In 2014, a former Columbia student joined the Islamic State.
Brooklyn native Mohimanul Alam Bhuiya enrolled in the School of General Studies in spring of 2013. By June 2014, he was a member of Islamic State in a Syrian city called Manbij. Bhuiya defected back to the United States in November of the same year, and was arrested and charged with providing material support and receiving military training from the organization.
In his time abroad, Bhuiya experienced firsthand the dangers of the frontlines in Syria. For instance, in a pseudonymous interview with NBC News, Bhuiya recalled being beaten by Turkish police and running for his life across the border wearing a leg brace. And this was just on the way to Syria.
Despite the monumentally destructive consequences of Bhuiya’s decision to join Islamic State, his motives seem to be a mystery. Bhuiya, of course, was not the first American to pledge allegiance to ISIS—or even the first to travel to Syria on behalf of—the group. But he is the only known Ivy League student to have joined Islamic State..
Records captured from Islamic State and obtained by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show a shocking diversity in recruitment from abroad. Out of 4,173 recruits whose files are on the record, 1,028 had some post-secondary education. Another graph, with 4245 respondents, shows that 656 were students before joining the militant group.
The report reveals that recruits indicated very little knowledge of theology and religious law. Bhuiya told NBC that he was raised Muslim, “but [his] family wasn't particularly strict.”
To get a better idea of what might drive an educated American to join an ideologically-charged movement abroad, I decided to speak with one New Yorker who passed through Manbij while fighting on the opposite side of the front lines. Guy Steward, a Manhattan native, traveled to Syria last summer to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—a Kurdish militia founded to promote feminism, socialism, ethnic pluralism, and religious freedom (in other words, an antithesis to Islamic State).
And unlike Islamic State, it is currently legal—albeit strongly discouraged—for U.S. citizens to join the YPG.
I meet Steward on Columbia’s campus, and he tells me stories about the front lines with a combination of seriousness and sarcasm. It’s amusing to hear that “the only downside [of joining the YPG] is the risk of death, which is hyper-inflated by the media,” from someone who was shot at by militants of Islamic State.
Steward genuinely believes in the ideology of the YPG—it was enough to compel him to risk his life in a completely foreign land. The sense of “internationalism” he experienced while growing up during Occupy Wall Street in a multicultural city instilled in him a solidarity with global movements for liberation. The attempted genocide of the Êzîdî people by Islamic State gave this specific movement a sense of urgency for him.
Steward describes political activism in terms of addiction.“You sort of get into it, and then it’s all around you and everything. And it totally encompasses your life for a little bit,” he says. “Eventually, that moment in history is over, and you have to go back to reality.”
Perhaps, I speculate, it is this same ideological “addiction” that drove Bhuiya to join Islamic State. The former Columbian told NBC when he returned that the idea of an Islamic State “without geographic boundaries” appealed to him at the time. He called it a “utopia.”
Attacked from all sides by governments and rival militias, Islamic State as of last July was quietly preparing for its own defeat, but the summer of 2014 must have seemed like the group’s “moment in history” to an outside observer. The group had grown from a small militia to a terrifying threat to world security in the course of only a few months.
Before joining the Columbia community, Bhuiya attended John Dewey High School—the same magnet school in Brooklyn that director Spike Lee attended. He made the dean’s list at Kingsborough Community College in spring 2012. Although he told NBC that his academic career was temporarily delayed by his sister’s tragic death—which he does not talk much about—Bhuiya was eventually able to transfer to General Studies at age 25.
Bhuiya cites the oppression of a people as his motivation to involve himself in Islamic State—in his interview with NBC News, he blames the Columbia class “Muslims in Diaspora” for his radicalization (which sounds like probably the worst possible CULPA review a class could receive). Bhuiya claims that a sexually suggestive scene from the controversial anti-Islam film Submission, which he saw in class, left him feeling “humiliated,” and he adopted an aggressive religious identity in response.
This explanation falls short; after all, thousands of other Muslim immigrants in the US and Europe deal with racism and prejudice all the time, without resorting to violence.
As implausible as his radicalization might seem, Bhuiya eventually dropped out of General Studies after a semester and began driving a taxi to pay off his student loans. He never gave NBC his reason for doing so, but it is clear that his upward trajectory in life was suddenly interrupted.
(Still, not everyone who finds the transition to General Studies difficult drops out and adopts a radical ideology.)
Bhuiya spent “hours a day” online over the next few months, according to NBC. Retreating into a religion he had never been serious about before, Bhuiya could have been exposed to slick online propaganda from Islamic State falsely advertising its brand of Islam as the most correct.
Indeed, the FBI visited Bhuiya due to his online activity about a month before his journey to Syria, according to court records. Federal agents warned him not to travel to Syria, but he obviously wasn't dissuaded—it took firsthand experience with the brutality of the militant group to extinguish his fantasy.
Bhuiya tells NBC that the society created by Islamic State “was just not the Islam I grew up with.” He had talked himself into a fantasy that did not match with reality.
Describing his experience with Islamic State, Bhuiya recalls random harassment of civilians, sexual slavery, and severed heads on pikes—certainly nothing like the Islam practiced in Brooklyn. Some of the worst atrocities committed by ISIS, such as the mass sexual abuse of Êzîdî women and the horrific Camp Speicher massacre, happened in the summer of 2014, when Bhuiya was staying in Manbij.
Dr. Peter R. Neumann at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence writes that defectors from Islamic State give four main reasons for leaving: infighting, brutality against fellow Muslims, corruption, and poor quality of life.
Bhuiya’s story reflects these elements, as their combination shattered his fantasy of a religious utopia—but it includes another reason as well.One of Bhuiya’s college application essays, which he published in his high school newspaper, was about superheroes. “I believe that everyone has an individual greatness in them,” he wrote. The essay concludes, “I want to be a superhero.”
Bhuiya seems to have always looked for adventure, and Islamic State’s jihadist propaganda may have offered something appealing seeing the world in such simplistic terms.
Unlike Steward’s experience with the YPG, Bhuiya discovered the hard way that life in Islamic State was neither simple nor heroic.
Bhuiya attempted to leverage his one semester of Ivy League education to gain a better position. He tells NBC that he exaggerated his intellectual skills to avoid the battlefield. Bhuiya’s Islamic State personnel record states that he attended a university “for the clever” and claims that he could bring down airplanes.
Instead, Bhuiya was assigned to a variety of menial tasks. The official criminal complaint against Bhuiya, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, says that he performed guard duty, worked in an administrative office, and taught other Islamic State members computer skills while in Syria—a far cry from a superhero’s adventure.
The complaint also indicates that he carried a weapon, although there is no evidence Bhuiya participated in battle. Just before his defection, Bhuiya sent an email to the FBI, quoted by Special Agent Christopher Buscaglia in court documents, asking them to “pick [him] up safely from across the border before [the YPG] get to me.”
The YPG was nowhere near Manbij at the time, though, as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum confirms for me. However, the YPG eventually captured Manbij in the summer of 2016, long after Bhuiya left.
Al-Tamimi tells me in an email, “My impression is that [Manbij] was one of the Aleppo province hubs for foreign fighters on account of its size and proximity to the Turkish border.”
Steward admits to wondering about such foreign fighters during his downtime. “Am I the only one that's watching ‘Narcos’? Can they watch ‘Narcos’?” he remembers asking himself. “I bet your gun’s better. I bet you have a nicer gun because you have that Daesh [Islamic State] money.”
But life on Bhuiya’s side, as we’ve seen, wasn’t better.
Dr. Neumann writes that, despite claiming to be an egalitarian utopia for all Muslims, Islamic State had an ethnic and racial hierarchy. We can’t say for certain whether Bhuiya was subjected to racism based on his name or appearance, but other South Asian defectors reported being subjected to humiliations, such as being forced to perform menial tasks.
It didn't take long for the combination of boredom with menial tasks, frustration, and fear of Islamic Stateto get to Bhuiya. According to the NBC interview, he informed on a “thief” in order to gain his commander’s confidence and used newly-won internet privileges to check Google Maps and email the FBI his location on Halloween.
As much as he regretted his decision to join the militant group, Bhuiya’s email indicated that he did not even remotely understand the consequences of his actions. He begged for “extraction, complete exoneration thereafter, and [to] have everything back to normal with [himself] and [his] family”—a scenario that was impossible.
Both the court documents and the interview with NBC leave out the details of Bhuiya’s escape, probably to protect Syrians working against Islamic State. But Bhuiya told NBC that, while anxiously waiting 12 hours for someone to smuggle him into Turkey, he finally “realized what terror was.”
Islamic State reportedly executes failed defectors by crucifixion. Bhuiya escaped those consequences, but he ultimately did come to terms with his crime. “It’s obviously the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Bhuiya told the NBC interviewer matter-of-factly. He has clearly had a lot of time to think about it.
Bhuiya was charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and receipt of military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization, for which he could face 25 years in prison. According to court documents published by the Washington Post, he was arraigned and pleaded guilty on Nov. 26, 2014—less than a month after his arrest.
Because many of the documents related to Bhuiya’s case have been sealed or made anonymous, it’s difficult to uncover his final fate. A sealed document entitled “First MOTION to Modify Conditions of Release” was filed by his attorneys in January 2017, but Bhuiya’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
However, there is one clue about Bhuiya’s current status. The Wall Street Journal reports that federal prosecutors are using an Islamic State defector named “Mo”—whose details match Bhuiya’s—as part of an experimental anti-radicalization program. According to the article, “Mo” will be sent to dissuade young people whose online activity indicates an interest in radical ideologies.
Bhuiya’s regret is a powerful weapon against Islamic State in the battle of minds. Even though Steward and Bhuiya both fought in Syria, Steward is sitting on a bench outside of Lewisohn Hall free to come and go, while Bhuiya is a convicted criminal.
Steward, unlike Bhuiya, doesn’t regret his experience. “I know what I was fighting for. I’ve been to the communes [in Syrian Kurdistan],” he tells me.
I ask Steward what he would say to an American who wanted to join Islamic State. He pauses for a while before coming up with a response. “Congratulations, you’re the first person to ask me that question,” he laughs.
By the end of our conversation, Bhuiya’s story seems to have made an impression on Steward. He looks over his shoulder at the dome of Low Library and shakes his head. He can’t comprehend why anyone would leave such a prestigious institution to be an international pariah.
“Leaving this for that,” he sighs, trailing off.
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