One Man’s Lonely Journey to Jihad
Posted January 3, 2018 4:52 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — For years in Brooklyn, it was just he and mother, his alcoholic father having long ago abandoned them in Kazakhstan. She worked cleaning houses and was gone much of the day. He went to a large public high school, but spoke little English and had few, if any, friends.
Though he tried to escape his lonely life, joining a swim team and studying martial arts, it never seemed to work and he became depressed. He had trouble sleeping and focusing on his classes and soon dropped out of school. In a last-ditch effort to help him, his mother bought a dog. But after a while, she could not afford it — and he could not take care of it — so she gave the dog away.
It was around that time, his lawyers said, that “young and lost in modern America,” Akhror Saidakhmetov took to the internet, immersing himself in religious videos and ultimately embracing the Islamic State. Last month in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, New York, Saidakhmetov, now 22, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing material support to the Islamic State.
From the moment Saidakhmetov was arrested in 2015, prosecutors have described him as a terrorist who wanted to fight with the Islamic State in Syria and once proposed enlisting in the U.S. Army to kill as many soldiers as he could. His lawyers have not denied the charges. But hoping to secure a lesser sentence, they filed an unusual memo that laid out in minute detail his path toward radicalization.
Tracking jihadis on the road to violence is, perhaps, the hardest part of terror investigations, especially given the rise of lone-wolf attackers who profess allegiance to groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida, but often plan their missions independently. Experts who study the phenomenon point to certain life events or character traits that can lead a person to terror, but they also say that no single pattern fully explains the behavior.
“Every person is different,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “You do occasionally have some form of trauma in their past that makes room for jihadism to creep in. But you also have people who’ve lived the American dream. There isn’t really any rhyme or reason to it.” In New York, for example, investigators are still trying to figure out what caused Sayfullo Saipov, 29, a native of Uzbekistan, to allegedly climb into a rental truck on Halloween and drive it down a bike path on the West Side of Manhattan, killing eight people. After the attack, Saipov told authorities that he had been inspired by Islamic State videos and those who knew him said that his dreams of success in the United States had not worked out as he had hoped. But the specific steps that led to the episode remain a mystery.
Much the same is true for Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi immigrant who is accused of strapping a pipe bomb to his chest last month and blowing it up in a Times Square subway tunnel. Though Ullah, 27, has told investigators he was radicalized online and set his bomb off to protest U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East, the narrative of his journey is incomplete at best.
What makes the case of Saidakhmetov remarkable is the meticulous description he has given of his own radicalization. While it is only one man’s story, the 53-page memo offers a rare glimpse into a terror suspect’s life.
“Usually with things like this, you get a letter or two from a mother or father, but this is a step-by-step rundown of everything that happened,” Hughes said. “It’s like reading a novel.”
According to the memo, Saidakhmetov was born along the old Silk Road in the “backwater city” of Turkestan, Kazakhstan. His father, Arbor Yuylanov, was an alcoholic who beat and raped his mother, Saeira Gulyamova, the memo said. When Saidakhmetov was 4, his mother fled the marriage and took him to Chernyak, her hometown farming village on the edge of the Kazakh steppe. After that, he rarely saw his father, usually, the memo says, roaming drunk on Turkestan’s streets.
Though Chernyak had a mosque, religion played a limited role in Saidakhmetov’s childhood. His family identified as Muslim, but did not attend the traditional Friday prayers. His life became even more secular when, after months in Chernyak, his mother moved him to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. There, she worked long hours as a journalist and left him in their apartment. Alone most nights until 9, the memo said, Saidakhmetov learned to light a stove when he was 7 and often ate solitary dinners, waiting for his mother.
The family might have stayed in Tashkent. But Gulyamova’s journalism work eventually ran her afoul of the Uzbek government. She moved to Brooklyn in 2010, settling in the neighborhood of Brighton Beach and taking a job cleaning houses. Saidakhmetov remained behind in the care of an aunt. But within about a year, he joined his mother in New York.
He was 16 at the time, living in an unfamiliar country where he barely spoke the language and had no friends or family beyond his mother. He enrolled at James Madison High School, but for his first six months, the memo said, did not understand a word that was said.
In his second year at Madison, prosecutors say, Saidakhmetov attacked a safety officer and was expelled. A few months later, he transferred to Abraham Lincoln High School, but did not last long there either. “The New York City public schools didn’t have the resources or energy to help him,” said his lawyer, Adam Perlmutter. “So he dropped out.”
It was then — at a time of “disconnection, loss and lack of purpose,” the memo said — that Saidakhmetov began exploring the internet and found the lectures of Sheik Abdullah Bukhari, an Uzbek cleric based in Istanbul. Bukhari encouraged young men to find meaning in their lives through the practice of Islam — and gradually, the memo said, Saidakhmetov did. But while his new religiosity gave him direction, it also led to conflicts with his mother. He began to criticize her for leaving her head uncovered and for not attending mosque, as he had started doing. Once, the memo said, Saidakhmetov threw out some of his mother’s beauty products fearing they were made with pork, which Islam forbids. After a particularly heated fight, Gulyamova moved from their home, leaving her son to live alone again.
“It repeated the pattern of abandonment at the worst time possible,” the memo said.
Saidakhmetov — 18 at the time — asked a fellow Uzbek man he had met at the mosque, Abdurasul Juraboev, to move in. At 24, Juraboev was older and more devout than his new friend and quickly cast a spell on him, the memo said. Though Juraboev was also struggling in New York — he worked in a gyro shop — he seemed so versed in Islamic law that Saidakhmetov began to call him “sheikh.”
As the men grew closer, momentous events were occurring in the Middle East. In 2014, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the formation of a new caliphate. At home in a new apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn, Saidakhmetov devoured news of the Islamic State, fueling what the memo called his “newfound sense of belonging.”
“Instead of being a lonely kid lost in Brooklyn with limited English proficiency,” it said, “he was part of a worldwide online community — the Ummah — supporting an Islamic religious movement.”
As part of that support, prosecutors said, Saidakhmetov started posting pro-ISIS comments on Hilofatnews, an Uzbek-language jihadi website. In one of them, in August 2014, he talked about a mass execution of Iraqi soldiers by ISIS militants. “I was very happy after reading this,” he wrote. “My eyes joyful so much victory.”
Juraboev was also posting comments on the website and one of them attracted the attention of the government. In it, he expressed an interest in killing President Barack Obama.
Four weeks later, court papers say, federal agents placed an informant in the men’s mosque and the timing was precipitous. Saidakhmetov and Juraboev had already discussed getting a third roommate. “Now, out of nowhere, someone had shown up at their mosque, who shared their deep religious beliefs,” the memo said, “and who, coincidentally, was looking for a place to live.”
The case, by that point, was all but over. Within five months, Saidakhmetov had bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Istanbul. He told the informant that once he reached Turkey, he and Juraboev planned to enter Syria and fight with the Islamic State.
He had moved from believer, to planner, to doer, the memo said. “All of the pieces were perfectly fit in place.”