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Middle East and Africa

From Apolitical Affluent Young Man to Jihadist: Story of a Transformation

Islâm Yakan is an example of how the attitude of a young man from a comfortable background can change from one of indifference to politics to active involvement with the Jihadists in Syria. A human event reconstructed by a newspaper from descriptions provided by neighbours and friends and gossip.

Islâm Yakan, a young Egyptian who went off to Jihad, became the subject of lively discussion from the time when his name and photo began to circulate in the media and social networks. Islâm is not the first and will not be the last to be ‘brainwashed’ in the name of religion, to renounce his country, his religion and himself. We were subjected to many threats in our enquiries as to the whereabouts of Islâm and details of his life. But Al-Yawm al-Sâbi‘ decided to run the risk and speak unequivocally in public about his life.



Islâm is a spoiled young man, born in an affluent Egyptian family, with two older sisters. Those who know describe him as quiet, given neither to argument nor to conflict, a young man who would never do anything without listening to his parents, who lives in their shadow, keeps himself at a distance from problems, with no interest in politics. He never thought of taking part in the two revolutions that happened in Egypt, of supporting or opposing them. He never had any idea of joining popular groups and had no sectarian inclinations. The various political events ran their course without ever having interested him.



So what overturned his equilibrium? What made a young man, in the full bloom of youth, embark upon the road of bloody and bloodthirsty terrorism without any need of money? These are questions that can be answered only by those closest to him. ‘Why do you want to hear what we have to say about Yakan ? You media people, haven’t you caused enough confusion ?’ This was how our interview with Yakan, Islâm’s father, started. After repeated attempts had been made to persuade him to speak, Yakan explained: ‘My son has been taken and brainwashed by ISIS militants. I am a father, and every father sees his son as an angel. I cannot attack my son or say anything against him. He was a normal and devoted boy, he had no enemies or problems with anyone, he did not belong to any political or sectarian groups. On the contrary, he was always sensible’.



With a strained voice he added: ‘My son was abducted from himself before being abducted from me. His mother and I began to worry when he started to hide things about himself. He even went off on his own for ten days, these were his last days in Egypt. We didn’t know if he needed anything, when he would leave or even when he would come back. He told us that his decision was based only on his love of good and his links with the Syrian aid organization in Egypt. He had been persuaded to join this group on the grounds that it was for good, the love of God, and that these groups were youth groups whose job was to collect money to help victims of the war in Syria between government troops and the ISIS militias and to help Syrian refugees on the border.



‘Islâm told us that he would go to the Syrian border and be part of a team of young volunteers, Arab and non-Arab, including French and Italian, and would be assigned certain tasks. Each member or each group would be responsible for handing out food to occupants of a tent and distribute tasks among those present. Islâm left a few months ago and we stayed in touch until communication between us unexpectedly broke down. I know nor more, but in the meantime newspapers and TV have shown various images and videos of him and his attachment to several groups. Nobody can reconstruct the truth about my son or verify the accuracy of the reports about him’.



We then talked about claims about whether the parents had supported Islâm and his extremism and the possibility that communications between them had never really been interrupted. ‘It was a great effort for me to bring up my son for 23 years with sound principles and values and within a few months to see everything destroyed. His brain has been addled. He has been told that he is on the right path and that his actions would be pleasing to God. I cannot speak or bear witness against my son, whatever the facts may be. All I can say is that he has been abducted’.



‘The fact that his parents spoiled him and were apprehensive about facing their only male child, who was also relatively old, might be one of the reasons why Islâm is a weak person and the reason that pushed him to detach himself from his father to discover the world for himself and to come into contact with someone who has exploited this weakness’. This is how the neighbours try to explain the sudden change in the personality of the young man. They tell a story about how his abduction as a young boy might have influenced him psychologically in some way, especially since this experience had convinced his father not to let him out on the streets, a situation that continued until he enrolled at university, according to Ahmad Isma‘îl, a neighbour for over twenty years: ‘It wasn't until later on that Islâm began to break free of all the restrictions imposed upon him, when he became a student’.



Ayman Muhammad, another neighbour, focused on how remote Islâm was from politics despite everything that had happened in Egypt: ‘He took no part whatever in the two revolutions, he had no interest in public opinion, and did not join in the committees organized to secure the defence our district. That’s why we think he’s been brainwashed. He never had anything to do with politics. We know instead that certain terrorist organizations want to destroy Egypt and they’ve started by stealing the minds of young men here. Islam was a devout young man, and religion was the best way to reach him’.



‘Unemployment, the impossibility of finding a job, the desire to reach a certain standard of living are some of the main reasons why Islâm joined the ranks of ISIS’. This is the sort of explanation that can be heard in the media and on the web, but they are at odds with Islâm’s family circumstances. Umm ‘Umar, owner of a kiosk near Islâm’s home, rejects this: ‘Islâm comes from a well-to-do family. His father has always been well-off. He runs a well-known business. The family has never wanted for anything’.



‘The gym, exercise and sports centres had a major effect on the personality of Islâm, who began to show signs of change after the death of a friend, about four years ago’, according to Ahmad Hishâm, a friend he used to play football with. For Ahmad Hishâm, ‘Islâm wouldn’t kill a fly, let alone a human being in the name of religion. He was a peaceful person and never had conflict of any sort with anyone. He dressed like the other boys, went out, laughed and had girlfriends and did not become involved with religion until after his best friend died. It was traumatic, even at a sentimental level. He left the girl he loved and decided to dedicate himself to religion for fear of judgment and the torments of the grave, as he himself told people before he left. He began to pray and pay attention to the precepts of Islam, moderately at the beginning and then more rigorously. He started growing a beard and saying things that he had heard his friends say during religious instruction and sharî‘a’.



Hishâm Sa‘îd, owner of a jewelry near the gym that Islâm used to go to, who saw Islam being transformed into an Islamic preacher, said: ‘the change started with the visits to the mosque near the gym to pray, then he started to invite us to prayer, then with time the first signs of fanaticism began to appear. In the meantime his conversation became radicalized: he was trying to anyone around of his religious ideas and spent much of his time reading the Qur’an in a loud voice in front of the shop. Finally he began to insist on leaving for an Arab country where the Qur’an was lived more seriously. We saw him for the last when they started to look for him. When he found this out, he disappeared and we never saw him again. Some said that he had gone to Turkey, others to Saudi, his sisters said he had published photos of himself taken with members of ISIS on his Facebook page’.



For fear of being intimidated some of his friends did not speak of the last few times they saw Islâm attending the al-Rahma in Madinat Nasr, just before leaving for the jihad, when he got know some groups responsible for his extremism.


Khâlid ‘Âdil, a childhood friend of Islâm, agreed to tell the truth about him so that young men might learn a lesson from his experience. However, after a first interview, he decided suddenly to go into hiding. Then he explained that he had received threats from people he did not know warning him not to say anything. ‘Âdil maintains that the power of Islâm and the militants is not limited to Syria and Iraq: ‘There are obviously some of them in Egypt too’.






From the newspaper Al-Yawm al-Sâbi‘, 7 Sept. 2014, translated by Chiara Pellegrino