about mundane things like Nutella and duck face selfies, as well as her love of the movies Hunger Games,Twilight and Shrek. Plus, she’s a fan of her local WNBA team, the Lynx.
She didn’t respond to emails, but we called the mosque where she works; an administrator says the woman is a teacher at the mosque’s school.
The Fanatical Imam
Vocativ’s analysts began mining the deep web for possible ISIS supporters in the U.S. several months ago, as ISIS began taking over larger swaths of Syria and Iraq. But it was the death in August of Douglas McAuthur McCain—the San Diego man killed alongside ISIS fighters in Syria—that led us to the center of the network of ISIS supporters in America. (See our video interview with the Syrian rebels who say they killed McCain.)
One name our analysts keep encountering is that of Ahmad Musa Jibril. Well-known in law enforcement circles, Jibril is a 43-year-old imam based in Dearborn, Michigan. A decade ago, he was kicked out of a mosque for urging his followers to kill non-Muslims. He later spent six years in federal prison for crimes including money laundering, tax evasion and trying to bribe a juror. He was released in 2012.
What sets Jibril apart from other radical clerics is his sizable social following. He has racked up over 220,000 likes on his Facebook profile and more than 26,000 followers on Twitter, where he communicates with some of them (and their families) one-on-one. On YouTube, Jibril’s sermons average several thousand views each.
Jibril has been whipping up support for extreme Sunni Islam for years from his Michigan base—and according to eyewitnesses, his approach at times has been highly confrontational, even violent.
One former student at the University of Michigan at Dearborn who heard Jibril speak there in 2004 tells Vocativ that the cleric made a strong impression on him. “He was always trying to get younger guys to listen to him,” says the former student, who requested anonymity. “The first couple of talks were nice, but then he gets into how Shiites were ‘non-believers’ and weren’t Muslim.”
“I don’t think I’ve met another speaker like him who was trying to get into peoples’ heads,” he says.
In an effort to neutralize Jibril’s hate speech, the Muslim Student Association at the college in 2004 organized a rotation of speakers so that Jibril would have to share the podium on Fridays. The former student tells us that this infuriated Jibril. Later, when a nearby mosque banned Jibril for trying to proselytize, the preacher began hosting fireside chats in his Dearborn basement. But again, says the former student, it went from “really nice talks” about doctrine in the Quran to labeling certain Muslims as apostates.
Another student at the university stood up to Jibril—and paid dearly for it. “Three people attacked me,” the second former student tells Vocativ. He says they punched and kicked him while he was helpless on the ground, sending him to the hospital with cracked ribs and a broken arm.
“I feel bad for these individuals,” the victim says of his assailants. “They couldn’t see through the manipulation.”
In the past couple of months, Jibril has gone quiet on social media. His last tweet was on June 24, providing a link to his archived sermons. His last Facebook post was on July 11, when he shared a sermon of his interpretation of Islamic fasting. Jibril’s silence coincides with law enforcement keeping closer tabs on the cleric since he slipped up with his probation officer last November, according to Michigan court documents.
Jibril had asked for permission to travel to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, for what he said would be a short vacation to visit friends. But he made the mistake of noting on his Facebook page that during the trip, he would also be giving a series of lectures about Islam at two universities and a local Islamic center.
When his probation officer found out, she clamped down on his movements after his return. He now can’t leave the eastern part of Michigan, and he has to wear a GPS tracker and provide information about his social media activities, including his passwords, if asked.
Earlier this month, Vocativ travelled to Dearborn to interview Jibril, who has been living in his father’s blue clapboard bungalow on a cul-de-sac a few miles from downtown. His white Cadillac was parked in the driveway. After we rang the bell, a groggy-looking Jibril opened the front door. Once we identified ourselves, he turned hostile and immediately asked us to leave.
“Stay here for a minute and you’ll see what’s going to happen,” he said menacingly, as he disappeared into the house. He returned about 10 seconds later and again told us to leave, vowing to call the police.
A neighbor, who asked not to be identified, says Jibril receives frequent visitors but rarely, if ever, leaves the house.
Jibril keeps a very low profile locally, according to an official at one of the largest mosques in Dearborn, where about 40 percent of the population is Muslim and most businesses have signs in Arabic. “I don’t know anybody who has met him, and I know a lot of people in our community,” he says, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The man adds that he is aware that Jibril has been inspiring foreign fighters to travel to Syria.
Other people with whom we talked, including a grocery store owner in Dearborn and several members of mosques throughout Detroit and Dearborn, say they had never even heard of Jibril.
Direct Messaging Jihadis in Battle
In the battlefields of the Middle East, though, Jibril is well-known. ISIS, which has been quietly building steam over the past decade, has been stepping up its fight in the last few years, killing anyone who stands in its way. Despite its brutality—including beheadings, beatings and lashings—it has a large fan base outside Syria and Iraq. There are believed to be about 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria from some 80 different countries. According to researchers from King’s College in London, some 60 percent of them are Twitter followers of Jibril, and the cleric’s primary support is “particularly strong” among groups like ISIS.
The researchers note that Jibril has an unusual approach. They say he “does not openly incite his followers to violence nor does he explicitly encourage them to join the Syrian jihad. Instead, he adopts the role of cheerleader: supporting the principles of armed opposition to [Syrian President] Assad, often in highly emotive terms, while employing extremely charged religious or sectarian idioms.”
Jibril sends messages of condolences to jihadi fighters who died in battle and chats with young would-be extremists on platforms like Ask.fm, where his sermons are revered, and direct contact is coveted. Jibril is also actively engaged with his followers on Twitter, according to the researchers, even direct messaging those who have traveled from the West to fight in Syria. In one tweet, Jibril pledges his unconditional love to radical jihadis fighting in far-away places.
“From my wake up to my sleep, you brothers there consume my thoughts and duaa [supplications]. Wallahi! I LOVE you all for the sake of ALLAH.”
–Gordon Bottomley contributed additional reporting to this story.