The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS
John Georgelas was a military brat, a drug enthusiast, a precocious underachiever born in Texas. Now he is a prominent figure within the Islamic State. Here’s the story of his long and troubling journey.
Updated January 25, 2017
At dawn on a warm September morning in 2013, a minivan pulled up to a shattered villa in the town of Azaz, Syria. A long-bearded 29-year-old white man emerged from the building, along with his pregnant British wife and their three children, ages 8, 4, and almost 2. They had been in Syria for only about a month this time. The kids were sick and malnourished. The border they’d crossed from Turkey into Syria was minutes away, but the passage back was no longer safe. They clambered into the minivan, sitting on sheepskins draped on the floor—there were no seats—and the driver took them two hours east through a ravaged landscape, eventually stopping at a place where the family might slip into Turkey undetected.
They disembarked amid a grove of thorny trees. Signs warned of land mines. The border itself was more than an hour’s walk away, through the desert. They’d forgotten to bring water. Tania dragged the puking kids along; Yahya carried a suitcase and a stroller. Midway, Tania had contractions, although she was still several months from her due date. They continued on. At the border itself, while the family squeezed through the barbed wire, a sniper’s bullets kicked up dirt nearby.
Yahya had arranged for a human trafficker to meet them, and when the trafficker’s truck arrived, Yahya pressed a few hundred dollars into the man’s hand. Yahya and Tania had been married for 10 years, but they did not say goodbye. Satisfied that his family would not die, Yahya turned and ran across the border, back into Syria—again under gunfire—without even a wave.
The trafficker drove Tania and the kids a short distance into Turkey, then dropped them by the roadside without food or water and sped off. Tania carried the children and luggage toward the nearest town. The day ended with the intercession of a stranger on a motorcycle, who helped carry their things to a bus station. Tania started to leak amniotic fluid due to the journey, and she spent the next weeks recovering in Istanbul, and then with family in London. Six months pregnant, she weighed 96 pounds.
As his family traveled to London, relieved to have escaped the worst place on Earth, Yahya felt relief of his own—he could now pursue his dreams unencumbered by a wife and children. He felt liberated. He carried visions of the caliphate yet to be declared, and ideas for how to shape it. These thoughts were not idle. Yahya, by then, had a small but influential following, and his calm erudition had won him the respect that his teachers and parents had withheld during his youth. His own destiny seemed to be converging with that of the world’s. It was the best day of his life.
I first heard the name Yahya Abu Hassan in 2014, while reporting on an article for this magazine about the rise of the Islamic State. I was in a suburb of Melbourne, talking with Musa Cerantonio, an Australian convert to Islam who has served as an unofficial spiritual guide to many English-speaking followers of the group, about its history and theology. (He is now in jail, charged with attempting to travel to Islamic State territory.)
In our earliest conversations, Cerantonio mentioned a fellow convert—a “teacher” or “leader,” he called him—who had done much to prepare Muslims for the religious obligations that would kick in once a caliphate had been established. Cerantonio spoke of his teacher with awe. Yahya was deeply devoted to the idea of the caliphate, he said, and showed a staggering mastery of Islamic law and classical Arabic language and literature. Jihadists in Syria knew him by reputation, and they honored him when they met him.
Cerantonio said that in early 2014, Yahya had pressed the leaders of what was then the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (isis) to declare a caliphate. He began preaching that the conditions for the declaration of a valid caliphate had been met—the group held and governed territory, and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a physically and mentally fit male of Qurayshi descent, capable of ruling according to Sharia. Delaying further would mean disregarding a fundamental obligation of Islam.
Yahya had developed a relationship with Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, chief strategist, and director of foreign terror operations. “Yahya was like this with Adnani,” Cerantonio told me, pressing his fingers together. Yahya met with Adnani near Aleppo and warned him that Baghdadi would be in a state of sin if he did not promote himself to caliph immediately. Yahya and his allies had prepared but not yet sent a letter to the emirs of the isis provinces, airing their displeasure at his failure to do so. They were ready to make war on Baghdadi if he delayed further. Adnani replied with good news—that a caliphate had already been declared secretly, months before, and that it would soon be publicly announced.
Yahya shared the update with Cerantonio, who leaked word of the caliphate declaration on Facebook. Within weeks the official public declaration took place in Mosul, Iraq, and Yahya immediately pledged himself to Baghdadi, urging others to do likewise.
The figure of Yahya—an English-speaking convert within isis with powerful connections and the cojones to challenge Baghdadi to a death match—intrigued me. But Cerantonio didn’t elaborate on his identity and referred to him only by an alias, in the traditional Arabic style, with his first name and the name of his firstborn: Yahya, father of Hassan. He said Yahya was a fellow Dhahiri—a member of an obscure, ultra-literalist legal school that had enjoyed a sort of revival within the Islamic State. He didn’t, or wouldn’t, say more. I wrote down the name and committed to investigating Yahya later.
Soon enough, I began collecting clues to his identity. In early 2015, a pro–Islamic State Twitter user (his handle identified him as a “swordsman”) wrote to me and advised me to contact “Abu Yahya” to learn more about the group. The name resembled Yahya Abu Hassan’s closely enough to lead me to believe he was the same person Cerantonio had mentioned. The Twitter user claimed Yahya was Greek. “He is on the field”—in the war zone—“and part of the IS,” the swordsman wrote. “A great mind and a trustworthy student.”
He then shared a link to a website that featured a collection of Dhahiri writings by Cerantonio and a few others—including a “Yahya al-Bahrumi.” In fluent Arabic and English, Yahya wrote prolifically about many jihadist subjects. He projected calm even in his most grotesque opinions, and wore the label irhabi (“terrorist”) with pride:
This word (“terrorist”) has also been cast as an insult and has been received as such. But irhab [“terror”] itself is something notable scholars have declared obligatory and supported verbatim by the Qur’an itself.
He called for emigration to lands where Sharia would be fully enforced, and wrote that choosing not to emigrate was a form of apostasy:
Call me extreme, but I would imagine that all of those who willingly choose to live among those with whom Muslims are at war are themselves at war with Muslims—and as such, are not actually Muslims.
Get out if you can—not only in support of your brothers and sisters whom your taxes have been killing, but also to protect yourselves from the punishment Allah has ordained for those who betray the nation.
He called for Muslims to hate, fight, and kill infidels—among whom, he said, were many so-called Muslims who nullified their faith by neglecting prayer, deviating from the narrow literalism of his interpretation of scripture, or, in the case of rulers, not instituting the brutal system of justice for which the Islamic State was then becoming famous.
In dozens of articles posted over several years, Yahya demonstrated knowledge of classical Arabic—the notoriously difficult language of educated religious speech—and familiarity with Islamic sources and history. His Arabic was stunning even to Cerantonio, an extremely self-confident religious autodidact. Cerantonio told me that another Muslim in their internet discussion group had once challenged a theological point Yahya had made. “Then Yahya did something that shocked us all,” Cerantonio said. “He responded to the guy in traditional Arabic poetry that he devised off the top of his head, using the guy’s name in the poetry, explaining the situation, and answering his objections.” For any claim, it seemed, Yahya could instantly spout textual support, and confronted with any counterclaim, he could undercut the argument with a sweep of the leg.
The website the swordsman had pointed me to included a narrative biography and a small photo of Yahya, its founder. The picture showed a bearded, bespectacled young man with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder. He was dressed for cold weather, as if in preparation for a night raid or patrol. When I saw him, I wondered when I had last seen someone looking so content.
As for the biography itself, nearly every word showed signs of careful selection, including his name, Bahrumi, a portmanteau of the Arabic words bahr (“sea”) and rumi (“Roman”). Many jihadists construct a nom de guerre from their first name and their national origin. He called himself Yahya of the Roman Sea, or Yahya the Mediterranean.
The biography continued:
His roots are from the island of Crete in the Roman sea (Bahr al-Rūm). Born in 1404 [a.d. 1983–84] and raised as a Nazarene [Christian], Yahya then entered Islam in 1422 [a.d. 2001–02]. He traveled seeking knowledge and work in the path of Allah until Allah granted him hijrah [migration] to Sham. He now resides in the countryside of Aleppo.
Now I thought I had enough data to narrow down his identity: a philologically inclined Cretan jihadist convert not just to Islam but to Dhahirism, a minuscule legal school. The list of candidates could not be long.
Many converts choose Arabic names that are the equivalent of their birth names. Yahya is Arabic for John, in English, or Ioannis in Greek, so I began searching online for Dhahiris with these names. In a German-language jihadist chat room, I found a reference to “Ioannis Georgilakis,” and here the trail began to sizzle under my feet. Georgilakis’s Facebook page showed photos of the same hirsute young man with glasses, dressed in Muslim garments and playing with his kids.
As I looked at his Facebook page, I began to wonder whether the Greek was an affectation. Many of his Facebook friends were English speakers, and few were Greek. Georgilakis isn’t an especially common surname, and given Yahya’s apparent creativity in self-naming, I tried a few permutations, including the English John and the vanilla, non-Cretan Greek version of Georgilakis, which would be Georgelas.
One of the first hits on Google for John Georgelas was an August 15, 2006, press release from the Department of Justice. “Supporter of Pro-Jihad Website Sentenced to 34 Months,” it crowed. At the time of his conviction, he lived in North Texas, near Plano, 20 minutes’ drive from the house where I grew up.
American Muslims are rare in the Islamic State: Only 53 are publicly known to have traveled to Syria as jihadists, according to Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. (The United States has stopped more than 100 others in the process of preparing to travel, or to act on behalf of the Islamic State in America.)
Hughes, a former Senate staffer, has meticulously cataloged the Americans who have made it to Syria, and places nearly all of them in the category of “knuckleheads”—brawny idiots with little hope of understanding a discussion of Islamic theology. Many have by now fulfilled their dream of battlefield death; all that remains of them is a martyrdom notice, posted like a headstone, on their Facebook page.
However canny the Islamic State’s internet-based recruiting, a personal touch remains crucial to fully radicalizing most targets and signing up new terrorists. In the United Kingdom, more than 100 fighters have waged jihad after contact with a group called Al Muhajiroun; in Belgium, Sharia4Belgium has recruited numerous Islamic State fighters. But in the United States, groups like these exist only in the fever dreams of Islamophobes.
Fewer than 20 percent of the Americans in the Islamic State are known to be converts to Islam, and many have long-standing family connections with other countries—long periods of residence in Kuwait, say, or ties to the Somali tribes of their parents. They do not, as a rule, ascend to high positions in the Islamic State’s organization. One Bosnian American, Abdullah Pazara, parlayed Serbian military training into command of an isis tank battalion. But even Pazara (who died in 2014) was relatively obscure and uncelebrated. In the United States, his most glorious achievement was owning a barely profitable trucking company.
Not all recruits are stupid. At least three have a college education and, according to friends and family, good academic records and habits. The smart ones, though, have in effect renounced their learning in favor of the greater glory of jihad. Having made it onto the dean’s list for a degree in computer science counts neither for nor against you if your goal is to explode in a crowd of apostates.
Yahya, it seemed to me, was unique. He in some ways resembled his fellow Americans in Syria: He went to fight, and he would have welcomed a battlefield death if God had willed it. But he was no mere foot soldier; his religious scholarship, connections, and standing distinguished him—even if I didn’t then understand their full extent. I wanted to know more.
Plano is a short drive from downtown Dallas, toward the Oklahoma border, a flatland sprouting subdivisions watered by money from the region’s burgeoning tech sector. Shortly after his probation expired, John Georgelas had posted a résumé online listing as his address an elegant brick house with white Doric columns, a small portico, and a circular driveway. In August 2015, when I first drove up, I could hear the happiness of children. I saw a boy, who looked about 10, bouncing a basketball in the driveway and two others playing nearby; they were about the same ages as the kids in the Facebook photos. As I approached the front door, I spied a yellow-ribbon decal (“We support our troops”) in the window, and behind it a foyer, tidy and richly decorated, and a piano festooned with family photos.
The man who answered the door was Timothy Georgelas, John’s father and the owner (with his wife, John’s mother, Martha) of the house. Both parents are Americans of Greek ancestry.
Tim is a West Point graduate and a physician. He has a full head of gray hair and soft features that betray no sign of the stress of having raised an Islamic State terrorist. He has, however, no illusions about the life his son has chosen. “He and John are enemies,” I was told by someone who knows them both—“until the Day of Judgment.”
Tim wore shorts and a T-shirt, and a crisp draft of air conditioning escaped as he said good morning. When I told him I had come to ask about John, he stepped outside and shut the door as if to seal off the house from his son’s name. He slumped in a white wicker chair by the front door, and with a reluctant gesture, he invited me to sit across from him.
He stared at the magnolia tree in the front yard and said nothing. I told him what I knew—that his son, John, was Yahya. Tim sat, lips pursed, and with a shake of his head began to speak. “Every step of his life he’s made the wrong decisions, from high school onward,” Tim told me. “It is beyond me to understand why he threw what he had away.” Two of Yahya’s sisters have earned advanced degrees, he added, as if to demonstrate that it wasn’t failed parenting that led his only son to drop out of school, wage holy war, and plot mass murder.
“He was always the youngest kid in the class, and always a follower,” Tim said. “I have bailed him out so many times—financially, in circumstances with his wife and kids, you name it. I always pick up the wreckage.”
The Yahya Tim described to me was a sad figure, a sheep who had strayed into a wicked flock. Above all, he was easily manipulated. This, for me, was another puzzle. The Yahya I had encountered online, and the one Musa Cerantonio described, was nothing like a sheep, and no pathetic follower. He was not the boy his father described. At some point, Yahya had shape-shifted into a wolf, into a leader of men.
In December 1983, John Thomas Georgelas was born into a wealthy family with a long military tradition. His grandfather Colonel John Georgelas was wounded twice in the Second World War and worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tim Georgelas spent three years in the U.S. Army, then accepted an Air Force commission to attend medical school. He retired as a colonel in 2001, and now practices radiology in a north-Dallas breast-imaging clinic. He is politically conservative, as is Martha, his short, dark-haired wife, whose Facebook cover photo shows her standing proudly in front of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, near downtown Dallas.
The Georgelases moved frequently during John’s youth, as Tim’s military assignments required. John entered school at the age of 4, while the family was living in England, and he was young and small for his class. He was sickly—he grew benign tumors and had brittle bones—and his infirmities may have pushed him toward religion. When he was 11, his leg shattered, and he spent a long period out of school, recuperating. Lonely and depressed, his mind turned to God in idle moments, and he became attached to the Greek Orthodox Church. Wheelchair-bound, he hounded his family into attending services more regularly. Among his spiritual mentors was a clergyman who encouraged John to hate and distrust Muslims, with an intensity that would later change its polarity. (A family member calls John’s attitude one of “righteous fury, jacked up with certainty”—a bright-burning sanctimony that has been consistent across his religious transformations.)
As the family’s male heir, John enjoyed a special status in the Georgelas patriarchy. With that status came expectations, and therefore disappointment when it became clear he was unsuited for a soldier’s life. His body refused to grow into robust, battle-ready form. Tim is tall, a former high-school quarterback, but John was shorter, his torso tending to pudge. His temperament wasn’t suited to military discipline. When he returned to school after his leg injury, he had little interest in academic achievement or rule-following. His father tried repeatedly to correct his behavior and failed. (This account is drawn from sources close to John, including family members, co-workers, friends, and correctional officers.)
Nor did he fit in well with his peers. He gravitated toward the skateboard set, and he didn’t date much, if at all. (One acquaintance told me, “If you put a million bucks on the table and told him to use it to go get laid, he couldn’t do it to save his life.”) Like many a military brat before him, John experimented with the counterculture. He smoked pot, dropped acid, and ate magic mushrooms. He hated his father for punishing his drug use and hated the U.S. government for criminalizing it. By the time he graduated from high school, his primary interests were computer hacking, skateboarding, and the voracious consumption of psychedelics. His grades were miserable, Tim says, but his standardized-test scores were better than those of his high-achieving sisters. John ended up studying philosophy at the College Station branch of Blinn College, an open-admission junior college in central Texas. He passed only a few classes.
In a class on world religions at Blinn, the instructor’s cursory lecture on Islam annoyed him, so John sought more information from local Muslims. Curiosity turned to something more, as he discovered that Muslims were not the demons he had been led to expect them to be. A few days before Thanksgiving 2001, on the first day of Ramadan, John converted at a mosque in College Station frequented by foreign students from Texas A&M.
Whether the conversion was meant to spite his parents or whether spite was just an ancillary benefit of his spiritual salvation, it is not possible to say. But the timing is suggestive. When John uttered the Muslim declaration of faith, the ashes of the World Trade Center were barely cool. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America was reaching new highs, and in central Texas, conversion to Islam would have been a singular act of rebellion.
John’s parents found his conversion to be a sign of mental weakness. “Every university town in this country has a mosque for one reason,” Tim told me. “Kids are away from home for the first time, vulnerable and subject to influence. They hear the message and they’re hooked, and that’s what happened to John.” John took the name Yahya, and sold his pickup truck to buy a plane ticket. In December 2001, the family received an email from Yahya announcing that he was in Damascus learning Arabic.
Western jihadists find their way to violence many different ways, but they often match a profile. And that profile fit John like a wet suit. He came from an upper-middle-class family. He squandered opportunities commensurate with his innate talent; he recognized that he would not excel in the fields chosen or glorified by his parents and authority figures. Often, a personal crisis—a death in the family, a near-death experience of one’s own—triggers existential contemplation, leading to religious exploration; in John’s case, his childhood frailty might have filled that role.
Jihadists are also overwhelmingly left-brained, quantitative-analytic types. Diego Gambetta of the European University Institute and Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics have noted a preponderance of former engineering students among jihadists; they suggest that the mental style of that discipline disposes certain people toward jihadism. As a teen, John had taught himself to program. His computers ran the Linux operating system, not the Windows or Mac software favored by the masses. Years later, after he had become a full-blown jihadist, he would share a line of C++ code on his website, a geeky statement of his own hard-line stance:
if (1+1+1 != 1 && 1 == 1) return true; else die();
Translation: If you believe the Christian Trinity (“1+1+1”) is not really monotheistic (“!= 1”), and if you believe in the unity of God (“1 == 1”), then great. Otherwise: Die.
Despite these binary inclinations, upon his arrival in Damascus Yahya envisioned himself as a Sufi, a Muslim mystic who sought oneness with God through poetry, perhaps, or dance or song, and who could countenance a shaded, or nuanced, version of Islam. That posture may have been a holdover from his counterculture teens. Gradually, though, under the influence of British Muslims who were more rigid in their approach to the faith, he became jihad-curious. They persuaded him to follow a bin-Ladenist approach, hostile to Sufism, instead.
Yahya soon surpassed them in intolerance. To his jihadism he added general displeasure with the hierarchy of scholarly authority in mainstream religion. He objected to mainstream imams’ telling him to trust the words of scholars and not to attempt his own interpretation of scripture and law. Muslim laymen are generally advised not to derive legal rulings on their own, and to follow more-experienced scholars. But Yahya maintained a typically American can-do attitude toward his religion, similar to the one many Texans adopt toward their trucks: If he couldn’t understand or fix it himself, it didn’t feel like his.
He acquired The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, a cuboid volume that is the standard Arabic-English reference work. It is not meant to be read through. The typical student of Arabic keeps the Hans Wehr on a corner of his desk and consults it as needed for the rest of his natural life. Yahya memorized it in six months. Then, as a chaser, he memorized Kitab al-Ayn, the eighth-century Arabic dictionary by al-Khalil al-Farahidi. He wandered through Damascus, chatting up everyone and learning classical Arabic to a level of proficiency rarely achieved even by educated native Arabic speakers.
He drifted further from his parents and sisters. Later, when counseling other Muslims about how much effort to put into proselytization at home versus heading directly to the Islamic State, Yahya wrote:
What about those [Muslims] who are trying to work on their families, but their families insist on kufr [disbelief in Islam]? Should they wait their whole lives in patience, trying to guide someone whom Allah has not chosen for guidance, or should they move on and help their true family: the Muslims?
Yahya met his wife in 2003 on a Muslim matrimonial site. Tania was born in London in 1983 to Bengali British parents. It was almost as if they had shared the same life, before even being introduced. Like Yahya, Tania grew up riddled with benign tumors and incorrigibly rebellious. She tormented her parents by practicing, with alarming vigor, the religion they had neglected in the pursuit of an assimilated English middle-class existence.
She was a pretty girl, a petite firecracker. But her mischief was not of the usual variety, like dating boys her parents didn’t approve of. When her parents suggested that she try to meet boys, Tania hissed “Muslims don’t date.” She had a type: Her heartthrob was John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban in 2001. She swore that until marriage no strange man would know anything more of her physical appearance than its cloaked outline, and by her late teens she was draping herself in a full-body covering, or jilbab. She fantasized about packing a bomb under it. At 19, she married Yahya.
After meeting online, Yahya and Tania fell in love fast, and just as couples bond over Netflix or jogging or cooking, they bonded over jihad and a shared capacity for bad decisions. After a month of digital flirtation, Yahya flew to London, and they met in person on March 15, 2003. Within three days they married secretly, then left for Texas. They settled in College Station and partook of the pleasures of freedom, young love, and independence from family. They lived cheaply and happily, embracing as their community the foreign students at the mosque where Yahya had converted. The mosque threw them a wedding party, and rich Gulf Arabs who lived near the university kicked in money to support Yahya’s continued study of Islam.
The couple indulged, too, in their other shared passion: getting high. Islamic orthodoxy considers cannabis an intoxicant, and therefore forbidden. But Yahya’s practice of Islam was unconventional even then. In a historical essay titled “Cannabis,” heavily footnoted with classical Arabic sources, he made the Islamic case for pot. There was evidence, he wrote, that early Islamic leaders had taxed hemp seeds. Since Muslims generally cannot tax forbidden substances, such as pork or alcohol, Yahya reasoned, they must have considered pot permissible. As for psilocybin: Yahya cited an obscure hadith (a report of the sayings and actions of Muhammad) that he said described Muhammad’s having descended from a mountain after meditation and extolling the medicinal properties of mushrooms—particularly as a cure for diseases of the eye. Yahya and Tania took this to mean that God had sanctioned the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms. So the young lovers blissed out under the Texas sky, shrooming after the example of the prophet himself.
In late 2003, Yahya and Tania traveled to Damascus for an extended honeymoon, living there furtively and quietly associating with other jihadists. Their existence mirrored that of many young radical tumbleweeds of yesteryear: Black Panthers, Baader-Meinhof gangsters, fin de siècle anarchists. They dodged the authorities and lied to anyone who inquired about their activities. When Syrian government spies started asking neighbors about them, they moved on, settling briefly in a town selected because it was prophesied to be the headquarters of the prophet Jesus upon his return.
They often quarreled. Still strong-willed, Tania wanted to obey only God. But God’s words were unequivocal: “Men are in charge over women,” says a Koranic verse. So for most of the 10 years before the founding of the Islamic State, Yahya maintained a Rasputinlike control over her. He hadn’t had much success finding social esteem in his prior life, but in Tania he found his first student. He mesmerized her with his confidence, and she repressed her own misgivings whenever she found herself questioning him. Tania has mild dyslexia; Yahya’s reading of Islamic texts convinced her, with his fluency and recall and breadth, that he could produce an unanswerable argument about any point on which she disagreed. She determined that Yahya was a genius with gifts God had denied her, and she accepted her place in the world of jihad: Service to Yahya was her ticket to heaven. She endorsed slavery, apocalypse, polygamy, and killing. She aspired to raise seven boys as holy warriors—one to conquer each continent.
From Syria they returned to London, where Yahya chose to follow a Jordanian known as Abu Issa. He had allegedly fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and on April 3, 1993, his followers there swore loyalty to him and created what the French scholar Kévin Jackson calls “the forgotten caliphate,” an unsuccessful precursor of the Islamic State.
Abu Issa declared himself caliph and ruled a small portion of Afghanistan’s Kunar province in the mid-to-late 1990s. There he implemented many practices that the Islamic State would later realize on a larger scale. The total area governed did not extend beyond a few small towns, and the local Afghans despised Abu Issa and his supporters. When Osama bin Laden came to Afghanistan in 1996, Abu Issa sent a message demanding his obedience. (There is no record of a reply.)
In the late 1990s, when the Taliban took over Kunar province, Abu Issa and his followers relocated to London, and it was in that diminished state that Yahya and Tania first encountered them. For a while, Yahya had the jihadist-dork dream job of tutoring the caliph’s son in the subjects of computer hacking and martial arts. Ultimately Yahya and Abu Issa fell out over a dispute regarding interpretation of Islamic law. But during that period, Yahya nurtured an interest in the obligation to declare a caliphate and in Islamic literalism, both of which would drive him, in the end, back to Syria.
At a bookshop in London, he found a copy of the works of Ibn Hazm (994–1064), by far the greatest Dhahiri scholar. Dhahirism is the most binary and monochrome of Islamic legal schools. In some ways, it resembles the constitutional originalism of Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia: It drastically and pitilessly winnows down the sources of legal authority to the Koran, the sayings and actions of Muhammad, and the ironclad consensus of the prophet’s followers within his own lifetime. It refuses to accept new laws based on analogy to old ones, and it urges jurists and theologians to resist allegorical or figurative readings, and instead stick to rulings with plain textual support.
The rejection of figurative readings, legal analogy, and other types of extended interpretation strikes most mainstream Muslim scholars as preposterous. But through Dhahiri eyes, scripture should simply be read like a manual—or like software. It is a legal and theological methodology that aligned well with Yahya’s left-brained, autodidactic disposition.
In September 2004, Yahya and Tania returned to the United States, relying financially on Yahya’s parents. They settled briefly in Torrance, California, with Yahya hoping to find work as an imam. His jihadism disqualified him for mosque jobs, however, and increasingly the two sought only each other’s spiritual camaraderie. They stopped frequenting mosques altogether, on the grounds that they were dens of spies.
In 2004, their first son was born in California. Yahya and Tania moved back to greater Dallas, and a year later, Yahya took a job as a data technician at Rackspace, a server company in Texas. At night, he cruised jihadist forums and offered tech support to Jihad Unspun, a Canada-based Islamist news site widely thought to be a recruiting ground for would-be terrorists. He also looked for ways to use his position at Rackspace to wage jihad. On April 8, 2006, he accessed the passwords of a client, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with the intention of hijacking its website.
As hacking jobs go, it was amateurish. Rackspace found out, and the FBI, aware of Yahya’s terror links, moved fast. When a swat team came to his house in Grapevine, Texas, early in the morning, he and Tania were already awake for dawn prayers. He surrendered peacefully and warned that a child was sleeping inside and that his wife needed to get dressed. The Department of Justice prosecuted him for hacking into a protected computer—this was the source of the press release I had found earlier—and a judge sentenced him to 34 months’ imprisonment. Prior to his arrest, he had planned to travel to Iraq to fight against the Americans, so prison may have saved his life.
Yahya’s arrest caused marital friction of a new sort. With her husband in prison and studying Islamic texts full-time, Tania began asserting her independence. After receiving scowls from neighbors due to her Muslim dress, she told Yahya she planned to wear just a veil, and not a full-body cloak. Yahya, furious, demanded that she cover herself fully when she visited him in prison, to be sure no one would titter at the immodesty of the sheikh’s wife. (He had Muslim acquaintances in prison and was the most scholarly among them.) He told her to leave infidel America to join the group known as the Nigerian Taliban, a predecessor to Boko Haram. She refused and threatened divorce.
But she didn’t leave him—even after he got out of prison and took a second wife, a Jamaican British friend of Tania’s. Tania did not approve, but she didn’t forbid the union. The bride still lived in London, and the groom could not travel without violating parole. Yahya investigated the Islamic legality of a marriage conducted across physical distance. He found precedent: Muhammad had married the widow of his brother-in-law when she was in Ethiopia and he was in Medina. Having ascertained the validity of marriage-by-telecom, Yahya and his second wife married over the phone, with Tania present and quietly fuming. (Yahya later divorced his second wife.)
About his crimes, he remained unrepentant. “He can justify anything he does, and he didn’t think he did anything wrong,” Tim says. “He is just full of himself.” During his parole, Yahya lived in Dallas and worked as an IT specialist for a shoe wholesaler. In August 2009, 10 months after he’d left prison, a second child arrived, another boy. The extended Georgelas family took a trip to Hawaii, and the couple came along. Tania stayed secluded, says one acquaintance, and Yahya harangued everyone about the virtues of Sharia law. But he mostly stayed quiet during that period. The family wondered whether he had mellowed, though Yahya’s colleagues at the shoe company report that he and Tania occasionally posted politically worrisome items on Facebook.
Among their enthusiasms, at this point, was the libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, whose antigovernment obsessions and isolationist foreign policy Yahya and Tania both found congenial. The prophet had endorsed the gold standard, and so did Paul. Yahya and Tania liked pot, and the Libertarians were the closest thing to an anti-prohibitionist party in the United States. And—finally—Paul’s foreign policy suggested a possible disengagement with Israel. “You guys (meaning Americans) need to stop supporting democracy, and just make Ron Paul your king,” Tania later wrote on Facebook, only half joking. Yahya wanted revolution. “Tyranny is here,” he replied, “and the Tree of Liberty is thirsty.”
On October 1, 2011, Yahya’s parole expired, and he drove to the Dallas–Fort Worth airport with his wife and two children, a free man. He was leaving America—probably for good. “Muslims in America,” he wrote around that time, “remember: Hijrah is always an option and sometimes an obligation.”
The family flew to London, then Cairo. Yahya and Tania lived in Egypt for the next two years, at first happily: The boys were clever and precocious—YouTube videos show the younger one reading words in English, French, and Arabic before the age of 3—and they were joined on Christmas Day 2011 by another boy. The family sailed feluccas on the Nile and savored life beyond the reach of the U.S. government.
Yahya earned money by translating fatwas from the salaried religious scholars of the government of Qatar. Ever allergic to human authority, he seethed at the banality of the fatwas and the government clerics’ abject servitude to tyrants. None of the fatwas ever mentioned what he considered the core imperatives of Islam, stressed by Ibn Hazm a thousand years before, such as the establishment of a caliphate and emigration from lands of disbelief. The scholars relentlessly glorified the Qatari royal family. The fatwas, Yahya claimed, were based not on evidence but on mere opinion.
In Cairo, Yahya met other jihadists and became respected for his scholarly rigor. One person who knew him then describes him as one of the strongest pre-isis pro-caliphate voices, and says the online seminars he conducted in Arabic and English did much to “prepare” Westerners for the declaration of the caliphate that would come a few years later. Musa Cerantonio, who would become his leading Australian disciple, met him digitally. European jihadists began traveling to Egypt to learn from him. He impressed one sheikh so much that the man declared that it would be sinful for Yahya to expose himself to danger on the battlefield in a conflict like Afghanistan’s or Syria’s. “Your blood is haram,” he said—forbidden to spill.
In his sermons and public statements, Yahya anticipated many of the themes of Islamic State propaganda, including distrust of Islamist movements that compromised their religion by partaking in secular politics. On social media, Tania supported his views, but with each child she bore, her eagerness to join the jihad by then under way in Syria waned. Yahya reminded her that the Koran judges harshly those who give up on hijrah: Angels will rip their souls from their mortal bodies and prepare them for judgment by God. “The angels will say, ‘Was not God’s earth spacious [enough] for you to emigrate in it?’ For those, their refuge is Hell.”
In July 2013, a secular military coup toppled the Muslim Brotherhood–led government in Egypt, and the Islamist moment there passed as quickly as it had arrived. Yahya and Tania fretted about the possible consequences for them as jihadists, and sought escape. Cerantonio encouraged them to consider the southern Philippines, where he was living at the time. It turned out to be too rustic. “Look, I’m happy to be in, like, a mud hut,” Yahya said to him. “But my wife is very specific and is asking you to take photos of houses.” The houses were inadequate, so they scrapped that plan.
Ultimately, the Syrian civil war presented opportunities that Yahya couldn’t decline. His poetry frequently had a martial tone:
Rise, cut ties: spies disguised in white,
by the sword, for the Lord of Might
Defeat the cheat, trite fleet of fright,
by rod—by God!—by baud, by byte.
For years before the Islamic State’s rise, Yahya had said his weapon of choice was the keyboard (“by baud, by byte”). But now that Syria was becoming the battlefield he had dreamed of, he was ready to take up other arms.
When they left Cairo, Yahya insisted on going to Turkey. Once there, in August 2013, he took his family onto a bus and told them they were going on a trip. He did not reveal their destination until Tania (now almost five months pregnant with their fourth child) saw the Syrian border. By then, the Assad government had lost control of large parts of northern Syria, and around Aleppo, factions were working with and against one another. The region had become an anarchic wasteland haunted by death.
They squatted in a villa, the abandoned residence of a Syrian general, in the town of Azaz, a few miles inside the border. The windows had been smashed and the plumbing shut off, but the chandeliers were still hanging. Mujahideen groups controlled the territory, and Yahya’s connections assured his family a meager supply of food. He spent days with jihadist friends. He had known some of them only in an online fantasy life; now they were comrades in arms.
Tania and the children got sick and developed mysterious infections. She prepared herself for the possibility that government forces or other rebels would overrun their position. But she also still loved the rush, and was curious about the fighting nearby. She wanted to see the action, but because she was a woman, when she poked her head out the window, she was told to be sensible and get back inside. When she complained to Yahya about being brought into a war zone without consultation—“How could you do this to us?”—he cited a hadith: “War,” he said, “is deception.”
She finally decided: Ten years of this was enough. She demanded to take the kids back to Turkey. Yahya could not or would not join them. He had come to fight for isis, and he knew the penalty in the afterlife for retreating from the battlefield. But his kids were not mujahideen, so he let them go—across a minefield, through sniper fire, back into Turkey—with the assumption that the family would reunite, in this world or the next.
Tania made reverse hijrah to Plano, moved into Tim and Martha’s house, and gave birth to a boy, her fourth, in January 2014. In December 2014, she petitioned for divorce. Her own transformation has been bittersweet. These days she describes herself as “agnostic,” and has said, in her discussions with friends online, that she is “a lost cause to Muslims now.” In her social-media postings, she looks like any other painted-lady infidel of north Dallas. She dresses stylishly, baring a shoulder now and then, and has highlights in her dark hair. Still in her early 30s, she looks free, even reborn. “Some people would make takfir of me”—excommunicate her—“for this,” she writes. “But I have hope in God that he understands my weaknesses.”
Many would call Yahya’s treatment of Tania unforgivable and urge her to forget him. But the two have shared most of their adult lives, in difficult and thrilling circumstances. She has left jihadism, but she cannot completely leave Yahya. On social media, she wrote to a relative of her husband’s:
Where do I begin discussing the ‘Ioannis complex’? … He’s a man torn between two worlds, well actually four or more in his case (East vs. West, religious principles vs. family and happiness) … We made some really poor choices that backfired on us …
Ioannis is fixated on changing the hearts and minds of people and the course of history. I’m somewhat jealous of the love and devotion he has for Islam over me.
That devotion has not wavered. After he turned away from his wife and children that day in 2013, Yahya added a new and unlikely chapter to the Georgelas military tradition. For several months, he trained as a soldier as part of an Islamic State–aligned group near Aleppo. He saw battle there, and during combat in April 2014, a mortar blast sent shrapnel into his back, nearly severing his spine.
“I was in immense pain,” he wrote on his website, “but I at least knew that my reward is with Allah and that comforted me greatly.” He spent time in a hospital in Turkey. Then, fearing detection as an American (he could pass as Syrian, but not indefinitely), he went back to Syria and received treatment from Adam Brookman, an Australian alleged jihadist who has since returned to Australia and is under arrest (Brookman, a nurse, maintains that he went to Syria solely for humanitarian reasons). Yahya posted images on Facebook of his suppurating wounds and of himself on bed rest, smiling. The scars are, for him as for other jihadists, a VIP pass in the afterlife, a badge of honor that shows his commitment to God during his time on Earth.
His injuries left him temporarily unable to walk—disabled again, 20 years after his first leg injury. But he was content and proud. A fellow jihadist posted a photograph of a grinning, bespectacled Yahya on Facebook, with the caption “American muhajir injured in reef halab [the outskirts of Aleppo] by mortar shrapnel Alhamdulillah improving and cant wait to get back on his feet.” During that period he took up with a new wife, a Syrian, and had a daughter with her about a year after Tania’s departure, and another some time later. Throughout his convalescence, he continued to tweet and write aggressively in favor of isis, though he was not yet in isis territory. His website, still obscure, attracted more followers, though it remained a highbrow product, too scholarly for the masses. It was around this time that he began pestering isis’s leaders—particularly Adnani—to declare a caliphate. When the declaration happened, in June 2014, Yahya was living near Aleppo, about 100 miles from Raqqah, the Islamic State’s capital. “This is the moment I have been waiting [for] for years,” he wrote. He immediately committed to moving to Raqqah.
His plans were thwarted for a time after the Free Syrian Army captured him. He was eventually released, and silently vowed to return to behead his captors. For a brief while he feigned cooperation with the group. But in mid-2015, he made his way to the caliphate’s capital. His shattered back would have earned him exemption from frontline military duty—but isis’s leadership by then recognized that his talents were best put to use not as a grunt but as a scholar and spokesman.
On December 8, 2015, Yahya’s voice came through clearly on Al Bayan radio—the voice of the Islamic State. He is now the Islamic State’s leading producer of high-end English-language propaganda as a prolific writer for its flagship magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah. For a while, he tweeted under pseudonyms, but in keeping with a general Islamic State move toward other, better-encrypted media, he stopped and now appears to be limited to official channels. The profile photo for one of his last personal Twitter accounts is a well-worn laptop with a Browning 9 mm semiautomatic handgun resting across the keyboard.
The first article in Dabiq that I have been able to confirm was written by Yahya was published in April 2016, and took as its subject Western Muslims who, despite calling themselves Muslims, are infidels. The headline, “Kill the Imams of Kufr [Disbelief] in the West,” was only marginally less grotesque than the accompanying design: crosshairs over images of prominent mainstream Western Muslims; an image of a crouching, blindfolded “apostate” at the moment an executioner’s blade enters his neck. In the article, Yahya recounted many stories of Muhammad and his companions’ harsh treatment of Muslims who had lapsed. Hands and feet are severed, eyes gouged out with nails, bodies stomped to death.
The issue that followed bore Yahya’s fingerprints everywhere. A polemical article about Christianity notes, with a familiar pedantry and some of Yahya’s favorite Bible verses, inconsistencies between Christian doctrine and the historical record. Some articles are clearly his, and others, whether his or not, use the voice he has perfected. Unsigned, but likely written by Yahya, is the pellucid “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” which avows the religious nature of the war. “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers,” it begins. The article reads like a distillation of every conversation I have ever had with a jihadist:
The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam …
What’s equally if not more important to understand is that we fight you, not simply to punish and deter you, but to bring you true freedom in this life and salvation in the Hereafter, freedom from being enslaved to your whims and desires as well as those of your clergy and legislatures, and salvation by worshipping your Creator alone and following His messenger.
The Islamic State has staked its survival on creating a revolutionary Muslim mass movement—one that can compensate for its loss of territory in Iraq and Syria by rising up elsewhere. With Yahya it lends an American accent to its universal jihadist message, and a speaker whose strengths, weaknesses, personality, and insecurities are deeply American as well. He knows how to speak to Americans, how to scare them, how to recruit them—how to make the Islamic State’s war theirs.
It is unknown how far Yahya’s role extends beyond keyboard jihad. But clues have very recently emerged that point toward an extraordinary possibility. In August, a drone killed Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s most powerful leader save for Baghdadi himself, and—according to Musa Cerantonio—Yahya’s friend and patron. Adnani is widely suspected of having directed foreign terrorist attacks on behalf of the Islamic State, including the mass murder of restaurant- and concertgoers in Paris in November 2015. The suspected operational mastermind of that attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was emir of the foreign fighters in Azaz around the time of Yahya’s residence there. Adnani himself was from the town of Binnish, also in northwestern Syria.
Adnani’s death left a job opening, and on December 5, 2016, the Islamic State announced the name of his successor: Abu al‑Hassan al-Muhajir. That name is nearly identical to an active alias of John Georgelas, Abu Hassān al-Muhajir. (A muhajir is someone who has immigrated to the Islamic State, a foreign fighter rather than a Syrian or an Iraqi.) The title inherited by “Abu al-Hassan” is mutahaddith, or “spokesman.” The job may or may not include Adnani’s responsibility for directing overseas attacks. It certainly means that the Islamic State—in all its official pronouncements, its incitements to terror, its encouragements of its supporters—will speak in Abu al-Hassan’s words.
The voice that delivered the December 5 speech was not Yahya’s. But the Islamic State has altered voices in the past, to protect the identities of key figures—and however fluent Yahya’s Arabic is, it might have preferred a native speaker to deliver a prepared text under his name.
“Al-Muhajir” is an epithet shared by a significant percentage of foreign fighters (though most go by a more specific origin-name, such as “the Belgian” or “the Tunisian”), and many jihadists would have a firstborn son named Hassan; it is a relatively common name. The Islamic State likely includes more than one person with the name Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, although I can find no record of anyone in the Islamic State using that name or Yahya’s variant before December 5, other than Yahya himself.
For Yahya to occupy such a celebrated position would mean an improbable ascent through an organization dominated by Syrians and Iraqis. To succeed Adnani directly would mean leapfrogging numerous other candidates with greater seniority and previous authority in the group. No analyst with whom I have spoken thinks it likely that an American could rise so high in the group. But no other American is quite like Yahya, and until now, few people outside jihadist circles and the American intelligence community have even known of his existence.
“We’ve become numb to what he’s doing,” Tim told me when I first met him. He says they haven’t heard anything from Yahya since 2014, and they hadn’t heard confirmation that he was with the Islamic State until I appeared on their doorstep. “He’s no one I recognize anymore. I’m not looking out for what he’s doing, or how he’s doing, because I’m not sure it makes any difference.” Martha, he said, has taken longer to come to terms with the loss of their son. They don’t think he will return to America—not as long as he has a following in Raqqah, and the certainty of incarceration in the United States.
Tania and the kids lived with them for a long period after her return, but she now resides separately. The kids stay with their grandparents during the week and their mother on weekends. Having spent most of the past decade as an itinerant jihadist, Tania lacks the job skills and degrees to match her intellect, so she does not have the resources or career prospects to raise four young children on her own. The kids will grow up in Plano, their safety and education financed by their father’s abandoned inheritance.
The Islamic State’s enemies are drawing closer to Yahya, from all sides and from above. Drones assassinate his brethren every few days, and there is reason to believe they will kill him too if they get the chance. The U.S. government’s “kill list,” which once included the Yemeni American jihadist Anwar al-Aulaqi, likely now includes John Thomas Georgelas, if his name hasn’t been crossed off already by the time this article reaches readers.
Whatever parenting flaws Tim may have had could not possibly merit the anguish he and his wife have suffered. He still seems to think of his son as “John,” a wayward kid, easily influenced by his more assertive elders. “This is the first time in his life where he’s in a position where he might be emulated,” Tim told me.
I wanted to tell Tim and Martha that Yahya had been emulated for years, and their inability to see jihadism as a valid subject of intellectual expertise had kept them from realizing it. They didn’t know how evil their son had become, or how coolly competent. Like other parents of jihadists, they saw him as they wished to see him—as the youngster who bumbled through classes, sneaked spliffs, and struggled to hold down jobs. There was comfort in imagining that he remained hapless, and perhaps that his Islam was just another phase. They would be more troubled by the truth—which was that their son, a failure in so many prior pursuits, had found his calling.
This article is adapted from Graeme Wood's new book, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.