Edmonton ISIS recruits groomed cousins for years, court documents say

Two Edmonton brothers who died in 2014 fighting for ISIS in Syria spent years grooming their younger cousins in the United States for violent jihad, according to documents filed in a U.S. court.

Another Edmonton cousin facing extradition to the U.S. is due in court Thursday

Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi will be in court Thursday fighting his extradition to the U.S. (U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of California)

Two Edmonton brothers who died in 2014 fighting for ISIS in Syria spent years grooming their younger cousins in the United States for violent jihad, according to documents filed in a U.S. court.

Months before they left Canada, Hamse and Hersi Kariye and some friends practised for guerilla warfare by shooting an illegal AK-47 at an undisclosed location in the Alberta woods.

Weeks after the brothers flew overseas to fight, their first cousin allegedly robbed a jewelry store in the Edmonton area of Mill Woods to help raise money for their circle of foreign fighters, the documents say.

That man, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, 33, is scheduled to appear in an Edmonton courtroom on Thursday to face an extradition hearing to the U.S.

Details about the activities and beliefs of the three men emerged in a San Diego courtroom in January, when another cousin testified at a sentencing hearing for an ISIS supporter.

According to that testimony, the Kariye brothers began indoctrinating their younger cousins more than a decade ago, while living in San Diego.

We made a deal. We knew that one day we would both go and fight jihad.- Abdirahman Bashir

Abdirahman Bashir testified at the sentencing hearing in U.S. district court that his own radicalization began in 2007, when he was 14 years old.

Bashir, who is also a first cousin of the three Edmonton men, said Hersi Kariye told him at one point that a martyr could be assured that with "your first drop of blood, all your sins get forgiven."

"That's what motivated me and my cousin," Bashir, 22, testified in January. "We made a deal. We knew that one day we would both go and fight jihad."
Mahad Hirsi and Hamsa Kariye are two of three Edmonton men believed killed in November 2014 while fighting for ISIS.

According to a transcript of the sentencing hearing, Bashir, who once planned to follow his cousins to Syria, became an FBI informant and was paid $173,000 by the U.S. government for his co-operation, which included testifying against six childhood friends and aspiring recruits.

In January, Bashir gave evidence against another family friend, Marcello McCain, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison — in part for lying to U.S. authorities as they investigated the Kariye brothers and his own brother, Douglas, an ISIS fighter.

Bashir's testimony offered insights into the group's covert communications and persuasive recruiting tactics, as well as the logistics of joining the ranks of ISIS.

It also provided some answers about how seemingly typical kids from North America came to believe the ISIS cause was worth dying for.

The path to 'fighting jihad'

Bashir told the court that he and the Kariye brothers were close when they all lived in San Diego more than a decade ago.

He said the brothers were both older than him, and he saw them as mentors.

Bashir said at one point he noticed the Kariye brothers transitioned from what he called a "thug lifestyle" — which included run-ins with police — to a conservative brand of Islam, when they began dressing in traditional clothing such as skull caps, known as kufis.

He and his cousins no longer spent most of their time playing basketball and video games, and began attending mosque more frequently.

"They would teach me, or teach us, me and my cousin, Hanad [Mohallim], and my little brother, a lot about Islam, martyrdom and fighting Jihad," Bashir testified.

The cousins watched videos on YouTube recommended by Hersi Kariye, he said.

Much like having favourite superheroes, Bashir recalled talking about their favourite foreign fighters after watching a film called In the Hearts of Green Birds: The Martyrs of Bosnia.

"I didn't know there were westerners that were going overseas to fight until after that video," he said.

Bashir recalled the discussion afterwards, and "how much we enjoyed it ... it had stories of certain people, and it had nicknames. And we'd be, like, 'That specific person, that was my favourite.' It was like a young 18-year-old from UK. And we'd just talk about their stories and how, like, we wanted to be like them, too, one day."

They also watched videos of U.S-born al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Yemen in 2011.

Afterwards, Bashir said, Hersi Kariye told them that the U.S. was "at war with Islam," killing Muslims, children, women and older people with their drone strikes and bombs.

"That's when it started getting into how it's obligatory for Muslims all over the world to go and defend against foreigners and non-Muslims that invade Muslim lands," Bashir testified.

'A five-star jihad'

When the Kariye brothers moved to Canada in 2009, Bashir said they stayed in touch through Facebook, text messages and phone calls.

He recalled one video chat, when Hersi Kariye scolded him for his nice clothes. "You're turning all western now," his cousin told Bashir, according to the testimony. "Did you forget about the path? Your mission?"

In 2013, Bashir said, Mohallim told him that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was "committing genocide and killing citizens."

"That's a five-star jihad going on over there," Bashir recalled Mohallim saying.

Bashir said when he questioned if violent jihad was the right way to help, his cousin showed him videos of children and women dying.

"It affected me," Bashir said. "It touched me, because I [saw] a bunch of people, innocent people, dying. And then that's when I got convinced like, yeah, we do need to do something."

That same summer, Mohallim visited the Kariye brothers in Edmonton. Bashir said he did not go along because his father "didn't want me around them."

When he returned from that trip to Edmonton, Mohallim was wearing his pants rolled up above his ankles in a traditional style favoured by conservative Muslims, Bashir said.

He said Mohallim told him the Kariye brothers and a couple of other people had gone "into the woods, and they had an AK-47 and they were practicing shooting cans and bottles."

Three months later, the Kariye brothers and another Edmonton cousin, Mahad Hersi, flew to Turkey and crossed the border into Syria. Within months, Mohallim and a friend, Douglas McCain, joined them.
U.S. authorities allege ISIS fighter Douglas McCain received money in a wire transfer from Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi to pay for his ticket. (Hennepin County, Minn. Sheriff's Office/The Associated Press)

Bashir's testimony offered some clues about how his cousins were themselves indoctrinated. He told the court that a high school friend of the Kariye brothers named Troy Kastigar had earlier gone off to Somalia to fight with the militant group al-Shabaab.

Bashir said Kastigar would call Hamse Kariye and Douglas McCain, telling them about the miracles he experienced in battle, such as smelling "paradise over the hill," urging them "to hurry up and join" before he died.

Bashir recalled that after Kastigar's death in 2009, Hamse Kariye said: "My brothers left me. I'm not going to let that happen again."

Establishing a cover story

The cousins began using nicknames, something they had seen other ISIS fighters do. Hamse Kariye went by the name "Farmer," while his brother was "Zubayr." Mohallim answered to "L'il Man," and Abdullahi was "Phish."

On the weekend when Mohallim left Minneapolis for Turkey, the cousins went over their cover story, then stopped at a Western Union to pick up $150. As they parked, Bashir said he learned the money had been sent to him.

"And then [Mohallim] told me it came from Phish, my cousin, Abdullahi Abdullahi," Bashir testified, explaining it was pocket money for Mohallim.

On March 9, 2014, Bashir said he dropped Mohallim off at the Mall of America, where his cousin took a train to Terminal 1, to avoid airport surveillance cameras.

If you go over there and say there's nothing weird going on over there, and it's actual jihad, then I'm gonna come after.- Abdirahman Bashir

As they hugged goodbye, Bashir said he pledged, "If you go over there and say there's nothing weird going on over there, and it's actual jihad, then I'm gonna come after."

That same day, Bashir logged into the email account given to him by Mohallim. There he read hundreds of draft messages written by his cousins, using their nicknames.

"Hamse Kariye, I remember an email, him saying he beat up prisoners and executed them, and saying it was only straight head shots," Bashir told the courtroom. "And that kind of twisted my stomach. I couldn't digest that. Because in Islam, you can't harm prisoners, and it got me skeptical."

Coded language

Bashir said the messages described ambushes, guerilla warfare and suicide bombings, using coded language that referenced football and basketball games. A three-point shot referred to distance range with an assault rifle. "Bs" were bodies.

"Lol, man, I heard y'all got some bs under y'all belt mashallah," Abdullahi allegedly wrote from Alberta. "I heard Zubayr's three-point shot is no joke. I always knew that man was a hard brother."

As the months passed, the group learned that Hersi Kariye had been promoted to leader, or "coach." Abdullahi allegedly promised to send "loot" after hearing Hamse Kariye was getting married, the court was told.

On Jan. 10, 2014, Edmonton police asked for the public's help in the search for three suspects in a jewelry store heist in Mill Woods.

Surveillance footage shows the men entering VJ Jewellers at 5:30 p.m. the day before, looking to trade a piece of jewelry. Two were dressed in toques and the third man had a receding hairline and a goatee.

According to police, one man pulled a gun, jumped the counter and assaulted the clerk before the suspects fled in a white minivan.

One of the owners recently told CBC the men smashed a display case and made off with $10,000 to $20,000 worth of gold rings and pendants.

Two of the men later charged in the robbery were Abdullahi and his brother, Abdikadir. Their court date on charges of robbery with a firearm is scheduled for August.
Abudullahi Ahmed Abdullahi is accused of robbing VJ Jewellry to help finance cousins who joined ISIS. (Edmonton Police Service)

U.S. authorities accuse Abdullahi of robbing the store to help pay for airline tickets for Mohallim and Douglas McCain.

RCMP arrested Abdullahi last September in Fort McMurray. He has been in custody ever since.

'Our faces are all over the TV'

According to a message Bashir read in court, allegedly written by Abdullahi, pawning the jewelry proved to be difficult.

"This stuff we have, I didn't know it was gonna be next to impossible to get rid of," Abdullahi alleged wrote, apologizing to Hamse Kariye. "Our faces are all over the TV. So we had to go to different cities, and even then, when I travel like four hours out of the city, these people look at a N-word and say they don't want to deal with me and ask for ID."

He ended, Bashir testified, by promising to "send every dime" in his pocket, even his $900 tax return.

According to the U.S. indictment, Abdullahi eventually sent a series of wire transfers to San Diego and Turkey totalling more than $3,000.

It's believed the Kariye brothers were killed by an airstrike in Syria in November 2014, along with Mahad Hirsi and Hanad Mohallim.




Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca