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How Did Islamic State Persuade A Jordanian Medical Student In Kharkiv To Blow Himself Up In Iraq?

  • Volodymyr Noskov

Mohammad Dalaeen

Mohammad Dalaeen

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- "[The Islamic State militant group] just played with him, they used him, because he was young," says Mohammad, a Jordanian medical student at Kharkiv University.

Mohammad is talking about a fellow student, 23-year-old Mohammad Dalaeen, who blew himself up two weeks ago in a suicide attack in Iraq, killing around 30 people.

He and other friends say IS recruiters in Kharkiv merely took advantage of Dalaeen.

But how did the recruiters persuade this privileged young man to drop out of his studies and travel to Iraq to kill himself and others? What transformed Mohammad Dalaeen the medical student into Abu al-Bara al-Urdani the suicide bomber?

On the face of it, Dalaeen seems an unlikely IS recruit. A happily married aspiring doctor, he was the scion of a wealthy and well-respected Jordanian family: His father, Mazen Dalaeen, is a Jordanian lawmaker.

But perhaps the strangest and most shocking part of Dalaeen's story are claims that he was radicalized via his Ukrainian wife, a recent convert to Islam whom IS recruiters targeted at the kindergarten where she took her small son.

University Dropout

When IS recruited him this summer, Dalaeen had lived in Kharkiv for three years.

One of a large community of 1,500 Jordanian students, Dalaeen was due in October to start his second year as a medical student at Kharkiv University.

He was an average student who made C's, according to Tatyana Sevastyanova, the deputy dean of the medical school.

Then, in the summer, he suddenly dropped out.

Sevastyanova told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Radio Svoboda, that the last time Dalaeen showed up at the university was in June.

The Road To Radicalization

The university told RFE/RL that they had not noticed any changes in Dalaeen's emotional state or in his behavior.

But others who knew him better said he had suddenly become more religious.

Raqi Rawashdeh, the president of Kharkiv's Jordanian community, comes from the same village as the Dalaeens. "Everyone knows [Dalaeen's] father. Everyone respects his family," Rawashdeh says.

Rawashdeh said he became concerned about Dalaeen's religious convictions some months earlier. And after Dalaeen's father became worried about his son, Rawashdeh offered to have a heart-to-heart with the young man.

"It was hard for his father to talk to Mohammad. I'm a bit younger than his dad, so I tried to get through to him by talking on the phone and in coffee shops," Rawashdeh recalls. "I asked him and he said, 'Yeah, everything is OK.'"

Rawashdeh tried to talk Dalaeen out of joining IS. "I asked him, where are you going, what for, tell me? Why are you going to fight? You're still young. They can do without you in Syria," Rawashdeh recalls.

But Dalaeen was "isolated [and] turned inward," Rawashdeh adds.

Dalaeen's father, Mazen, last saw his son in Kharkiv in June. He says Dalaeen seemed to listen to him, shaving off his beard and promising to give up his idea of traveling to Syria.

Mazen's hope was short-lived. A few months later, Dalaeen blew himself up in Iraq.

Recruiting In A Kindergarten?

Mazen says his son was recruited in Kharkiv and that IS recruiters there reached Dalaeen through his Ukrainian wife, Maria, who had converted to Islam.

Dalaeen was married to Maria for two years. Those who knew them said Dalaeen loved his wife and that he had helped raise Maria's son from her first marriage.

It was Maria who first became interested in "jihad," Mazen tells RFE/RL via telephone from Jordan, further claiming that "the recruiters managed to convince [Maria] to adopt radical Islam."

"It was she who influenced his radicalization," he says.

Some of those who knew Dalaeen think Maria met those who radicalized her at the kindergarten where she took her son.

After her conversion to Islam, Maria began espousing radical views, Rawashdeh says. "[Maria] told him, 'You have to go there to fight. Why are we sitting here when we can go there and act?'" Rawashdeh tells RFE/RL.

Maria traveled to Iraq with Dalaeen and is thought to be there still. She may not even know her husband blew himself up, Dalaeen's father says.

A reporter from the Russian-language news website Komsomolskaya Pravda met with a woman claiming to be Maria's mother who said she started to search for her daughter a month ago via Interpol but then stopped.

Ukrainian Failures?

When he noticed his son's behavior had changed, Mazen appealed to the Ukrainian authorities.

He even handed over the names and other details of those he thinks were his son's recruiters -- he believes two Azerbaijanis were among those involved -- but has not had any answer.

"I call on the Ukrainian authorities to arrest the scoundrels who recruit students, especially those who are far from their families," Mazen says.

Volodymyr Noskov is a correspondent in Kharkiv for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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