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Human Like the Rest of Us

Human Like the Rest of Us

Human Like the Rest of Us

Having lived my whole life in the United States, I am used to a very specific description of radical Muslim terrorists. Like the majority of my peers in the West, I have always viewed members of violent, Islamist groups such as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) as more of bloodthirsty killing machines than actual people.

How can terrorists be on the same level of humanity as the rest of us, we reckon—if they were, they wouldn’t be capable of the kinds of heartless killing and dramatic suicides that they so typically engage in. Nina Arif, a BBC News correspondent, has disrupted these stereotypes with the publication of her conversation with Muthenna Abu Taubah, a 24-year-old ISIS convert and jihadi fighter.

Arif, a moderate Muslim, approached Abu Taubah as a journalist wanting to portray ISIS and radical Islam in a different light, and ended up talking to the young jihadi via WhatsApp messaging service for almost six months. Initially, Arif reported, Abu Taubah’s messages were highly scripted, very fake and consisted almost entirely of radical Islamist propaganda.

He spoke of a “contract” that he had “signed in blood” to help the Syrian people and Muslims across the globe, who he claimed were suffering from oppression in a variety of nations including China, France and the United States. He sent her links to his Twitter account, which was filled with ISIS-approved literature, pictures of himself posing with AK-47s and advice to other young Muslims wanting to join the radical Islamist movement. He condoned the kidnappings of young girls by groups such as Boko Haram, stating that it was okay as long as the girls were “kuffar,” or non-believers.

As the lengthy conversation continued, however, Arif began to see a side to Abu Taubah that was softer and more relatable than the cold barrage of jihadi propaganda. She learned that he was half Irish, half Nigerian and had gone to university in the U.K. He had a cat and enjoyed Thai food, playing chess and spending time with the Ikhwan (brothers of ISIS). He mentioned several times that he loved and missed his family, but that they just “didn’t understand him”.

It began to seem to Arif that Abu Taubah had been driven to jihad by a stream of mistakes and missed opportunities in his young adult life—he declined to comment when Arif asked him if he had been involved with drugs, gangs and crime before he joined ISIS and he mentioned that living in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, made it “easier not to sin”.

The conversation began to sour when Arif started to question and contradict Abu Taubah’s radical doctrines. The reporter eventually responded to Abu Taubah’s propaganda by sending him articles by renowned Muslim scholars denouncing ISIS and jihad. She reminded him that the Qur’an says to “think, reflect and question things” and implied that he would regret his radical decisions when he became older. Abu Taubah immediately became defensive, telling Arif to “Fear Allah” and “Learn your religion”.  

He claimed that his views were correct and Arif’s blasphemous due to his greater amount of “life experience”, citing the places he had travelled to and the horrific things he had seen. His responses became sparse and intermittent, until eventually Abu Taubah ended the conversation with Arif altogether. The reason that he gave? “I have faults. I wouldn’t be the best person to represent IS.”

Arif’s tale provides an unusual insight that should interest, and even potentially reassure, those who live in fear of ISIS: that this dangerously committed and terrifyingly efficient organization has within it some slivers of doubt. Behind the extensive Internet propaganda and powerful social media presence that the organization has are real people living day-to-day in a harsh environment with little to sustain them aside from their own companionship and a blindingly one-sided religious doctrine.

We aren’t sure of their reasons for joining, but the conversation with Abu Taubah sheds light on the fact that religious conviction may not be the only possibility—restlessness, a desire to be important and to create change, or a simple lack of opportunities elsewhere may be just as important driving factors, if not more so. Whatever the Twitter accounts and YouTube videos may say, it is more likely than not that Abu Taubah was not alone in his self-doubt. Who knows—maybe he ended the conversation because he feared that continued interaction with Arif would sway his already shaky radical convictions, leaving him with the unbearable realization that he had condoned or assisted with the murders of innocent people. We will never find out: Muthenna Abu Taubah was killed in a bomb factory accident in Raqqa and his Twitter account shut down.

Those fighting in the war against terror should take this story and learn its lesson well. The conflict with ISIS is every bit as much a struggle of minds and hearts as it is a battle of bombs and machine guns. ISIS’ portrayal of itself as an organization of fearless fighters with machine-like resolve and dedication is what gives it its power; doubt, unhappiness and personality are rarely allowed to surface because they make the organization look weak.

But just because these traits don’t show in the jihadi propaganda, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And it could very well turn out to be that the best weapon we have to defeat terrorists is the realization that they are human, just like the rest of us.


Abby is a sophomore at NYU’s Stern School of Business studying finance and accounting with a minor in politics. She is fascinated by everything from rap music to tech startups, with a special interest in world events and how they affect the global economy and political landscape, and is always happiest when she is trying or learning something new.


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