Editor’s Note: The narrative portions below are based on court documents in the case of the US v Khalil Abu Rayyan
Khalil Abu Rayyaan, 21, had a stable job but felt lonely, bitter and powerless
He was insecure at the gym, but online portrayed himself as an Islamist warrior
After he posted a photo of himself with a rifle, a woman contacted him on Twitter
Every day was the same for Khalil Abu Rayyan, 21, a depressed pizza delivery man from Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Working for a pizzeria in Detroit, he’d drive late nights on desolate inner city streets, smoking pot hoping to keep boredom at bay. He carried a pistol to protect himself from robbers.
Rayyan wished he could meet a girl but his strict Muslim parents didn’t allow him to date. He’d been troubled since the age of 12, when he was sent into counseling after telling his teacher he had a nightmare about bringing a gun to school and killing everyone in class. Tormented by bullies, he later got into fights that led to at least three suspensions. When he was 17, he started using marijuana.
Now, high school was over and Rayyan had a stable job at his dad’s pizza shop but he still felt lonely, bitter and powerless, consumed with revenge fantasies. When he got home from work and logged onto his computer, he sought out shocking content in the darkest reaches of the Internet. He began watching ISIS videos in 2014.
He posted images of the terror group’s atrocities on social media, a gruesome montage that included the beheadings of Coptic Christians, the burning death of a Jordanian pilot and men being thrown from high-rise rooftops for suspected homosexuality.
Rayyan felt insecure around the weightlifters at the gym, but online he portrayed himself as a menacing Islamist warrior. In one picture, he’s cloaked in camouflage, holding a pistol and pointing his index finger skyward. It’s a gesture that signals support for ISIS. It’s a gesture that put the pizza man on the FBI’s radar, according to a CNN review of ISIS prosecutions in the US.
Late one autumn day in 2015, Rayyan was at his lowest. He’d been pulled over by Detroit police for speeding and was arrested after the officer found a concealed revolver, four plastic bags of marijuana and sleeping pills in his 2001 Buick Century. Rayyan was released on bond but things looked bleak, with a seemingly endless series of court appearances on the horizon. Chronic gloom gave way to suicidal thoughts.
He tried to purchase a new pistol and was turned away because of his arrest. That same day, he went to a firing range and rented an AK-47-style rifle as well as an AR-15-style rifle. Background checks are not required for individuals renting firearms to use exclusively at gun ranges, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Retailers may, however, use their discretion and decline to rent guns to individuals they suspect may be prohibited from owning firearms by law.
Two weeks later, Rayyan tweeted a picture of himself holding a rifle with a caption: “Sahwat hunting.” In ISIS vernacular, a sahwat is a person who opposes the terror group. Sahwat refers to the Sunni tribesmen who fought alongside US-led coalition troops during the surge in Iraq.
First Ghaada, then Jannah
About a week after Rayyan posted the picture of the rifle, a woman named Ghaada contacted him on Twitter. She described herself as a Pakistani girl in Cleveland whose parents were pressuring her into an arranged marriage. Within days, Rayyan and Ghaada were making wedding plans, even though they had yet to meet in person. She was Rayyan’s first girlfriend.
“While i was driving i started to cry because how happy i am to have you,” Rayyan wrote.
“Don’t cry my love. Please,” Ghaada replied.
“Its tears of joy wallahi…I never felt this way before”
“I wish I could give you a great big hug!! You have no idea. I just I could jump through this phone right now”
“I need you”
“You have me from our first tweet”
Rayyan told Ghaada that he and his father planned to visit her in Cleveland so they could plan the wedding. And suddenly, Ghaada was gone. She stopped replying to his messages. She disappeared completely, and Rayyan didn’t know why.
Two days after Ghaada vanished, Rayyan got a message from a young woman named Jannah. She said she was a 19-year-old Sunni Muslim .
Unlike Ghaada, Jannah expressed no interest in a conventional romantic relationship. She said she wanted to martyr herself for ISIS, an act of vengeance against the coalition troops and Shia militants in Syria and Iraq who had killed her husband and two of her cousins.
“Its like i knew you all my life,” wrote Rayyan. “I will ask you (to marry me) but not now.”
“Please don’t rush me,” wrote Jannah. “I’m depressed and very scared.”
Jannah said she dreamed of committing a suicide attack with Rayyan as an expression of undying love.
“I’m not crazy Khalil,” Jannah wrote. “It’s my iman (faith). It’s what I believe in. Jihad is my dream.”
“Honestly you need to think about what you want,” Rayyan replied. “I cant be in this game.”