Though the arrests took place at the end of November, it was only recently disclosed that agents from France’s internal security agency took several men into custody in a suburban neighborhood of the city of Strasbourg, and charged them with plotting a terrorist attack. Longtime friends of three of the arrested said the accused were known for their normalcy and friendliness. One was a liked elementary school teacher’s assistant. Another was a responsible cargo handler. The third was an amiable grocer.
The “Strasbourg cell,” other members of which were arrested in Marseille and Morocco, possessed weapons or instructions for how to obtain them, courtesy of a commander in the Iraq-Syria zone, according to François Molins, France’s chief terrorism prosecutor. He added that pledges of allegiance to IS were found in searches of the suspects’ dwellings, and that an attack by the men had been imminent.
None of the arrested was impoverished, none had police records and none had shown any outward signs of “radicalization.” They were not 20-something young Muslims adrift in marginal jobs or unemployed. They did not turn up in the French government’s notorious “S Files,” where thousands of immigrants are listed as potential threats. The grocer sold liquor, forbidden by Islam, in his store.
In other words, none of them fit the “profile” of potential terrorists that countless experts quoted over years in the media have put forth.
A similar contradiction to that terrorist profile emerged from another recent case, this one closer to home, in a picturesque town in the Hudson Valley.
Samy El-Goarany was the son of a successful Egyptian-born real estate broker, and lived in a large house, complete with an indoor swimming pool, on two acres in Greenville, in Orange County, New York. As a teenager, he went to college in Manhattan, reportedly Baruch College, and was poised to follow his father into the real estate business.
In 2015, though, at the age of 24, El-Goarany left his Queens apartment, without telling his parents or friends, and flew to Istanbul, and from there to Syria, where he joined the Islamic State terror movement.
According to a call received months later by his parents, the young terrorist was killed in fighting a year ago. Although his death could not be confirmed, his parents held a funeral service for him (telling people he had been killed in a car accident).
Whether Samy El-Goarany is indeed deceased or just wanted to cover his tracks to avoid being located and targeted by an American drone, his story is of a boy who had everything a boy could possibly want who went on to become a young man bent on killing innocent people.
Federal prosecutors are claiming that an Arizona man, Ahmed Mohammed El-Gammal, recruited El-Goarany, among others, to join IS. El-Goarany allegedly met El Gammal online, and, in 2014, met him in person twice in New York City. According to prosecutors, his metamorphosis from pampered young American to violent Islamist was rapid.
In a way, though, there was no metamorphosis. An Islamist persona was simply layered atop an American one. Even in the midst of his IS training in Syria, El-Goarany sent his brother an online message that ended with, “I just want to let you know everything is normal and safe and I’m having a great time Bro. I got a lot to talk about with u…just stay calm and please remind [our parents] that everything is cool.”
That message, and the picture it evokes of an “all-American” boy who sees killing and destruction as high ideals, is jarring.
And its implications are chilling. None of us wants to suspect every young man — or teacher, or grocer — with Middle-Eastern roots of being able to suddenly reveal an “inner terrorist.” That would be terribly unfair to countless innocents. And yet, the fact that there seems to be no reliable “terrorist profile” cannot be ignored either.
Samy El-Goarany’s childhood friends were unable to resolve the image of the skinny, studious boy they once knew with the evil person they were informed he had become.
“I had been close to this guy for the past 10 years,” one friend, Peter Kwon, wrote on social media, “and I honestly wouldn’t have suspected him of joining this deplorable group.”
“To find out about this,” he continued, “is sad, infuriating, and quite frankly, disturbing.”
Alarming might a better word.
The seemingly commonplace nature of the Strasbourg cell terrorists’ lives has shaken many French citizens. That of Samy El-Goarany’s life should do the same to all Americans.