At least nine of the 15 American ISIS members identified have originated from another country and will prove Trump was right on his immigration policy.
The world knows ISIS fighters from their horrific acts of terrorism and brutal propaganda videos, in which masked men appear on a foreign landscape and execute their victims. But there is another side to the ISIS menace, hidden in the most familiar of places: American cities and suburbs, where recruits live among unsuspecting relatives and neighbors, communicating with the terror group through social media.
American law enforcement officials estimate that roughly 250 Americans have tried to join IS. Most of them never left the United States, raising fears of more homegrown attacks like the one in December in San Bernardino, California. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, the Justice Department’s top national security officer, told NBC News that his agency has open investigations in all 50 states.
But a few dozen of those American recruits have made the trip to ISIS’s heartland in Syria and Iraq.
In March, NBC News was given a thumb drive by a man claiming to be an ISIS defector. The drive contained the names and snippets of biographical information of more than 4,000 ISIS foreign fighters who entered Syria in 2013 and 2014. The documents, effectively ISIS personnel files, have been verified by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and other counterterrorism specialists.
Through the documents, NBC News has identified at least 15 American citizens or residents who have joined ISIS overseas. They fit no particular pattern. Some are from poor Muslim immigrant families. Others had what can be described as privileged backgrounds. Three have Somali backgrounds. One was a Latino convert to Islam. They lived in small towns and cities in New York, Texas, California and places in between.
Raihan enlisted with ISIS in July 2014 after traveling to Syria with his his older sister, Zakia Nasrin, and her husband, Jaffrey Khan. Raihan’s family is from Bangladesh; they moved to Ohio, in 2000, when he was about 5. He played fantasy computer games with friends, and earned excellent grades, and looked up to Nasrin, an academic over-achiever. But in 2013, between his junior and senior year in high school, Raihan fell into a deep depression, his friends told NBC News. He saw a psychiatrist but sought help from his sister, who’d become a devout Muslim. Raihan told friends he embraced Islam, too, and proclaimed himself cured.
When he turned 18, Raihan moved in with Nasrin and Khan, and together they moved from Ohio in May 2014. Two months later, according to the ISIS documents, he entered Syria at Tel Abyad with Khan. Raihan, who took the battle name Abu Abduallah al-Amriki, was killed in Syria, according to family and a senior U.S. intelligence source.
Nasrin doesn’t appear in the ISIS documents, but NBC News pieced together how she joined her younger brother, Rasel Raihan, and her husband, Jaffrey Khan, in Syria. Nasrin dreamed of becoming a doctor and graduated high school with a 4.0 average. Then she dropped out of sight, friends told NBC News.
It turned out that she’d moved to California to marry Khan, whom she’d met online, according to relatives. She became a devout Muslim, covering her face and staying away from other men, relatives said. The couple returned to Ohio, and she continued on to Ohio State. Then, in May 2014, she and her husband, along with her younger brother, left. In July, the two men entered Syria, according to the ISIS documents. Nasrin ended up working with Khan at a hospital in ISIS-controlled Raqqa, Khan’s father told NBC News. Now 24, she is the mother of a 10-month-old girl, relatives said.
Khan grew up in Northern California, a son of divorced Pakistani immigrants. From an early age, he struggled emotionally, attending several schools and often getting into trouble. A school acquaintance described Khan as “slightly disturbed.” He showed no interest in religion until making a sudden conversion, then became devout, a cousin said. He grew his beard and began researching conflicts in the Muslim world, growing “hateful” of America, the cousin said. And, according to relatives, he went online to find a wife and met Zakia Nasrin.
An acquaintance, fearing Khan was getting involved with jihadists, contacted the FBI, but what came of that tip is unclear. The couple also traveled to Kenya, prompting interest from the FBI, Nasrin’s younger brother, Rasel Raihan, would later tell a friend.
Months after Raihan moved in with the couple in Ohio, the three of them left the U.S. for Syria. The last their families heard, Khan, 24, and his wife were working in a hospital in ISIS-held Raqqa and had an infant daughter.
Renteria, who is of Mexican descent, grew up in Gilroy, California, where he attended two local high schools before getting a computer job in San Jose, his family told NBC News.
He was raised Catholic, but at some point, he stopped going to church and adopted Islam, relatives told NBC News. He began wearing robes on Fridays and attending services at the South Valley Islamic Center. The imam there said he was “very quiet” and never socialized. Then, two or three years ago, he stopped showing up.
His family told their landlord that he had joined the military. But the ISIS documents show that he entered Syria at Tel Abyad in March 2014, when he was 24. His whereabouts since then are unclear. One of his sisters told NBC News, “My brother was a good person.”
Born in India and raised in Kuwait, Rahman, 22, came to the United States to study computers at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. School officials confirmed he was a student there from January 2012 to May 2014, and records show he had a perfect grade-point average for at least one semester.