In 2010, 26-year-old Shaker Masri, a U.S. citizen born in Alabama, was arrested on terrorism charges after making plans with an undercover government informant to leave the country to join the Shabab militant group in Somalia. Masri had spent months talking with the informant about his desire to travel abroad and fight. After he expressed his desire to go to Somalia, the two began pooling their resources in anticipation of their trip. Masri was arrested soon after he began to make preparations to leave the country.
Following his arrest, U.S. attorneys in Masri’s case described him as a proponent of a “violent, extremist ideology.” Prosecutors also cited the presence of jihadist literature on his personal computer and the eagerness he expressed to fight and die abroad as evidence of his danger to the public.
In 2012, Masri pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization.He was sentenced to just under 10 years in prison. At his sentencing, a judge claimed that mitigating circumstances in Masri’s life, including the recent death of his mother and his relatively young age, had reduced the length of his sentence. Today, Masri is serving out the remainder of his sentence at a federal prison in Minnesota.
Masri describes himself as someone who was committed to jihadist ideology at the time that he was arrested. But after more than five years of incarceration, he says that his views have changed. Having once been infatuated with extremist groups, he says he now wants to help steer other young people away from the path he took, as well as explain to the American public what drives support for extremist groups.
Below is an interview with Masri conducted over phone and email from prison, in which he talks about his case and provides his views on radicalization and his perspective on how to undermine support for terrorist groups. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Please briefly describe your background and upbringing.
My parents are originally from Syria but moved to Nigeria in the 1970s so my father could avoid mandatory conscription in the Syrian military. In the early ’80s, my father was accepted into an engineering program at a school in Alabama, and I was born during that time. But I spent most of my childhood in Nigeria. My upbringing was a very comfortable one. The quality of life I was afforded was very good, even by Western standards. In our home in Jos (a city in central Nigeria) I had a computer with access to the internet at a young age and also got money from my father to buy and take care of many animals as pets. I stayed in Nigeria until I was 18, when I came back to the United States to pursue a college education.
What were your religious views like as a young person?
As a rule, I hated all authority figures, but the authority figures I hated most of all were the mosque and religious people. Most of the children I lived around in Nigeria were Syrian expatriates like my family, so most of the girls who came of age were my childhood friends at some point. Every time one of these girls would start to wear the hijab, I felt like it was a betrayal, because I knew that what came next would be a separation from them. My parents sent me to Islamic lessons on the weekends. I despised those lessons, because there was a certain order that was expected of us and we had to spend time memorizing something we did not understand. The way that we were taught also made us feel like any insubordination would be a sin, and that felt very oppressive. I tried to be a devout Muslim many times but I fell off, and after awhile, I just gave up. I still believed in God and wanted the solace that faith gave, which I saw in others, but it required a form of commitment that I just wasn’t ready for.
How did you begin to form your political worldview?
I am from the Arab world and everyone there has an interest in global affairs. It’s a region that is affected by global events. We had satellite television in our home when I was growing up, and many channels broadcasted news reports of people who shared my ethnicity or religion and were being victimized around the world. I remember in my youth watching a documentary about the civil war in Lebanon, and the topic that day was the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. I was traumatized that day. After the episode, I went to our Palestinian neighbors and I asked their children, who were my friends, whether they’d heard anything about the massacre. When they told me they hadn’t, I felt angry with them because I felt that they had betrayed the memory of the victims by not knowing about them.
My family background in Syria and the fears that came with life there also strongly influenced my views. During our summer vacations, we would often travel back from Nigeria to Syria to visit our extended family. Before we boarded our flights, my father would ask my mother to ensure that when the plane landed in Damascus, my brother and I didn’t ask anything about politics, or make any comment about the thousands of Hafiz al-Assad portraits that littered the place. During dinners with relatives in Syria, I remembered how people’s voices would drop and there would be a silent tension in the air whenever anyone started speaking about politics. When people spoke, it was like they were tiptoeing around broken glass. As a child, I looked at my father for security. On those trips to Syria, I still remember looking at him and worrying that he would be taken away from me through no fault of his own. I felt a pressure on my chest that would only ease when we came back to Nigeria.
How were your views impacted by the start of the war on terror?
When 9/11 happened, I was in the U.S. and going to college in Illinois. Like most Muslims, I thought what happened was wrong, but it didn’t feel right to me that I had to apologize for something I had no part in. When Osama bin Laden released his tapes, I understood his grievances about the Arab dictators and the Palestinian plight but I thought that he had gone about things the wrong way. When I went to the mosque, the imam was just saying that Islam meant peace and that Islam was against what happened. I met some Muslim students who had grown up all their lives in the U.S. and used to watch them debate other students at the school about these subjects. I learned the broad outlines of their arguments, but after that, I mostly educated myself about religion and politics.
If you want to fight jihadism, it is necessary to see these people as human beings who are driven by normal human motivations.
After the U.S. invaded Iraq, I began to go online to visit some Islamic websites and follow the news of the insurgents who were fighting the United States. At the time I believed their propaganda, thinking it was all true, and I supported them as people who were fighting an oppressor. I still was not religious in any devout way. I supported the Green Party while I was a student because they also opposed the war and because I felt that they aligned with my values the most closely.
How did you develop an interest in jihadist ideology?
In 2007, while looking for discussions online, I found some religious groups. At first I was impressed with the people on these forums and their knowledge about religion. But when they started talking about politics, they were mostly saying that the Arab regimes all have to be obeyed and rebelling against them was religiously not allowed. I was shocked when I heard them say these regimes have to be obeyed, because everyone knows how brutal and corrupt they are. I started looking for other information online so that I could refute their arguments. Soon I was joining chat rooms that advocated the creation of an Islamic state, which seemed to me like a good solution.
Ultimately, the bad political situation in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world is what influenced me toward jihadist ideology. To me, an Islamic state simply meant freeing the people and overthrowing the corrupt regimes. I didn’t necessarily care about the Sharia part; Islam for me meant justice and independence, and that’s what I wanted. I began to go online and read jihadist literature, particularly the material that was written in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. I became very well read on these subjects and would debate them online with other people who shared the same ideology. My experience with those people is that they were very open to debate and the sharing of ideas. That appealed to me a lot. They would allow others to question them. They were very tuned into current events, and they would take the time to explain themselves and their views. They were not like the jihadists of today who seem to be very intolerant of any different opinions.
You said that you wanted justice and independence, but during the FBI investigation, you also told a government informant that you wanted to go abroad and die as a martyr.
I knew that I was going to a dangerous place (Somalia) but I also believed that without sacrifice, there is no success. I thought that there was a fight like David vs. Goliath, and that sacrifices had to be made. I was also propagating jihadi arguments online and I realized that if I don’t follow what I preached, I would be a hypocrite. Growing up, I was thinking about the Arab nationalist movements that ended up creating totalitarian states in the Middle East. I wanted to create equality and believed that an Islamic state could provide that. I also thought that the propagators of such a state would be honest and sincere Muslims. At the time, I was an idealist and never factored in human nature and human motivations.
What made you change your views in prison?
In the first few years of my incarceration, I studied Islam quite a bit. The more I studied, the more I realized that texts are open to multiple interpretations on a wide spectrum and that jihadists opportunistically interpret texts to further their agenda. I came to realize that people who start thinking that they speak for God will become very fatalistic and will become like robots who lack remorse and empathy. They will outsource their conscience to their own interpretation of the text. I’m against a state run by theologians, because they will end up justifying all their actions, including killing people, as coming from a mandate from God. Today, I just want a place where people can practice their religion and have freedom of speech and freedom of association without being persecuted.
Ironically, a group can become legitimatized when a world superpower acknowledges them by publicly declaring a war against them.
Also, the experience of living in prison had a big effect. I’ve met lots of people, I’m surrounded by people all the time. I have a curiosity about human psychology, and the more I observed people around me the more I became convinced that some people will do horrendous things and then work to delude themselves into thinking they are doing something good. I took part in a program here run by the staff where inmates could discuss different topics together. I always brought up social and political topics, and I think most of the staff despised me at first because they felt that I was being anti-American by putting blame on “the system.” But they still never tried to silence me or kick me out of the program. They respected the fact that this is the country where everyone has a right to speak and the weakest and most vulnerable have rights too. I guess I just became wiser. And I think my childhood nature of mistrusting authority figures boomeranged.
As someone who was willing to die for a foreign militant group at one point, what do you think makes some young people susceptible to that desire?
When young Muslims around the world turn on the news and witness scenes of people in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world suffering and dying, they don’t just see them as “others.” They see people who look like their brothers, sisters, mothers, grandmothers. They see people who could be them. It’s not abnormal for citizens of one nation to want to take part in a conflict in another country. History is full of examples of this. These young people are not all loners who felt like they didn’t belong in their communities. If you want to fight jihadism, it is necessary to see these people as human beings who are driven by normal human motivations. We should be careful not to pathologize the problem, or treat it as something completely alien.
Most of the people who join these causes are young and inexperienced and have strong desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The jihadists, including people like Anwar al-Awlaki who translate the ideology into Western languages, make some naive youth believe that all the problems plaguing the Muslim world will disappear and everyone can live happily ever after if they just follow their program.
Do you think that it’s possible to just reason people away from extremism?
Yes, but to do this, it is important that people can engage with each other on political and religious subjects in an environment that is free and honest. Jihadists often don’t realize that the reason other Muslims are rejecting them is not because of a fear of the authorities, coercion, or lack of religious devotion — it’s because their ideology and tactics are in fact reprehensible to most Muslims. These young people who are susceptible to extremism need to know the real reasons that others are shunning them. They also need to hear narratives that address reality and the real problems that exist in the world. But this requires treating them as humans who are open to dialogue and not simply monsters. It also means that Muslim communities must be treated as partners by governments and not as enemies, so that young people can speak about political topics without fear of spying and intrusive surveillance. When a young would-be jihadist sees other young people rejecting extremism as a response to problems, but at the same time not shunning politics altogether, it will make them start to doubt their position.
What do you think that governments can do to reduce the appeal of militant groups?
Because jihadists are aware that most Muslims are against their ideology, they believe that the only chance for them to succeed is by making the world hostile and inhospitable for all Muslims. If that happens, they believe Muslims will unite behind them in an apocalyptic fight against what they say is a modern-day crusade against Muslims. The jihadists like telling Muslims that non-Muslims will never be their friends. Unfortunately, the present political rhetoric is confirming their words in significant ways. Today in America, many Muslims feel that they are one major terrorist attack away from mass deportation or an internment camp. It seems like it doesn’t matter whether American Muslims share the ideology of jihadists or not, they are still guilty by association.
The government approach to fighting extremism today doesn’t even concern itself with being effective.
The way terrorism has been approached by the government and society has also helped the jihadists in their strategy. Ironically, a group can become legitimatized when a world superpower acknowledges them by publicly declaring a war against them. Another foolish strategy is the excessive use of “targeted” killings, and then announcing these killings as though they are a form of trophy hunting. For an ideology that thrives on immortalizing its martyrs, those announcements are damaging. It’s better to make such deaths look like they are the result of a power struggle within a terrorist organization. Finally, a big problem is that in America we tend to celebrate infamy and gangsterism in our media culture. When our coverage of terrorism is sensational, we end up depicting these terrorists the way that they want: as mysterious, enigmatic, and scary figures. We should portray them instead as misguided people who are being fooled and taken advantage of, to take away the cool factor. Once our “terrorism experts” realize that they are mostly dealing with young and misguided human beings, they will be more effective.
Do you think that the current government approach has been effective?
The government approach to fighting extremism today doesn’t even concern itself with being effective. The government is posting thousands of informants and spies inside Muslim communities, while at the same time asking those communities to be partners in the fight against terrorism. By doing so, it has created conditions that hinder open and honest dialogue among people that is the only way to actually address the problem of jihadist ideology. The government has also made many young Muslim people feel like they are their enemy. Prosecutors and law enforcement agents often seem more interested in making arrests and furthering their careers than winning what is actually a battle of hearts and minds. Punishment should be used as a tool to deter people, not to appease the public’s desire for revenge, especially when there is no victim. In my opinion, this approach has ended up creating more terrorists than deterring them.
If there is no change in strategy, and the only strategy is to keep securitizing the problem, what will happen? If anti-Muslim sentiment keeps rising in the West, and the persecution of Muslims continues, then what? If there is no plan to stop the violence in Muslim-populated countries, what will happen? Jihadism will continue to expand. In any place that the jihadists rise to power, they will trigger a global backlash against them. Nations will begin to bomb them, and in response to the bombing, the jihadists will commit or inspire attacks against the nations bombing them. The backlash against young Muslims will continue, and they will end up feeling persecuted and alienated. They will build resentments, and some will act on their resentments. The vicious cycle will continue.
What made you want to talk about your experiences?
When ISIS came to power in 2014, any illusions I had left about jihadist groups disappeared. These people show all of the signs of psychopathy: manipulativeness, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, and an inability to learn from past mistakes. They make it a point to kill people in the most spectacular way. They oppress local populations until the locals turn against them. They are not warriors, they are gangsters. The present-day jihadist movement has been taken over by groups like this whose outlook is an end-of-days apocalyptic view of the world. Their goal is not to help the Syrian people, or any suffering people. They are using these conflicts as an opportunity to get resources and volunteers for themselves. They may claim to champion a cause, but they are only the champions of themselves. Jihadism has become the cause.
I hope that my personal experiences and observations can be beneficial in deterring young people from joining groups like ISIS and from becoming jihadists. I am convinced that the struggle against jihadism will not be settled on the battlefield. Since the start of the war on terror, trillions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of laws passed in the name of combating terrorism, and we are not any closer to a resolution to this war. In reality, things have gotten worse. Until there is a different strategy, there will be “crazies” on all sides who continue killing each other in the name of religious beliefs, cults of personality, nationalism, and racial pride.