ISIS lifts veil on American at heart of its propaganda machine

Story highlights

  • ISIS says one of its top propagandists was killed in a coalition airstrike in Syria
  • It is thought the editor was Ahmad Abousamra, a Syrian-American who grew up in Massachusetts

(CNN)ISIS has revealed the chief editor of its online propaganda magazine was an American computer scientist.

The group named the media operative as Sheikh Abu Sulayman ash Shami in the eighth edition of its online magazine Rumiyah, which was released early Thursday. It said he was killed in a coalition airstrike near Tabqa, Syria, just to the southwest of Raqqa, during the second week of January.
His picture and his biography have striking similarities with Ahmad Abousamra, a 35-year-old Syrian-American who grew up in the leafy Boston suburb of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and who was first placed on the FBI most wanted list in 2013 and made the subject of a $50,000 reward because of his connections to a Massachusetts terrorism investigation centering on his alleged close associate Tarek Mehanna, who was arrested in 2009 and convicted of terrorism-related charges in a Boston court in late 2011.
    A US law enforcement official told CNN's Evan Perez Friday that US counterterrorism agencies believe Abousamra was playing a leading role in ISIS' propaganda operations in Syria and is the same person featured in the ISIS magazine's eulogy. The FBI has not yet confirmed that Abousamra was killed, the U.S. official said. The official noted ISIS operatives have in the past faked their own deaths in attempts to "take the heat" off themselves, so US officials are working to corroborate whether he was killed.
    According to the indictment against him, Abousamra traveled to Pakistan in 2002 to try to get terrorist training so he could enter Afghanistan to fight and kill American soldiers. But he failed and returned to the United States. In 2003 Abousamra and Mehanna discussed the feasibility of killing a US executive branch official, a cooperating witness who was party to the conversation told the FBI. Later in the year the trio discussed launching an attack on a US mall, inspired by the Washington sniper shootings, according to the witness, who began cooperating with the FBI in 2006. The informant said they backed out of the plan after failing to get hold of automatic weapons.
    The details in the ISIS eulogy correlate almost exactly with the FBI indictment.

    Jihadi odyssey

    According to US court documents, in 2004 Abousamra and Mehanna traveled from the United States to Yemen to attend a terrorist training camp there. Abousamra then went to Fallujah in Iraq with the intention of fighting US troops there.
    After about two weeks in Iraq, Abousamra traveled to Jordan and Syria, returning to Boston in August 2004, according to court documents. After this, he and Mehanna sought to distribute propaganda for al Qaeda in Iraq, with Mehanna agreeing with Abousamra that "the best recruitment tool was to distribute inspirational media depicting great suffering, and it would increase AQ [al Qaeda] membership a billionfold," according to the indictment.
    Abousamra and Mehanna were questioned by the FBI in Boston in late 2006 about their overseas travel, but provided false information. Abousamra left the country shortly afterward for Syria, never to return.

    ISIS propagandist

    A law enforcement official told CNN in 2014 that US investigators were looking at the possibility that Abousamra, still on the run, was involved in ISIS' online propaganda efforts.
    ISIS has now revealed the man it identifies by the jihadi name Abu Sulayman was the driving force behind its international propaganda operation.
    According to the ISIS account, Abu Sulayman joined jihadi efforts early in the Syrian civil war, where he joined the group Jabhat al Nusra, which had been dispatched by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to build up operations in the country. When that group became split in 2013 between factions loyal to Baghdadi and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, Abu Sulayman maintained his allegiance to Baghdadi.
    Based at that point in the Aleppo area, Abu Sulayman requested to participate in a suicide attack, according to ISIS' account. But before he could carry one out, he was noticed by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, the head of ISIS' media operations, who brought him into the group's propaganda department.
    The ISIS account suggests Abu Sulayman then worked in and around Raqqa, the location of ISIS' headquarters in Syria. When al-Furqan decided to launch a new online English language magazine, Dabiq, he selected Abu Sulayman as its chief editor, according to the ISIS account. The first issue of Dabiq was published in July 2014 and proclaimed the emergence of the new "caliphate" ISIS had announced just weeks earlier.
    The group named the magazine after the northern Syrian village of Dabiq because it believes an Islamic prophecy foretells an epic battle between Christian and Muslim armies there near the end of time.
    "He would write many articles for the magazine, review what his fellow editors wrote, and scrutinize any materials that were translated for publishing, spending a great deal of time and effort doing so," the ISIS eulogy stated.
    According to the ISIS account, Abu Sulayman's "proficiency in Sharia knowledge" resulted in him being entrusted by al-Furqan "to draft his ideas into articles, which he did under the pen name "Abu Maysarah ash-Shami [...] and while many attempts were made to uncover his identity, all of them ended in failure." Abu Sulayman distinguished himself particularly in his fierce condemnation of al Qaeda, which he blamed for a split between jihadis in Syria and dismissed as "Jews of Jihad" in a 2016 article.
    After starting Dabiq, ISIS launched several online magazines in other languages such as French and Turkish, repurposing content from Dabiq. In September 2016, as it became increasingly likely the group was going to lose control of Dabiq, it renamed its flagship online magazine Rumiyah, which it has since published monthly in multiple foreign languages. Abu Sulayman maintained his stewardship of the publication.
    At some point Abu Sulayman participated in a failed plot to kill the American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf on a recent visit the scholar made to Turkey, according to the ISIS account. Yusuf has long been an outspoken critic of ISIS and Islamist terrorist groups. It provided no further details about the plot.
    Abu Sulayman's mentor al-Furqan (whose real name is Wael Salman) was killed in a coalition airstrike in Raqqa on September 7, 2016. A U.S. official said al-Furqan had direct access to ISIS leader al Baghdadi.
    According to the ISIS account, Abu Sulayman, upset at the death of his mentor, requested a deployment to the frontlines against U.S. backed Syrian militia forces, who were advancing towards Raqqa. The group claimed a missile struck the house where he was staying just north of Tabqa.