Four years ago, Abdelhamid Al-Madioum disappeared while on a family vacation in Morocco.
The parents of the then 18-year-old St. Louis Park man later discovered their son had absconded to Syria with plans to join the ranks of ISIS. After that, no one saw him again.
But Al-Madioum has now resurfaced in a northern Syrian prison, according to CBS News.
In a chance encounter, a news crew for CBS recently found a man purporting to be Al-Madioum while touring a Syrian prison full of ISIS fighters. Now 22 years old, with short black hair, wearing an orange jumpsuit and missing his right arm, Al-Madioum told CBS reporters that ISIS recruited him through Twitter.
Al-Madioum said he didn’t believe news reports about ISIS being a terrorist organization, and he said he joined with the intention of becoming a doctor.
“They gave me a blank check to buy whatever I wanted,” Al-Madioum said in the interview, which aired Tuesday.
Al-Madioum claimed that he never fought for ISIS, according to CBS. He said his arm was blown off in a U.S. airstrike.
The Star Tribune first reported Al-Madioum’s disappearance in 2017, making him the first new disclosure of a Minnesotan attempting to join the terrorist group since the high-profile prosecution of nine Twin Cities men drew national attention a year earlier.
Al-Madioum’s fate has been unknown since his 2015 disappearance and since ISIS’ claim to broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria was wiped out last year.
The federal government has not publicly charged Al-Madioum with supporting ISIS, but in an interview with CBS News he claimed to have been interrogated by FBI agents while in Syrian custody.
The FBI’s investigation of Al-Madioum remained open as of the 2017 Star Tribune report. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has previously charged Minnesotans in absentia after they allegedly traveled to join terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Shabab, but a spokesperson declined to comment on Al-Madioum on Wednesday.
Al-Madioum, a naturalized U.S. citizen, would be the first Minnesota ISIS traveler confirmed to still be alive since the terror group lost its territory.
According to a federal search warrant application for electronics seized from Al-Madioum’s St. Louis Park bedroom in 2015, Al-Madioum disappeared while on vacation with family visiting relatives in Morocco that July. His parents told investigators that he skipped dinner one evening, claiming to be feeling ill, but still prayed and visited with family before retiring to bed about 3 a.m. Finding him gone the next day, relatives scoured local hospitals and police stations, according to the FBI. Al-Madioum left all of his possessions behind except for his cellphone, passport and a front-door key to the family’s home.
Moroccan officials told the family that Al-Madioum had booked a flight to Turkey that left Casablanca hours after they last saw him. At the time, according to the FBI, many would-be ISIS militants would first travel to Istanbul before attempting to cross over the country’s border with Syria.
Days after his family returned home without him in August 2015, Al-Madioum twice phoned his relatives. According to the FBI’s report of interviews with family members, Al-Madioum initially hesitated to say where he was but “eventually claimed to be working in a hospital in Mosul, Iraq,” which had been under ISIS control for more than a year at that point.
The FBI said that the phone calls, which came 48 days after Al-Madioum disappeared in Morocco, fit a pattern: New ISIS recruits are allowed to place a “sign of life” call back home after about 30 to 45 days of “basic training.” “During these calls, ISIL recruits will misinform loved ones about their locations and their activities so as not to cause distress to loved ones,” a member of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, using another common acronym for the terror group, wrote in a search warrant application.
Al-Madioum studied engineering at Normandale Community College from June 2014 to May 2015. According to the search warrant, he also worked part-time for the college’s IT department. Interviews with former classmates of Al-Madioum following the 2017 Star Tribune report on his disappearance painted a picture of an easygoing young man who liked cracking jokes and had an affinity for marijuana. Former friends say he grew more devout in his Muslim faith and withdrew from his former friend group not long after his family caught him with marijuana.
By 2017, Al-Madioum’s family had moved out of St. Louis Park. A relative who answered the phone at a new Twin Cities-area address listed for the family said that they would “rather not” discuss the family’s last contacts with Al-Madioum.
Al-Madioum, like numerous other captives encountered by the CBS news crew at the Syrian prison, claimed that he never took up arms on behalf of ISIS and did not perceive it to be a terrorist organization when he decided to leave his family behind.
“To be honest, I was kind of a conspiracy theorist, a little bit,” he told a reporter.
FBI agents who searched Al-Madioum’s St. Louis Park bedroom after his disappearance discovered handwritten notes with a sketch of the symbol that adorns the ISIS flag, next to the word “allegiance” written in Arabic. In another, Al-Madioum allegedly wrote: “If we leave the U.S. with no one stopping us, we have succeeded.”
In his interview with CBS News, Al-Madioum claimed that the FBI agents who interrogated him in Syria warned that he could face 15 years in prison if brought back to the country he once called home.
Three Somali-American Minnesotans found guilty in 2016 of trying to following a network of friends overseas to join ISIS are serving 30- to 35-year sentences without having left the country. Six others who pleaded guilty before trial — including two of whom agreed to cooperate with authorities — were sentenced to terms ranging from time served to 10 years in prison. Two others were charged in absentia and are believed to be dead.
“Fifteen years is a very long time for mistakes you made coming to Syria,” Al-Madioum told CBS News, adding that he believes he deserves to be forgiven.