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He ‘Wanted to Be Important’: How One Westerner Spiraled Toward Jihad

Where Did ISIS Come From? 3:11

STUTTGART, Germany — In handcuffs in a high-security courtroom, a 24-year-old man named Ismael described a troubled upbringing, a breakup with a girlfriend and the downward spiral that drove him into the open arms of jihad.

The man was arrested a year ago at a rest stop in Germany on his way to Syria, his car packed with supplies for the battlefield, including night-vision devices and camouflage. He was in court to face terrorism charges for joining ISIS.

Ismael is an increasingly typical example of how the militant organization has lured Westerners. Their targets are men in the third decade of their lives, with a Muslim background and a history of failure — men like Ismael.

He is one of thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join extremists in droves, many now among the ranks of ISIS. A recent U.N. report put that number 15,000 from about 80 different countries.

For Ismael, the experience was not what he expected.

‘Suddenly people looked up at me. They didn’t see me as only a junkie anymore.’

He was born in Denmark and raised in Germany. His parents, Lebanese and Syrian, had fled turmoil in their home countries. Ismael, in an emotional statement in court, said the traumas that he and his family suffered drove him to militancy.

“My family had to go through a lot,” he said. “We had little prospects.”

Ismael was ambitious and managed to finish school. He said he “wanted to do something major, wanted to be important.” He met a girlfriend in 2009. When she got pregnant, they moved to Sweden and married.

But their new life was quickly interrupted. She lost the child, they broke up, and the spiral began.

“That’s when it all started,” he said.

He moved back to Germany to be closer to his family, but couldn’t keep a job. He dropped out of schools and training programs. He took drugs, and he considered but did not start therapy, ashamed that his family would find out about his addiction.

“Didn't know what to do, so I went to the mosque,” he recounted.

There and during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Islamists recruited Ismael to fight in Syria, prosecutors said. He claims that he wanted to join a humanitarian mission and told his friends.

“Suddenly people looked up at me. They didn’t see me as only a junkie anymore,” he said. “I thought: I’ll fly there, help, and return as a hero.”

He traveled to Syria in August 2013, went through military training, joined the fighting. Prosecutors said Ismael was trained to use an AK-47, went on patrols and took part in house-to-house fighting in the suburbs of Aleppo.

ISIS recruiters are churning out professional-grade propaganda video to attract foreigners. One of its media centers is dedicated to propaganda in European languages, mostly English.

When administrators of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites shut down the recruiters’ accounts, new ones pop up quickly. But Ismael’s experience was nothing like the propaganda, he said.

“In Syria, it’s not like watching a video, where you’re in your living room,” he said. “In Syria, war is 360 degrees all the time, you can see it, you can even smell it.”

His lawyer, Stefan Holoch, said that the young man looked for “adventure” in Syria, but that he soon was shocked by the violence, especially when two dead bodies of fellow fighters were brought into the camp on the back of a pickup truck.

“The daily routine in war is totally different than those romantic illusions,” Holoch said.

Where Did ISIS Come From? 3:11

Nevertheless, Ismael followed orders of his commander to purchase military supplies while visiting his ailing mother in Germany. He bought clothes for more than $1,000 and medical supplies for about $650.

Investigators even found a WhatsApp message from his commander asking for Celox, a military-tested blood clotting solution. But when he purchased a night-vision device for almost $5,000 at a local hunting shop, the sellers informed the police.

They arrested Ismael days later as he was leaving town for Syria in a used car fully packed with fresh supplies. Another man, Mohammad, who was in the car and planning to travel to Syria, was also arrested.

But their arrests and similar ones across Europe and in the United States are doing little to stem the flow of foreign fighters to the declared caliphate of ISIS. Their number is likely to increase.

Western fighters are considered soft — they have virtually no battlefield experience, in sharp contrast to recruits from Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere — but they are valuable to ISIS for other reasons.

“They are beneficial for propaganda work, collecting donations and other resources,” said Daniel Koehler, a Berlin-based expert on extremism. “And there is the not baseless fear that they could be sent back to their home countries for attacks.”

Not even the recent U.S.-led airstrikes are deterring foreign fighters, he said. Instead, recruitment is up.

“ISIS has been able to gain legitimacy thanks to the airstrikes,” he said. “Now they say, we’ve become so important that even the U.S. is bombarding us.”