Elton “Ibrahim” Simpson’s Path to Jihad in Garland, Texas
Why did they do it?
This is the question that is inevitably asked after every jihadist attack — whether attempted or successful. And so it went with Elton “Ibrahim” Simpson and his roommate Nadir Soofi after the pair were killed during their attack on a “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas.
In the course of my own investigation into Western foreign fighters going to join forces with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, I came across some fascinating information on Simpson’s path to extremism, including his own account of his conversion to Islam, which has thus far not been revealed in the media. It can be read here at War on the Rocks for the first time.
I currently co-direct a study at the University of Waterloo in Canada on Western foreign fighters joining the conflict in Syria and Iraq. For this study, I interview current and former fighters, the friends and family of these jihadist volunteers, and members of the close-knit transnational virtual community of Islamic State supporters. They call themselves the “baqiya family.” Baqiya means enduring, and is often used as a war cry by members of the Islamic State.
Members of this “family” — often dismissed by analysts as “fanboys” and “wannabes” — are usually not taken seriously. This approach couldn’t be more off the mark. The baqiya family is a deeply connected group of youth who find a sense of community and kinship online, particularly on Twitter. As one member of this family told me, “One of the prerequisites to be baqiya is to have your Twitter account suspended.” You further indicate your loyalty to the family by supporting and reposting new Twitter accounts of individuals who are coming back from suspension. Surprisingly, the baqiya family is not exclusive to supporters of the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra supporters are also welcome and the debates are vibrant. Like all families, there are disagreements, but all are united by mutual love and support.
The baqiya family is where Simpson found a home. They evinced grief and sadness over his death at the hands of law enforcement officers. It was these baqiya family members who first sent me an essay that Simpson wrote about his journey to Islam.
Simpson’s conversion essay is titled, “From Darkness to Light.” He explains that while a student at Phoenix College, he started to think about why he was a Christian. He continues,
I have always known that Christianity has been forced upon my people (i.e. African slaves who have evolved to be African Americans) before coming to the ‘Land of the Free’ from watching documentaries, movies, etc. so why am I following this way?
The eventual rejection of his Christian upbringing, then, is rooted in the black experience in the United States, but also rooted in an adolescent quest for meaning and identity. Like many other people who have turned to this extreme form of Islam, Simpson experienced a major trauma, inspiring a reassessment of his priorities and what some scholars call a “cognitive opening.” In Simpson’s case, it was a car crash that put his career as a promising high school basketball player on hold. While it is not known when exactly this car crash happened, Simpson writes that his priorities slowly changed. “I was seeking an athletic full scholarship to a University with my talent with basketball,” he writes. “I was being recruited by the University of Miami, Eastern Michigan, and other schools but this was put to an end with my injury.”
As one of his online friends told me, “everything started from here.” Before joining Sunni Islam, however, he first turned to the Nation of Islam. He was thinking about his “ancestry,” as he termed it. As a black American, the message of the Nation of Islam seemed attractive. Simpson’s barber was a member of the Nation and explained “how our people worshipped Allah before coming into slavery, and how Allah sent Elijah Muhammad to teach us about Islam in America.” He later came to the conclusion that while the Nation of Islam could “build the spirit” of the black community, it was still rooted in nationalism, racism, and polytheism. Simpson decided that the movement was “complete nonsense.”
Back at Phoenix College, Simpson then met a Muslim man, who he does not name in his essay, who brought him into the fold of Sunni Islam. It is quite possible that this Muslim may have been Hassan Abu Jihad, the former U.S. Navy sailor who was convicted of supporting terrorism in March 2008. Indeed, Simpson first appeared on the FBI’s radar in 2006 due to his association with Abu Jihad. The FBI made use of an informant to deduce whether Simpson himself was a threat to the United States. During an interview with the FBI in January 2010, Simpson asked about Abu Jihad’s appeal case and mentions that they knew each other in Phoenix. While Simpson does not mention Abu Jihad by name in his conversion story, the connection seems plausible.
Simpson’s conversion to Islam, probably in 2005 at the age of 20, seems to have brought him some inner peace and stability. As one religious leader who knew him in Phoenix told me, many in the community enjoyed his presence, and youngsters liked to spend time with him because he played basketball. “He knew how to connect with youth,” he told me. Little is known about what happened in the coming years. A promotional recording from 2007 by the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix shows Simpson expressing a deep commitment to the center and the value he derives from being a part of the community. In 2010, he was arrested for lying to the FBI about his intentions to join Al-Shabaab.
From here, we venture into speculative territory. According to several members of his online family, he was close friends with Mujahid Miski, a Somali-American who has been fighting with Al-Shabab since 2008. While Miski is in Somalia, he has, as of late, told numerous people online that they should consider Syria a more important and virtuous theater of jihad. As Miski wrote on a now-suspended Ask.fm account some months ago, “If I was still in Minnesota and I had the choice between Somalia and Sham [Syria], I would choose Sham without any hesitation.” As reported, there is some evidence that Simpson may have taken Miski’s advice, and was planning on leaving for Syria sometime in April 2015. It is unclear why Simpson changed his mind, but it is possible that he was spooked by the arrest of six Somali youth around the same time.
According to some in his baqiya family, with migration to Syria no longer viable, a few factors came together pushing Simpson to act. First, there is the increasingly vibrant narrative coming from the Islamic State that Muslim youth who cannot migrate to Syria must commit acts of violence in their home countries. Second, Simpson became aware of an event in Texas, organized by so-called anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Given the brand of Islam Simpson had adopted by this point, he clearly saw the event as a legitimate and timely target.
Then there is the dream. As some members of his online family told me, Simpson had a dream some months ago “about a woman in a hijab looking down at him on the road.” For those who see themselves on the path of jihad, this dream is often seen as an indication that the women (or “virgins”) of paradise are awaiting him. In other words, it is a sign that martyrdom is near. Simpson followed the signs that he believed were being sent to him and acted accordingly. For his baqiya family, however, it came as a shock. He left no clues and didn’t really discuss it with them, leaving behind only a tweet pledging an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. “The brother was beautiful,” said one of his online friends, “We always exchanged hadith and always laughed and joked. I will miss him. I wish I told him how much I loved him for the sake of Allah.”
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow and the Co-Principle Investigator for a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter at @AmarAmarasingam.
Photo credit: Photo by Colin via Wikimedia Commons