Stories reflected in the 2014 rise of ISIS by the sword and its 2018 fall under the sword are unfolding in dramatic fashion right now in seemingly unlikely American suburbia. In places like Plano, Texas, the prosperous community of to-the-horizon McMansions just north of Dallas, metaphors can be found for the smoking rubble of the geographically distant ISIS caliphate.
Were the brothers Arman and Oman Ali to come home to Plano right now, they would find their ISIS-simpatico parents in federal custody and maybe even join them there. Fealty to the Islamist religious ideal was an Ali family affair. And it left the entire unit ruined, its pretty $450,000 brick home empty, and 14-year-old little sister and daughter in enhanced teen angst with relatives in Houston.
Arman (28) and Oman (27), ISIS fighters and ideologues to their core, haven't turned up from the battlefield. The brothers were last known to be fighting with ISIS in Syria after allegedly traveling there from Egypt between October and December 2014. Their father, Mohommad Hasnain Ali, is set to be released from a Dallas halfway house on April 17 as part of his year-long federal prison sentence for covering their tracks. Their mother, Sumaiya Ali, is in federal prison in Carswell, New Mexico until April 2020 for lying on their behalf to investigating FBI agents, although she is writing letters to the judge begging for earlier transfer to home confinement. More on that later.
The Ali family is hardly alone these days as the remnants of destroyed ISIS society are somehow fit back into various parts of the world. Not more than 250 Americans attempted to join the caliphate; not all successfully. Now comes the final chapter of the story, the returnees.
How does something like the Ali family even happen?
We have some idea because the Ali family's Thanksgiving-dinner-worthy family drama boiled up in federal courts throughout 2017, in four separate but familial cases, and there's even been some limited media coverage. Distilled, this one American family story – just so far – goes something like this:
From the Good Life in Texas To Caliphate Combat: A Thing Muslim Plano Kids Just Do?
According to media accounts and social media profiles, Arman and Oman grew up in upper-middle-class privilege, Mohommad earning a solid living in tech industry management. The kids went to good schools, enjoyed video gaming and music, and were smart enough to get into decent colleges. Arman, for instance, attended the University of Texas at Austin from 2008-2011, studying neurobiology and religion, according to his Linkedin page, which is still up.
It was while a sophomore in college that Arman got religion, grew the beard, and ratcheted up attendance at a local mosque, according to a college friend quoted in The Dallas Morning News. He then dropped out and left Austin for Egypt in 2011 to join the swelling Arab Spring uprisings and to attend American University in Cairo. There, he earned a bachelor's degree in Arab and Islamic civilization in 2014 and a master's degree in Islamic studies.
Somewhere along the way, Omar drank the same potion and, in 2014, joined his brother in Egypt, just as ISIS paramilitaries were rolling into northern Iraq to establish the caliphate. In March 2017, complaints were filed against the brothers in absentia with illegally providing support to ISIS. But their scant files have languished without replenishment for obvious reasons. What we know mostly comes from the files of their parents, who have declined to speak to the media.
It surfaced that, back home in Plano, mom and dad provided, at the very least, their influential blessings for their sons to fight for ISIS. At worst, it appears that they were planning to join their sons overseas and were caught at the airport before they could depart the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Both were charged and convicted, in plea agreements, of lying to cover up what they knew about the boys after the FBI came knocking in 2015. That knock came at a time when the FBI was feverishly chasing American Islamic radicals, intoxicated by ISIS propaganda, who wanted to join ISIS. A couple of hundred Americans either did so or tried.
One of the most notorious of these, as I have recently described as the Joseph Goebbels of ISIS, also hailed from Plano. He is John Thomas Georgelas, the son of an Air Force doctor who rose in the ranks to become the terrorist group's chief propagandist. Georgelas is missing in action, while his ex-ISIS bride wife returned to Plano with their four children and still live there. (A fair unanswered question is whether Georgelas and the Ali brothers knew each other before or after they joined ISIS). Yet a third Plano high school kid, Matin Azizi-Harand, was arrested last year on charges that he plotted to slaughter shoppers at a high-end North Texas shopping mall. As I have also written, the ISIS-infatuated Azizi-Yarand allegedly fantasized about disarming a police officer and burning him to death during the envisioned melee.
From Overprotective Parenting to Helicopter Complicity?
When questioned about their sons, Mohammad and Sumaiya told counterterrorism investigators they knew nothing about their boys fighting jihad with ISIS when, actually, they knew everything in great detail.
The Alis were strongly supportive of their sons' venture. Prior to their sons' departure from Egypt in 2014, the boys communicated regularly with their parents regarding their desire to fight for ISIS, seemingly seeking parental approval, court records show. And perhaps in the tradition of modern suburban parenting, backing the career and life choices of children came through as programmed. For example, after a February 21, 2014 discussion about joining ISIS, the mother told Omar to "Do what you need to do."
Omar responded, "Ok, then going to Syria it is."
On October 12, 2014, Arman emailed his brother and father a video of an ISIS military parade in Derna, Libya and discussed people who traveled from the United States to join ISIS. On October 22, 2014, Omar emailed his brother and his mother, saying:
"Allah tells the Muslim to fight, kill and exile 'those who wage war against Allah or His messenger or cause corruption,' and only makes an exception for those who 'return repenting (accept Islam) BEFORE being apprehended/overtaken.' 5:34"
On November 20, 2014, Arman sent his mother an email that appeared to be a forward of a travel itinerary from a travel website. It contained a flight itinerary for Arman to travel from Cairo to Istanbul. Then, as they traveled, both sons communicated their progress to their mother, who in turn communicated that to her husband.
Even after they reached ISIS and began fighting, the dispatches to the parents continued. For instance, Arman wrote:
"Things are heating up here, and I can't guarantee me or (his brother) will be there in two months. Don't tell (Sumaiya Ali) or anyone else this, I've been to the hospital every day with others from my group. Close friends have died, too many injured. Me and Omar r perfectly fine right now, but soon we may not be."
On March 16 and March 17, 2015, Omar told his mother that he was trying to transfer to an "English-speaking battalion. Omar explained that the battalion was not difficult to get into but, "They made it forbidden to change the state you're stationed in," he complained, referring to ISIS command.
On May 5, 2015, the FBI interviewed both Mohammad and Sumaiya. They told the agents that, so far as they knew, their sons had traveled to no other countries since moving to Egypt.
This is maybe where overprotective parenting graduated to helicopter complicity in the crime.
The agents came out with it; they told the parents they suspected their sons had traveled to Syria. But the parents insisted that neither son had left Cairo. When asked if their sons had associated with any groups such as ISIS, the parents insisted their offspring would never do any such thing. Sumaiya said her sons were very reserved and had made no friends in Egypt. She insisted they would never get involved with ISIS. Mohommad told the inquiring agents his sons were peaceful, liked to study, and never indicated they would affiliate with any terrorist group.
A plea agreement factual resume went on to state that Mohammad "...continued to reiterate there was no way his sons were in Syria."
The "Desperate Plea of a Mother"
There is good reason to suspect parental support for career choices went far beyond oral blessings and covering up and hints at their own religious choice-making.
Legal footnotes in Sumiaya's sentencing memorandum show that an FBI search warrant was served on the luggage of mom and dad at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It shows the parents were pulled into a room there and interviewed before they could board an international flight - to somewhere not specified. They had to surrender their passports. Might Mohammad and Sumaiya Ali have been planning to join with their sons in the ISIS caliphate and FBI agents intervened just in time?
What is known is that facing up to eight years in prison each, the parents eventually confessed everything. Dad got a year in prison, mom 30 months for lying longer and harder than her husband. He'll be home next month, according to the Bureau of Prisons inmate locator database.
Sumaiya, aka inmate 27173, is working hard to get back to Plano earlier than her April 30, 2020 release date. In a January 8 letter to U.S. District Judge Marcia Crone, which Sumaiya couched as "a desperate plea of a mother," she asked to serve the remaining sentence on home confinement. As grounds, she cited the emotional struggles of her "withdrawn" and "embarrassed" 14-year-old daughter Sabeen, who is living with her brother and sister-in-law in Houston ashamed her parents are in prison and, no doubt, that her older brothers became terrorist fighters for a barbaric cause.
"Sabeen has never lived away from home or away from me since the day she was born, and she is having a difficult time being away from both her parents," Sumaiya wrote the judge. "She has lost her whole family and finding it very hard to cope with this traumatic situation...She is the innocent victim of the terrible choices that I made, and I take full responsibility for her predicament."
She pointed out how she has been a model inmate at Carswell, holding jobs teaching religion in the Education Department, and at the Law Library.
Whether Sumaiya ever achieves this form of forgiveness remains to be seen. Bestowing such flexibility on those who, in one way or another, helped a highly murderous ISIS caliphate happen, will be a choice to be made quite a lot in the coming months and years.
When ISIS was building its Islamic caliphate dream, its citizen-acolytes came from all over the world to assist. Now that the ISIS caliphate and its violent supremacist militias are blown up and dispersed, some of its American survivors are trickling sheepishly back to home countries, which are not sure whether to forgive or imprison. It will be interesting to see how that choice might apply to those who remain stateless in the custody of foreign militias and the still more unaccounted for who might still turn up, like Arman and Omar.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.