Descent into Jihad
A young Turk’s transformation from astronomer to Islamic State fighter
Rasid Tugral prepares to depart from Finland’s Oulu train station for Turkey, Jan. 2, 2015. He took the route to violent extremism, joining the Islamic State later that month.
By VOA's Extremism Watch Desk
Rasid Tugral won fans in the social media stratosphere for his mesmerizing photos of the night sky over his Turkish homeland. He shared images – such as one of a juniper tree against a glistening Milky Way – on a National Geographic website. He entered a prestigious graduate program in astrophysics in Finland. Smart, handsome, adventurous and outgoing, he seemed destined for a career studying the skies.
But Tugral yearned for something more. An observant Muslim raised in a conservative household, he became drawn to jihadi websites while in college. Tugral took their radical interpretation of Islam to heart. Early in 2015, he slipped away from his family and a comfortable life, joining Islamic State (IS) jihadis fighting inside Syria.
By last August, Tugral was dead, an apparent casualty while fighting for IS against Kurdish forces. He was 27.
Thousands of young Muslims, lured by IS ideology and propaganda, have traveled to join and fight for the terrorists' self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Like Tugral, many abandoned lives of privilege and potential. His story stands out, however, because of the extensive written and photographic record he left documenting his transformation over more than a decade.
Over the years, Tugral bequeathed revealing self-portraits, playful cat pictures and arresting celestial scenes; musings about outer space and his religion; and tirades against unbelievers. In a detailed letter shared online last year, he chronicled day-to-day experiences with IS: stints of boredom, grueling training and dodging airstrikes. He sanctimoniously defended Islamic State’s most barbaric practices, including beheading people and enslaving women for sex.
“Whoever dies without having fought in jihad or having thought about jihad has died as a munafiq” – a hypocrite, Tugral wrote on Facebook, citing a hadith, an Islamic saying attributed to the religion’s founder, Muhammad. Mainstream Islamic scholars such as Mohammed Abdelfadel contend that militant extremists pervert the faith and the meaning of jihad, and that the religion in fact condemns terrorism and attacks on civilian noncombatants.
What led Tugral down this path toward radicalization and a violent end? A team of VOA journalists sought answers by reviewing Tugral’s social media posts and the 14-page letter from his early days in Syria, translating those from Turkish. The team also interviewed some of the young man’s friends and associates, as well as other sources including, briefly, his father.
Jihad was not the path on which Tugral started, nor one that his natural humor, curiosity and intellect might have predicted. His life and death provide a tragic case study in the false glory of IS ideology for a lost generation of young Muslims caught up in its delusions.
In late 2007, Tugral entered Middle East Technical University (METU) – widely known as Turkey’s Harvard – to study physics. The secular campus provided a sharp contrast from his home life, said Nihat Celik, a former classmate who was one of several associates to confirm the authenticity of Tugral’s writings and social media posts.
“He was going to school during the day in a liberal environment. But at night he was with his family at his religious and conservative home,” Celik said. “It is not possible to meld these two different approaches to life in the same pot.”
At METU, Tugral became known for his interests in astronomy and photography – and for his sometimes goofy antics. “He was a genius. He used to ask very good questions,” said a professor who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. But Tugral “wasn’t the best student, as he lacked discipline and missed a lot of classes.”
Tugral signed up for the university’s astronomy club, befriending its leader, Utku Boratac. Together, they studied the night skies on camping trips. They also helped with the TÜBİTAK National Observatory’s annual stargazing events for the public, Boratac told VOA.
Tugral started sharing his astronomy photos on a National Geographic member page in 2010 and competed in a 2012 NASA photo contest to adapt images from the Hubble Space Telescope. On social media, he adopted the nickname Nükleer Kedi or Nuclear Cat, recognizing his fondness for, and photos of, felines.
A feint, then flight
Tugral returned to his family home in Ankara, using it as a way station before venturing deeper into jihad. He told his parents he planned to spend the night of Jan. 10, 2015, with friends at METU. Instead, he packed a light backpack and set out for Syria.
“Before departing, I put my trust in God,” Tugral wrote later.
He hitchhiked, flagging down a minibus. Climbing in, “I realized that I forgot my camera,” he wrote. He had carried it everywhere, documenting the skies, his surroundings and his own evolution. The oversight, he decided, was “no big deal.”
Brotherhood and boredom
Days later, Tugral was transferred to another house, with bullet-pocked walls, that “probably was taken as war booty,” he wrote. It held about 20 people, and Tugral noted their diversity and their willingness to support IS. One man had been a professional kickboxer in Germany, another was a mechanical engineer from Bangladesh. Still another came directly after his release from a French jail. One man paid $15,000 to travel from China.
After a few more days, Tugral and eight other recruits boarded a minibus bound for Raqqa, the IS-declared capital. “See you in heaven,” he said they told the rest of their housemates, describing a joyous farewell.
Tugral explored Raqqa while waiting impatiently for the Sharia education and fitness training that IS required before combat. The city “was big and crowded. ... People continued to live in a normal manner without cutting off heads,” he observed in his letter. “Islamic State’s most beautiful side is the ban of smoking everywhere,” he added, but he complained of exhaust from “burning diesel oil everywhere,” in motorcycles and heaters.
Tugral spent two weeks in Raqqa, huddling with other foreign recruits in a chilly house short on water, with little more than eggs to eat. He had a sore throat, a minor complaint compared with the frightening airstrikes that rattled doors and windows “as if a strong wind was blowing. ... Every moment we are facing the fear of a bomb falling on our heads.”
Preparing for war
Over several months, Tugral was moved among a series of houses, including in and near Raqqa, then Homs. He complained of living conditions that were cold, crowded and dirty. “We were almost 30 people all sleeping in a room, and more people were brought in constantly,” he wrote in his letter.
At one point, his dwelling was downright primitive: a cave, although IS had outfitted it with "sponge beds," a washing machine and a power generator. “There were also many goods taken as booty," he wrote, including blankets with a United Nations label that likely were intended for refugees.
Tugral’s physical training began on the first day at the cave. Recruits practiced moves such as leapfrogging and slogging through mud. Tugral, wearing a jacket and pants he’d bought in Finland, “didn’t want to crawl in the mud with them, but I had to,” he wrote, advising prospective recruits to bring camouflage clothing.
His cave mates included a British civil engineer and the man’s son. “They knew something about constellations, and I, without waiting for them to ask, started explaining it to them,” Tugral wrote. Although the cave had electricity, most of the city did not. No light pollution could obscure the stars.
“I can say that the sky is clear almost everywhere in the Islamic State.”
After another night of fighting, Tugral and his fellow jihadis returned to base “in triumph,” he wrote in his letter. Two tanks were taken as spoils, along with a light truck, a few rocket-propelled grenades “and three chopped heads.”
He later defended IS beheadings in a Facebook exchange with his Turkish astronomy pal, Boratac, who asked why Tugral was involved with “a group that slaughters innocent people and chops off heads? This is psychopathic.”
Tugral countered that it was just punishment for Syrian regime supporters, “who have killed so many innocent” civilians, and for “rejecters” of Islamic authority “who have become America’s slaves.” He similarly defended IS jihadis taking women, predominantly members of the Yazidi religious minority, as sexual slaves.
Beheadings served a strategic purpose, he told Boratac: “This stuff is only for TV to scare the enemies. When they see this, they will be afraid of us and run away.”
A jihadi bride
Sometime in the first half of April 2015, Tugral was hurt in a clash with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Tal Abyad. He went to Raqqa to recover from the unspecified wound or injury.
The next month, he married Aisha Zevra Et-Turki, an IS female supporter also from Turkey.
In an earlier Facebook post, he’d written that unmarried jihadis get a $100 monthly salary and share a house with six other fighters. Foreign fighters “have four months to get married. ... The Islamic State gives you a house in addition to financial support for your wives and children.”
After the wedding, Tugral dramatically cut back on social media. Boratac reached out on Facebook, asking why he’d gone quiet and hoping to persuade him to return to Turkey.
“He said he has just gotten married and his wife was jealous to see him spending too much time on social media,” Boratac told VOA. “I couldn’t tell if he was joking or he was being serious.”
Tugral’s subsequent Facebook and Twitter posts, though less frequent, revealed his growing aspirations for radical jihad and steadfast piety. He protested airstrikes – by the Syrians, Russians and U.S.-led coalition – and civilian deaths. He advocated doing everything according to Sharia law, “all the way from eating your food to going to the restroom.”
He criticized Syrian Arabs, who, he contended on Facebook, couldn’t correctly recite from the Quran or even offer a proper Islamic greeting: “When I say, ‘Peace be upon you,’ to the regular people of Raqqa, they respond, ‘Hello, hello.’ I’m really sick of this.”
‘Hope to see you in the afterlife’
Tugral’s final Facebook entry appeared Aug. 31, almost a month after he died:
“If I don’t write here for a long time, know that my time in this world has ended and I have reached the afterlife. Pray for me that Allah will accept me as a martyr. This message has been set up automatically. Hope to see you in the afterlife.”
His Facebook page remains live, but his Twitter account recently was blocked. In a statement responding to VOA, Twitter said it has “suspended more than 360,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related” to IS, since mid-2015.
Salih Doğan, a Turkish researcher on politics, international relations and security at Britain's Keele University, estimated "thousands of people from Turkey" have joined IS. Though "all may have been influenced by the atrocities of the Damascus region in Syria," he told VOA, motives vary among the recruits. Some may be steered toward jihadi ideology by growing up in a conservative family, by feeling unjustly targeted, by rebelling against low status or by anticipating financial gain.
"It is a terrible thing to see these people go this way," Doğan said. "I think the bottom line here is to fill an emptiness inside a human being's inner and emotional world."
Questions about Tugral still haunt his astronomy friend, Boratac.
They had once seen, in the night sky, an unexplained bright light that Boratac speculated could be a UFO. Rasid listened quietly and later did some research. “He told me, ‘No, idiot ... it’s a satellite.’ He then taught me to never draw conclusions without research.”
So, Boratac wonders, how could Tugral have been so misled by IS propaganda and cruelty?
“It makes me question … how did he get to that point? He was once a funny man who took nothing seriously. That same man ended up to justify chopping off heads.”
His METU classmate, Celik, theorized that Tugral was unable to find a bridge between two divergent worlds: “I believe he was very confused and very mixed up in his own mind — religion on the one hand and science on the other.”
“I think his inner world was very dark,” Celik said. “I could feel that even before he joined IS.”
This story was reported by Uzay Bulut, Kasim Cindemir and Rikar Hussein on VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk in Washington, with Yildiz Yazicioglu contributing from Ankara, Turkey. It was written by Carol Guensburg. Unless otherwise noted, photos were obtained from Rasid Tugral’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.