How one Egyptian youth became an Islamic State militant

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Since emerging as the dominant threat in the Middle East, ISIS has drawn recruits from around the region and the world. Some of these fighters started off as ordinary middle-class youth in their home countries.

    Journalists from The New York Times created this profile of one of these radicals and the life he left behind.

  • NARRATOR:

    When you're browsing through the usual ISIS propaganda, RPGs, black flags, mayhem, you might also stumble on this.

  • ISLAM YAKEN (through interpreter):

    This squat is for the quads.

  • NARRATOR:

    It is a workout video for jihadis featuring a young man who introduces himself as Islam Yaken.

  • ISLAM YAKEN (through interpreter):

    This video is dedicated to the mujahideen in Syria.

  • NARRATOR:

    But it turns out this was not his first exercise video. Before the jihad in Syria, there was the gym in Egypt. Back then, Islam was religious, but his interests were far from extreme.

  • ISLAM YAKEN (through interpreter):

    Every guy dreams of having a six-pack, so he can take his shirt off at the beach or the pool and have people check him out.

  • NARRATOR:

    We wanted to find out how someone could change so dramatically. So, we spoke to Islam's friends in Cairo. Hossam Atef, who worked out with Islam, talked about feeling alienated in post-revolution Egypt. Khaled Adel, who went to school with Islam, said they struggled for balance in a society that is modern, yet deeply defined by religion.

    All three were young, middle-class, and torn, but only Islam joined ISIS.

    Islam grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis attending a French-language school and later Ain Shams University, where he studied law. He spent most of his free time working out with friends like Hossam.

    Hossam first met Islam online in 2009, asked him to photograph him for a bodybuilding blog.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    At first, he thought I was gay, but when he realized that I wasn't, he opened up. That's how we became friends.

  • NARRATOR:

    At the gym, Islam worked out relentless, his goal a career in personal training. Hossam was drawn to portrait photography. He took these pictures of Islam. Both were ambitious, but restless.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    He wanted to work abroad, have fun, and get a hot girlfriend.

  • KHALED ADEL (through interpreter):

    At school, he wasn't that into girls. But after going to the gym when he was in college, he started to get into that. He got to know girls, and he was doing quite well. Why is she sitting there on her own? I wanted to come sit between Kareem and me.

  • NARRATOR:

    Khaled and Islam were not particularly observant, but religion was always present in their lives. So, sinning led to guilt, especially when it came to women.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Skin-tight pants, skimpy clothes, breasts, hair. Stop, stop, enough.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NARRATOR:

    Khaled shot this video Islam and another friend, Mahmoud, pretending to host a show about the temptation of sex and girls. They called it "Piety and Chicks."

  • ISLAM YAKEN (through interpreter):

    I try not to look and turn away, but then I see another girl in leggings. I can't bury my head forever to not see women. What am I supposed to do?

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam's dilemma deepened when he lost a close friend, Moheb, in a motorcycle accident in March 2012.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    He thought it was a sign, God saying, be careful. We all saw it like that, but we got over it after a week or two. It passed, but not for him.

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam turn inwards. Hossam took his camera to the streets, covering the uncertain course of Egypt's revolution for local papers. Khaled took a job at a trendy mall near Islam's home.

    They pursued different interests, but they remained friends.

  • KHALED ADEL (through interpreter):

    He didn't go to parties. That became forbidden. He wouldn't take pictures at the gym with his shirt off. That's nakedness. And he unfriended all the women he knew on Facebook and only kept the guys.

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam adopted a more stern look, but around friends and family, he was playful, even as he became more religious.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    He made me stronger. He made my will stronger.

  • KHALED ADEL (through interpreter):

    There will come a time when the entire universe will be governed by Sharia law. This is a given in our religion.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    You want both, this life and the afterlife.

  • NARRATOR:

    While his friend wavered, Islam was firm in his decision, dedicating this life to God. He prayed more frequently at a neighborhood mosque led by a tolerant imam, Sheik Ramadan Fadl.

  • SHEIK RAMADAN FADL (through interpreter):

    I wanted him to stay engaged and to keep praying at the mosque, so I suggested he memorize the Koran.

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam memorized a third of Koran over the next year. But he wanted an even more definitive view of life, so he turned to the popular teachings of ultra-conservative preachers like Sheik Muhammad Hussein Yacoub.

  • SHEIK MUHAMMAD HUSSEIN YACOUB (through interpreter):

    Suppose a young man falls in love with a girl in college, but he doesn't touch her or talk to her or send her messages. He doesn't even look at her. He just loves her. Say she's completely veiled and covered. That's still a sin.

  • KHALED ADEL (through interpreter):

    One time, we were walking down the street and a woman was walking ahead of us. Islam grabbed my hand and pulled me forward. I said, what's up? What's going on? He said, let's pass her. Let her be behind, so that I don't have to look at her.

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam watched as Egypt descended into turmoil and felt like the country drifted farther and farther from his vision for a true Islamic state. The Egyptian army forced the Muslim Brotherhood from power, unleashing violence in the streets.

  • KHALED ADEL (through interpreter):

    Then in August 2013, Islam went into seclusion during Ramadan at a mosque surrounded by protests. After 10 days of worship, he returned with a newfound purpose and, days later, he left again, this time for Syria. He never said goodbye to family or friends. He vanished without a trace. I wanted to see what he was going to do. We were always waiting for Islam's update.

  • NARRATOR:

    Islam joined ISIS, adopted the nom de guerre Abu Salma. Since then, he has filled his social media accounts with images of brutality and death. He says he will only return to Egypt as a conqueror to bring the country under the fold of the Islamic State. And his tweets candidly incite acts of terror around the world.

  • HOSSAM ATEF (through interpreter):

    I don't know. Sometimes, I feel like I could have ended up like that.

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