Islam is the fastest-growing religion worldwide. It stands to reason that its most extreme adherents have also swelled. For many who join its radical ranks, this means leaving their homeland and joining the holy war, or jihad, to establish an Islamic state, called a "caliphate."
Today, the path for the radicalized leads to Syria and Iraq, where a militant group known as the Islamic State (IS) has moved to fill a power vacuum and stake its claim in Mesopotamian lands with shocking brutality.
These extremists have come from all over the globe. Here are some of their stories.
Fusion compiled these profiles using digital and public records as well as firsthand sources.
As extremism analyst J.M. Berger puts it: “‘Terrorists are on social media’ is officially not news.” But the stories they are leaving behind are.
Amidst the polished propaganda videos, the Twitter accounts showing beheadings in street plazas and a call for a global jihad on forum posts, digital remnants of young, media-savvy foreign fighters have been left behind. Their narratives follow them all the way back to their first inklings of extremism.
Andre Poulin, or Abu Muslim as he would come to be known, described himself as a "regular Canadian," who liked watching hockey, enjoyed fishing and went vacationing during the summertime.
However, Poulin’s reality was a very different one. According to Canadian authorities, he spent his teen years cultivating an extremist outlook based on the more radical fringe elements — some years later, he admitted looking at “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” on the internet and learning how to build explosives.
Long before being featured in “The Chosen Few of Different Lands,” a recruitment video produced by IS’s media wing, Poulin already had a voice. An active member on discussion sites and Muslim forums, including one called Ummah, the Internet provided him with the perfect platform to share his beliefs.
As his religious views turned radical, his outreach campaign grew stronger. According to a story by La Presse, Poulin’s messages were indicative of the drastic transformation he was undergoing. As his tone changed, his messages turned into teachings and lessons, often quoting religious texts. His last Internet post, which talked about the connection he felt with Allah, came from Syria in 2013, just before his death.
Originally from Timmins, a small city in northeastern Ontario, Poulin had a troubled youth. In his early 20s, and after converting to Islam, he was arrested multiple times for offenses such as uttering violent threats, harassment and possession of a weapon for dangerous purposes. All his arrests were linked to a case involving a Muslim family in his native town.
Poulin, who was living with the family at the time, allegedly accused the husband of having “un-Islamic” beliefs and threaten him after he was caught having an affair with the wife. According to Canadian media reports, Poulin confronted the husband on several occasions —even after, he moved out of the host’s home. In 2010, he was sentenced to two weeks in jail and 12 months of probation after he was arrested a third time for failure to comply with recognizance and breaching bail.
In 2012, he decided to join the fight in Syria. He changed his name and traveled over 5,000 miles to Western Asia. Poulin was likely 24 years old when he died in an attack in northern Syria. In his promotional video, which looks to persuade young Western men to join the ranks of IS, he is seen running through a field before an explosion supposedly kills him.
“The trade is a very good trade,” says Poulin at the camera, as he talks about the sacrifices of war. “It is like trading something worthless for the most precious diamond in the world.”
Nasser Muthana is a young British jihadist, who grew up in Cardiff, Wales. A straight-A student, he was an aspiring medical student, who had been accepted at four universities before deciding to flee the country to join the IS cause.
Muthana, who appeared in June in a recruitment video entitled “There is no Life Without Jihad,” has been a very active advocate for IS. An avid social media user, he posted images of homemade explosive devices and weapons as well as tweeted threatening messages and provided accounts of his battles on a Twitter page (@abulmuthanna313), which was recently shut down by the social media networking service.
However, until four years ago, Muthana’s social media activity didn’t seem to present such radical views. According to a Huffington Post story, his Facebook page revealed a more moderate young man, who like the Chelsea football club and wanted to be Britain’s Prime Minister.
Muthana’s family has not seen him since November 2013, when they thought he was away at a seminar in Shrewsbury, Wales. But in reality, Muthana managed to leave the country with a group of friends. British authorities believe he traveled from Cardiff towards Gatwick and then headed to Turkey. He crossed the border into Syria a few days later.
Since his departure, Muthana has recruited his younger brother Aseel. Believed to had been a member of a predominantly Muslim gang from Cardiff, Aseel fled Britain in February with a replacement passport he was able to obtain. Still in his teenage years, Aseel is thought to be in Syria with his brother.
Muthana’s family claims that the brothers were “brainwashed” in the UK. The Al-Manar Center, a mosque located in Cardiff and founded in 1992, recently became a focus for questions after it emerged that this was the place the brothers used to attend for prayers. The center has publicly denied anything to do with their radicalization.
However, some members of the community have expressed their concerns, affirming that the center has invited guest speakers with extremist views in the past. One of those speakers was conservative cleric Mohammed al-Arifi, who has, according to Reuters, over nine million Twitter followers. He was banned from the UK back in June for his controversial teachings.
As social media websites such as Twitter and YouTube have become more restricted for members of IS, it seems Muthana has decided to lay low. No recent reports about his activities have been published.
At first glance, Aqsa Mahmood seemed like any other 19-year old girl. A native of Glasgow, a city located in West Central Scotland, Mahmood was a student at the private, all-girls Craigholme School. According to the Daily Beast, she used to enjoy the music of Coldplay and the Harry Potter book series.
However, to the surprise of many, including her parents, Mahmood left last year her home in Scotland and set off for Syria to marry an IS fighter. Since then, she has only kept in touch with her parents — and the world — through social media channels.
Signing under the pen name Umm Layth, Mahmood maintains an online journal, the Diary of a Muhajirah, where she encourages other Muslims to leave the land of the “kefr” —infidels— and join the IS ranks.
In her most recent post, dated September 11, she says “My dear brothers and sisters who are stuck in the west and restrained due to the kufr governments know that indeed the help of Allah swt is always near, have Sabr and know that you will never be tested beyond your ability.” She then adds, “This is a war against Islam and it is know that either ‘you’re with them or with us.’ So pick a side.”
In her blog, many of her posts are directed to the men and women who are thinking of traveling to live under IS. Even though her messages are encouraging, she often talks about family and the pain of leaving it behind.
“When you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard. Wallahi It’s so hard to hear this and I can never do justice to how cold hearted you feel.”
Mahmood also has a Diary of A Muhajirah page on Facebook. Showing over 3,500 likes, the page, which was created September of this year, re-posts entries from her Tumblr blog.
According to media reports, Mahmood’s began to take a serious interest in Islam at the age of 15. With time, it is believed she started interacting on radical Muslim chat rooms. As she became more outspoken, she began spreading her radical beliefs through a now-shut down Twitter account with the handle @UmmLayth.
Apparently, Mahmood was also using another Twitter account, under the username @AlBrittaniyah. But, this one has also been suspended.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Sasha Havlicek, founder of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, explains "Given the choice of a fairly mundane life in a second tier job in the West, and this rather heroic and romantic image of jihadi life being portrayed by Islamic State propaganda, which is very well crafted, in a paradoxical way this gives women a sense of agency and empowerment."
Analysts say propagating a voice for IS beyond the violence is important for members of the organization. The group even has an English-language magazine called DABIQ that features stories about its martyrs and the state of Ummah.
Called a “bedroom radical,” Mahmood is part of a trend of women who leave their lives in Western countries to support IS. And, it looks they are learning their extremist ideas through the Internet. The question is: how many will follow?
Julian Reyes is a VR Producer for Fusion.