How Europe’s Most Notorious Jihadi Still Wasn’t Extreme Enough for ISIS
On Wednesday, November 28, Austrian Islamic State (IS/ISIS) fighter Mohamed Mahmoud, known by the alias “Abu Usama al-Gharib,” was announced dead, ending the dark saga of a lifelong ladder-climb to the top of the global jihadi community—and ultimate fall.
The son of a member of the terrorist-designated Gamaa al-Islamiya organization in Egypt, Mahmoud was born into a life of extremism. For almost 15 years, his incitements, recruitment, and organizing were constant focuses of investigations by Western intelligence agencies, which no doubt considered him one of the most dangerous jihadists in Europe.
Mahmoud’s death was announced by Al-Turath Knowledge Foundation, a media group of former ISIS members at odds with the group. The message stated that he was killed along with two other ISIS prisoners in a coalition airstrike and chided ISIS for not freeing them before the event:
[ISIS] made false and spurious accusations, such as "splitting the rank, inciting against the emirs, and causing fitna [sedition]," keeping them detained and thus offering them as easy prey for rockets of the Crusader forces.
Posts attributed to Al-Wafa Media, a partner of al-Turath, provided photos of him with a similar message:
The honorable mujahid Sheikh: Abu Osama Al Gharib – may Allah accept him - was martyred today, Wednesday 20 Rabie Al Awwal 1440 H - November 28th 2018 AC- in the prison cells of the [ISIS] "Security Departments" ( the department of the oppressors and the combatants of Allah's followers - Exalted and Glorified be He )
Two days later, on November 30, al-Turath Knowledge Foundation posted photos of his dead body, as well as the others killed with him. A description of Mahmoud's photo stated it was taken "after pulling him out from the rubble of the prisons of immorality and injustice of the tyrants...This photo was taken secretly, due to the tight security on the bodies of the Muslims and the apostates fearing the spread of the matter and the discovery of the crime."
Just as his life of aggressive networking and ruthless brutality embodied the new type global jihadist movement we see today, Mahmoud’s death likewise marks a symbolic end of the very generation that brought that shift forward.
His last days spent in the captivity of ISIS also stand as a chilling lesson of the group’s bottomless, unappeasable extremism.
An Undeterred Rise within the Global Jihadi Community
Mahmoud’s history with radical jihad went back at least as far as his teenage years. In 2002, at 17 years old, he left Austria for Iraq where he spent eight months under a hardliner jihadi group called Ansar al-Islam before being arrested. Years later, back in Austria, he became one of the most prominent members of the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), the oldest jihadi media organization serving al-Qaeda and affiliates.
By 2007, Mahmoud was a member of the GIMF Shura council and managed most of the group's activities. At the helm of the group, he expanded it beyond mere media work to issuing direct threats and plotting attacks in the West. His production of “An Urgent Message to the Two Governments of Germany and Austria,” a March 2007 GIMF video released via its “Caliphate Voice Channel” (CVC), threatened attacks on both countries. To Germany, the video declared:
With your assistance and limitless support for America, terrorist cells are motivated to attack you. And thus, you destroy your security by your own hands. This is our advice to you; Remove your soldiers from the Muslim lands, and take back your support for Bush and his people, because this is surely in your interest.
Mahmoud’s critical role in such content only increased intelligence agencies’ watch over him. Officials eventually arrested him along with his wife in 2007 upon increasing suspicion that he was planning a suicide operation. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
This light sentencing would frustrate me for years to come. After his arrest, several GIMF members, especially those who worked closely with him, became subjects of investigations around the world. I provided expert testimony in Canada in February of 2008 for one such case pertaining to Said Namouh, who worked under Mahmoud and was indicted for providing material support for a terrorist organization. At one point, Namouh’s defense attorney asked me why his client should potentially spend the rest of his life in prison while his “boss” Mahmoud at GIMF only got four years. The attorney made a good point, though not in the way he intended; Austria was underestimating how dangerous Mahmoud was, I explained, and the future would only prove it.
Even before preparing my testimony for Namouh, I’d spent countless hours day and night tracking Mahmoud, and I knew the extremist mindset embedded in him wasn’t simply going to fizz out in four years. Sure enough, Mahmoud was released from prison in 2011 and shortly after moved to Berlin where he formed Millatu Ibrahim, a radical jihadist organization eventually banned by the German government.
Mahmoud was also expelled from Germany in 2012. In March 2013, as the Syrian Civil War reached peak intensity, he appeared in a video published by GIMF titled, “Under Our Feet, the Citizenship of the Crusaders,” In it, he renounces his Austrian citizenship and burns his passport, stating:
I am a mujahid… Between me and them - Austrians, Germans or the EU, or equally America - there is animosity and hatred. So I either achieve victory over them and cut off their heads, or Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He, grants me martyrdom…
In 2014, a year after his passport-burning video surfaced, Mahmoud was arrested in Turkey for about a year. Upon his conditional release from Turkish prison, he managed to escape to Syria where he joined ISIS.
His notoriety would only rise from there.
ISIS’ New German-Speaking Rockstar
Mahmoud’s entry to ISIS in Syria was a point of celebration among jihadists online. Roughly a month after joining ISIS in Syria, he married Ahlam al-Nasser, a prominent poet-propagandist for ISIS with connections to its leadership. Their union, which some have described as forming a “jihadi power couple,” made for even more celebration by on Twitter, even receiving its own hashtag, “#Congratulations_Marriage_Abu_Usama_al-Gharib_and_Ahlam_al-Nasser.”
Indeed, Mahmoud’s jihadi rock star status grew under ISIS. In November of that year, Western audiences outpoured with horror—and ISIS supporters with glee—when jihadists on Twitter distributed pictures of Mahmoud standing beside two beheaded corpses. Predicting the reactions to come, the user who posted the images stated of them:
Sheikh Abu Usama al-Gharib is welcomed in the vastness of the Islamic State while others that sit back slander him. We ask Allah to silence the tongue of whoever slanders him and his honor.
Mahmoud’s rhetoric on social media at that time was grimy fitting to the gruesome images. A picture tweeted in October 2014 by the Austrian showed him alongside his close associate Denis Cuspert (“Abu Talha al-Almani”), a German ISIS fighter and fellow Millatu Ibrahim member killed in January 2018 in Syria. A message accompanying the picture threatened, “GERMANY KEEP AN EYE ON UR BACK WE BEHIND U…”
Less than a year later, in August of 2015, Mahmoud would even make such threats in an official ISIS video, titled, “Tourism of the Ummah.” In it, he stands beside another German-speaking fighter and, before executing the prisoner in front of him, exclaims:
My brothers, either you follow us here with the mujahideen, or wage jihad in Germany or Austria. It does not require much; take a large knife and go to the street and slaughter every infidel you find…
Mahmoud took to Twitter a couple weeks later with detailed advice on how to perform such attacks. The series of tweets, which included advice on everything from where to carry a pistol to checking hostages for weapons, demanded prospective attackers leave behind any semblance of humanity:
Shoot the women and men dead at once and have no mercy on them
If someone tries to run away, shoot him in his back or in the foot
Show no weaknesses and go forward with brutality, because you are not at a party but in jihad
His showy role in ISIS worried government agencies, and not for no reason. Mahmoud’s experience in jihadist media would be a dangerously effective asset not just to ISIS’ German-language outreach, but its media operation as a whole.
The Downfall Behind the Curtain
Mahmoud is thought to have climbed the ranks of ISIS’ media department in his years under the group and was likely among leadership ranks of the group’s propaganda machine. However, Mahmoud was embroiled in an ideological struggle among ISIS’ top religious officials.
At the center of this dispute was the concept of takfir, the Islamic concept of excommunication at the forefront of ISIS’ our-way-or-the-highway jihadi methodology. On the (relatively) moderate side of the debate was Mahmoud and a group of other scholars, who argued for softer and more flexible applications and requirements of takfir.
Worsening the dispute was when ISIS’ media department, with the concern of the group's more hardline scholars in mind, refused to issue installments of religious “clarifications” on the matter. These installments were thought to be the ones most in conflict with ISIS’ more extreme views, characterizing aimless applications of takfir as problematic in themselves. In response, Mahmoud and other scholars—among them likely the follow prisoners of ISIS he would die with—formed al-Turath Knowledge Foundation to publish the rest of the clarifications. This new media group, which would eventually announce the death of Mahmoud, was essentially an offshoot of al-Wafa Media, which was once aligned with ISIS but was pushed out of the group’s media network as a result of this inner dispute.
ISIS officials were not only irked by this disobedience—they felt threatened. Al-Wafa’, once at the frontline of its incitement campaigns against the West, was being run by a dissenting wing of rogue ideologues. In early 2018, ISIS channels disseminated a message deemed “#Important_and_Urgent,” stating of al-Wafa:
The so-called Al-Wafa Foundation is not a supporter of the Islamic State khilafah, may Allah grant it victory, and those who are honest should cease working with them
We also give notice for the total prohibition on partaking in gossip, and instead to focus on disseminating the official releases of the state of the khilafah, may Allah grant it glory, Allah is the guardian of success.
It’s unclear exactly when ISIS arrested Mahmoud, though the matter has been a common staple of ISIS-insider chatter for some time. His arrest, much like that of big-mouth British fighter Omar Hussain (Abu Sa'eed al-Britani) and others, are conflicting elements to the utopian “caliphate” ISIS once advertised—ones ISIS has gone to lengths not to give life by commenting on. However, as the last of ISIS’ Western celebrity recruiters are killed, arrested, or defected, there is no hiding the fact that a significant chapter of ISIS’ yet-evolving global threat has ended.
As for Mahmoud, it’s hard to ignore the irony: no matter how far he pushed himself into fanaticism—beyond his father’s already-extreme views to the al-Qaeda-associated GIMF, and beyond that to ISIS—the abyss always led further down, until very group he swore his life to managed to go too far for him. Thus, his fate is not just a story about one man, but a sobering look at the limitless evil the world faces in ISIS.