In April, a video emerged from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that received a fair bit of attention, especially in Canada, for featuring foreign jihadists ripping up their passports and pledging allegiance to the cause of ISIS.
Like a lot of jihadist footage, there is intense music backing chanting men, while masked fighters clad in black shout and threaten enemies, receiving applause in the process. Then, out of the procession of foreign fighters destroying their passports, a suspected Canadian appears on-screen speaking English.
“This is a message to Canada and all the American tyrants: We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the almighty,” he says, before ripping up and throwing his passport into a burning fire. Though he never directly claims Canadian citizenship in the video, the young man says he’s an emigrant to Syria and has a noticeably North American accent.
Tipped through another journalist, Motherboard communicated with an ISIS member in Syria who claims to be this same man. He’s since been identified by CBC News as Somali-Canadian Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a young man who allegedly traveled to Syria from Calgary.
Two other jihadists are known to have originated from the same city: Damian Clairmont, who reportedly died in Syria in January, and Salman Ashrafi, who died in a suicide bombing in Iraq last November in an ISIS operation.
The “Muhajir” ("immigrant" in Arabic) identified himself as Abu Usamah to me, and did not confirm his city of origin or whether he is indeed the man identified by CBC, only that he was the Canadian in the video. (When I asked him where he was from, he said, “Lol don’t make me laugh.”)
During our wide-ranging interview on the chat platform Kik Messenger, he came across as relatively casual, using words like “no problemo,” “homie,” and even at one point telling me to “holla” at one of his boys if I needed more information.
To start, he simply asked me what I wanted to know about him. “I’m Canadian, well I was Canadian,” Abu Usamah said. “I have no other identity other than Muslim and yes, I’m the guy that ripped my passport in the video.”
He also made it clear he wasn’t angry at Canadians, but not unlike other Canadian millennials he took issue with the Harper government. “I have no anger against any Canadian," he said. "I have anger against my government for entering Muslim countries on false pretenses.”
When I asked him if there were Canadian within his brigade or whether or not others wanted to join because of ISIS social media campaigns, he said he wasn’t alone. “Of course hundreds are fleeing to Shaam," he said. "There are entire Kataibs (brigades) of English speakers all over Syria.”
According to Usamah, the reason Canadian and Western fighters travel to Syria is to fulfill perceived religious duties.
“As you may know, fighting is prescribed upon Muslims both offensive and defensive. So, when we see our brothers getting slaughtered it is mandatory for us to go support them,” he said, adding that it was all in an effort to support the recreation of an “Islamic Revival,” to “re-establish the Islamic Caliphate.”
Some figures put the number of foreign fighters in Syria at over 7,000, with more on the way. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) has pegged the number of specifically Canadian fighters closer to 30, with more possible. A big part of recruitment has been the well-documented and prolific use of social media by ISIS, something Abu Usamah embraces on his Twitter account under the handle "@MuhajirSumalee."
When asked why he was so active tweeting messages like this, trying to entice fighters to make “Hijra” and fight in Syria, he was blunt. “We need to incite the believers, its my duty as a Muslim to do this,” he said. “What's the benefit of using social media if I’m not using it to recruit?” In another exchange in May, he told me he was an ISIS spokesperson.
Once fighters are recruited, they usually head over the Turkish-Syrian border, a known corridor for Western fighters and the same passage Salman Ashrafi used in 2013, with ease. According to Abu Usamah, getting over the border is “a walk in the park,” because the “Turkish army are corrupt fools to say the least.”
And when prospective members do arrive on the Syrian front, he says ISIS places them into skill-specific trades supporting their overall war machine. In other words, there are fighters, there are thinkers, and there are even propagandists for the outfit now carving out a new state in northern Iraq and Syria.
For example, I asked him about the super-stylized ISIS videos of battle highlights, which are both horrifying in content and impressive in production value. It’s a far cry from the grainy videos Osama Bin Laden issued during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
A picture from Abu Usamah's now defunct instagram account.
“We have a large media department and Doula [ISIS] doesn't allow people with skills to enter the front lines," Abu Usamah said. "If you're an engineer, doctor, or in the case of a graphic designer, etc you are placed in a position suited to your skill set. Many underestimate the strength and organization of this state, many just think of us as bloodthirsty barbarians which is FAR from the truth.”
According to him, one agency that underestimated Abu Usamah was CSIS. He claims that before leaving for Syria, he was contacted by agents. “CSIS are idiots, I had a meeting face to face with an agent 5 days before I left and they let me walk outta the country,” he said, adding that he assumed the "poor girl" who interviewed him probably lost her job.
But, as he puts it, he probably got away because, “I’m an actor homie, what can I say.”
Motherboard made several requests to CSIS media relations to get the agency's comments on Abu Usamah’s claims, but at the time of publication we've yet to receive a response.
We were also unable to confirm Abu Usamah’s identity independently. Others have tried verifying his identity online. National security reporter Stewart Bell of Postmedia tweeted at Abu Usamah; in one exchange, Bell asked Abu Usamah if he was one of the infamous Calgary youths who traveled to Syria for jihad. Abu Usamah responded with the famous opening lines to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Pictures from his now-defunct Instagram account that appear to match with the same ISIS member in the original ISIS video along with new photos Abu Usamah tweeted on his Twitter account showing him with young Syrian children.
Finally, I asked him if his family approved of what he was doing. Abu Usamah said that they knew he was where he wanted to be. Where he’ll end up, as well as the fate of Syria and Iraq, remains to be seen. I've made attempts since speaking with him to confirm that he is in fact Shirdon, but my messages have so far gone unanswered.