Feds: American Said Gay Marriage Drove Him to Join Al Qaeda in Syria

A California 22-year-old who was too afraid to join ISIS was apprehended at the airport, allegedly on his way to join al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra.

12.23.15 6:00 AM ET

The latest alleged American recruit for al Nusra was desperate to leave the country because the Supreme Court passed gay marriage.

In a complaint unsealed last week, authorities say a 22-year-old Bay Area man planned a trip overseas to join al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Adam Shafi, of Fremont, is accused of purchasing tickets to Istanbul from San Francisco after he chickened out of joining ISIS last year.

The government claims that Shafi believed U.S. politics were heading in the wrong direction—like the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage a few days prior—and that he wanted to live in a country run under Muslim values.

“Adam was discouraged with the politics and direction of the United States, citing the recent Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage, and wanted to be in a country of people of similar mindset and religion as himself,” the criminal complaint reads.

But ISIS was too brutal and killed too many Muslims for his taste, the complaint alleges. For Shafi, an American disillusioned with U.S. policy and worried about the plight of Muslims around the world, Jabhat al Nusra, which executes regime soldiers and alleged adulterers, seemed like the more moderate choice.

And even though Shafi allegedly attempted to join al Nusra because it better aligned with Islamic values, the group commits similar violence and brutality as ISIS in its own battle against secular Western ideals.

As with many other recent radicalization cases, it was Shafi’s parents who first alerted authorities about his potential plots in the ultimate act of parental sacrifice. When Shafi disappeared during a family trip to Egypt last August, his dad warned the U.S. embassy in the country that he might be heading to Syria. Shafi texted another relative that he was going to “protect Muslims,” and the father said he and high school friends had been following extremist imams online.

Shafi ultimately resurfaced after rendezvousing with a friend in Turkey. They were just sightseeing, he said. When interviewed by the feds, he said he was going to see the condition of Syrian refugees.

But according to the complaint, Shafi wasn’t acting alone. Although ISIS is clearly winning the popularity contest among young, Muslim-American wannabe extremists, at least two other men were in on Shafi’s alleged plot to join the Nusra Front.

One friend, identified in the complaint as A.N., was interviewed by agents after his return from meeting up with Shafi in Turkey because his two-day trip seemed anomalous. He admitted to seeing Adam there—but claimed they were just visiting mosques. The complaint says A.N.’s sibling, though, told a friend that his kid brother was going to join ISIS. The friend promptly called the feds.

In a phone interview, A.N. allegedly told the FBI that he and Shafi left Turkey because Shafi “wasn’t feeling it”—but added that he felt “unfulfilled” and might return to Turkey after the semester to, ominously, “finish what I started.” When federal agents searched his email, they claim they found notes emailed by A.N. to himself with possible entry points into Syria.

The difference between Nusra and ISIS was not as clear in the first half of 2014 as it is now, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told The Daily Beast. Americans going to Syria from Turkey were often at the mercy of where their smuggler would take them.

“It’s not like if you go to Syria you get to raise your hand (there) and say ‘I want to go to al Nusra and not ISIS,’” he said. “There’s not that level of distinction that you can say ‘I want to join this foreign terrorist organization and not that foreign terrorist organization.’”

Today, ISIS recruiters attack Nusra sympathizers online—but those offensives were less frequent two years ago. “I’d read more that he picked a team to begin with and then stuck with it,” Hughes said.

Feds tapped Shafi’s phone and heard him telling a friend that Nusra was the only group following proper Islamic law in Syria. He praised the group’s leader to S.K., a second friend identified in the complaint, while criticizing ISIS’s takfiri ideology. “If the [Islamic State] kills them, I want to die with them,” he said. “I am completely fine dying with these guys.”

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He talked about saving up money for a dowry once he gets to Syria, and expresses relief that his first trip to Turkey was unsuccessful, the report said. Feds claim he implied he wouldn’t wait for his friends to gather money for the trip.

A.N. and S.K. have not been charged. In a motion for pretrial release, Shafi’s lawyer argued that because he had returned from Turkey without joining a terrorist group, federal agents are punishing him for a crime he did not commit.

The attorney also claimed Shafi might not have known that Nusra is classified as a foreign terrorist organization—and attached lengthy testimony from family and friends about his outstanding character.

Agents say Shafi booked an early-evening flight from San Francisco International Airport to Istanbul on June 30. A fellow passenger complained about his behavior in the waiting area, calling his mumbling and shaking “suspicious.”

Feds pulled him aside for an interview before he was able to board the flight. They say he told them he was going to help out Syrian refugees in Turkey.

“Adam claimed some people helped by building a house, while others picked up a gun,” an agent wrote in the complaint.

In the airport interview, federal agents asked flat-out whether Shafi was headed to join a terrorist group.

“I was like, ‘What the hell—do you think I was going to say yes?’” he told a relative by phone after leaving the airport. “What kind of idiot would say yes?”