Now, a group called Bilad al-Sham Media has released a 22-minute video, taken at some indeterminate date before his suicide attack, in which Salha speaks at length and in English about his motivations and his journey to Syria, where he fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda-allied jihadist group battling the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The release of the video is particularly timely.
Two Americans were reportedly killed fighting for ISIS this week, and the radicalization of citizens in western countries is a growing security concern — perhaps most jarringly, the killer in the video of journalist James Foley’s execution spoke with a London accent.
After Salha’s death, details eventually emerged about his background and his life in the U.S. He was the son of a Jordanian father and an American mother who had converted to Islam. He was by all accounts an amiable and almost totally normal community college student who had become increasingly religious in recent years.
Salha’s video is an intimate glimpse into the motivations of western citizens like him who join these groups. He spoke English with only a slight accent and implied at one point in the video that his spoken English was better than his Arabic. He spent the great majority of his life in the U.S. — and still ended up so radicalized he was willing to blow himself up to further the goals of Al Qaeda’s main representative on the Syrian battlefield.
Salha said he was radicalized by a “friend,” whom he described as closer to him than anyone outside of his immediate family. “Me and him were striving for months just so we could get to jihad,” Salha said. Salha stayed with him when he became convinced the FBI was watching him.
“I stayed with my friend’s family,” he says. “It was no good, they were kuffar [unbelievers].”
The friend changed his mind about going to Syria while Salha was waiting for him at the airport.
“I could tell that that my friend was acting different,” Salha said. “I could tell that he was hearing the whispers from Shatan [Satan, best understood as an opponent or spiritual adversary in this context] … Shatan makes sure you don’t make hijra [in context, the journey to jihad], that’s the first thing he does.”
Salha didn’t back out, partly because he reminded himself of the words of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who broadcast jihadist teachings over the internet from Yemen and was killed in a controversial U.S. drone strike in September of 2011 because of his alleged connections to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Anwar al Awlaki, he says hijra is like a cliff,” Salha explains in the video. “You jump off the cliff, and you don’t know if the water is deep or shallow.”
Salha’s “jump” involved landing in Istanbul with $US20 in his pocket, which he promptly spent on a Turkish visa. Much of the rest of his narrative is likely embellished for narrative or propagandistic purposes and his story has the cadence and feel of religious allegory.
He received “rizq” (help or provisions) from a stranger at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Twice, he attempted to reach out to people in Istanbul whom he suspected were fellow jihadists. Both times, some vague instinct told him this would be a bad idea, and he decided not to ask them for help.
Eventually, an older, bearded individual who didn’t speak English or Arabic pointed Salha towards the people who eventually took him to Syria, according to Salha. Salha said that, for reasons he also can’t fully describe, he immediately knew the man was a jihadist.
Salha’s story — which eventually ended with him blowing himself up in the name of religious war — is driven by a kind of divine inevitability. One suspects his actual journey to Syria was far messier than he made it out to be. But we can still glean a few important from the video.
Salha claimed to have made it to Syria with little preparation.
“I know from research that all the mujahideen [religious warriors] from around the world, they come through Istanbul,” Salha said.
He was able to link up with al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists (Salha uses the name of the organisation explicitly a number of times), and stayed in an Istanbul safe house where fighters were rehabilitating battlefield injuries.
Salha said he waited nearly a month to be sent to the battlefield, suggesting Jabhat al-Nusra has a systematic approach to when and how it recalls potential fighters from its recruiting networks further west.
The implications of these details alarming. Syrian jihadists have a sophisticated recruitment and support infrastructure in a city that’s a mere 3-hour drive from the border of two European Union member-states — and someone who claims to have arrived in Istanbul with $US20 in his pocket and no local contacts can find them even without knowing where to look.
The video is worrying for another reason as well. Salha apparently didn’t need a U.S.-based cell or network to become the first American suicide bomber of the Middle East’s deadliest ongoing conflict. All it took was an internet connection and a single, radicalized friend.
Such paths towards radicalization can only succeed in producing one or two jihadists at a time. But for that reason, it’s difficult for authorities to identify individuals who might be on a path towards holy war abroad. Salha’s video is a candid demonstration of how this process works — as well as its consequences.
And at one point, Salha also reflects on what must be a prime motivation for self-radicalizing westerners who join jihadist organisations: a chance for an adventure, and for an escape from the apparent meaninglessness of life in prosperous, democratic societies.
At what he describes as his lowest moment in Istanbul, Salha saw a cat outside of a mosque where he had just prayed, and was filled with a sense of romance and purpose. “I love cats,” Salha says. “I see this beautiful cat. I start playing with the cat … I love jihad because i’m in hijra and i’m seeing another side of a different world. Even though I’m sad I still feel happy. I see this cat and I feel happy.”
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