“‘I began to feel I was making an important contribution to a global movement that would result in a more just society for Muslims, and I was doing so by advocating what I believed were legitimate approaches based on Quran,’ he said. This was wrong, Ali told the judge at his sentencing. His advocacy for violence was unmoored from the central theology of Islam, he said.” Unfortunately, the story doesn’t explain how Amin came to that conclusion, or exactly what the Islamic State is doing that Amin came to regard as un-Islamic.
This Christian Science Monitor story is one of “radicalization on the Internet.” It is peppered with references to how local imams would not engage Ali Shukri Amin or answer his questions. It is a shame that Warren Richey didn’t interview any of them. It would be interesting, if the boy’s account is true, to hear them explain why they didn’t think it important to explain to him why the Islamic State’s understanding of jihad must be rejected. Would they have told them that? Was their hesitance to tell him that behind their reluctance to engage him on these issues? There remains the uncomfortable fact that there is not a single mosque or Islamic school in the U.S. that has any program to teach young Muslims to reject the theology of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Why not?
“One Virginia teen’s journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration,” by Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2015:
Washington — On Twitter, Ali Shukri Amin was on his way to becoming a giant within the online jihadist community.
Under the alias @Amreekiwitness, the Virginia teenager pumped out more than 7,000 tweets in support of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its radical agenda.
In one of his best-known pranks, he superimposed the group’s iconic black banner onto the flagpole atop the White House in an online image. He heralded the organization’s “upcoming conquest of the Americas.”
Within three months, Ali had 4,000 followers, including active fighters and recruiters in Syria and Iraq. This was a big, big deal for a high school student in suburban America.
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Until his arrest.
On Aug. 28, standing before a judge at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., the teenager looked decidedly small, almost frail, hunched over in his jail-issued navy blue coveralls.
Behind him in the gallery were three solid rows of extended family members, the women in headscarves. They sat silently, some clutching tissues, as the judge announced his decision.
The 17-year-old was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison, pay a $100,000 fine, and submit to federal supervision for the rest of his life, including government monitoring of his Internet activities.
Defense attorney Joe Flood told the judge his client was a confused teen looking for guidance from adults in his life, including religious leaders, but wasn’t getting answers.
“The Internet gave him answers,” Mr. Flood said. “Albeit the wrong ones.”…
By all accounts, Ali is intelligent and articulate. He was an honors student at Osborn Park High School and had been accepted to the engineering program this fall at Virginia Commonwealth University. Now, instead of joining the freshman class, he’ll be finding his place in a prison cell in North Carolina.
The portrait of Ali that emerges from court documents is of a socially-isolated and awkward teenager who struggled with significant health issues, small stature, and an overprotective mother who had him sleep beside her until he was 13.
Ali did not participate in school sports, but he was smart and a good student. At 16, he was accepted into a prestigious curriculum for gifted students run by George Mason University. An acute medical problem forced him to miss classes for a number of weeks. He was unable to catch up and, in a huge blow to his self esteem, he was dropped from the program.
Online ‘friends’ ‘treated me with respect’
After returning to classes at his old high school, Ali turned to the Internet for support and reassurance to counter his mounting frustration. He had been exploring his Muslim heritage and tried to connect with local religious leaders in Virginia. They wouldn’t discuss the issues that interested him and refused to engage in vigorous political debate, he said in a three-page letter to the judge.
He wanted to know why more wasn’t being done to help innocent Muslims being killed in Syria. He questioned whether he, as a Muslim, was obligated to participate in “jihad” to protect them.
“The adults in my life could not provide adequate answers or seemed too busy to try, and this included several respected imams who engaged me briefly, but always were too busy,” he said.
“In the absence of a constructive dialogue about my religious obligations with adults that I respected, I began to correspond with a number of people on the Internet who filled the gaps and provided increasingly radical answers to my questions,” he wrote.
It wasn’t just question and answer. His new online associates encouraged him to demonstrate the depth of his religious conviction by posting his own comments on the Internet. Eventually, they began to urge him to advocate for violent jihad.
“Developing these relationships became very important to me because several of these ‘friends’ treated me with respect and occasionally reverence,” he said. “For the first time I felt that I was not only being taken seriously about very important and weighty topics, but was actually being asked for guidance.”
At the time, Ali was 16 years old.
That’s when he started his Twitter account and began proselytizing.
“I began to feel I was making an important contribution to a global movement that would result in a more just society for Muslims, and I was doing so by advocating what I believed were legitimate approaches based on Quran,” he said.
This was wrong, Ali told the judge at his sentencing. His advocacy for violence was unmoored from the central theology of Islam, he said.
The deeper he entered this Internet world of “virtual” struggle, the more disconnected he became from his family, his life, and his future, he said.
Amreeki Witness began to look for opportunities to spread his ideas. During the upheaval in Ferguson, Mo., he tweeted: “May Allah incite righteous jihad in Ferguson and guide its people to Islam,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi activity on the Internet.
At one point during his proselytizing stage, Ali intervened in a debate on Twitter between someone with the US State Department’s “ThinkAgainTurnAway” anti-jihadist counter-propaganda program and a pro-jihadi Twitter user.
The ThinkAgain user tweeted that “those who follow #Bin Laden’s path will share his fate.” The post included a list of dead fighters.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, Ali responded with this tweet: “these men are martyrs, insha’Allah, with their souls in pure ecstasy roaming the vastness of eternal paradise.”
The State Department replied that the fighters had slaughtered innocents.
“Slaughtered innocents?” Amin responded, according to the SITE report. “You mean like AbdurRahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old boy not involved with any militants? Or what about the thousands killed in drone strikes weekly that make the news? The thousands that don’t [make the news]?”
Two weeks after US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a 2011 drone attack in Yemen, his 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, was killed in a different US drone attack while sitting at an open-air café in Yemen. No justification has been offered for the attack, although reports suggested it was a case of mistaken identity.
“You are nothing more than criminals who betray the Muslims you claim to defend across the globe, butchering them,” Ali said, according to SITE. “1.7 million in Iraq, hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan, left, right, everywhere. Only an ignoramus who knows nothing about American foreign policy or any Muslim country could accept your lies…”
The State Department was apparently not amused by Ali’s ferocious debating style on social media. US government tweeters responded repeatedly to Amreeki Witness, and then finally decided to take a different form of action against him. They e-mailed his mother, according to a narrative in Ali’s psychological report. (The report does not disclose how the State Department learned that Ali was Amreeki Witness.)
Nonetheless, the government e-mail provoked a second major upheaval in Ali’s life within a few months, according to the psychological report.
A parent’s haunting question
Ali’s mother arranged for her son to consult with a local religious leader, but the intervention fizzled out when the two failed to make a genuine connection.
His mother doubled down by threatening to take away his computer. Under threat of losing access to his supportive circle within the cyber jihad, the teen moved out of his mother’s house and in with an uncle, where he stayed for two months….
He also began to associate with a student at his high school, Reza Niknejad, who was thinking about traveling to Syria to fight.
According to FBI affidavits, Ali facilitated a number of contacts over secure Internet connections to prepare the way for Mr. Niknejad’s journey….
But it is clear from the voluminous documents released in Ali’s case that his mother and stepfather were well aware of his dangerous Internet activities more than a year before his arrest by the FBI.
They turned to a local religious leader and threatened to cut off his access to the Internet. But these and other attempts at intervention failed….
“While we are glad that Ali did not go abroad, we also feel very confused and conflicted about having played a role in him being arrested,” Ali’s mother, Amani Ibrahim, wrote in a letter to the judge.
Mrs. Ibrahim wrote that she was pleased when her son first became eager to learn more about Islam and turned to the Internet for answers.
“I never thought that letting him have access to the Internet by himself would put him at the risk of finding the wrong information about Islam and meeting the wrong people who may guide him to the wrong path,” she said in her letter. “I see now that I was not only naive, but had abandoned an important responsibility.”
“The fact that we reached out to the authorities is the only light in this tragedy,” she wrote, “but it is a light that burns too.”…