Three Edmonton ISIS recruits were part of the first group of travellers who laid the groundwork for others to travel to Syria and Iraq, says an extremism expert.
Mahad Hersi and brothers Hamsa and Hersi Kariye flew from Edmonton to Turkey in November 2013 and died in battle a year later.
“They definitely served as examples, I think, for a lot of the other people in their social networks who were interested in traveling and attempting to travel,” said Bennett Clifford, a research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
“They saw the experience of the ‘first wave’ and viewed it as something that they could do as well.”
In Syria, the Edmonton trio were joined by their cousin, Hanad Mohallim, and friend, Douglas McCain, both from the United States, who also died in 2014.
Most had roots in Minnesota and San Diego, according to court documents. That included another cousin, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, 33, of Edmonton, who is now facing extradition to the U.S for allegedly providing material support to that “first wave” of recruits. His extradition hearing is scheduled for May 31.
Most in first cluster knew each other
Clifford said in total about 14 people belonged to that first cluster, and most knew each other.
“They grew up playing basketball together in the same neighbourhoods,” Clifford said. “They went to high school together.
One of the younger recruits was Mohallim, who left at 18 after he graduated high school. Clifford said Mohallim’s family later told the FBI they noticed a big change in the way he dressed and talked about Syria after he visited the Kariye cousins in Edmonton in the summer of 2013.
“After that, a lot of them made the decision to depart to Syria allegedly,” Clifford said.
After their departure, Abdullahi allegedly wrote a message warning the others that “there were a lot of people looking for them at the airport and in Turkey,” according to the U.S. indictment.
Clifford said Mohallim’s mother flew to Turkey to try to bring back her son. Other parents in related cases have taken their children’s passports to prevent them from traveling, he said.
Need for alternatives, expert says
“As a family member, you have no middle ground between getting your loved one arrested or alternatively trying to do the impossible to try to bring them back,” said Clifford.
“It highlights the need for in-betweens, for alternative outlets for family members who are concerned about this kind of activity to report it without the fear their loved one could spend decades in prison.”
Clifford said many in the first cluster were “motivated by the crimes” committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.
He said the cases have now been prosecuted, with most serving sentences of two to 20 years, apart from one case of a young man who participated in an “innovative deradicalization program.”
The pipeline has largely been closed off because of FBI success at stopping people from reaching their destination, and ISIS losing territory, Clifford said.
Trouble pawning jewelry
Among the allegations, Abdullahi is accused of robbing a jewellry store in Edmonton in January 2014 to help pay for airline tickets.
U.S. authorities allege that shortly afterwards, Abdullahi told the group he was having trouble pawning the jewelry but eventually made several wire transfers.
“I sent Tooth three grand to get the tickets,” he allegedly wrote in a draft email stored in an account shared by the group, referring to McCain by his code name Tooth.
They also used sports analogies to communicate covertly and describe their battles, the U.S. indictment alleges.
That summer, McCain allegedly told a potential recruit that the leader of the ISIS caliphate “said we must bring our family under the Islamic State” and also described his battle for ISIS.
“I am in Jihad … many brother are getting shahada (martyred) … bombs are go off in the everyday.”
CBC contacted the co-owner of the Edmonton jewelry store Abdullahi and two others are accused of robbing.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the men smashed the display case and fought with her husband, who injured his shoulder in the incident.
She estimated they made off with $10,000 to $20,000 worth of gold rings and pendants.
Abdullahi is scheduled to appear in an Edmonton court in August on a charge of armed robbery.
Travel to Syria also appears to have been funded through legal avenues. Prior to his departure, Hamsa Kariye’s worked as a pipefitter in Fort McMurray. He also faced charges of identity theft.