Floridians Are Heading to Syria and Iraq to Fight ISIS

After years of working as a bodyguard, MMA instructor, firearms guru, and security contractor, Suleiman Yousef says he's prepared to fight Islamic extremists.
After years of working as a bodyguard, MMA instructor, firearms guru, and security contractor, Suleiman Yousef says he's prepared to fight Islamic extremists.
Photo by Ricardo Cornejo

The .223 slugs racing from the barrel of Suleiman Yousef's M4 rip over the mud before sinking through paper targets. A wall of raised earth backstops the gunfire.

Five other men in fatigues pop off more rifle rounds. Then, following Yousef's lead, one by one they drop their M4s, twist around, and trot through standing water like running backs slow-stepping through juke patterns. Each quick-draws a handgun and begins squeezing off 9mm rounds.

It's a Thursday afternoon, mid-May, the sky pinking with sundown out here in the Redlands, where Miami-Dade County is swallowed whole by the Everglades. A blond and ready-to-pop pregnant Russian television anchor watches the training — an informal meetup of law enforcement guys and private security contractors who gather weekly for target practice on this private property. The Russian crows commands at her short cameraman, urging him closer to where the semiautomatic lead chews the targets. He looks back, eyes saying Fuck, no! behind his glasses.

When the fire dies off, the shooters dig plugs from their ears and tilt their attention at Yousef, who fiddles with his weapon. Unlike the other shooters here, Yousef very soon could find himself ducking real bullets.

He has the full black beard of an imam but the body ink of a headbanger. "Self" is stamped below his right knuckles; "Made," on the left. Each hand is tattooed with images of brass knuckles and hand grenades. The word "Honor," in gothic script, crawls along his left forearm. Ringing his neck below the Adam's apple is a dotted line, like perforation marks. "Cut Here," says the tattoo, which could easily be interpreted as a taunt to Muslim extremists. Soon, Yousef intends to leave the United States to join ground forces battling the terrorist group ISIS.

"ISIS are just bullies," the 32-year-old firearms instructor and security contractor says to the Russian camera crew. "I want to be there on behalf of the people who are tired of being bullied and watching people being slaughtered and no one doing anything about it." He says it as simply as if he's talking about dinner plans, not a suicide mission.

Over the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, has ballooned from a small militia into a raging jihad machine. The Sunni group now controls some 8 million people in a territory the size of the United Kingdom that's stretched across Iraq and Syria. Hell-bent on slamming its subjects into a medieval, apocalypse-obsessed version of Islam, the group has routed attempts by the Iraqi military to slow the land grab. That track record, along with the group's spectacles of gruesome violence, have reportedly inspired more than 20,000 believers to travel to the Middle East to fight under ISIS' black flag.

Western governments remain reluctant to send troops to fight the Islamic State, leaving the ground fight to Iraqi and Syrian government forces and smaller Kurdish and Christian militias. But in the past year, a trickle of rogue actors from the United States, independent of the military, have traveled to join anti-ISIS combatants. These individuals include military veterans, private security operators, and some with no related experience at all — even housewives and surf instructors.

At least a dozen Floridians have made the trek or are actively planning to. Some are directed by a moral compass, others by Christ's marching orders. A few even seem tangled in a Hemingwayesque death wish. Whatever the reason, the entire world is tuned in to the mass-media horror show live-streaming out of the Middle East. Yet only a few are willing to step inside the war zone.

"Let's say I get killed in the first ten minutes I'm over there," Yousef says. "At least we'll be an example of people who tried to help and died for a good cause."

Suleiman Yousef (at left) practices at a private shooting range deep in rural Miami-Dade County.
Suleiman Yousef (at left) practices at a private shooting range deep in rural Miami-Dade County.
Photo by Kyle Swenson

His tattooed hands folded before him, calm as a swami, Suleiman Yousef sits in the conference room in a South Miami medical building. Across the table is Randy Nunez, who, despite his professional button-down and gelled hair, seems out of place amid the slick glass maze of offices. Still basic-training-fit and battle-zone jumpy, he's burning a higher grade of fuel than the average office grunt. His finger stabs at a MacBook. Instead of spreadsheets, he's flipping through photos from his time in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army special forces.He stops at a shot of what looks like a dusty, wind-toppled scarecrow.

"That was my first one. One hundred and 20 yards," Nunez says. His first kill. "I was going to take pictures of all of them," Nunez says. "But then I thought, This is morbid."

Nunez and Yousef, with about six other veterans and private military contractors, have for months been planning their journey to fight Islamic extremists. (The others declined to speak for this article.) They feel that, as "operators" with international experience, they are particularly well-suited to impact the fight against ISIS.

Nunez pulls up another picture: six Americans grinning for the camera in a dusty setting, assault rifles idling in their hands. "He's a contractor, he's a contractor, he's a contractor," Nunez says, pointing down the line. "He's Army, Army, Army." It's an open secret, he explains, that during the War on Terror, private contractors handled as much of the combat workload as the armed forces did. "We had DynCorp, Blackwater, Triple Canopy" — private security firms. "So they're already grooming you to get used to working with people outside."

Nunez, South Florida-born and -bred, was drawn to the military after 9/11. "Really struck a chord," he explains. "Didn't want the fight to come here to the house." In 2002, he says, he joined the Army and served in the special forces in global hot spots, including Afghanistan.

In country, he was attached to a "tactical human intelligence team." Often he would just roll up to an Afghan village in civilian clothes in a Toyota pickup with an interpreter, bearing medical aid, to bond with the village leaders. This trust-building gave him intel that was impossible to get from a satellite flyover, like who was secreting Taliban munitions or where the town's schools were, so they could be avoided during bombing runs.

Nunez says an average special forces operator could make $30,000 to $40,000 a year, whereas a private security guy might take in $120,000 to $160,000 to start, based on what kind of security clearance he has from the government.

"You might have served, gone home, and come back as a contractor and stay two bunks away from where you used to sleep," Nunez says. Following his service, he moved into contract work, everything from providing medical assistance to protecting shipments of humanitarian goods after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Yousef too is from Miami. He grew up hearing Arabic in the house, from his father, a Palestinian who came to Miami for college. He struggled to understand why his father wouldn't let him keep a dog as pet or eat pork — two prohibitions some practicing Muslims pull from the Qur'an. After his dad left the family when Yousef was 7, his mother, whose roots were split between Latin America and the Middle East, began raising the kids as Catholics. When Yousef was 10, a man one urinal over in the bathroom at St. Gregory Catholic Church in Coral Gables kept peering over at him. Yousef told his mom, and they never went back. These experiences left him feeling ill will toward all religion.

Yousef also admits that growing up, he felt the need to rectify problems with his fists. "I was the odd kid out," he explains. "My name was always weird to everyone. I never fit in with anything — not the rockers or rappers or cool kids or jocks. I didn't have a clique to hang out with." He once beat up a bully who stole another student's Snickers bar. "I felt bad for doing it to this kid, but then I didn't. Because if I didn't do it, he would have done it to the other kid."

At 14, he began training for mixed martial arts. He did ROTC at South Miami Senior High. Yousef had originally planned to enter the Air Force but says that after 9/11, a recruiter advised that anyone with a Muslim last name would have a hard time in the military. Instead, he continued fight training and launched his own business, Monsters Training Center. The experience prompted him to dismiss religion entirely.

"A lot of people in the fight industry are hugely religious," Yousef muses. "So you have two opponents in the ring. You both go in there with faith. At the end, one loses, one wins. The one who wins thanks God, always. Why did the other guy lose? Was it God's fault? Where is the sense in that?

"Now I'm probably the most antireligious person you know," he says. "I guess it's cool to have faith in something, because it makes you feel good. But I think the ultimate satisfaction is knowing what you can do yourself."

He became a licensed conceal-and-carry and weapons instructor in his 20s, later earning certification at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officer Training Academy. He picked up a private investigator's license and worked as a professional bodyguard. Eventually, he landed a security job for a Saudi royal, Waleed Al Ibrahim, and spent six years traveling the world. This put him in good standing with VIP clientele, and bodyguarding gigs from hip-hop royals like DMX and Scott Storch followed.

He says he trained for military contracting work at a Blackwater facility in North Carolina and took contract jobs guarding high-level executives and doing maritime security — protecting commercial shipments and billionaires on yachts from pirates.

Nunez and Yousef seem to have unplugged the usual dramatic emotional responses to death and mayhem, packed away any concerns for personal safety. It's the nature of the work, they explain, a job that sticks you in ugly circumstances on the ground — circumstances most Americans can't fathom.

"I don't like to say that Americans are ignorant," Nunez thinks aloud. "I like to say they're unaware. The reason they're unaware is they don't have to be aware. If your mom's never had breast cancer, you're probably not doing the Susan. G. Komen walk. People overseas in these Southeast Asia countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, they walk out to go to the market to grab some medicine for their kid or nutrient for their one animal, and they have to go by two rebels in masks standing next to a hung baby. Can you imagine if that happened in Merrick Park?"

ISIS' rise has been a 21st-century geopolitical worst-case scenario. The roots of the organization lie in the Sunni militias that flourished following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The band that eventually grew into ISIS was unique in its extreme brand of 100-proof Islam, abiding by a literal interpretation of the Qur'an and seventh-century Islamic writings.

The best measuring tape for ISIS' extremism is its differences with al Qaeda. For all its calls for holy war, al Qaeda — founded in the late 1980s by Saudi Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian (and still living) cohort Ayman al-Zawahiri — had primarily political goals. Global terror was the means to chase the American presence from the Middle East.

ISIS, however, is synced to more ancient frequencies. Its goal: to establish a caliphate, a perfect Islamic state run by a caliph, a supreme leader for Muslims worldwide, who has direct lineage to Muhammad. All life inside such a state must bend to seventh-century law. Religious courts weigh behavior. Slavery of nonbelievers is practiced. Prices are regulated. Health care and education are free.

Pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring of 2011 led to open war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military forces and armed insurgents. This chaos gave ISIS elbow room to successfully hold land. Beginning in 2013, the group began overrunning significant chunks of territory and soon took major cities like Mosul. Last summer, ISIS' leader, 43-year-old Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of the caliphate, a move of cosmic significance for ISIS followers.

ISIS believes that the caliphate is a step toward the end of the world. Early Islamic writings say Mohammed predicted that after 12 legitimate caliphates have come to pass, the Mahdi, a messianic figure, will arrive and lead righteous Muslims in battle. Armies of Rome (recast in ISIS propaganda as America) will assemble at the ancient city of Dabiq, still standing in Syria today. After destroying Rome's armies, the armies of Islam will be repelled by an anti-Messiah, Dajjal. The forces of Dajjal will chase the faithful Muslim forces to Jerusalem for a final showdown.

"Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off," Atlantic writer Graeme Wood explained in a 2015 article, "Jesus — the second-most-revered prophet in Islam — will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory." Then: The world ends. ISIS believes its own caliphate to be the eighth of 12, meaning the end times are nigh.

Facing this dark-ages agenda, Western governments have been left scratching their heads about what to do. President Barack Obama famously stuck a loafer in his mouth by referring to the organization as al Qaeda's "JV team" in January 2014. By fall, ISIS had seriously rearranged the perception.

On August 19, 2014, a video landed online: a gaunt American on a desert plain, struggling as a black-clad figure muzzled his mouth with one hand while sawing a blade into his neck with the other. The beheading footage of kidnapped American journalist James Foley was followed two weeks later by another, American journalist and Miami native Steven Sotloff. Then another: British aid worker David Haines in September. Then another: American aid worker Peter Kassig in November.

"Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq," an ISIS militant taunted on the video displaying Kassig's decapitated head, directly referencing ISIS' end-of-times game plan. "Eagerly awaiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive."

Despite the United States' decision to orchestrate air strikes against ISIS — some 16,000 by January 2015 — the action hasn't slowed the Islamic State's ground power. Nightmare footage continues to come out of the war zone: captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh burned alive in a cage in January 2015, mass graves of 600 Syrians discovered in April, men caged and lowered into a pool to drown just last month.

This February, Suleiman Yousef looked up from his breakfast in a South Miami diner and caught a news clip: a group of children in orange jumpsuits stuffed into a metal cage like zoo animals. ISIS militants waved flaming torches at the terrified kids, threatening to light them up.

"That made me sick," Yousef recalls. He reached for his phone.

Since a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke into civil war in 2011, an estimated 310,000 Syrians have died, and 6.5 million have been displaced.
Since a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke into civil war in 2011, an estimated 310,000 Syrians have died, and 6.5 million have been displaced.
Photo by Procyk Radek / Shutterstock.com

It looked like a leisurely pool party in any sun-slammed corner of the globe. It happened to be in a war zone. Spring break Syria, 2015.

A pale man is stripped to his underwear, leaning over the lip of a pink rooftop. About six grainy figures arrayed below bellow out friendly shouts. "God bless you!"

"Agh," the man on the roof says, in perfect American English. "Why am I doing this?"

Upcoming Events

"Because," says the man capturing the stunt on camera, in a Middle Eastern accent. "You're the Bear Jew!" he calls, referencing a brutal fighter in Quentin Tarantino's World War II epic Inglourious Basterds.

"What if I don't do it?" the American says.

"You'll be the Chicken Jew," the cameraman calls, triggering laughs. The American sets loose a banzai whoop and plunges toes-first into a pool of algae-stained water below. The men cheer. The cameraman twists the lens to his bearded, nodding face.

"A brave man. A very brave man."

Last week, the video was posted on a Facebook page for the Lions of Rojava, one of the Kurdish units battling ISIS in the eponymous section of Syria. "Our western YPG fighters not only fight but also enjoy the summer in Rojava," the caption read. "You are awesome guys. Hot Hot Hot summer in Rojava."

There's a hashtag: "#JoinRevolution."

With the Iraqi military losing ground to ISIS and the slim role Western governments have so far taken, fighting on the ground is left to ragtag regional players. These groups are opening their arms to Westerners.

The main push against ISIS is coming from the Kurds, a 30 million-strong ethnic minority inhabiting a region laid across Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Kurds are primarily Sunni Muslim but also Christian, Yazidi, and other religions. The Kurdish force, the peshmerga, is the 200,000-strong, well-established military. In the Kurdish-claimed portion of Syria called Rojava, the People's Protection Units (YPG) rose up during the Syria civil war to repel any outside push into the area. Today, the group numbers around 65,000 men and women combatants. Also sprinkled across the war zone are smaller groups such as the Christian-backed Nineveh Plain Protection Units and Dwekh Nawsha.

A U.S. State Department spokesman told New Times the agency does not actively track these individuals, but last March, a spokesman for the YPG told the New York Times that 100 Americans were with the militia.

Some Western recruits have military experience, like Ashley Kent Johnson, a 28-year-old Australian military vet; and Samantha Lois Jay Johnson, a 25-year-old divorced mother of three from North Carolina. Others — like 36-year-old Keith Bloomfield of Boston or Dean Parker, 49, a West Palm Beach-raised surf instructor — have none.

Patrick Maxwell, 29, a Texan and former Marine, told the Times in March that he joined the peshmerga in fall 2013. He spent seven weeks on the front lines, eating rice for meals and sleeping on the floor of shipping containers. "Just like back in Al Anbar Province," he told the paper. "Except we have no safety gear, no medical support, and no air support."

Louis Park, 25, also a former U.S. Marine infantryman, is currently fighting with the Dwekh Nawsha. He regularly posts pictures from the war zone on Instagram (@louis_tex).

"To be honest, I just missed the action and felt called to go help," he tells New Times. "I felt I had the will and ability to go fight and, thus, the responsibility to go."

Park says he had to convince militia leadership that he was an asset, not a liability, on the battlefield. "Then you just have the lack of organization and different mentality of people out here, as well as the language barrier and the need to be self-sufficient. It's frustrating."

Like their brutal opponents, anti-ISIS forces channel donations through PayPal accounts, use WhatsApp to communicate with overseas recruits, and maintain Facebook pages — some are run by the YPG, Women's Defense Units YPJ, and People's Defense Units. The YPG's the Lions of Rojava is specifically for non-Kurds. The ease with which anyone can punch up information on these militias seems specifically geared for Westerners who are resolved to join.

For people like Sean Rowe.

The former U.S. Army soldier living in Jacksonville couldn't see ISIS' stampede through Iraq as anything other than personal. Rowe spent 2004 and 2005 with the Army Reserves in Iraq and later did active duty in Korea. Working as an Army engineer, he says, he literally helped rebuild Iraq, laying plumbing over the country's skeleton.

He left the service in 2010. In Florida, Rowe worked with veteran groups. Then, like the rest of the world, he became consumed with the clips coming from Iraq. The nation-building he'd helped was unraveling.

Rowe came across news articles last fall of U.S. vets fighting ISIS. He resolved to join them. "I can't even say it was a decision," he says. "It was like I was gripped with passion."

The vet created a web group, "Vets Against ISIS." Within months, he compiled a team of veterans — 22 between the ages of 23 and 40 — resolved to join the battle. Rowe began collecting donations online via PayPal to equip the crew and pay for airfare to the fight.

"The common theme of every veteran who wants to do this," he explains, is "one, we're pretty much all Iraq War veterans, so we hate to sit by and go about our daily lives and pretend that nothing is happening to a country we spent a year of our lives rebuilding and protecting. And the second part is that they need help over there — there's major evil going on."

In May, Rowe was preparing to go — first to Germany, then to Syria — with just a few of his group; the rest would join later, he says. Rowe, the only member of the group to give interviews, declined to say how much has been donated or which militia he intends to join.

Despite Rowe's feelings, the United States doesn't want anyone, including former servicemen, in the mix. At a State Department daily briefing in Washington on June 11, media director Jeff Rathke directly addressed the issue.

"I want to be absolutely clear that the United States government does not support U.S. citizens traveling to Iraq or Syria to fight against ISIL, and, of course, not to fight with ISIL either," he told reporters. "Any private citizen who may have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight are neither in support of nor part of U.S. efforts in the region. We've had a travel warning for some time, and we've been clear that travel to Iraq and Syria remains very dangerous."

A Department of Justice spokesperson declined to specify what federal laws a volunteer might violate but said, "Regardless of the legality, it is a really bad idea, and we strongly discourage it."

There could be other, unforeseen repercussions, even for operators on assignment from the United States: In April, four Blackwater contractors were convicted of killing 14 unarmed civilians in a 2007 incident in Baghdad. One got life, three others 30 years in federal prison.

"I don't want to go over there," Rowe admits. "But they need our help."

Suleiman Yousef (at center)
Suleiman Yousef (at center)
Photo by Kyle Swenson

Yousef leans over a table topped with metal pieces and firearms: long-barreled M4s, an Uzi fixed with a silencer, 9mm handguns. The Russian camera crew gobbles up footage. A few regulars sit in an office, hiding from the lens.

"I'm not going anywhere near that Axis of Evil," one drawls, nodding toward Yousef. "As a white guy, I'm not getting kidnapped!"

"No, you've got a beard!" his buddy chides.

After seeing the images of burning kids over breakfast in February, Yousef texted friends — most private contractors, some ex-military — including Nunez. "We were all like, 'Hey, have you been watching what's going on? Dude, I'm ready to go,'?" Nunez says.

Robert Scott, owner of Armour Wear, a Hialeah-based body-armor company, has a lot of clients in private contracting. A regular customer confided to Scott that he was heading to Syria to join the Lions of Rojava. Scott says he contacted the group himself and has donated equipment. Scott told Yousef about the Lions, and Yousef reached out online.

Soon, Yousef was emailed detailed instructions. "You can join the other Vets fighting IS thugs in Rojava, Syria," the email read. "[Y]ou need to fly to Doha, Germany or Sweden then to Sulaymaniyah city in Iraqi Kurdistan." The email warned prospective recruits not to bring weapons, only "good boots, thermal underwear, warm jacket, winter clothes and the one-way ticket."

"The following people may absolutely not come to Rojava and join our ranks: if you have diseases such as diabetes type 1 and 2, high blood pressure, epilepsy, AIDS, drug dependent and other diseases that require treatment or medications that we have not listed here. Family wife and children, disability, gays, lesbian, racists or fascists, underage, extreme tattoos (meaning face tattoos), criminals, thieves, murderers, child molesters, rapists!"

The call to arms ended: "Please Note: Rojava is not a vacation hotspot where you can spend a couple of weeks or months and return right back home. Joining YPG does inherit the obligation to stay in Rojava as long as there are NO MORE barbaric IS members left to stand in Rojava!"

Reached via Facebook, the Lions of Rojava declined to be interviewed.

Meanwhile, Yousef and Nunez hashed out plans with a group of six operators they'd worked with before. "We do this on our own dime; we all have day jobs," Yousef says. His is in port security, Nunez in the medical field. Yousef says they began saving money and asking companies to contribute medical supplies, gun grips, and other equipment.

Hesitant about following orders from a foreign militia, they began to think they might be better off putting together a mission on their own. Yousef stresses that any efforts would be defensive, not offensive. They would be able to engage in gunfire only if attacked — otherwise, the safety stays on.

"We would be trying to go into the villages and the towns that are being overrun by ISIS, trying to get their security up while there, show the locals how to defend themselves," Yousef explains.

"We don't need door kickers; we need operators," Nunez adds. "I need people that can sit down with the elders of the town and explain to them why it is that we're there to help them get rid of the bad guys."

"It's not about notoriety," Yousef says. Nunez agrees — it's about sending a message: "It's OK to do good if nobody else is doing shit."

The men also say their initial commitment would be a three-month trip and concede that they might be more effective outside of Syria and Iraq. Muslim extremist groups in 11 countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, recently pledged allegiance to ISIS' caliphate. Yousef and Nunez also have law enforcement and government connections in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Still, they're serious, they say. And they understand the risks. "When you mess up at work, no big deal," Nunez explains. "When we mess up, people fucking die. That means someone is never again going to hear 'Happy Father's Day' or 'I love you, baby' or 'I'm proud of you, son.' That. Guy. Is. Gone."

And the risks include openly talking about their plans. "Obviously I'm a high-value target," Yousef says. "If I get caught, they're obviously going to do some public execution to warn off other volunteers. If I do get caught, I tell people that it should just be a reminder to stand up for what they believe in."

As of late May, some dispatches sent via social media from the battlefield indicate that the peshmerga had begun rejecting Western recruits due to pressure from U.S. military advisers. One report described an American volunteer who joined the YPG without realizing the organization was anchored in Marxist-Leninist politics.

Finally, there are rumors of ISIS' placing hefty bounties on Western warriors. Their presence can backfire. An American from Massachusetts, Keith Broomfield, was killed in a battle in Kobane in mid-June. One can only imagine the propaganda field day that ISIS might have beheading Yousef along his neck tattoo on camera.

Yousef insists he had considered the consequences. He's even invited a camera crew from RT, the English-language news outlet run by the Russian government, to follow him around.

In June, Yousef is crumpled into a booth at Duffy's, a South Miami bar, ball cap over his eyes, frown on his face, a thumb scrolling through the hundreds of fresh Facebook messages on his phone. The Russian TV spot had gone live: "Mercenary Group Says It's Heading to Fight ISIS Where U.S. 'Failed.'?" Two minutes, 26 seconds, it became a viral hit, especially in the red-meat corners of the right-wing web. Yousef was bombarded with messages — some encouraging, some depressing.

"?'Let's get these sand niggers,'?" he says, reading in a flat voice. "?'Let's go get these dune coons.'?"

Yousef looks up. "Dude, do you not see my name when you are writing this? That I'm Arab?" He drops his phone on the table. "A lot of them are these couch commandos who haven't seen their dicks since the second grade."

Yousef also worries about how he looked on the TV clip. "They want to spin it like we're some fucking guns for hire, that we're going to go and start killing people," he says. "I don't want people to think that we're there as a military unit. We are not the military. We are a private security detail."

A hand thoughtfully combs his beard. "Never trust Russians."

His phone pings again. "Look, this is what I'm talking about. This just came in now: 'I'd like to be part of the boots on the ground.'?" Yousef looks up, eyes wide. "That's not what's going on. For me, boots on the ground means we're going in on the offensive!"

He also gets overtures from potential investors: "I've probably turned away a half million dollars" — some of it, he says, from Jewish lawyers — "in the last two weeks. I'm waiting for the feds to show up at my house saying they need to ask me some questions."

A week later, that's essentially what happens.

One of the shooters seen in the Russian TV clip was contacted by a Fort Lauderdale Police officer and quizzed about the video. Yousef says he contacted that officer directly, sidestepped his questions, and laughed off his concerns about repercussions from jihadis.

The FBI would not confirm whether it has any active investigations into South Floridians planning to go fight ISIS, but a law enforcement source confirmed off the record that the Russian video clip was forwarded to members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

By mid-June, Yousef admits, "Everything now has been pushed back. I don't know if this is an official investigation. I don't know if I try to book a flight, I'll get blackballed." The Philippines or Indonesia is looking better and better. He's seen suspicious cars parked in his neighborhood. Undercover cops, he says.

"It frustrates the shit out of me," Yousef gripes. "I wanted to be there yesterday. This isn't going to stop us, whether it's today or tomorrow or a year from now, whether it's Indonesia or the Philippines or Kurdistan. It's not going to stop our mission."

After flying to Europe in May, Rowe stopped answering emails and went silent online. Then, last week, a Facebook page update, apparently posted from somewhere in Jordan: trouble accessing money. "Paypal wants paperwork which we do not have because we are only technically a nonprofit, not legally."

Furthermore, not all of his recruits were professional: "One guy turned out to be so drunk and obnoxious, trying to start several fights in public on several occasions, that one team member went back home," the vet posted. "I will have nothing to do with him anymore. Even worse, he stole nearly 4k in cash... from me while I was sleeping."

Yet, a few days later, Rowe's group posts a fresh call to arms for former U.S. servicemen. "Is there anyone ready to go now, with passport and gear, but just needs help with tickets? Let us know, we are willing to sponsor a few more veterans!"


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >