Mom and Dad Hid a Terrible ISIS Secret
The Muslim community of Middletown, New York, agonized when young Samy el-Goarany died. But they had no idea how he really lost his life.
MIDDLETOWN, New York—On Dec. 2, 2015, Mohamed el-Goarany shared a photo of his 25-year-old son on Facebook, along with a common Arabic prayer: “We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.”
“With the deepest sorrow and personal sadness, we announce the passing of our beloved son Samy El-Goarany in sudden accident last week,” Mohamed, a real-estate agent, added. “A beautiful soul, full of love and faith, ascended to heaven, away from us, but closer to Allah. However, we take comfort in knowing that he is now resting in the arms of Allah.”
A few days later, the community came together to mourn the loss of such a young man to such a horrific twist of fate. The Middletown Islamic Center overflowed with well-wishers and friends speaking lovingly of the man. The strong-headed Samy hadn’t been the most community-minded member of the congregation (the relatively new imam recalls seeing him only a couple of times during his first few years at the mosque), or the best student, or the most career-oriented. Yet he was close “like twins” to his brother, Tarek, adored by his parents, and a beloved friend. His parents, Mohamed and Maria Teresa, in turn, were adored by the community. The loss ran deep.
“Everyone in this community is here for you guys. You have to believe that,” one friend told the parents, according to videos of the memorial service reviewed by The Daily Beast. “They say the good die young, right?”
What his family didn’t tell anyone—not his friends, not other relatives, not even the imam—was that Samy’s death was no accident. He had died fighting for ISIS in Syria.
For nearly a year, the el-Goarany family was able to keep this secret to themselves. It allowed them to mourn their son loudly and publicly.
Until Samy was named in court filings last October relating to a case against a man who allegedly helped him get to Syria. Until the news trucks came and started asking the people of Middletown about their neighbor Samy, the terrorist.
Mohammed, Maria Teresa, and Tarek el-Goarany are expected to testify this week in the trial of the man the federal government says helped secure their son’s journey into ISIS’s ranks. Ahmed Mohamed el-Gammal, known as Jammie, allegedly introduced Samy to a man who would help him cross the border and helped him get military training from a terrorist group. But the Muslim community in Orange County, New York, hadn’t heard about the impending testimonies, either, in the dark once again in a saga that centers around one of their own.
There is no roadmap on how to mourn for parents who lose their children, first in spirit and then in substance, to a terrorist group like ISIS. Only a small handful have experienced this loss publicly: The aunt of Sixto Garcia, a convert whose name was revealed in the process of a separate criminal case, still tweets occasionally hoping to get more information on her nephew’s last days. For those whose children survive, a public response or acknowledgment is often complicated by ongoing legal proceedings against their child, while a small handful whose children slipped away unnoticed by authorities likely believe their child’s fate will never be discovered at all.
In Minneapolis, Deqa Hussen sent her son to another city when she learned that some of his friends were interested in extremist groups, and threw herself into anti-radicalization work. He was still indicted on charges of supporting a foreign terrorist organization in 2015. Abdirizak Warsame later pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities, getting just two and a half years in prison. “When I find out some of the stuff that he did… I commanded my son to tell the truth. And that’s what he did,” Hussen told the AP. “I’m so proud of him for telling the truth.”
Others who caught their kids later in the radicalization process took even more drastic approaches. The father of Adam Shafi, a Fremont, California, man who wound up in Turkey during a family trip to Egypt, immediately called authorities and suggested his son might've been recruited. Shafi eventually rejoined his family, telling them he’d wanted to see what was happening to refugees, but his father continued to talk to the FBI against his attorney’s suggestions. Adam was later arrested on charges that he wanted to join al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
And the father of a 15-year-old Colorado teen who was returned to her family by police after being intercepted in Germany spoke out about how his daughter was recruited in local media. (She was not charged, likely because of her age, and the fact that women do not serve as fighters for ISIS.) "Every parent should not think, 'I'm safe and this is never going to happen to me.' That's wrong. If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody else, because I consider myself a good parent. I consider myself involved in my kids' lives. And that happened to me,” he said. “And honestly, I want people to think it can happen to them."
But the silence that surrounded Samy’s departure and death, even to trusted religious leaders, seems unusual, in large part because the the family knew he was part of a parallel criminal investigation into the man who allegedly helped him travel abroad, and his full name could be revealed in court proceedings at any time.
Samy grew up on a quiet cul-de-sac of palatial homes in Middletown, New York, where deer graze in the yards of nearby homes at dawn and dusk. His parents appeared to embody the American Dream: His father, an Egyptian immigrant, excelled in the real-estate business and became known as a generous and welcoming supporter of the local mosque. His mother Maria Teresa, who is Colombian-American, worked for a non-profit, according to public records.
Samy grew up with a younger brother, Tarek, to whom he was very close, and a half-brother named Khaled. The el-Goarany boys had a basketball hoop in their yard. Down the street, Samy’s good friend had a pool, and they attended school at Goshen High School, a short drive away.
Social media shows the parents doted on the boys. But Samy was still having trouble finding his way. He started college at St. John’s University in Queens, but never graduated. He picked up his studies again at Baruch College of the City University of New York, but, nearly six years after graduating from high school, hadn’t finished a degree. Online records show that at one point, he considered becoming a real-estate agent, like his dad, but it’s not clear whether that panned out, either.
Instead, he pursued his passion, rapping, in the company of a handful of high school friends. He even put out an 18-track mixtape as 5ultan in 2012. His songs sometimes touched on political or religious themes, but didn’t set off any alarm bells.
He also used his stage name for a prolific Tumblr presence. Samy posted about social justice, shared music videos, and wistfully reblogged travel photos of luxurious vacation destinations. His posts went from critiquing capitalism to more pointed blogs about racism and American interventions abroad. And, as the son of an Egyptian immigrant, he paid close attention to what was going on in Egypt, posting about hunger strikers and police crackdowns on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, appearing to support the latter. (Ironically, the group Samy would later join—and die fighting for—despises the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Then something changed. A half-dozen friends and community members interviewed by The Daily Beast aren’t sure why or really exactly when the shift took place. But there was evidence online that Samy was different. The postings about social justice began to veer to occasional gifs of jihadis and their niqab-covered wives. He’d later tweet from one of his accounts that the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Egypt’s Rabaa Square was a key reason in his desire to join ISIS.
As far back as 2012, he declared that to be a Muslim was to be an Islamist, hinting at his future convictions about what an Islamic state should be. “I’ve always hated the word ‘islamist’, because it implies that Islam & politics are inherently separate. They’re not,” Samy wrote. “Islam is a way of life, and it encompasses all parts of society including politics. If you’re a Muslim, you’re an ‘islamist’ by definition.”
In retrospect, it’s not hard to spot his growing polarization. But Samy’s posts were vague, restrained, as if straddling the boundary between impartial commentary and outright endorsement.
He also debated other people on Tumblr over ISIS hoax stories. After a fake news story circulated that ISIS militants had executed 150 women in Fallujah, Samy tried to debunk it, pointing out that many of the false stories involved "jihad an-nikah"—sexual jihad, a long-time fascination of right-wing groups. And he posted a copy of the Senate report on the CIA’s torture program, urging followers to read it for themselves and tagging it "#Amerikkka."
By the fall of 2014, Samy was ready to leave. He bought tickets to Istanbul—a common layover city for foreign fighters en route to the Syrian border—that October, with plans to fly out the next month. But he then canceled those tickets.
Instead, he and his brother Tarek drove back up to their parents’ home from the apartment they shared in Queens, and spent the holidays there. The family’s social media accounts show that the boys’ half-brother, Khaled, also joined them. Mohamed, the beaming patriarch, is pictured standing with his three boys, Samy’s arm draped around him, in a New Year’s Eve photo. The other el-Goarany men smile genuinely in the photos, but Samy’s mouth is always closed, as if in a quiet smirk.
And from his childhood home, Samy kept on updating his Tumblr, fueled by his new convictions. A few days before Christmas, he posted a drawing of a masked figure with a knife holding up Santa Claus's severed head.
"Merry Christmas," it was captioned.
In late January of 2015, Samy told his parents he was going back home to New York City, according to a motion filed by prosecutors in court. Instead, he went to JFK Airport and boarded a flight bound for Istanbul the following day.
A few weeks before that, he’d alluded to his upcoming travels with Mobb Deep lyrics on Tumblr.
“Ain’t no time for hesitation, that only leads to incarceration / You don’t know me? There’s no relation,” he posted on his Tumblr page on Jan. 17, 2015.
He messaged Tarek, the youngest, tallest, and quietest of the three brothers, from his Istanbul hotel room once he arrived.
“Salam bro just want to let you know I’m safe and about to head out in a bit,” he wrote to his brother, Tarek, after arriving in Istanbul. “Let mom and dad know I will reach them in 3 days to let them know I’m safe.”
Samy told different people different stories about what he was going to be doing abroad. He told his friends about an internship opportunity. He told a girl he was trying to impress that he had graduated college and moved on to humanitarian work in the Middle East. And he spoke to others, like el-Gammal and his brother, in vague terms about a “company” he’d joined.
El-Gammal, 44, is known to friends as Jammie or Jimmy. An Egyptian immigrant, like Samy’s father, el-Gammal lived across the country in Arizona. His defense attorneys say el-Gammal was thoroughly Americanized: a smoker and gun range-frequenter with an image of Marilyn Monroe in his bedroom, and an all-American ex-wife. He was also a regular voter, in line with his support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party in his homeland that still tries to come into power through democratic means. (Because of that, and other doctrinal differences, ISIS abhors the Muslim Brotherhood and considers them un-Islamic.)
But prosecutors say el-Gammal was merely a radical who drifted upstream from his Muslim Brotherhood days. They marshal evidence from social media exchanges where el-Gammal declared he would rather live “in a tent in an Islamic State” than with all the luxuries of a secular one. They revealed slivers of information about Samy in court filings—his first name, age, and hometown, for example—before revealing his full name this October.
El-Gammal allegedly connected Samy to Atteia Aboualala, an Egyptian friend of his now living in exile in Turkey. Prosecutors allege that this connection is what enabled Samy to cross into Syria—and it is the basis for charging el-Gammal with material support for a foreign terrorist organization.
"As-Salamu Alaikum Ateyya my name is Samy, I'm Gammal's friend," Samy wrote in a Facebook message to Aboualala on Jan. 16. "He told me you could help me with a career opportunity in Istanbul. I'll be visiting soon to look for an internship for the summer inshaAllah. I'd really appreciate your help.”
That, prosecutors say, was code for ISIS. They charge that el-Gammal provided him with connections he wouldn’t have otherwise had, and even flirted with the idea of joining ISIS in Syria himself.
But el-Gammal’s defense attorneys argue that Aboualala was a friend who worked for Muslim Brotherhood-linked TV channels. They say online exchanges don’t prove el-Gammal knew of Samy’s plans, or that Samy ever actually connected with Aboualala in Turkey—and that he was a stubborn young man determined on getting to ISIS, even without anyone’s help.
The facts on exactly how he accomplished the task are murky, but Samy quickly found his way from Istanbul to the Syrian border. And he again updated Tarek, on Feb. 16, from ISIS territory.
"I'm sorry for the sudden disappearance man, I've got a lot of explaining to do," Samy wrote, referring in coded language to a "protocol" at his "new company" that limited communication. "Hours after our last... conversation i had my phone and laptop taken from me by the company for safety reasons.
"Right now i'm going through the religious training which will end in 9 days," Samy added. "Then I'm gonna be enrolled in my main training course which will take a month to complete."
Samy told his brother that he'll be back in touch more regularly after completing his training—sometime around March or April. "I got a lot to talk about with you [inshaAllah] just stay calm and please remind [our parents] that everything is cool," he concluded.
Meanwhile, back home, his parents were learning that everything was not at all “cool.” The FBI began investigating Samy’s disappearance shortly after he left. A federal agent testified in court that law enforcement agencies interviewed the family, and instructed them not to tell Samy that they are investigating him. Instead, they began monitoring all of Samy’s communications with his family.
But Mohamed el-Goarany was desperate to find his son. The agent, Komaal Collie, testified that the elder el-Goarany went to Turkey to try to find him against the FBI’s instructions.
In a message to his father on May 5, 2015, Samy apologized for "what ive put you and the rest of the family through.
"I never meant to hurt you or make you worry or depressed," he wrote. "I advise you not to worry too much about the news about this place. And dont believe everything the media says, they are liars," Samy said. "kiss mom on the forehead for me."
But all Mohamed wanted was to see his son one more time.
"I'll love you to come, if you can and spend today & tomorrow with me here," Mohamed pleaded with Samy. "Or I can come to you anywhere you tell me. I can take a Taxi or Even Fly to see & Hug you!!!
"That's why I came all the way here just to do that. I miss you so much," Mohamed wrote, signing the message "Dad."
Samy did not oblige. He told his father not to waste any more time or money in Istanbul. And the next day, he said that friends at his “company” told him sometime after Ramadan might be a good time for his father to visit, after he’d gotten “certification” and finished his training, according to documents presented in court.
In one message from June, he sent his father a photo of himself with long, unruly hair, and a grown-out beard. He raised his index finger in a sign of tawhid, or monotheism, co-opted by ISIS militants.
And eventually, Samy updated his Tumblr one final time, to an image of the ISIS flag.
El-Gammal was charged for his role in Samy’s move on Aug. 24, 2015. And just two weeks later, Samy posted a video on YouTube attempting to exonerate him from the charges.
“My name is Samy Mohammed el-Goarany. I’m 24 years old, and I’m an American citizen currently residing in the Islamic State,” he said, according to court documents. “I came here and I made this video to let you know that I came here out of my own will. It was my own choice, and it was out of my own resources.”
(Excerpts from Aboualala’s Facebook messages, revealed in court motions, show that he may have asked Samy to make that recording.)
Just a few months later, that November, the family found out in a Facebook message to Tarek that Samy was dead.
"[Tarek] if you're reading this then know that I've been killed in battle and am now with our Lord InshaAllah," Samy wrote, in photos of his handwritten last testament sent to Tarek by another ISIS supporter. "We will win this war one day, this war between [belief] and [disbelief] between Good and Evil."
In New York, the relatively new imam of the Middletown Islamic Center gathered the community for a memorial service for a young man he’d rarely seen, but whose father he had grown to respect.
A bunch of boys Samy had grown up with were there, and the imam asked one of them to talk about the man.
“Please, I know you don’t like to talk, but just a couple of sentences,” the imam told him, adding for the crowd, “Through Samy, he became Muslim.”
A dreadlocked young man took the mic and greeted the community with a traditional Islamic greeting.
“I grew up with Samy. I’ve known him for many years before I became Muslim. And there was a time where everyone grows up go to college, and I hadn’t seen him for a while. And eventually he came back into my life,” Nico said, according to videos reviewed by The Daily Beast. “Before that, I was very lost and I was always asking God how there’s truth, please guide me to it, because I had abandoned my whole faith.
“By me asking Allah to guide me, he eventually brought Samy back into my life,” Nico added.
He began asking Samy questions “every day.”
“Alhamdulillah, if we had never met, I probably never would have come to Islam,” Nico said.
But while Samy was in Syria wreaking destruction on behalf of ISIS, Nico was posting Sufi messages and quotes from liberal Islamic scholars like Hamza Yusuf on his Facebook. At some points, their paths had radically diverged while their friendship flourished.
Another childhood friend, Samir, promised support for the family as the videographer began weeping and refocused the camera on Samy’s father, Mohamed.
“This is tough, you know, when you’re close to someone for so many years, and then they just abruptly leave your life,” Samir said.
The community embraced them without knowing the details of Samy’s death. And when this reporter called Samy’s father last spring, he responded with tears choking his throat.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mohamed said. “Never call this number again.”
The trial of Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal, a man accused of being key in getting Samy to the Islamic State, is playing out in a Manhattan federal courtroom this month.
The Friday before the trial began, the Middletown Islamic Center was still decked out with holiday garlands and decorations much like those condemned by ISIS. The multi-ethnic, inter-generational community came together for the jummah prayer and khutbah that this reporter observed from the women’s balcony.
The community was still reeling from the news that the son of one of their own had joined ISIS. When this reporter approached the imam, Abu Hijleh, he repeated over and over again that they never saw it coming. “Like you ask anybody, they will say, are you joking?” he said.
But Abu Hijleh and other members of the community also said they hadn’t heard anything about the impending start of a trial in Manhattan, where the whole el-Goarany family is expected to testify against el-Gammal. They didn’t recognize the man’s name, and asked where he was from.
But the first week of the prosecution’s case also revealed potential reasons for why the family, embraced by the community in the wake of their son’s death, was reticent about telling them about the trial of a man who authorities say facilitated his death. Compounding the shame of the death of a son in the ranks of the world’s most reviled terrorist group was the testimony of Komaal Collie, the agent, that Samy’s brother Tarek and cousin Ahmed el-Goarany knew about his plans to join ISIS ahead of time.
Samy’s computer was thrown in the dumpster before he left for Syria, Collie testified.
“So Tarek was with him when Samy went and threw his computer in the dumpster?” asked Sabrina Shroff, one of el-Gammal’s public defenders.
“Yes ma’am,” Collie testified.
“And when that happened, Samy had informed his brother that he was leaving the United States, correct?” Shroff pressed.
The two brothers also drove to the airport together, to buy Samy’s tickets for Turkey in cash, according to Collie.
The cousin, Ahmed, even got a happy update from Samy on his flight to Turkey, about how excited he was to get a window seat. Both men later told the FBI that they had known about Samy’s plans, Collie testified.
(Andrew Patel, an attorney who has represented Jose Padilla and an Egyptian linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, is representing Tarek. He declined to comment.)
What Samy’s family and friends knew, and when, is central to el-Gammal’s defense team, which seems to be asking, how, if other people knew about Samy’s potential plans, is their client the only one on trial. The family has a no-prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, the defense attorneys said in court.
“The brother lied and then stopped lying to the FBI, correct?” Shroff, the public defender, asked Collie. “Same for the father, lied and then stopped lying?”
“Correct,” Collie answered.
“Did you ever arrest them for lying to a federal agent?” Shroff asked.
Community members, though, told The Daily Beast that the family is suffering in their own way. Quazi Al-Tariq, a founder of the Middletown Islamic Center who lives doors from the family, said the family has been ostracized by people who don’t know what to say, or worry about becoming entangled in their legal troubles.
"The family was very good, they get along with the people and we never had any issue,” Al-Tariq said. Then the truth about Samy came out, “and lots of people started to avoid them.”
“That bothered me a lot,” he said. “Sometimes we as the parents are the last people to know.”