ISIS Wants Me
How terror recruiters in Egypt target one man faced with a choice: kill civilians or gamble with his life in profiteer smuggling
By Dan Patterson for the Contently Foundation with additional reporting by Scott Simone
Ismail had just finished daily prayers when the men approached. It was a sweltering evening in the Maadi district of Cairo, and the group of three bearded figures, who had been loitering outside a mosque, spotted him as soon as he walked out. Ismail, a struggling Sudanese migrant, hadn’t eaten in a few days, leaving his eyes badly bloodshot. The men took notice of his condition. As they advanced, the air thick and choked with pollution, a cloud of dust swirled around them, settling on their clothes and facial hair.
They invited Ismail to a nearby hookah café, where, huddled around a small square table, the trio engaged him in casual conversation. Their voices, smooth and tinged with Sudanese accents, directed the conversation toward Islam, philosophy and Ismail’s dire situation. They learned he was out of money and couldn’t find work. He rarely ate, he told them, and if he wasn’t crashing on a friend’s couch, he slept in the streets. Several minutes into the meeting, talk turned to the men’s ultimate objective: recruiting Ismail to join their cause.
“They told me if I wore a [suicide] vest I would be rewarded,” Ismail said. The three recruiters did not reveal the name of their organization, but Ismail later learned it was likely Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis, an Egyptian-based terror cell working with Daesh, the so-called Islamic State known as ISIS or ISIL. Experts say this cell is part of an expanding ISIS network that targets impoverished, hungry and devout men like Ismail, many of whom can be found amid growing refugee communities across the Middle East. ISIS and other terrorists scour these clusters of castoffs, using their vast resources to offer them everything they lack: money, freedom, spiritual peace.
But Ismail turned them down. “I do not want to harm anyone,” he explained. He said the men seemed to understand his reluctance, yet they insisted it was his duty as a Muslim to help their affiliate. Playing on Ismail’s faith, the recruiters cited the Quran. They promised to send money to Ismail’s family back in Sudan. Ismail listened but stuck to his decision and walked away, leaving the group at the café. He hoped he’d seen the last of them.
His rejection of their offer did little to temper the men’s persistence, however. Even among destitute refugees, Ismail stood out. It was not just the haggardness of his attire or his haunted look. Legions of others have similar appearances. It was Ismail’s personal history that made him a coveted target.
The Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis team had done its homework. Lurking around the mosque and pressing other members and friends about Ismail’s past, they learned that Ismail, at the age of 13, had been trained by the Sudanese military to make bombs. He was snatched and conscripted from his village in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains and, grouped with other child soldiers, forced to train as a militant. When his talents for engineering and electronics emerged, Ismail was placed in special classes for instruction in explosives. “I can make the vest bombers wear,” Ismail told this reporter. “And I know how to make a car explode.”
The recruiters’ persistence and Ismail’s bleak condition left him with a tough decision, he said. He could join their outfit or pay a network of shady smugglers to get him out of the country. Either way, experts told Contently.org, Ismail would be helping the cause of jihad. Profiteer smuggling, they say, is dominated by terrorists, who demand huge sums to bring immigrants to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, often exposing them to life-threatening danger, as has been chronicled in Syria. To understand how these twin scourges — violent fanaticism and human smuggling — have come to plague the region, one needs to appreciate the critical role that half-starved refugees play. Finding potential recruits such as Ismail, who escaped nightmarish circumstances in his home country, is hardly a challenge for outlaw brokers like Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis. Ismail knows exactly the consequences of the choices he faces. And yet there is only the slimmest chance of him avoiding a dark fate.
One expert on Muslim extremism says what’s happening to Ismail is a case study in Recruitment 101. “Religious terrorist organizations often try to cover themselves in that veneer of religious legitimacy and try to identify marginal people who may be susceptible to persuasion or extortion,” said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a research center at the University of Maryland funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “The majority of the time, recruiters go to a mosque as a place where people convene, but they’re not necessarily members. Recruiters are often more peripheral. They take advantage of the openness of the mosque and they go sort of fishing [there] outside of the sermons.”
Ismail’s sitdown at the café was also typical, he said, as scouts often attempt to befriend potential marks, asking about their concerns and exploiting their vulnerabilities. “It’s probing; it’s trying to understand who’s sitting on the other side of the table and therefore what techniques might work to manipulate them or to persuade them,” Braniff said. “Once you get to know which levers you can pull on, you can make some type of recruitment pitch for more concrete steps to be taken.”
Finding common ground, he said, opens the door to request what otherwise might be unthinkable. “Slowly, after you build some trust, you start to posit some ideas in front of them and see how they react to those ideas. Sometimes it only takes a little nudging to get them from not supporting violence to supporting violence.”
Material incentives help significantly, and the Islamic State’s pockets are deep. The group pulls in about $24 million a year from oil fields under its control, according to internal documents obtained by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an Oxford-educated, 23-year-old researcher who tracks jihadist plots through social networks. That figure, he says, accounts for roughly 20 percent of ISIS’s annual $120 million in revenue; some $54 million comes from real estate income and property seizures.
With that much funding, the organization can afford to pay its militants well. Nearly 44 percent of what it takes in goes out in salaries, al-Tamimi’s documents show. Fighters pocket about $400 per month, which in Syria is above average for all wage earners and makes them the country’s highest paid militia, according to a story in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a foreign policy magazine. Experts say that ISIS extremists also receive a lump sum when they join, and bonuses are sent to their families upon their deaths.
“If you’re on the receiving end of those [payments], you may think this person really cares about me more so than my own government, more so than my neighbors,” said Braniff. “And once you’re indebted to that organization, you’re going to be more willing to help them out.”
Given the levels of compensation and psychological tactics, it’s no mystery why the Islamic State and satellite cells are growing dramatically. Estimates from the CIA and private analysts put the number of ISIS fighters at approximately 31,000, about half of whom come from the Middle East and Africa (roughly 8,000 from each region, they say). Others believe the number is much higher. The Russian Federal Security has said there are as many as 80,000. The more conservative figure would mean ISIS’s force is larger than the militaries of nearly half the world’s nations, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a security think-tank in London.
Ismail’s road to Egypt was pockmarked with violence and persecution. In Sudan, he worked as a fruit and vegetable vendor in the Hagar Elmack district of Kaduqli, a city of 90,000 in Sudan’s central Kurdufan region, and earned enough to be able to purchase a modest home for his family, which includes his wife and three children. But in May 2011 Kaduqli became the center of a brutal conflict between the Sudanese military and the Nubian Armed Sons, a break-away group of rebels. The army and NAS, which aligned itself with a larger resistance force, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), engaged in horrific atrocities as they battled for control of the city and civil war engulfed South Sudan: torture, gang rape and massacres. Some victims were forced to eat human flesh.
“People being burned in places of worship and hospitals; mass burials; women of all ages raped, both elderly and young,” reported the African Union, a U.N.-style peace organization for the continent. “People were not simply shot. They were subjected, for instance, to beatings before being compelled to jump into a lit fire.”
Ismail said gunfire was common throughout the city. After one shootout near his home that he described as “massive,” government forces began arresting people randomly in Kaduqli. “They came to my workplace, threatened me with their guns, tied my hands and then they ruined my stock of vegetables and fruit,” he said. “They destroyed my store.” Soldiers then took him and other merchants to a security office, where they were held in a dark, cramped room and grilled about their dealings with the SPLA.
“I said to them that I have no relation with the rebels. I’m just an ordinary citizen working as a trader in the vegetables market,” Ismail recalled. “But they insulted me and my tribe and accused me of belonging to the SPLA, of supporting the Nubian rebels against the government and encouraging people to join the rebellion and oppose the government.”
Ismail was taken to a prison, where he underwent additional interrogation and was tortured. “I was boxed, kicked, mercilessly and wildly beaten, left lying unconscious on the floor many times,” he said. “I was humiliated, insulted and mistreated. They would give me one meal a day and little water. I wasn’t allowed to go the bathroom so I had to pee in a small plastic bottle. They would take me to clean the toilets, sweep their offices, wash up, do the laundry and iron their clothes under a restrictive watch. I lost lots of weight, and my health got worse and I became sick.”
After a year in prison, Ismail was released under the condition that he present himself to the official security office every Tuesday, cooperate with the authorities’ demands and remain in Kaduqli. They made it clear that if he disobeyed, he would be killed. “After my release I went to the security office. Every time they would ask me about names I didn’t know,” he said. “They said I didn’t want to cooperate with them, so they kept me, tortured and beat me with sticks. I got scared for my life and safety, so I decided to escape.”
Ismail knew the cost and risks of fleeing were high, but his family helped him gather the $2,800 he needed to pay smugglers. “I asked my family to help me leave Sudan because my life was in danger and I couldn’t live my whole life in fear.”
He left late at night on a motorcycle lent by a friend. The smugglers and Ismail’s family helped arranged the details. “In Sudan, it is easy to find other Sudanese people who help with transportation,” he said. He was first stashed inside a home for several days in the nearby town of Eldeling, before a cramped car took him to Elobeyed, then another car brought him to Khartoum, where he hid himself in a family member’s house just east of Sudan’s capital city. A set of bribes got him past checkpoints and on a plane to Cairo.
Cairo’s vibrant Sudanese community has embraced him, but life as an undocumented refugee in Egypt is punishing. Migrants like Ismail are routinely discriminated against, robbed and assaulted. He lives with a constant worry of arrest and deportation. Many are homeless, and Ismail is no exception. Despite being in Cairo for two years, he has no place to live and floats between couches and the street, where he occasionally sleeps in an alley lined with flaming barrels of chemical waste. He is out of money and work is nearly impossible to find.
Ismail says his only way out is to be smuggled again — from Cairo to Europe — and the only way he can pay for the trip is to sell an organ. He’s learned that his kidneys, which go for $5,000 a piece in Cairo’s booming black market, are almost as valuable as his bomb-making skills. The medical procedures are performed by mostly untrained or minimally qualified surgeons in private homes in remote sections of the city, according to a friend of his, Nazar Salih, who is knowledgeable about the practice and has advised him as Ismail weighs this option. Local criminal outfits resell kidneys and other organs, and the buyers are mainly extremist groups or those sympathetic to them. The resell price for a kidney is $20,000 to $30,000, Salih says.
Knowing there’s a high global demand for organs, harvest recruiters work the same locations as the jihadists — mosques and side streets where refugees gather — and use many of the same techniques. Those willing to sell their body parts predominantly do so in order to afford passage to Europe. The recruiter gets a percentage of the sale, and after the surgical operation will often connect the kidney-offering migrant to a smuggling group.
Experts say the two-part scheme has become a sophisticated and well-organized industry — “a trafficking machine,” said Peter Sutherland, special representative at the U.N. for international migration, who notes that a Time magazine story claims smuggling transactions have generated more than $300 million for ISIS and other terrorists. “This is not just a question of impecunious fishermen making their boats available to people crossing. This is a huge industry with huge amounts of money being taken from some of the most poverty-stricken, distressed individuals you can find giving everything they have to be transported.”
The massive volume of migrants from North Africa through Cairo has stunned Europe and made it all the more difficult for Ismail to make it out of Egypt safely. If he does try, he will be one of thousands who’ve attempted the perilous journey. Almost 300,000 women, children and men from North Africa and the Middle East arrive in Europe by boat each year. Young girls and boys are transported out of refugee camps, across the African desert to the Mediterranean Sea. Sutherland says more than 170,000 migrants were ferried across to Italy in 2014, 13,000 of whom were young people traveling alone. “These are children,” he said. Many have died in transit, packed into ancient boats that sink or capsize, their passengers left to drown or fight off sharks.
Nor is Europe the safe haven refugees hope it to be. Persecuted people may be granted refugee status, which theoretically provides them with a visa. And those who want asylum may receive additional protections. But Europe is overwhelmed by the sudden influx, and some governments are pushing back.
A provision passed by the European Union in Dublin in 2013 allows member nations — which are responsible for feeding, housing and processing refugees — to use a variety of criteria in evaluating asylum claims. The country where a fleeing immigrant first arrives bears the burden of caring for that person for one year, the provision demands. After that, his or her prospects become less certain
Ismail derives one glimmer of hope from the story of his friend Mohamed, a fellow refugee from Sudan he met in Egypt. Like Ismail, Mohamed fled his country with the help of smugglers and, were he to be forced to return, would likely face torture and execution.
It nearly happened in August 2014 when Mohamed attended a conference in Cairo with other Sudanese expatriates. “We were discussing and protesting the Egyptian military occupation of Beja lands. The police surrounded the building and told us to leave,” he said. A few nights later, Mohamed’s phone buzzed with a message from his family back in Sudan. The news was grim. Because he had attended the conference, the Sudanese government was hunting for him. If he stayed in Cairo, Mohamed believed, he would eventually be arrested and shipped home, where, he assumed, the authorities would imprison him. He had to leave Egypt, and like Ismail, faced the necessity of hiring smugglers.
“There are many ways to cross the border and it is hard to say that there is an average price,” Mohamed said. “If the smugglers think you are rich, they will charge you a high price. If you are poor it is cheaper, maybe a few hundred dollars to pay the bribe fee.”
Mohamed paid slightly more than $3,000 for the journey. He and a group of other Sudanese hopefuls were transported in the backs of different trucks, and hid out in various houses and apartments over the course of several days. While laying low on a fruit farm, the Egyptian smugglers flashed their weapons — “guns and sticks,” Mohamed said. “When you would ask for something they would beat you and say ‘Don’t talk. Just stay where you or we will shoot you.’”
Finally, in the middle of the night, his group was taken to a ship that was approximately 60 feet long and packed beyond capacity with people from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Egypt. “The boat was an old one,” said Mohamed. “It was hard to move from place to place, or even lie down. There was a small roof, but people were under the roof and on the roof, too.”
As the vessel chugged across the Mediterranean, it often took on water. “Many times water came in,” said Mohamed. “We had to get it out.” Food and drinkable water were in short supply. The passengers were beaten, yelled at, and forced to do all the cleaning and maintenance, he said.
The smugglers were not competent navigators, and the boat drifted several hundred miles off course. After eleven days an Italian navy cruiser intercepted Mohamed’s vessel and brought them to port, where buses waited to transport him and thousands of others to an understaffed government camp. Two days later, Mohamed and a small group of Sudanese men decided to go off on their own. “We told the guard we needed to go to the market,” he said.
They left the camp on foot and headed north, eventually making it to Sweden and settling in the Hotel Wardhaus in Sweden, designated by the government for refugees. The air was cold and the culture strange. But after weeks of travel, Mohamed was able to rest.
“I want to go home, but I cannot,” he said. “It’s difficult to go back. They are hunting me. I was running away from death, to death. When I decided to go, I had no choice. I just had to run. My people in Egypt told me that there is one solution, there is one way. There is no way back to Sudan, and there is no way to stay [in Egypt].”
Human trafficking, marked by tragic stories involving immigrants from Syria, has proven difficult to stem, despite worldwide outrage. Efforts by the United Nations and European Union, which has amped up its presence in the Mediterranean, have done little to reduce the flood of Europe-bound refugees. Giovanni Davoli, a spokesperson for the Italian Mission to the U.N., said his country has been conducting search and rescue missions for vulnerable boats like the one in which Mohamed traveled. “It is our responsibility, and Italy has done its best,” he said. German and Swedish authorities have worked with Italy in processing visas and integrating arrivals.
The U.N. Security Council has expressed its “grave concern” over the issue of migrant smuggling, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the E.U. for its often isolationist approach. Most experts agree that until the underlying root causes of poverty, political marginalization, war and conflict are solved, human trafficking will remain an intractable reality.
“Smuggling is an activity which not merely brings death in its results, but also brings massive reward to those who are involved in it,” said Sutherland.
Ismail is still mulling his choices. The terror recruiters continue to linger around his mosque and approach him regularly. For now, he’s decided to remain in Egypt. With the help of the Salih, who works at a refugee center, Ismail recently applied to the U.N. for refugee status. To become recognized by the international community, however, requires months of effort, he said, and there’s no guarantee of success. And though he frequently thinks about somehow getting to Europe, he is resisting the temptation to sell his kidney.
At one point during his time in Cairo, he had managed to save enough to pay the smuggling fee and appeared to be on his way to Alexandria. “I had $3,000,” he said. But Egyptian police, looking for smugglers, arrested him and confiscated his money. He was released after several weeks in jail, but the money was not returned.
His friend Hani can’t stop worrying about him.
“Sometimes Ismail sleeps on my couch,” he said. “When he leaves in the morning I think he is going to pray at the mosque, or to find work. Most days he comes back. Some days he does not. Then I worry.”
Note: To protect sources, some names and locations have been altered or withheld.