PORTLAND, Maine — When Jabbar Fazeli contacted his younger brother in the late summer of 2014, he realized the man he’d grown up with in southwest Iran was gone.
Adnan Fazeli had disappeared physically many months prior, after Muslim extremists convinced him to leave his new home in Maine to travel to Syria and, as Jabbar would later learn, to fight for the Islamic State. But as Jabbar pleaded with his brother to return and spare the man’s three children the pain of being associated with the terrorist group, Jabbar grasped that he wasn’t speaking to the Adnan he knew.
“He was a stranger talking to me,” Jabbar Fazeli recalled. “He was preaching to me while I was talking to him about family.”
It was like speaking to a member of a cult, he said. Adnan told him not to worry about the children because he planned to bring them to Syria.
“I said, ‘Over my dead body,’ basically. He made it clear then he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. At least my conscience is clear that I tried,” Jabbar said.
By that time, his conscience had already led him to the FBI, he said. Jabbar had contacted the authorities several months earlier, concerned by reports from family in Iran that Adnan appeared to be in Syria and associating with “bad guys,” he said.
At that point, “I didn’t know which bad guys,” Jabbar said.
The FBI’s investigation into Adnan’s radicalization while he lived in Maine came to light this week. An affidavit containing details of the investigation was filed in federal court in Portland last October but unsealed Monday, prompting an article in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday.
Jabbar Fazeli said he declined to speak with the newspaper because the article named his brother, putting Adnan’s children at risk. But now that Adnan has been identified publicly, he said he wants his brother to serve as a cautionary tale, particularly for other immigrants who spot signs of extremism among their ranks.
Adnan Fazeli was killed last year in Lebanon while fighting for ISIS, his brother said. He was 38.
“This is a lesson for many, and we couldn’t tell it. And now we’re forced to tell it,” he said. “I just hope when the kids read it years from now, that the impact will be less, since they live in Maine. Traditionally Maine has been really good to us.”
First trip to U.S.
The U.S. brought Adnan only good fortune, Jabbar said. Chief among those blessings is the life of Adnan’s daughter, he said.
Jabbar, a Portland physician, helped to bring the girl to the U.S. in 2005 for treatment of a life-threatening pancreatic disorder. Doctors in Iran lacked the expertise and resources to handle the rare condition, so he arranged for her treatment at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia.
Adnan and his wife traveled with their daughter, then just 2 months old, for the expensive procedure, which was paid for by Jabbar and donations from the community, he said. The girl recovered and today is a healthy 11-year-old, said Jabbar, a geriatrician who now chairs the board of the Maine Medical Association.
“This country and people in this country saved his child,” he said. “He didn’t have to pay a cent. I was in debt for years for that. She survived and yet his affinity turned out to be somewhere else.”
The family returned to Iran after her hospital stay, but Adnan would flee three years later, fearing arrest as a dissident, he said. With Jabbar’s help, he spent another year making his way through Syria and Lebanon, finally arriving back in Philadelphia in 2008 with his family, seeking settlement as political refugees.
“We overcome all of that, with so many people helping us, and then he has something to say about America? Which part of that would you want to forget first?” Jabbar said.
Adnan moved to Maine several months later, in 2009, first to Westbrook and later to Freeport, despite promising Jabbar that he would stay away from the state. By that point, the brothers were estranged and Jabbar thought it best that they maintain some distance, he said.
“Everything nice that happened to him was initiated here. Everything nice in his life,” he said. “Without the U.S. connection, he would not have been happy. His kids wouldn’t be here.”
Jabbar expects that his brother’s children — also a 14-year-old girl and a boy born in the U.S. — will be angry with him for informing the FBI of their father’s activities. He has seen them only once since Adnan’s death. He hopes one day they’ll understand his choice.
“People pay a price for what they do. Their dad paid the price,” he said. “They don’t have to hate him for it. But they have to understand it wasn’t him. It was a different version of him, compared to the person they loved and remember. One doesn’t negate the other.”
From dissident to radical
Adnan and Jabbar grew up in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, on the Iraq border, as members of the country’s Arab minority community. The boys and their two sisters were raised as Shiite Muslims, though the family wasn’t particularly devout, Jabbar said.
Their parents prayed and fasted, but never forced their children to, he said.
“We grew up in the same house,” said Jabbar, who is not religious. “There was no emphasis on religion. There was more emphasis on right and wrong, work hard, don’t steal, don’t lie.”
He can’t understand why Adnan rejected his heritage in favor of “something so horrible,” and worked so hard to get to the U.S., only to turn against it.
“It’s unimaginable to me,” he said. “I’ve never seen him pray during the time I’ve known him. I’m sure what devotion to that cult came later.”
Through his conversion to Sunni Islam and later to Wahhabism, an austere movement of the Sunni branch, Adnan disavowed both the country of his birth and the faith of his upbringing. Wahhabists are deeply anti-Shiite, Jabbar explained. Their movement has inspired the theology of ISIS, an enemy of Iran.
Jabbar said he doesn’t know what caused his brother’s change of heart. But terrorist recruiters target men like Adnan, telling them that as Arabs, they should identify as Sunnis, the majority in most Muslim countries, he said. They look for individuals with a political agenda — the Fazelis are dissidents in Iran, opposing the ruling regime — and turn them into fanatical militants, he said.
They also offer money and respect to those who may not get it elsewhere, Jabbar said.
“They give you a position, and you’re called commander, and you’re given $500 a month in a place where $20 is enough,” he said. “That can be an incentive if your career’s going nowhere.”
While Adnan had a degree in computer engineering, he never pursued even an entry-level job in the U.S., said Jabbar, who assisted his brother financially for six months.
In addition to the money, the movement’s leaders promise that their judges will absolve followers’ guilt, he said. If they are innocent, their god will assure them a place in heaven. Either way, they can’t lose, he said.
“I don’t know how you get convinced of that, but he seemed convinced,” Jabbar said. “I’m sure others are too.”
Informants told the FBI that Fazeli watched hours of Islamic videos online, grew a beard and made comments against the U.S. at an Iraqi market in Portland, according to the affidavit.
Jabbar is confident that his brother was in southern Syria and Turkey, but knows little of his activities during that time, he said. Jabbar assumes Adnan was never involved in any targeted killings because throughout his extensive online research, he never identified his brother in any terrorist videos or clips, he said.
But he dreads the thought that Adnan committed acts of violence in the group’s name.
“The reality is nobody is innocent over there. If you’re fighting, you’re fighting,” Jabbar said.
Still, while Adnan warped into someone he no longer recognized, Jabbar said he grieved his loss. Even though he understood that his decision to report him to the FBI entailed risk — for both of them.
“I know the whole world will think of him as a dead terrorist. But he’s still my brother,” he said.
Jabbar said he spent a day thinking through whether his brother posed an immediate threat before calling the FBI in April 2014. As a physician, he weighed the benefits and risks, he said.
He considered that other individuals in the Portland area could also get recruited. He worried that violence could come to his community. He feared another savage act being perpetrated in his people’s name. Perhaps most of all, he couldn’t bear the prospect of Adnan’s children moving to Syria and being sold into slavery or married off at 14 in the event of their father’s death.
Though the decision was difficult, he didn’t hesitate, he said.
“It was a no brainer, but it was painful. It’s like you’re deciding to amputate a foot, but there’s no other way,” he said.
Jabbar’s son, Ebrahim Fazeli, told the Portland Press Herald that he informed the FBI about his uncle after Adnan called the family from Turkey. Jabbar said he and his son are estranged, and he first learned that Ebrahim was also an informant from the article.
“All along I knew there was a price to pay, putting my family name out there to the FBI,” he said, “I’m now on the radar screen myself, just because big government doesn’t speak to each other. The right hand may not know what the left hand is doing.”
Compared to the military and intelligence agents, his sacrifice is negligible, he said. But he wants the public to understand that families often work behind the scenes in the fight against terrorism, assisting the authorities quietly to apprehend those they love.
“A lot of people who do what we do are anonymous,” Jabbar said. “If there’s a star on the CIA wall, you’re not going to hear that this is a Middle Eastern person.”
“It’s the families, it’s the brothers, it’s the mothers,” he said. “To reach a point where you have to call the government to report your own brother, that’s the responsibility that’s thrown at people like us.”
The immigrant community must take that responsibility seriously, as the front line in rooting out dangerous religious extremism, he said.
“If something is happening, the FBI isn’t going to know about it first. They’re going to know about it first,” Jabbar said. “It’s their job to protect their communities and their families.”
Jabbar said he took it upon himself to research his brother’s recruitment into ISIS, in hopes of deterring any other would-be terrorists. He started with the individuals who notified his family of Adnan’s demise, suspicious that they immediately knew the details of his death on Jan. 23, 2015, in a battle near Ras Baalbek in Lebanon, as part of an attack thwarted by Lebanese forces. They also identified Adnan, who also went by Abu Nawaf and Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi, by his “fighting name,” an indication that they were involved in terrorist activities, Jabbar said.
That led him to two brothers in England he suspected of recruiting disenfranchised refugees, as well as another possible recruiter in Copenhagen, he said. He reported his findings to the FBI and the British ambassador in Washington, D.C., Jabbar said.
He said he’s comforted by the fact that the FBI’s investigation ended with no criminal charges and no indication that other extremists are active or recruiting in Maine. He hopes his own research over the last three years, including tracking transfers of money from Syria to Portland, has spooked any other potential radicals in the state.
That research also led him to gruesome confirmation of his brother’s death.
Jabbar said he saw many graphic images of violence in his search for information online. Middle Eastern media often publishes images of dead bodies in coverage of battles and acts of terrorism, he said.
“In all that research, I’ve seen so many dead bodies, I became numb to it,” he said. “Until one day I saw a picture that I thought can’t be him because he’s too young, but it looks like him. My heart sank.”
Jabbar had never seen his brother with a beard, he said. The image depicts a man lying face up on rocky ground, his clothes soaked in blood.
Adnan’s body remains overseas. Jabbar said his next mission is to find him and have him buried near his parents’ home. His father, who is ill and in his 80s, may not live to see that day, but he hopes his mother will still be alive to visit his grave and pray for him.
“She wants to pray for him so that he’ll be forgiven,” said Jabbar, who can’t return to Iran for fear of arrest. “Hopefully the god he meets is different than the god they tell us they have and there will be some mercy.”