Abu Abdullah Britani wants your teenager. He’s right there on Twitter, one of thousands of Islamic State online supporters beseeching young people to flee to Syria and join the cause.
“The lands of Khilafah is expanding oh Muslims, if you want to live under the glorious laws of Allah the doors arw (sic) open for hijra [migration],” he tweeted recently under the handle @dugmatime2.
Then there’s @Truth9_Haqq, who recently tweeted a photo of a black-clad fighter clutching an automatic weapon in front of a burning car next to the words “Jihad, Just do it” and the Nike corporate swoosh symbol.
The road to Syria looks wide open. There’s even an online guide, which experts believe is published by a militant with the Islamic State group, or ISIS, that provides detailed information on how to do so. The 50-page guide, called “Hijrah to the Islamic State,” offers “What to packup, Who to Contact, Where to GO, Stories & more!” as well as the Twitter names of many jihadi living in the area controlled by the Islamic State. A word of advice from Syria: “Invest in solar chargers for your electronics. This is very important since electricity is a big problem here.”
The number of young Americans responding to such tweets and attempting to head overseas has been rising steadily, according to US Justice Department figures. In response, the government has launched a pilot program in Boston and two other US cities designed to counter the lure of violent extremism.
But Nabeel Khudairi, a Norwood optometrist and the father of a teenage boy, is way ahead of that project. Khudairi is at the forefront of efforts in New England’s Muslim community to stop young people from responding to such solicitations or even listening to them. He recently completed a curriculum, premised loosely on the phrase “What would the prophet Mohammed do,” which he hopes will be implemented in many local mosques and youth centers. Already, it has piqued international interest.
“A lot of people in the Muslim community do not like to acknowledge that kids can go sour, but I do not beat around the bush. We do not want another Tsarnaev or Tarek Mehanna,” said Khudairi, a former chairman of the Islamic Council of New England and a member of its youth committee, referring to the Boston Marathon bombers and a young Sudbury man convicted in 2012 of supporting terrorists.
Countering extremism’s call
Islamic State recruiters have thus far had much more success in Europe — where nearly 6,000 would-be militants have set off for Syria — than here. Over the last 20 months, 43 people have been charged in the United States with providing material support to the terrorist group, or attempting to, according to the Justice Department. All of them are young: Nine are teenagers, while the majority are in their 20s. More than half appear to be Muslims.
The call can take many forms, as Ismail Uddin discovered. A Bunker Hill Community College freshman, Uddin was invited to travel to Syria last fall by a teenage friend who had become entranced by the militants’ online videos. Uddin, 19, was stunned.
“He said, ‘The Syrian government is killing civilians. Don’t you think we should go and help our Muslim brothers?’ ” Uddin recalled. “I never answered the question. I just said, ‘What do you know about Islam? How many prophets are there? You don’t know the basic stuff and you want to do this huge thing?’ I said, ‘Forget ISIS. Learn the basics.’ ”
Community leaders in Greater Boston are likewise working to reinforce positive Islamic values among Muslim youth and, in some cases, to deliberately counter the allure of the jihadi recruiters.With the penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial underway and the news media recounting a steady drumbeat of jihadi-related actions in recent weeks, the subject is a festering concern.
At the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, high schoolers participated in a winter camp called “Moderation” last year, and a new youth program focused on the values of the prophet Mohammed is being launched this spring. In the second-floor office of the Somali Community and Cultural Association in Roxbury, there are regular talks about the Islamic State with young people. This month, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center will launch a program, called “Arkanum,” intended in part to help youths contend with bullying and harassment — a source of potential alienation — in school.
Some parents take a more direct approach. A few discuss extremism at length with their children and sternly advise them not to look at any Islamic State material online.
Shahla Mahmood, the mother of four children, leaves no stone unturned.
‘A lot of people in the Muslim community do not like to acknowledge that kids can go sour, but I do not beat around the bush. We do not want another Tsarnaev.’Nabeel Khudairi, Norwood optometrist
“I say, do not expose yourself to anything,” said Mahmood, of Jamaica Plain. “Do not talk about ISIS, do not write about it, do not think about it, do not even criticize it or they might come and hurt you. Have nothing to do with them at all.”
Uddin, a Cambridge resident and graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which also was attended by the Tsarnaev brothers, took a somewhat different approach.
An active member of a mosque-affiliated youth group and a member of the Muslim Student Association at Bunker Hill, the gregarious Uddin was well aware that his 16-year-old friend had long struggled to make friends and was unhappy with his turbulent home life. He began watching jihadi videos on YouTube, and last fall he sent one to Uddin.
“How can someone think they’re going to help Islam by going to Syria,” Uddin exclaimed. “I squeezed his biceps and said, ‘You’re a skinny 16-year-old who doesn’t have any muscle. How can you help anyone?’ He was crushed of course, but we got talking.”
Over the next few months the two teenagers argued about the extremists. Eventually, Uddin said, he persuaded the younger boy to join the “halaqah,” or study circle, of young Muslim men that he had helped form. Its members, some of whom are also graduates of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, study Arabic and stories of the prophet on Saturdays. The main goal is reinforcing core Islamic values. But the specter of Islamic State is never far away.
“We never exactly said, ‘let’s counter ISIS with this,’ but in a way that’s what this is,” explained Uddin, sitting in a Cambridge coffee shop. “We don’t talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. But we are tackling this problem when we learn about what it means to be Muslim.”
Exploiting social media
Islamic State recruiters do all they can to make that problem harder. The extremist group has notoriously exploited social media, and Twitter in particular, to draw those most vulnerable to radicalization. The Internet is awash with images of bloodied bodies and armed militants.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution called “The ISIS Twitter Census” found 46,000 accounts being used byself-proclaimed Islamic State supporters, some of themin Syria and Iraq, according to metadata embedded in their tweets.
Twitter routinely suspends the accounts of the most threatening voices, but most of them gleefully reappear under a different name within a day or two. Many who are shut down simply add a number to the same handle and then urge others to retweet their identity to spread the word. The Hijrah guidebook explains how it all works.
Abu Abdullah Britani, for example, whom private and academic jihadi analysts as well as the London news media believe to be a British 32-year-old named Abu Rahin Aziz, has run through a stream of similar Twitter names. One of the group’s most aggressive advocates, Britani altered his handle several times, from @dugmatime to @dugmatime2 to @dugmatimez, as he was repeatedly suspended on Twitter in recent weeks. He now uses a different name.
Convicted of a stabbing in London, he reportedly fled the country in January while on bail. On his Twitter account, where he has described himself as a “citizen and soldier of the Islamic State,” Britani has openly encouraged Muslims to commit violence on their home turf.
“For those who wish to fight jihad against the crusaders, Allah has made it easy. . . You only need to look to your backyards to see targets,” he tweeted recently.
Those seeking to make contact with self-described Islamic State supporters quickly find it’s not hard. Recently a Globe reporter, using an assumed name, tweeted “I am looking to help. Can you talk to me?” to Abu Dujana (@AbudujanaM), believed by some analysts to be an Islamic State supporter. Within hours he tweeted back, “How can I help you?”
Analysts for private security firms or jihadi monitoring operations, many of them former CIA and FBI agents, spend many hours tracking such conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other sites to identify those likely linked to Islamic State. One Los Angeles data analysis firm, called Bottlenose, generates real-time maps of the global conversations referencing the Islamic State drawn from numerous online sources.
Generally, analysts cannot be sure where an Islamic State supporter or recruiter is physically located, as many take steps to cover their digital tracks, but brazenness is sometimes a clue. Those who offer detailed knowledge of Islamic State activities orissue direct threats that would draw a law enforcement response here or in Europe are generally believed to be based in Syria or Iraq.
“You start to get a picture of who is on the ground in Syria and who is not,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst with Flashpoint Intelligence, a global security firm in New York.
Among the real Islamic State recruiters and their targets, a familiarpattern soon develops, according to analysts. After some initial conversation, a recruiter will suggest retreating to a private platform or app such as Kik, Ask.fm, particularly popular among teens, or surespot, an encrypted messaging system, for more detailed conversations.
“It is so decentralized that sometimes ISIS doesn’t even know who is cheering them on,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who is director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a New York-based security firm that tracks Islamic extremism. “But [if] those cheerers . . . hangout long enough on Twitter, someone from ISIS will reach out. And they will try and get you off Twitter as fast as possible.”
Twitter is a prime means of communication, but the Islamic State’s appeals take diverse forms. Recruiters issue a constant stream of enticement from Web forums and online publications. And some provide highly detailed plans for domestic attacks.
A recent issue of Inspire, the online jihadi magazine that provided the bomb-building recipe used by the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon, gives detailed instructions on how to make a car bomb, along with suggestions for where to place it for maximum destruction.
“Inspire magazine’s goal is to empower Muslim youth. And what is empowerment without being strong, powerful and intelligent?” the magazine states. “Believe me, using car bombs gives you all that.”
For a certain kind of person, one who is already at the margins of the mainstream due to depression or social issues, such a message can be alluring. And not just for Muslims.
Shaham Zahir, a 14-year-old high school freshman and a regular at the Sharon mosque, says it is the non-Muslim kids at his school who sometimes express the greatest curiosity about the Islamic State’s doings on the Internet.
“I don’t think they really look a lot,” Zahir said of his Muslim peers.
Many Muslim parents and community leaders insist the youth of their community are not vulnerable to persuasion by extremists: Most attend mosque regularly and are upstanding students who would never flirt with a terrorist group, they say.
Nonetheless, parents such as Dr. Ghazwan Ghazi, a dentist and a member of the board at Al-Noor Academy, an Islamic school in Mansfield, raise the subject with their teenagers.
“I say, ‘What is ISIS?,’ ” said Ghazi, the father of two boys. “I want an answer based on facts. I want an answer that says why it is wrong and what does Islam say.”
But in one of the more chilling cases prosecuted by the FBI, it was a seemingly well-grounded teenager who was apprehended at the Chicago airport last fall, about to get on a plane to Turkey and allegedly en route to Syria. Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, was reportedly a graduate of an Islamic high school and a regular mosque volunteer when he met an ISIS recruiter through Twitter. With him when he was arrested were his 16-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister, passports in hand.
Within the Boston Muslim community, talk about the risks facing Muslim youth intensified after arrests were made in the Marathon bombing case and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went on trial.
As Khudairi, the former president of the Islamic Council of New England, puts it, “We wanted to be vigilant and proactive and that meant offering an alternative message. We want to protect young people from making bad decisions.”
Khudairi’s alternative message is embedded in a faith-based curriculum he has designed for Muslim youths called “Heroic Reflections.” It stresses the roles of Muslim religious leaders and others in the community and examines video games and substance abuse, social media, and the sea of misinformation on the Web.
“Beware of the advice of Sheik ‘Joojily’ (Google),” warns one of the pages of his curriculum.
The program is set to be unveiled at the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon this month.
Already Khudairi has received an inquiry from a member of the large Somali community in Minneapolis, which has seen more than two dozen young people leave to join the terrorist group Al Shabab in recent years. The mayor of Vilvoorde, a suburb near Brussels where struggling Muslim youths have been aggressively targeted for radicalization by the Islamic State, has also expressed interest.
What Khudairi and others are doing has been dubbed “countering violent extremism.” It is the underpinning of a US Department of Justice effort to prevent marginalized youths from turning to terrorism. In February, the US attorney’s office in Boston released a framework for the strategy, based on input from local community leaders and government and academic experts.
Like many of the other community participants, Deeqo Jibril, executive director of the Somali Community and Cultural Association in Roxbury, has long been working with some of the youths in her community, many of whom are children of immigrants struggling in school or to find jobs. Few, she added, attend a mosque.
Since the Boston bombing, Jibril said, several Somali youths she knowshave been taunted by their classmates and girls have been harassed for wearing a hijab.
“These are young people going through an identity crisis. They feel they have lost their roots,” said Jibril, a native Somali.
Asked whether any of the young people who seek her services contemplate joining the militants, Jibril sighed. “That is a good question. I ask that myself,” she said. “We tell them that the people who radicalized the kids in Minneapolis will try other cities and to watch out.”
One of several young men visiting her office recently, a 27-year-old construction worker who declined to be identified, said being a Muslim in Americacan be tough: “Kids call you a terrorist. You laugh, but it hurts every time. Every time something bad happens in the news I pray that it is not a Muslim. People think Muslims, people with names like mine, cannot be trusted.”
Determined to bolster the young people in her community, Jibril provides a host of services, including peer counseling and job and internship links.
Last year she initiated a series of basketball games at the Tobin Community Center with the Boston police.
Not all Muslims are enthused about the Department of Justice program. Although government officials say the effort is aimed at all communities, Yusufi Vali, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, is not convinced.
Hehas refused to participate, saying the program is “founded on the premise that your faith determines your propensity toward violence.”
At the same time, the Islamic Society Center, which draws close to 1,400 to its Friday prayer service, has been working to retool its youth program. A survey of the mosque’s teenagers found that many of them want to discuss the specifics of practicing their faith outside the mosque.
“They want to know how can I be a Muslim and have a non-Muslim friend,” explained Rasha Azoni-Hannigan, the mosque’s program director. “How can I pray at high school? How do I talk about fasting to a non-Muslim?”
Yusra Mukhtar, 13, wants to talk about perceptions of Muslims, many of which she thinks are unfair. Born two months after 9/11, she says of being a young Muslim in America, “You just grow up being known as the bad guy. It just makes you feel bad.”
For 14-year-old Hamza Mahmood, a freshman at Fenway High School, one dilemma is whether to wear his kufi, the rounded cap worn by many Muslim men, in public. His parents have urged him not to wear it, hoping he will not stand out. But Mahmood is adamant.
“If women wear the veil on the street, why can’t I wear it,” exclaimed Mahmood. “I like it. I want to show that Islam is about other things than ISIS.”
Mahmood’s parents, who are from Pakistan, are cautious people. They urge their four children to never discuss the Islamic State group, or anything remotely linked to the militants, with their friends.
And if the subject of Sept. 11, 2001, must be mentioned on the phone, they say the words in Urdu, or “naw giyaara,” just in case someone is listening in.
“We are Muslims,” said Shahla Mahmood. “We must be cautious.”Sally Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.