‘I Joined a Death Cult,’ Former ISIS Fighter Turned American Asset Says Ahead of Sentencing

‘I joined a death cult, and it was the biggest mistake of my life,’ the Minnesotan turned ISIS fighter says.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter watches over guests attending the SDF victory ceremony announcing the defeat of ISIL in Baghouz, Syria. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A Minnesota man is due in court Wednesday to be sentenced for fighting for the Islamic State between 2015 and 2019, before becoming an American asset.

The former Islamic State fighter, Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, was born in Morocco and raised at St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a town just outside of Minneapolis.

Al-Madioum says he was contacted by an Islamic State member in 2014, when he was 18, and recruited to join the extremist group. The next year, Al-Madioum, while on a family trip to Morocco, slipped away and traveled to Turkey. From Turkey, Al-Madioum made his way into Syria, where he became a fighter for the Islamic State.

Al-Madioum worked for the group as a fighter until an explosion on an Iraqi battlefield blew off one of his arms and shattered both of his legs. After the injuries, Al-Madioum served the organization using computer skills.

While recovering from his wounds, Al-Madioum met his first wife, Fatima, who was the widow of another terrorist and had a son from her previous marriage. In 2017, Al-Madioum had his first child with Fatima.

In 2019, Al-Madioum married his second wife, Fozia, who already had a 4-year-old daughter. By 2019, both women had been killed, as well as one of Al-Madioum’s children. Fatima was killed while sheltering from air strikes on the Syrian village of Baghouz in a tent the couple shared.

Following the death of his wives, Al-Madioum and his sons surrendered to Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, where he was held as a prisoner for a year and a half until the FBI brought him back to America for prosecution.

The American government also enlisted Al-Madioum as an asset in its anti-extremism efforts. Once in America, he joined with a former American ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, who had been working to return children and women from the Islamic State.

“He was absolutely determined to find his children and to get them to the United States,” Mr. Galbraith said in an interview with the Star Tribune.

In a memo outlining the government’s sentencing request, an assistant federal prosecutor, Andrew Winter, wrote that the prosecution is seeking a 12-year sentence, citing “substantial assistance” Al-Madioum provided to authorities.

Other Americans who sought to join the Islamic State have faced longer sentences, with three Somali American men who were caught while attempting to leave America to join the organization receiving between 30 and 35 years each in 2016.

Mr. Winter explained that despite Al-Madioum’s cooperation with authorities, he still “chose violent action by taking up arms for ISIS,” using “his own theological justification to commit murder, and if necessary, become a martyr.”

In another filing, Al-Madioum’s attorney, Manny Atwal, cited Al-Madioum’s future potential deradicalization work with American authorities as a potential “unique benefit” Al-Madioum could offer the American government once out of prison.

In a letter to Judge Ann Montgomery, who is overseeing the case, Al-Madioum said, “The person who left was young, ignorant, and misguided,” adding, “I joined a death cult, and it was the biggest mistake of my life.”

“I’ve been changed by life experience: by the treachery I endured as a member of ISIS, by becoming a father of four, a husband, an amputee, a prisoner of war, a malnourished supplicant, by seeing the pain and anguish and gnashing of teeth that terrorism causes, the humiliation, the tears, the shame,” Al-Madioum added.

The sentencing comes at a time when American law enforcement officials are on high alert for potential terrorist attacks. In April, American officials expressed concern over potential attacks following one at a Moscow concert hall, for which the Islamic State claimed credit.

In March, a group of gunmen killed at least 144 people and injured at least 550 others in an attack at Crocus City Hall at Moscow. American officials said they shared intelligence with Russia weeks in advance that the Islamic State was preparing for such an attack.


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