ISIS jihadis lure Arab youths to fight against Western forces
CAIRO — In the heady weeks following Egypt's 2011 revolution, Ahmed Abdullah became more politically engaged.
Abdullah, 23, joined the Islamist-based Labor Party. Like many activists, he spouted his new Islamist beliefs on Facebook and Twitter.
He also grew more radical: “I started reading things on the Internet about jihad, and the book that changed my mind was ‘Knights under the Prophet's Banner,' ” written by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri about the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America.
In 2012, an Islamist recruiter persuaded Abdullah to abandon politics for a network sending volunteers to fight Syria's Assad regime; he joined some 2,000 members in cells across Egypt.
That ended in July 2013, when his mother found him forging an ID card for a Syria-bound Egyptian teenager. Now he writes articles condemning jihadist groups.
His own radicalization reflects the rising support for ISIS, the terrorist army that proclaimed an Islamic caliphate — a super-state — this summer after a bloody onslaught across Iraq and Syria.
His story is not unlike that of a young Pittsburgh native who joined ISIS, or others worldwide.
“People are attracted to the network because the caliphate is part of the religion and is mentioned in many Islamic texts,” Abdullah explains. Many young Arabs feel a “sense of defeat” and “want to feel like they are achieving something … against the global Western forces.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “is achieving that goal, and that is making ISIS attractive to them,” he says. “This war is being marketed as a ‘crusader war' ” — referring to the Christian Crusades in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages — “and that is very appealing.”
‘A grave danger'
Aspiring jihadis have joined ISIS from across the Western and Arab worlds, including Egypt, a longtime American ally and member of the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS.
Ahmed Ban, an Islamist expert at the Nile Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, thinks Egyptians make up 20 to 30 percent of ISIS's ranks.
Egypt has its own long, bloody history of battling Islamists. Three presidents — Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak — fought the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists from the 1960s onward.
When the 2011 revolution deposed Mubarak, former Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsy succeeded him as president. But army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ousted Morsy in 2013. Sisi, elected president in May, has jailed or killed thousands of Islamists and driven others into hiding.
Yet Ansar Beit al Maqdis terrorists frequently attack Egyptian security forces in the restive Sinai peninsula. A recent video showed them beheading three men accused of collaborating with Israel and shooting a fourth who cooperated with Egypt's military.
Another group, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), claims credit for several bombings and assassinations in Cairo.
ISIS, however, is the greatest influence on young Arabs here and regionally, experts say.
Some Egyptian liberals say old classmates have placed black ISIS flags or photos of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi on their Facebook pages.
Maher Farghaly, an author of books about jihadist movements and ex-member of the Gama'a Al Islamiya terror group, calls ISIS “a grave danger … in our midst” and predicts “it won't stop” in Syria and Iraq.
Idols for extremists
In 2012, as Egypt held its first free presidential election, candidate Hazem Abu Ismail attracted sizable crowds.
Abu Ismail, a Salafi or arch-religious Islamist, began gathering followers in 2011 as Egyptians massed in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak regime, according to Farghaly.
He says Abu Ismail developed the same “inspiring” persona that ISIS's Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has built. “He was talking about the Islamic project, wearing the Islamic costume. … If you asked him about the Shariah (Islamic law) issue, he would shout, ‘It shall be implemented!'
“So he gave the youth a great idol to look up to in that revolutionary atmosphere” of Tahrir Square.
One of those youths was Abdullah, the former radical recruit: “He was straightforward, and he wouldn't compromise with anyone, the liberals or the army. He wanted to apply the Shariah, and he has a strong perspective” on women being veiled in public.
Abu Ismail's candidacy was ruled illegal because his mother was a U.S. citizen. Arrested after Morsy's ouster, he is serving seven years in prison for forging campaign documents.
Yet he remains a powerful inspiration.
“Most of the Islamic network that used to support Hazem is now supporting ISIS,” Abdullah says, based on monitoring online activity.
Pittsburgh-born Amir Farouk Ibrahim, who held dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, supported Abu Ismail on his Facebook page. Ibrahim was found dead in an ISIS camp in 2013, one of the first Americans killed in Syria's civil war.
Farghaly has examined investigative records of 240 Ansar Beit al Maqdis members arrested in the Sinai. “All of the youth” confessed to backing Abu Ismail, he says.
The Nile Center's Ban agrees. Abu Ismail supporters have become “the main asset of the Soldiers of Egypt” terror group, he says, “and they are a main asset to ISIS.”
Egyptian Islamists have gone underground to avoid arrest, just as they largely did from the 1960s until the revolution.
“They use fake names on Facebook and Twitter, and proxy servers to change their locations,” Abdullah says. “When they meet, they meet in public places such as parks, and they are constantly changing their (cellphone) SIM cards.”
Facebook and Twitter have become “a hub for attracting and recruiting people,” he adds.
Egyptian security forces have had some success in battling the Islamist network. Last week they arrested four suspected terrorists recruiting fighters for ISIS, Egyptian media reported.
Security officials estimate that as many as 8,000 Egyptians are fighting with ISIS or an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra.
“Let us admit that the ISIS organization has certain characteristics that appeal to the youth,” Farghaly says, explaining that attraction.
“It exceeded all the ideological expectations of all the other jihadi Islamist organizations. It is the first to do that on the ground … which made it an inspiring organization and made all the youth follow this caliphate (that) they have been dreaming about forever.”
Another motivation involves an apocalyptic vision of Dabiq, a small town near Aleppo, Syria, and the site of a decisive medieval battle. Many Islamists believe a new battle there against the West will signal the world's end.
Recognizing that symbolism, ISIS slaughtered rival extremists to control Dabiq and named its propaganda magazine for the town.
Says Farghaly: “Whoever owns Dabiq considers himself victorious and will … be victorious at the end of time.”
Ban says every failure of traditional Arab states increases ISIS's popularity, while its battlefield successes “attract groups from all over the world to come and support this new state.”
Farghaly thinks Egypt's revolution-weakened security services are being “restored, and the state is regaining its strength.” That will reduce the number of Egyptians heading off to join ISIS, he says.
If today's travel ban were lifted, however, “you would see huge numbers going,” he warns.
Abdullah, the onetime extremist, says some Morsy and Abu Ismail loyalists “support ISIS from an emotional perspective and don't really know what ISIS is like. ISIS says they are the only true Muslims and the others are infidels.”
But he says he sees the folly of once being in the Islamist network: “My personal view of ISIS now is that they have a very narrow view of religion … a corruption of Islam. It is satanic.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.