I spent a year in Iraq fighting Islamic militants. Then one of them contacted me on Twitter to talk about how much he loved Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji.
Robin Williams died this week, and the world stopped to mourn. President Barack Obama said he had spent his life "touching every element of the human spirit." Steve Martin described him as a "mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul." And thousands of miles away, a jihadi who believes in the slaughter of apostates took to Twitter to praise Williams's movies. "[R]eally liked Mrs. Doubtfire & Jumanji," he wrote. "But I liked most of them."
Abdullah, who doesn't give his last name, is a 19-year-old who supports the goals of the Islamic militants who now control much of Iraq and Syria but has not yet picked up a weapon to fight on its behalf (God willing, he says, he will soon find a way of doing so). For now, his focus is to amplify Islamic State propaganda for the world to see. The banner on his Twitter feed is a masked jihadi waving the now-familiar black-and-white IS flag seen fluttering above conquered Iraqi cities like Mosul. Abdullah's bio says he's "harsh on kuffar," the derogatory Arabic term for nonbelievers and infidels, a category that, to ISIS, encompasses most of the world's population.
My entire feed on Monday night became a Robin Williams tribute. Many posted a video of his 2007 USO visit to Kuwait, where he was caught off guard by the sounding of the ceremonial flag lowering and recovered with his legendary improvisation. But one of my followers retweeted Abdullah discussing the death of Robin Williams, and how Jumanji was a cherished childhood memory of his. It was a strange moment at the time, since I was an Army infantryman who went to Iraq to help kill men in black who hoisted that same banner, and here Abdullah was, talking about a movie I wore out on home video in my parents' living room in Texas.
I tweeted a screenshot of the conversation, which overtook my feed with hundreds of retweets in minutes. Abdullah was discussing religion with another user, so I jumped in for a few tweets. But soon we turned to the canon of our generation's most gifted comedian, including his less-remembered films. "What about Death to Smoochy?" I asked him. "It was pretty strange but I liked it."
"Not so sure," he replied. "What's the story about? I may have seen it."
We tried to ignore the many trolls joining the mix. Many were flabbergasted that hard-line Islamists could also be real people who like things Westerners like. "You're tweeting with Evil tonight I see," a California woman said to me, pointing out that I was having a casual conversation with a guy who posts cute photos of sloths hours after tweeting photos of decapitated Kurdish fighters.
The Islamic State stands for the complete opposite of everything I value as an American and a citizen of the world. They're brutal. Barbaric. Sadistic, maybe. But Evil, with a capital E? Abdullah? How could someone who smiles at the mention of "bangarang" be evil?
Abdullah is protective of his identity, for obvious reasons. He told me in private messages that he's from Europe -- which explains how he had access to Robin Williams movies -- and used to box when he was a kid. He wants to join the fight in Syria and Iraq, but unspecified personal matters have gotten in the way. There will always be time for the fight anyway, since he hopes for a worldwide caliphate where nonbelievers must accept Islam, pay a tax, or convert.
So why was he talking to me, I asked, since I was a nonbeliever who would do none of those things?
"I mean, we hate disbelief but I see you're a cool guy," he said in a direct message.
I'll be sure to save that endorsement in case the Islamic State storms Northern Virginia.
This isn't the first time I was reminded that insurgents and their followers -- no matter how brutal and misguided -- are people, too. In 2007 my infantry unit in Baghdad and Diyala province was battling, among other groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an Iraqi nationalist insurgency group. They tried to sneak off with the bodies of executed American contractors and ambushed us when we arrived. They fired sniper rifles from inside cars and cut into roads with concrete saws to lay massive bombs for our vehicles.
But when the 1920s turned on the more extreme al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and partnered with us, the uneasy alliance gave way to joint patrols. They became the Sons of Iraq. They wore masks and pointed out AQI positions. In this way they were more useful and necessary than incompetent Iraqi Army soldiers, whom our government spent billions to train and equip.
Back at the patrol base, the Sons of Iraq took a shining to a particularly goofy member of my platoon. "If we fight again, raise your hand so we don't kill you," the former insurgent said. We all laughed. They battled against us, and promised to again, but at that moment we shared the same air, along with the same worries about what was buried underneath the next intersection.
My public conversation with Abdullah, I realized, was an opportunity to discuss things besides great moments in comedy. I wanted to know if he had seen combat in the declared caliphate, since it's an experience we could share that some Americans would rather not discuss at dinner parties. He understood the disconnect I described. "Watched a documentary on VICE about treatment of war vets," he said, referring to a segment on Veterans Affairs' systemic failures to provide timely care to veterans. "You guys really could have it better." Even a guy who gleefully posts photos of military caskets thinks the United States could improve how it cares for veterans.
My friend Kate, also an Iraq veteran, joined the Twitter conversation, asking about mental health care and reintegration for jihadists. Abdullah suggested they are sent back home to face uncertain modes of care. It appears both sides struggle to identify the best methods to treat traumatized troops while juggling limited resources.
Perhaps the Islamic State would set up their own agency for caliphate veterans, I told Abdullah. I was mostly serious. The group has already established food inspection offices, repaired electrical grids, and beautified street medians in Raqqa, Syria. Call the future agency the Department of Jihadist Affairs. "I would find it highly plausible," Abdullah said.
By late Monday night and Tuesday, Abdullah was agitated over the attention from hostile tweeters and journalists. The website of British newspaper the Independent aggregated his tweets after a BBC journalist reached out to discuss Robin Williams. "Like, this is a joke, right?" Abdullah asked rhetorically. Others trolled him for movie recommendations while others questioned his legitimacy. He's a groupie, some postulated, unwilling to join the fight.
Abdullah might be little more than an impressionable kid. But it's clear he's a node in a sophisticated Islamic State public affairs operation that amplifies execution videos along with water restoration projects aimed at winning hearts and minds. Esquire says their action-oriented videos carry an "aesthetic rigor," and intelligence officials say the group has thousands of followers around the world who translate its messages into German, Indonesian, and Russian.
I've spent my adult life online, writing blog posts and talking on message boards with people all over the world. Finding common ground to talk about with an Islamist doesn't seem that strange, even if my platoon maneuvered on and killed IS's predecessors in Iraq. One Islamic State supporter made it known in broken English that jihadists aren't space aliens who only behead people. That's true. They also force women and children up on a mountain to die, and at some point in their lives, roll on the floor laughing when Mrs. Doubtfire pelts Pierce Brosnan with a lime.
Abdullah was perhaps the most flummoxed by all the attention. Is it such a stretch that one could support a brutal, murderous state but also be a movie fan? Art -- be it a painting or a sculpture or a Robin Williams stand-up bit about golf -- reflects existence back at us. It's a human compulsion to both seek it out and create it. When Williams went with the USO and cracked jokes for troops overseas, it was to distract from the reality that the soldiers and Marines were in a war zone and could be killed or maimed at any time.
My Twitter feed is mostly national security and foreign affairs news, so I see the kind of things Abdullah posts every day. Photos of dead IS fighters. Videos of Iraqi vehicles blown apart. I probably see the IS flag once every couple of hours in one story or another. I hope they are eradicated and don't extend their terror state another inch. "I'd have to fight you guys if the caliphate came here," I told Abdullah over private message. "Not personal though."
"Of course not. It's all about the country and justice all that," he replied. "We'll see, inshallah."
But if he ever picks up a rifle instead of a keyboard, I won't know if I'll see Abdullah in one of those photos, either waving a black banner triumphantly or lying on the ground, swollen from rigor mortis and under the boot of a Kurdish soldier. I won't know it because I haven't seen his face; Abdullah's profile picture is likely a stock photo used by many jihadists, or would-be jihadists. The photo is of a jihadi fighter. It's of some man dedicated to the cause, like Abdullah, riding toward a battle, or maybe away from one, with a shrouded face to acknowledge one thing: that the world doesn't see him as he sees himself.