The Islamic State group's territory was wasting away five years ago when a member from Minnesota desperately dug a trench around his young family's tent to protect against airstrikes in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.

By then, Abdelhamid Al-Madioum had become disillusioned with what an online ISIS recruiter once sold as a divine calling that he was compelled as a Muslim to join. Born in Morocco but raised in St. Louis Park, Al-Madioum seized on that pitch at age 18, becoming one of the few Minnesotans to evade law enforcement to join ISIS overseas.

He lost an arm and his legs were shattered in an explosion early in his enlistment. Years later, during those final days with ISIS, even his trench failed him: A bullet pierced the family tent and killed his wife in front of him and their two sons. He buried her in that trench, took the boys and finally surrendered to Syrian forces.

"I joined a death cult, and it was the biggest mistake of my life," Al-Madioum now says, in a letter written to the federal judge who will deliver an unprecedented terror recruitment sentence back in Minnesota.

Al-Madioum's return to his home state is as improbable as his journey to the front lines of what was once among the world's most prolific and organized terrorist entities — a self-governing tyrannical force that the former engineering student helped to maintain meticulous internal records.

Al-Madioum, now 27, has rekindled his relationship with the family he abandoned in 2015. He worked tirelessly with a U.S. diplomat to retrieve his sons from a Syrian camp. And since being sent back to the U.S. in 2020 for prosecution, he has become an asset for U.S. and foreign governments in their fights against extremism.

Al-Madioum's odyssey starts yet another chapter Wednesday, when he enters a Minneapolis federal courtroom for sentencing. Prosecutors are calling for a 12-year prison term, while acknowledging the extraordinary intelligence Al-Madioum has provided since his capture abroad. His attorney instead wants U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery to give Al-Madioum a seven-year sentence to account for the five years already in custody, including time inside a Syrian prison rife with horrors.

"The vast majority of ISIS supporters in Minneapolis got arrested before they were able to travel," said Seamus Hughes, a terrorism scholar now with the University of Nebraska Omaha's National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center. "It is a very select few that actually set their foot on the ground in Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist organization."

'True believer'

This story was compiled through interviews and review of hundreds of pages of court records. The Star Tribune first reported Al-Madioum's joining ISIS in 2017, years before the government announced his enlistment and as his fate remained uncertain.

His is among the rarest of cases involving Americans who tried joining ISIS around the mid-2010s. Of the estimated 300 Americans who traveled or tried to join the group abroad, Al-Madioum is among barely a dozen to survive and be sent back to the U.S. to face charges.

He was drawn to ISIS at the height of its rise in 2014, when sleek propaganda videos and highly trained recruiters implored Muslims worldwide to combat the horrors of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. His self-radicalization unfolded in silence in his family's suburban Twin Cities home. This set him apart from the peer networks the FBI disrupted with the aid of informants. Hughes said solo cases such as Al-Madioum's posed greater challenges for federal authorities given the lack of "trip wires" for detection.

The oldest of three brothers, Al-Madioum grew up in a household that loved playing games, cooking and traveling. Al-Madioum — whom friends and family called Abdel — helped his parents with child care and chores and served as occasional interpreter. Religion wasn't prominent and the family did not attend mosque.

He studied engineering at Normandale Community College and worked for the college's information technology department as a freshman in 2014. Former classmates previously interviewed by the Star Tribune remembered Abdel as jovial and someone who liked marijuana. But after his family caught him with it, the friends said, Abdel withdrew from his circle of friends and became devout in his Muslim faith. Al-Madioum retreated to devouring online news and social media, while a recruiter on the platform then called Twitter urged him to help establish a unified Islamic state.

"I became a true believer," Al-Madioum wrote in a recently filed letter to Montgomery before his sentencing.

He felt an intense pull to Syria. How could he comfortably sit in his bedroom in the West while knowing Muslims were suffering overseas? The recruiter, who went by Birds of Paradise, led Al-Madioum to a facilitator, who instructed him on how to cross into ISIS territory in Syria.

He jotted down notes that FBI agents later found in his bedroom: a list of backup plans to pay for his travel, a rehearsed story to give Turkish officials if questioned, other countries to try if he couldn't get into Syria. An extended summer 2015 trip with his family in Morocco gave Al-Madioum an ideal opening. He withdrew his savings, hailed a taxi to the Casablanca airport and boarded a flight to Istanbul while his family slept. He took his cellphone, passport and a key to the family home. All else was left behind.

Rare look inside ISIS

The frantic and futile efforts of Al-Madioum's family to locate their missing son included pleas to Moroccan authorities, the U.S. Consulate and the FBI. Within days, their eldest was being smuggled alongside dozens of other recruits into the arms of ISIS.

Hughes said ISIS recruits underwent an intake and training process where they were first asked to choose between becoming a fighter, a citizen in ISIS' government or a suicide bomber. Most Americans who joined the group, Hughes said, opted to take on duties away from battle.

Al-Madioum chose to fight. He spent six weeks training in Iraq and was assigned to the Tariq Bin Ziyad battalion of the Abu Mutaz al-Qurashi division.

Al-Madioum placed a "sign of life" call to his family after his first month of basic training. According to the FBI, recruits are ordered to misinform loved ones about their locations and activities "so as not to cause distress." Al-Madioum told his parents that he was working at a hospital in Iraq.

Instead, he helped guard ISIS territory in Iraq's Anbar Province and soon suffered minor injuries in an airstrike. Weeks later, an explosion ripped into Al-Madioum, requiring his right arm to be amputated below the elbow and 19 surgeries to repair two broken legs, nerve damage and shrapnel throughout his lower body.

He met his first wife, Fatima, the widow of a Chechen ISIS fighter, as he cycled through hospitals and home care for five months. Al-Madioum learned to write lefthanded and received a new assignment working in ISIS administration in Mosul, Iraq. He managed a database detailing ISIS members' names, ID numbers, families, assignments and injuries. This helped ISIS track which soldiers were capable of fighting and the names of wives and children requiring care during deployment.

While testifying against a fellow battalion member in a Michigan federal courtroom in 2021, Al-Madioum positively identified a roster page printed from his group's database thanks to purple streaks left by the terror group's printer.

"So even ISIS has printer problems?" one of the prosecutors asked.

"Of course," Al-Madioum replied.

Al-Madioum's devotion to ISIS eroded by the time he returned to Syria for further treatment for his injuries. ISIS leadership began hoarding resources and cut off the usual stipends to lower-level members like Al-Madioum and his family. He also now considered the group he left everything to join as "the worst form of a fascist police state" that wasted thousands of innocent lives.

One day, while selling cakes in a village market in 2018, he saw a group of masked men lead three blindfolded prisoners into public view. One of the captors read the charges from a piece of ripped cardboard: "Armed robbery." The verdict: death. All three accused were shot dead on the spot.

Al-Madioum took an additional wife, the widow of a Somali fighter, late in his ISIS tenure. They separated around the time she became pregnant but he saw her in the same village in which he and his family sheltered during their final days with ISIS. He was later told that she and their daughter died there.

In March 2019, to protect his surviving sons — one biological, the other a stepson — Al-Madioum asked that they be taken to a loosely organized refugee camp instead of staying with him in the crowded and dangerous Hasakah prison ran by the Syrian Defense Forces.

Al-Madioum said he saw inmates die, some suffering with their intestines visible outside their bodies. He now likens more-recent years spent inside Sherburne County jail to a hotel stay compared with his experience in Hasakah. In Syria, he nearly died from asphyxiation, malnutrition and lack of water. Food was cooked over burning tires and water served from old fuel tanks.

He hasn't seen his sons since they were taken from the Hasakah prison in 2019, but Al-Madioum's parents launched efforts to find them as soon as media reports suggested they were still alive.

The family contacted Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations in Afghanistan, known more recently for negotiating the returns of dozens of children born to young Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS and used as sex slaves. When Al-Madioum got Galbraith's number, he joined in making persistent calls for help.

"He was absolutely determined to find his children and to get them to the United States," Galbraith said in an interview.

Galbraith traveled to northeast Syria — risking being hit by errant drone strikes — and found the boys in a remote camp. They were healthy but traumatized, he said, having been born amid ISIS warfare, witnessing their mother's death and being separated from their father.

Galbraith said the boys have since cleared the legal and logistical hurdles to be sent to the United States soon. Al-Madioum's parents are now certified foster parents and will raise them when they arrive.

"Since I've been deeply involved in finding children and bringing them back, I actually cannot think of another case like this," Galbraith said. "This is the only case of somebody who had been a fighter with ISIS who survived and, from prison, was able to locate his children."


Al-Madioum and his family now speak daily "even though I had ruined their lives," he said. He has a new baby brother, born in 2022. His 24-year-old brother finished college and another brother is now in ninth grade. Al-Madioum plans to live with his family and children after prison.

The FBI has also since invited Al-Madioum to help prevent others from falling prey to terrorism propaganda, he said.

"After knowing what I know, no rational person would support ISIS. I believe that is where my redemption will come from," he wrote. "It's the least I can do to prevent someone from making the same painful mistake I made."

Al-Madioum will almost certainly receive a far shorter sentence than the three Somali American men who were stopped by the FBI before they could do what he did. Those three — convicted by a jury in 2016 and among a group of nine charged overall — received sentences between 30 and 35 years.

That's thanks to the years of cooperation with U.S. and foreign governments that started when he was being held in Syria in 2019. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, in a memo outlining the government's case for a 12-year sentence for Al-Madioum, said he gave authorities "substantial assistance" since his arrest.

Hughes, who has interviewed foreign fighters who returned from ISIS territory, said most come back disenchanted with their experience with ISIS and willing to help U.S. law enforcement.

But, Winter added, Al-Madioum still "did much more than harbor extremist beliefs. He chose violent action by taking up arms for ISIS." He joined the group and used "his own theological justification to commit murder, and if necessary, become a martyr."

Manny Atwal, Al-Madioum's attorney, said the valuable inside information Al-Madioum offered up to U.S. officials about ISIS has possibly saved "countless lives."

Once he is out of prison, Atwal wrote in her own memo to the judge, Al-Madioum "presents a unique benefit through de-radicalization work."

Al-Madioum recently learned that one of his legs will likely need to be removed. But Atwal said his physical recovery must also coincide with the immense challenge of repairing his mental health. He entered battle at 18. He witnessed public death and torture amid cheering crowds. He watched a bullet shatter his young family.

Al-Madioum languished for more than a year in Syria before U.S. authorities were able to return him to Minnesota for prosecution. On the day in September 2020 that he was led out of the Hasakah prison, Al-Madioum had no idea where he was being led. In that moment of uncertainty — one preceded by so much darkness — he held in his hands a set of prayer beads that had been given to him.

A label on the beads offered him both hope and humility: "Made in U.S.A."