Around a month ago Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, told his boss that he would be quitting his job soon and returning to his native Uzbekistan. Instead, Juraboev was placed in handcuffs Wednesday after his roommate Akhror Saidakhmetov, was arrested in New York’s JFK airport as he attempted to board a plane to Turkey with plans to join the self-declared Islamic State in Syria.
Zakarya Kahn, the owner of Gyro King, a takeout restaurant where Jubaroev worked, described the young man as reserved, not someone who caused problems at work, but said he stood out for his belief in a severe strain of Islamic theology.
“From the beginning he was a little different,” Kahn told The Daily Beast, “not in the sense that he was a different human being, but religion-wise.”
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, both of Brooklyn, were charged along with a third man living in Florida, Abror Habibov, 30, with providing support to a foreign terrorist organization. All three men are originally from Central Asia. Juraboev and Habibov are citizens of Uzbekistan; Saidakhmetov, Jubaroev’s roommate, is a citizen of Kazakhstan. According to the charges filed in New York’s Eastern District court, Habibov encouraged Juraboev and Saidakhmetov in their plans to travel to Syria and provided the money for the plane tickets.
Kahn, the Gyro King owner, says Juraboev approached him last summer, saying he was homeless and asking for a job.
It was last “June or July” when Juraboev started working at Gyro King, according to Kahn. Not long after that, on August 8, Juraboev posted to a website for ISIS supporters:
“Greetings. We wanted to pledge our allegiance and commit ourselves while not present there, I am in USA now but we don’t have any arms. But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here.”
Federal agents took note of that posting and, using a paid confidential informant, began to build the case that culminated in the arrests Wednesday.
“I was very shocked,” Kahn said of his reaction to Juraboev’s arrest, which he learned about from the news. “Who would actually join [ISIS]?”
“When I heard about Abdullah, it was like, why would he do this,” he said, referring to Juraboev’s nickname. Kahn said that Jurabove’s friends had prompted the change from Abdurasul Hasanovich to Abdullah, a more standard Arabic name.
Juraboev, who spoke little English—the only language he shared with his Pakistani co-workers—kept to himself, chopping salads in a separate location from the Gyro King storefront. According to Kahn, there were differences other than language that distinguished him.
“He used to tell me, he’d say, ‘I’m Salafi,’” Khan said. Salafists are a literalist, orthodox sect of Islam. Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are often called salafist jihadists for their embrace of violence to enforce their puritanical beliefs.
Though Kahn never saw Juraboev display any warning signs of wanting to commit violence or join a terrorist group, he says the young man’s religious beliefs set him apart.
That difference grew in the past month after Juraboev announced his intentions to leave the country. “Once he told me he was going back to his home, I did see some changes,” Kahn said. “You know, he became even more reserved.” It became harder to get Juraboev’s attention at work. “Now his headphones would be all the time on, even if he was going to the mosque.”
Recently, Juraboev had begun attending a new mosque, according to Kahn. The timeline provided in court documents suggests this change could not have triggered Juraboev’s radicalization, since it came months after he first talked about joining ISIS in online message boards.
A member of the Abu Bakr El Seddique mosque, where Kahn said Juraboev had recently begun praying, did not provide immediate answers to questions about whether he belonged to the congregation before he was arrested.
At the Makki Masjid Muslim Community Center, which Kahn said Juraboev attended before going to the Abu Bakr mosque, a member reached by phone said he couldn’t verify the assertion. “If somebody comes in we don't keep the record of them,” said a member of the mosque who did not give his name.
“I’m glad that he got caught,” the man said when he was told the circumstances of Juraboev’s arrest. He added, “we are very much peaceful and dedicated patriotic Americans over here. We do not support any of these activities.”
Half a block from the travel agency where Juraboev and Saidakhmetov bought their plane tickets, a press conference was held Thursday at the Oasis Café. At the restaurant, which serves Uzbek and Russian food, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams joined Kazakh and Uzbek community leaders to address the arrests.
Farhod Sulton, president of the Vatandosh Uzbek-American Federation, said that he had briefly encountered Abror Habibov, one of the men arrested.
“I happen to know one of these gentlemen,” Sulton said, “I lost contact with him, last couple of years.” Sulton offered few details but alluded to a break in the relationship caused by Habibov’s radicalization. “We had an argument with the gentleman about the way he understands Islam and principles.”
“Uzbeks are not well known in America,” Sulton said. “We don't want to be known this way.”
The Uzbek community in Brooklyn numbers around 50,000 people. “Most of them, they work seven days [a week],” said Adams. “They have kids, they want to build a future for their kids.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev was arrested in JFK airport as he attempted to board a plane to Turkey. In fact, that was true of his roommate Akhror Saidakhmetov while Juraboev was arrested at their apartment in Brooklyn. According to court documents Juraboev was waiting for Saidakhmetov to arrive in Syria and join ISIS before he traveled there himself.