“I migrated to Syria one year ago, but now I am sad,” Rachid Kassim, a 29-year-old French jihadist tells me, in his first-ever interview. “A lot of us are jealous of brothers who attack in dar ul-kufr,” he said, using the Arabic term denoting non-Muslim lands. “We believe that even a small attack in dar ul-kufr is better than a big attack in Syria. As the door of hijrah [migration] closes, the door of jihad opens. If I stayed in dar ul-kufr, I would do an attack there.”
Words like these from jihadists like Kassim have heightened the concerns of security agencies across Europe and North America. If supporters of the Islamic State are prohibited from traveling to join their ranks in Syria and Iraq, will they instead turn their gaze inward? Over the last several months, Kassim has been quite vocal on Telegram, a messaging application, which also allows individuals to create channels where they can broadcast their message to the masses. Telegram has increasingly become the platform of choice for jihadist movements, particularly after Twitter became more committed to shutting down pro-jihadist accounts.
On his now-defunct Telegram channel, Sabre de Lumière (Sword of Light), Kassim, who authorities say is behind several plots in Europe, has been calling for attacks in European countries, as well as assassinations of religious scholars, journalists, and political figures. From Syria, Kassim has been linked via Telegram to a number of individuals in Europe willing to answer the Islamic State’s call for homegrown attacks. These individuals include: Larossi Abballa, who stabbed to death a policeman and his wife in Magnanville in June, two 19-year-olds, Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, who a month later killed Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest in Normandy, and to Inès Madani and the attempted plot to car bomb the Notre Dame cathedral in September.
For Kassim, plots in Europe and North America by inspired actors are justified retaliatory attacks. “France is targeting hospitals, targeting civilians,” he says, “They suffer every day under France and Europe’s bombardments. Violence did not originate from us. France and the USA started the killings. Once they stop, we’ll stop.”
When asked about these plots and his involvement, Kassim would not elaborate. “I am very proud of them, very very proud,” he said, speaking about Kermiche and Petitjean. “To me, these are role models and heroes. In terms of my role, secret services are aware of it. I have nothing to add.”
While it is clear that Kassim has been inspiring attacks in France, it is not at all clear whether he has been directed with such a task from ISIS leadership. “The least we can say is that he has a green light for what he’s doing,” according to Guy Van Vlierden, a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws who closely tracks European jihadist networks. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to continue from within IS territory.” Some analysts also suggest that similar Telegram channels exist aimed at inspiring attacks in Germany and other countries.
In early October, Kassim’s Telegram channel disappeared, and he has not responded to private messages in several weeks. It is unclear whether he has been told by Islamic State media to cease his online activities. In January 2016, British jihadist Omar Hussain was rebuked by the so-called Islamic State Media Centre for his online activities. “You have been previously informed and prohibited from publishing your material, on any platform,” the message read, “you must immediately close down the above mentioned pages. Further violations will come with serious repercussions and will be dealt with swiftly.”
According to Van Vlierden, there are reports that Kassim’s Telegram communications were being closely tracked by law enforcement. “His importance is diminishing on an operational level I think,” he says. “At an inspirational level though, his sudden notoriety can help him convince and recruit.”
Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian analyst of European jihadism, agrees. “He probably represents one of several Westerners who are directly reaching out to Islamic State supporters in the West in order to precipitate attacks in a more direct manner,” he says. “This is alongside more general calls for violence in their propaganda.”
The leadership of the Islamic State initially emphasized the need for hijrah, or migration, to ISIS territory. They argued that it is incumbent on Muslims to travel and live under the so-called Caliphate, where Islamic law, as they see it, is being implemented in its fullest and purest form. Attacking locally is a better option only if individuals are unable to travel.
“At the beginning, the caliphate called for hijrah,” Kassim tells me, “now, it is best to launch attacks in dar ul-kufr. Because hijrah is very difficult now.”
Rachid Kassim was born in France in 1987 to a Yemeni father and an Algerian mother. The couple divorced when Kassim was 5. His mother took him to Algeria at a very young age, and they divided their time between France and Algeria until he was nine years old. He grew up in Oran, a beautiful coastal town in Algeria, important as a commercial center and port city. “I felt at home there,” he says, “there were some dangerous spots, but I was fine.”
Arriving back in France for a more permanent stay at age 9, Kassim says he immediately felt out of place. “I was in a school run by two homosexual principals,” he tells me, “France is a country of decadence. When I was at school, they tried to make me eat pork. I was so shocked that I flipped the table over, and my dad had to come and talk to them.”
In France, Kassim tried his hand at becoming a rapper. He chose the name L’Oranais, or the man from Oran, to pay homage to the Algerian city in which he spent so much time as a child. “Music was secondary to my life,” he says, “I’m not sure why the media focuses on it so much. I had to choose at some point between music and religion. I chose the latter.”
Some reports have suggested that Kassim was radicalized in Algeria, and that he later fled from France to Egypt with his wife and three kids after encountering law enforcement scrutiny. “Some incompetent journalist printed this and then everyone else just repeated it,” he says. “I was never radicalized in Algeria. There were gangsters in Algeria, but not much religion. And I have never visited Egypt in my life. And I only have one little girl, not three kids. So it’s a complete failure on the part of journalists.”
“I loved jihad since I was very little,” he tells me. “When I took on individuals, they were bad people doing evil to others. I was not a bad person. We can say I had a foot in a good place and a foot in a bad place.”
His brothers and sisters, as well as his parents, are against jihad, Kassim says, but he speaks lovingly of a cousin of his, Abu Muthanna al-Jazairi. “He fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and was an important member of the Islamic State,” he tells me. Abu Muthanna died in battle, but little else seems to be known about him.
As Kassim became more radical in his views, it seems French law enforcement grew concerned. “I thought of attacking France when I was there, and my family was afraid because of it,” he said. “The cops knew about me. Every time I went jogging, there were always two cops following me. Then they hide. It was ridiculous.”
Kassim got married in 2010, but would not talk about his wife, refusing to provide her name, her ethnicity, or discuss anything about how they met. She does figure strongly, however, in the story he narrates about how they traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. When I asked him about how he and his family came to Syria, he told me to be patient, that the story is “incredible” and that he requires time to tell me properly. Almost a week later, he would send me a long play by play of his migration from France to ISIS territory, highlighting the ways in which, for him, it was divinely ordained and meant to be.
Sometime in early-2015, Kassim’s wife had a dream. “In the dream, there was a lion preventing us from leaving,” he begins. “In the dream, there was also another Muslim woman who kept reassuring us that we could leave peacefully. She picked up the lion and threw it, and the lion was always sleeping when it landed. My wife woke up, and noted that it was 3am. This is why we decided to leave at 3am the following day.”
According to Kassim, law enforcement officials lived in his building and across the street, which made it difficult for them to leave. He had prepared his parents for his eventual departure by seeing them less and less in the months prior, so they wouldn’t become suspicious when he didn’t contact them in the coming weeks. He sold his old car and bought a new one, and told no one about it. But Kassim was still uneasy. He was engaged in proselytizing activities in his city and was being watched by undercover police officers, he said. His wife’s dream, though, gave the family confidence.
“We left at 3am, and it was amazing. Not even a cat outside. It was the first time I had ever seen the streets so empty,” he said. They drove to Lyon to pick up Kassim’s friend, Mohamed Ghellab, a math teacher. Ghellab, who adopted the nom de guerre Abu Abdurahman Al-Faransi, died fighting with the Islamic State.
They left France with only 1500 euros. From Lyon, they drove to Sicily. From Sicily, a boat to Greece, and then finally, Turkey. “I got stuck on the highway with no money, gas, or food. I was sick, and my wife was overwhelmed,” he said. His wife urged him to ask Allah for assistance. “After 10 minutes, I opened my car window and there was someone waiting to talk to me. Just like that, in the middle of traffic,” Kassim said. “He asked me to follow him. I looked back and suddenly there were no cars. Don’t ask me for an explanation. I have none. It was Allah.”
This man, who they would never see again, provided them with some money and food. The family and Ghellab kept driving and found themselves in a Kurdish area. “It was horrible. They were suspicious that we wanted to join the Islamic State,” he said. “They made a phone call and these Americans showed up on 4x4s. I knew they were Americans by their accents. My heart was beating. I even started smoking to make myself look like a tourist.”
Kassim asked his wife to put on some lipstick as they drove through Turkey, to further confuse law enforcement if they were questioned. One of the Americans now questioning them was growing increasingly suspicious of Kassim’s wife. “My wife was scared of her,” he said, “She started putting on some lipstick finally, and the American woman saw. She didn’t know what to do. This is all from Allah. The only time my wife decides to put on lipstick, the American woman is looking.”
Having interviewed many jihadists before about their hijrah experience, I was amazed at Kassim’s focus on the minutiae of his migration. While very little in his telling of the story can be verified, what is important is that, for Kassim, the dream, the empty streets, and the close-calls were all evidence that God wanted his family to make it to the so-called caliphate.
Kassim, his family and Ghellab were eventually able to make it to a guest house in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey. Here, Kassim narrates another close call. There were about 50 recruits waiting to cross into Syria, he says, when their safe house was surrounded by Turkish police.
“A small miracle happened,” he tells me, “the police were approaching the door to hear whether there is someone inside. Then all the women were saying ‘Allahu akbar’, and we didn’t understand why. We learnt that all the children had fallen asleep at just the right time. Allahu akbar. These are miracles from Allah and I was a witness to them.”
In the middle of the night, they headed for the border and sprinted across, carrying his 3-year-old daughter. “We were lucky we got in on time. It would have been hard if we had stayed in Turkey for another 2 or 3 weeks,” he says. “We left everything behind. Especially my cat. I had a wonderful cat that I left in Gaziantep. It was one of the saddest things about my hijrah.”
After arriving in ISIS territory in 2015 he went through excruciating training. “It was Ramadan and we did between 6 to 10 sessions of training per day, in high temperatures,” he says, “in the end, I was wounded as if I was in combat, but it was only training.”
We discuss his daily life in the Islamic State. I ask about his daughter, now four, and whether he regrets bringing her into an environment filled with war and devastation. “Having kids in the Islamic State is not a challenge, it’s a privilege,” he says, “I would rather have my daughter live here than in laicité and disbelief. It might be hard in this life but she will thank me in the hereafter. Alhamdulillah, the best gift from Allah is that my daughter is in the Islamic state.”
As the Islamic State loses ground, there has been much debate in academic and policy circles about how ISIS fighters, particularly foreign fighters, will respond. Security agencies worry that these fighters will return to their home countries or venture into neighboring countries to launch attacks, there is concern about whether some of these fighters can be reintegrated into society, and there is also concern about what to do with all of the young women and children who currently live in the Islamic State. For Kassim, however, the loss of territory does not mean that the jihad will come to an end.
“It is simple,” he tells me, “if they take Mosul and Raqqa, we’ll find a way, but for sure we’ll never stop fighting. Even if we’re living in caves in the mountains, the fight will go on. Jihad existed before and during the Islamic State, and it’ll be here after the Islamic State. We won’t lose inshallah. If we lose one hand, we’ll continue to fight with the other.”
Kassim had been quite active on his Telegram channel, and his links to various successful and failed plots in France has made law enforcement concerned. Indeed, there is speculation about whether Kassim is somehow coordinating “lone wolf” attacks, with explicit permission from ISIS leadership. My extended discussions with him have not shed more light on this question, mainly because he refuses to elaborate.
“I have fought in many areas, but I cannot disclose what I am doing now,” he tells me. “I am just helping people to get to know little important things about how to launch attacks. People over there need help with making devices, or explosives, so I try and help out. This is the point of my blog.”
For Belgian analyst Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Kassim perhaps represents a new way by which ISIS is recruiting. “Previously, ISIS attacks in the West were either conducted by returnees or those solely inspired by the movement with no direct contact with ISIS,” he says. With individuals like Kassim, ISIS may be exploring a third route, says Ostaeyen, “whereby ISIS supporters are remotely primed and guided by members of the group before conducting an attack.”
In discussions with several other ISIS fighters over the last few months, particularly as the so-called caliphate loses territory, and with the impending possibility that Mosul, one of their major strongholds, may be reclaimed by Iraqi forces, there is some indication that the group will focus its attention outward. “Allah’s land is vast,” one western fighter tells me, “it’s not confined to Iraq and Syria. The caliphate has reached Afghanistan, Libya, West Africa, Algeria, Yemen, and many of its soldiers are in the lands of the kuffar.”
As ISIS continues to lose territory, individuals like Kassim and others like him may become increasingly important for activating these “soldiers” in other parts of the world.
Kassim’s online activity does seem to have produced a chilling effect among some. Every few weeks, for instance, Kassim republished a “targeted attacks” graphic on his Telegram channel, calling for attacks on religious scholars, rappers and musicians, journalists and media personalities, as well as police officers and military personnel. Some of the individuals mentioned in this list refused to comment, out of fear of drawing too much attention to themselves.
“I wrote the list,” Kassim tells me, “these are Islam’s enemies and all they do is manipulate the truth. It is not logical, we are being bombarded constantly, and once we decide to retaliate they call us terrorists.” His hand in allegedly influencing several plots this year, such as the failed attempt to bomb the Notre Dame cathedral and the successful attack on an elderly priest in Normandy, has meant that anyone connected to him online has come under suspicion.
On September 17, two friends of Kassim, Julien B., 39, and Jérémie C., 31, were arrested. While there is a lot that is unclear about these men, some media reports suggest that Julien was a mentor to Kassim, a statement he flatly denies, noting that he was interested in jihad long before he knew them. “They are not a threat to France,” he tells me, “they practice their religion peacefully. Jeremie and Julien were arrested just for being my friends. It is a horrible injustice. When I talked with Jeremie, I only asked him about his family. I think France is troubled by me.”
On July 20, six days after Mohamed Lahouajej-Bouhlel killed 86 people by driving a cargo truck into people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, Kassim appeared in a video and threatened France, called for more attacks in the country, and beheaded a prisoner. I asked him whether beheading someone is difficult psychologically. “To behead an animal, it would be difficult,” he responded, “with enemies of Allah, it is a pleasure.”
Two months after arriving in the Islamic State, he phoned his family back in France. They kept in touch periodically, but this changed after the July video. “My parents don’t talk to me anymore,” he said, “the same for the rest of the family, ever since I beheaded the apostate.”
Kassim is where he wants to be, and he wants people to know that he is there out of a genuine commitment. I ask about his parents’ divorce, and for the first time I sense he is becoming a little angry with my questions.
“It is nonsense,” he says, “the media want to make it seem like I am doing jihad because my parents are divorced.” His jihad is based on his religiosity, he says, on what it says in the Qur’an and the obligations placed on able-bodied Muslims. “My parents were divorced when I was five. It has been 25 years now. I have only been religious for six years. So it is unbelievable what they say,” he tells me with a laugh.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam