Israelis Are Joining ISIS

Nov 07, 2014 at 1:35 PM ET

Israel’s version of the FBI, Shin Bet, got a call a few months ago from somewhere in Syria. On the line was an Arab-Israeli man who had joined ISIS but who had later changed his mind and wanted to come back to Israel. “Before he sneaked into Syria, he was called in for questioning by Shin Bet,” the man’s attorney, Hussein Abu-M’hssein, tells us, “so he knew whom to phone. The agent told him to return immediately via Turkey.”

Luckily for the young man, he was fighting for ISIS back in September, before the Israeli government officially declared the radical group a terrorist organization. He now faces trial on the lighter charge of engaging in paramilitary training in enemy territory. “He’s just a confused youngster who spent too much time on the Internet, escaped his family, and the first rebels he met after crossing the border were an ISIS group,” his lawyer says.

But his story, along with others published in the Israeli media in recent weeks, shed light on a phenomenon rocking the Israeli-Arab community in Israel: A wave of young Israeli men have joined ISIS, pledging allegiance to its goal of creating an Islamic state across a vast region that includes their hometowns.

ISIS is drawing fighters from around the world (20,000, according to recent estimates). The U.K.’s most senior police office says five Britons leave the country each week to join ISIS. But historically, Palestinians interested in jihad have focused their fight against Israel—joining local groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigade. The fact that some of those people are now leaving the country to wage that battle is more proof of how ISIS is wending its way into some very unexpected places as it globalizes.

The personal stories of the Israeli recruits show that it is not only confused young men who join the group. Rabiya Shehadeh, a 26-year-old top engineering student from Nazareth, left his wife and newborn son eight months ago and is now a fighter in ISIS. He sends photos to his former university friends of RPG missiles and severed heads. His nickname is “The Butcher From Palestine.”

Another group of three friends from Yafia village joined ISIS together this month, after tricking their families into believing they were flying to Turkey for vacation. Instead, they crossed the border into Syria. And two weeks ago, Israeli and other media reported that Othman Abu al-Qiyan, a 26-year-old medical intern from Barzilai hospital on the Mediterranean Sea, joined ISIS and was killed in a U.S. airstrike.

“He was such an exceptional medical intern, why would he join ISIS?” asks Dr. Yossef Mashal, who was overseeing the young Bedouin doctor during his time working at the hospital. “He was very knowledgeable and extremely hard-working. I challenged him to find answers on medical issues, and he wouldn’t fail. If he did, he would go home and study. I remember him running from patient to patient, Jews and Arabs alike. He was the kind of young doctor every department head would want to have on staff.”

According to Israeli security service estimates, there are now 40 to 50 Arab-Israelis fighting in Syria and Iraq, most of them as part of ISIS. That’s not a huge number, given that there are 1.3 million Muslims living in Israel. But each case has sent shockwaves through the convert’s community at home.

“I think the Arab public as a whole and the families themselves are starting to pay attention to this risk,” says Jack Khoury, a correspondent for Haaretz covering the Arab society in Israel. “As the civil war in Syria intensified, the preachers in the mosques used to openly support jihad against [President] Assad. Now that they see where this has led, they are more careful. There is widespread condemnation of ISIS in the mainstream Arab community in Israel.” On the margins, though, there have been cases of pro-ISIS graffiti in Arab towns, and flags of the organization have been found in Nazareth.

Some Arab-Israeli community leaders believe Israel has a hidden interest in letting young radical men leave Israel. Attorney Abu-M’hssein is one of them. “How can it be, that when an Arab-Israeli is chatting on Facebook with someone from Hezbollah [a Shiite organization in Lebanon] he is arrested the next day, and when they show off all over Facebook that they are going to join jihad in Syria they are allowed to leave the country?” he wonders.

The prime minister’s office, which handles Shin Bet media inquiries, didn’t respond to requests for comment on his claim.