A New American Leader Rises in ISIS

A two-year investigation identifies one of the very few Americans in the Islamic State’s upper ranks—and sheds light on the dynamics of radicalization.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

The clues are out there, if you know where to look. Scattered across far-flung corners of the internet, there is evidence that Zulfi Hoxha, the son of an Albanian American pizza-shop owner from New Jersey, had sinister plans.

To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app.

First there’s the defunct Twitter profile, which at one point engaged in a conversation with a State Department counter-propaganda account about the Islamic State. Then there’s the fact that he used the social-networking site Paltalk, a communications platform reportedly popular among Western jihadis. But none of it compares to the ISIS propaganda video that, according to multiple law-enforcement officials, shows Hoxha beheading captured Kurdish soldiers. If they are right about his identity, Hoxha is the first American ISIS member known to be beheading individuals in such a video.

Hoxha is now known to have become a senior commander of ISIS and one of the faces of the group’s recruitment efforts, according to federal court records. Hoxha left the United States on April 6, 2015. Four days later, he was in an ISIS training camp. Within just six months, according to multiple law-enforcement officials, he was featured in that gruesome video.

As cases of Islamic State supporters continue to trickle through the American justice system, details are slowly emerging of both the extent of American involvement in the upper echelons of the group and the role of recruitment and mobilization networks in the country. Investigations have already uncovered the stories of Americans such as John Georgelas and Abdullah Ramo Pazara, both of whom were part of wider jihadi networks in America and eventually reached relatively high-ranking and influential positions within the ISIS hierarchy.

While the ISIS presence in America is often characterized by so-called lone wolves, attackers who claim allegiance to the Islamic State but show little formal connections to either its operatives overseas or other like-minded Americans, stories such as that of Zulfi Hoxha are a reminder of the existence and importance of jihadist recruitment networks in the U.S. The extent of these networks does not compare to those in Europe, but they nonetheless play a crucial role in recruiting and mobilizing American foreign fighters for ISIS, who number in the dozens. Indeed, the majority of American foreign fighters we have identified had close connections to other American supporters of ISIS prior to their departure. Some, like Hoxha, made these connections through the internet and, via their new contacts, were able to liaise with ISIS facilitators who helped them travel to Syria.

As the physical caliphate quickly disappears, media reports speak of foreign fighters, including Americans, attempting to lay low in Turkey before deciding their next move. Others have returned to their home countries, much to the concern of law-enforcement officials who sometimes lack the personnel and legal tools to address the issue. However, for the time being, the once-feared “wave” of returning Western foreign fighters has only amounted to a trickle. Yet even from afar, Western ISIS recruits wield influence on their sympathizers back home.

* * *

In May 2017, the Islamic State media office in Iraq’s Nineveh province released a 45-minute video entitled “We Will Surely Guide Them to Our Ways.” Like many ISIS media productions, the video includes cameos of foreign fighters from several countries. One of the masked men depicted in the video is an American going by the name of “Abu Hamza al-Amriki.” Speaking in an inflected American accent, he criticizes the U.S.-led efforts against ISIS and exhorts the “muwahiddin [believers]” in America to carry out domestic attacks: “Are you incapable of stabbing a kaffir [non-Muslim] with a knife, throwing him off of a building, or running him over with a car? Liberate yourself from hellfire by killing a kaffir.” Later, he shows off American-made rocket launchers, reportedly taken from Shia and Kurdish militias after ISIS defeated them on the battlefield. During a two-year investigation on the cadre of Americans who successfully travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the group, federal records revealed that Abu Hamza al-Amriki is Zulfi Hoxha.

By the time of the video’s release, the U.S. Department of Justice was already knee-deep in the prosecution of several domestic Islamic State supporters who allegedly assisted Hoxha in his travel to join the group. One of these individuals, David Daoud Wright, was sentenced in December 2017 to 28 years in federal prison, after being convicted of providing material support to ISIS and conspiring to murder U.S. citizens. As a result of evidence introduced at Wright’s trial, a number of details about Hoxha, his connections to Wright and his co-conspirators, and his role in ISIS quietly became available.

At the time of the video’s filming, Hoxha was about 25 years old. Records of his travel from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, filed as court exhibits, show him departing the States for Istanbul, Turkey, on April 6, 2015. He arrived in ISIS-held territory in Syria shortly thereafter. According to its sentencing memorandum in the Wright case, U.S. law enforcement now assesses that Hoxha “has become an ISIS senior commander,” but the filing provides no further details as to his role or current whereabouts. However, the May 2017 video puts him in northwestern Iraq.

This is so far the only instance in which the U.S. government has confirmed the name (and American citizenship) of an ISIS member who appears in one of the group’s media products. While a number of Americans have appeared in terrorist propaganda videos over the years, law enforcement rarely comments on their identity. Moreover, the government does not often publicly release its assessments of American ISIS members’ role or rank. Hoxha’s apparent status in the group places him in an elite category of its American members who have risen to some level of leadership. Most American ISIS supporters never made it to Syria. In the past three years, more than 50 were arrested while attempting to the make the journey. Still others were charged for activities ranging from raising money for the group to planning attacks.

Following the Wright trial, we made repeated attempts to gain more information on Hoxha from official channels. A representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts declined to comment, as did the FBI’s national office. Matthew Reilly, spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office stated, “No defendant by that name has been charged in the district of New Jersey.”

Unofficially, intelligence sources confirmed a rumor we had quietly chased for months. In October 2015, a video was released by the Islamic State of a purported American brutally beheading a Kurdish peshmerga soldier. The 15-minute video, shot from multiple camera angles, features four individuals dressed in black and standing behind captured Kurdish soldiers. Its subject speaks with the same accent and inflection as Hoxha in the May 2017 release. Multiple law-enforcement officials told us that the individual who says he is “delivering a message to Obama” and then commits the first execution is Hoxha. If officially confirmed, it would be the first case of an American ISIS member beheading someone in a propaganda video.

* * *

Little is known about Hoxha’s personal background. A search for his online activity finds a defunct Twitter account bearing his name, which interacted with other ISIS supporters, as well as detractors. In October 2014, for example, the account engaged in conversation with the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” account, which at the time was trying to counter ISIS messaging on the platform. He was actually not the first American jihadi to do so. Around the same time, a 17-year-old, Ali Amin, was also trolling the State Department Twitter account. A short time later, Amin was arrested and ultimately sentenced to 11 years for encouraging his high-school friend to join the Islamic State.

Hoxha’s presence elsewhere online also reveals links to how he connected with his future co-conspirators. An account on the gaming website Steam bearing the username “Hohxa77” lists his favorite titles, including Splinter Cell, Mortal Kombat, and Left 4 Dead. Indeed, this shared interest in video games may have been one of the first things that brought Hoxha together with David Wright, who was listed as a friend on his Steam account under the name “d.sharifwright.”

During Wright’s trial, prosecutors argued that he used several video games, including Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and other titles to “virtually prepare” for jihad. His defense attorneys, however, painted Wright, who weighed more than 400 pounds at the time of the conspiracy, as a “fat, failed loser” who used video games as a substitute for real-life violent activity, according to the trial transcript. Unfortunately, one can be both a gamer who veers toward violence and weigh in at 400 pounds of loneliness and isolation. The Islamic State’s 2015 instructional manual for its Western supporters, “How to Survive in the West,” includes references to video games as a method of training to join the group. More importantly, it may have brought together Wright and Hoxha, who, unlike Wright, successfully followed through on his intentions to support ISIS using violence.

At the trial, investigators claimed that Wright and Hoxha’s conspiracy began in November 2014, although the two may have virtually met one another as early as 2010. The two most revealing elements of Wright and Hoxha’s online interactions are their use of Skype and the social-networking site Paltalk. According to court records, at the time, Wright (under the alias Umar Mukhtar Abdul-Qadir) and Hoxha were both members of chatrooms on Paltalk called “The Solution for Humanity” and “Road to Jannah.”

During Wright’s interrogation, which was recounted at trial in testimony by a local police officer, he claimed that Hoxha reached out to him via Paltalk and asked him if he was interested in ISIS. Wright told the officer that he responded three weeks later after conducting research, telling Hoxha that he believed that the Islamic State’s mission was legitimate and necessary. From this point on, Hoxha and Wright were in frequent contact via Paltalk and Skype’s instant-messenger service, sharing videos, issues of the Islamic State’s official magazine, Dabiq, and news articles about the group and its activities.

These conversations between Wright and Hoxha continued until April 2015, when Hoxha left the U.S. to join ISIS. Among the subjects of most interest were the best options for joining and what would ensure the maximum religious reward. Some early Western travelers believed that they could migrate to ISIS-held territory (an act that the group refers to as hijrah), but participate only in the societal aspects of the self-declared caliphate while avoiding combat and violence. Neither Wright nor Hoxha appear to have held that naive delusion. According to trial exhibits of their conversations, Wright cautioned Hoxha that “if you want to travel and live under a dawla [Islamic state] there is no harm in that, but you won’t receive the reward from Allah like those who are assembled in the ranks unless you assemble in the ranks.”

Hoxha and Wright’s respective commitments to violence are demonstrated elsewhere in their conversations, which were introduced into the trial exhibits. The two men sent each other links to ISIS propaganda material, including the February 2015 video that depicted the burning of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. They also exchanged information about how to buy guns online.

As with most known cases of Americans traveling to join the Islamic State, the internet proved a useful tool for Hoxha. While it is tempting to assume that many individuals are “radicalized online” through their consumption of propaganda, this is rarely the case. More commonly, the internet allows people to make contacts with and plug themselves into preexisting, real-world recruitment and radicalization networks. In Hoxha’s case, the network he found would encourage and eventually facilitate his travel to ISIS territory.

The court records show that prior to Hoxha’s departure, David Wright put him in touch with another American ISIS supporter, his uncle Usaamah Rahim, and together they began helping Hoxha as he prepared to travel in the spring of 2015. The two men raised money for Hoxha’s plane ticket to Istanbul by selling Rahim’s laptop on Craigslist. Hoxha departed for Istanbul on April 6. A day earlier, Rahim contacted Wright on Skype with instructions from Hoxha. “AsSalaamu A’laikum Zulfi asked me if you could delete his name off Skype,” Rahim writes. “But before you do it, if you have any saved messages to him go to ‘tools,’ go to ‘options,’ then click on ‘privacy,’ and click ‘clear history.’” These steps removed the interactions between Hoxha and Wright on Skype, but did not clear the metadata that would later be used in Wright’s trial.

Throughout his journey, trial exhibits show, Hoxha remained in contact with Rahim via various encrypted messengers, confirming his arrival at a safe house and then dropping out of contact after saying he was leaving for training. Thereafter, Rahim kept tabs on Hoxha’s activity via another Islamic State member whom he contacted through encrypted messengers: the influential British ISIS facilitator and virtual attack planner Junaid Hussain. In later conversations between Hussain and Rahim, Hussain comments on Hoxha’s location and whereabouts, saying that he was “in training” at an ISIS camp. This indicates that Hussain may have helped Hoxha cross into the group’s territory.

Wright, Rahim, and a third member of the group, Nicholas Rovinski, eventually decided on a different path than that taken by Hoxha. They were in the early stages of a plot to kidnap and behead the anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller when, on June 2, 2015, Rahim was stopped by police outside of a CVS in Roslindale, Massachusetts. They wanted to question him after wiretapping a conversation between Rahim and Wright that morning during which they discussed attack plans. Refusing to cooperate, Rahim pulled a hunting knife on the officers and was shot dead. Wright and Rovinski were arrested shortly afterward and charged with a range of offenses; in 2016, Rovinski pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to the plot. He testified against Wright, who was convicted in 2017 and is now serving a 28-year sentence.

At the time of his death, Rahim was portrayed as just another incompetent “lone wolf” ISIS supporter with no serious connections to any real-world group members. Even after investigators arrested Wright, who at the time was unemployed and essentially immobile due to his weight, and Rovinski, who had cerebral palsy, this “cell” of Islamic State supporters is still viewed largely as an isolated group of three friends acting on deluded fantasies. While Rahim, Wright, and Rovinski were undoubtedly amateurs, we now know that they formed part of a wider network that was in communication with ISIS operatives in Syria and had facilitated the travel of Hoxha, who would go on to rise in the group’s ranks.

Hoxha’s case helps illustrate the dynamics of radicalization and recruitment in the U.S., and the extent of American involvement in jihadist groups. While the internet is a crucial tool for extremists, it is important not to underestimate the role of personal and social networks in the facilitation of jihadist activity. Hoxha’s network of support provided him with both financial and logistical assistance, funding his travel and connecting him with a key ISIS facilitator based in Syria. Wright’s and Rahim’s conversations with Hoxha also show how he was given the necessary moral and ideological support he needed as he made his journey from New Jersey to Nineveh.

It is also becoming clear that a small but surprising number of American ISIS members have been able to sufficiently impress the group’s leadership so as to be given more senior roles. It is still rare for Westerners to become anything more than foot soldiers or, in some cases, propagandists. They do not usually possess the battlefield experience or other skills required to attain senior positions.

But in Zulfi Hoxha’s case, a seemingly inexperienced American youth managed to climb the ranks, and appear as one of the Western faces of ISIS in its propaganda. It is unclear how he achieved this, although he may have impressed his commanders with his apparently immediate willingness to take part in such acts of brutality as the beheading of an enemy soldier.

High-ranking and capable American members of the group present a unique threat. It is these figures who often act as nodes for terrorist networks, using their connections and influence to help recruit as well as plan attacks in their home countries. Fortunately, so far, very few Americans have returned home from stints in the Islamic State. The majority of those who have come back have expressed an apparent disillusionment with ISIS and are also under indictment by the U.S. government. The Islamic State’s American commanders may be limited in number—but the trajectory of the group shows that small numbers can wreak great damage.