Shamal Ahmad Tofiq was a fun-loving barber from the northern Iraqi town of Said Sada who liked women and a party – before he left his small hometown to find himself in Europe.
Now he is back, and, as a fast-rising member of Islamic State, is committed to killing his own countrymen. His family and fellow villagers say they watched from afar, communicating with Tofiq, now known as Sina Ahmad, by Facebook as he descended into radicalization after meeting jihadists in Athens.
“In our village, he was known by everybody and had many friends,” said Chamal Omar, who, like Ahmad, is 26. “His family were poor but they were happy. His father sold shoes. Now we do not know him, he is a stranger. It was in Europe that this happened -- away from his friends.”
While much of Europe worries about the radicalization of homegrown Muslims in mosques where fiery imams exhort young minds to wage a holy war with the West, Ahmad’s path to violent jihad shows the Islamic crucibles of Athens, London and Paris can turn the Middle East’s sons against their own.
Ahmad has told stunned friends and family members in blunt words that he has no qualms about fighting his own family, or even killing his own brother, having determined they are living in sin.
Interviews with former friends of Ahmad, as well as his own Facebook posts, paint a chilling picture of how he became a radical committed to killing all those whose lives he deems an affront to Allah. He left his hometown in the mountains of Kurdistan in 2009 to discover Europe, and wound up living in Greece’s capital. One night, he told friends, he drank so heavily that the ensuing hangover convinced him he needed to change.
He turned over the new leaf the next day at a mosque, where he was quickly wooed by Islamic fundamentalists from Yemen, Britain and Pakistan. He kept his family and old pals back home apprised of his new friends on regular Facebook chats, telling them how he was meeting interesting people and attending meetings at the mosque.
Only in retrospect do the old friends realize they were witnessing the radicalization of the young man they still called Shamal. He resurfaced in Syria, where he joined the Al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al Nusra in its bid to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad. Then, like thousands of al Nusra members, he joined the group then known as ISIS as it ascended. With the Islamic State now claiming a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria, Ahmad is believed to be a central player in the battlefront with Kurdistan.
Ahmad is still active on Facebook, but now his page is replete with graphic images showing horribly disfigured bodies. As recently as a month ago, some old friends received emails from Ahmad urging them to repent, and to join his side. And while most of those who knew him in his previous life are appalled, one friend, who also left Said Sada and at least for a time lived in Rhode Island, is not.
“The whole world is afraid of you now, and victory will eventually be for all Muslims,” the friend, known to the same circle of Said Sada residents as Ahmad, posted alongside a picture of himself praying while surrounded by guns.
Childhood friends of Ahmad, who still live in the small mountain town only an hour from the front lines where Kurds are battling bravely against Islamic State fighters, say his radicalization has shattered their close-knit community, as well as his family, which unequivocally rejects his actions.
“We are fighting against the Islamic State,” said Roman Kamal, 26. “How can our friend now be against us and against his family? We cannot understand.”
Ahmad’s brother, who is fighting with the Kurdish Peshmerga, declined to discuss his brother, as did their father. But friends say the family has been destroyed by the wayward son who now seeks to kill them and the community around them.
“His father is broken now,” said one. “We help him and gather round to heal his broken heart.”
In the small Kurdish town where Ahmad grew up, many young men are taking up arms to fight the Islamic State. They know their fight is for the very survival of their home, and they know if it comes down to it, they may have to kill one man who once lived among them.
“The family has been torn apart,” Omar said. “Like the country.”
Follow Benjamin Hall on Twitter @BorderlineN or visit www.hallbenjamin.com