Abdifatah Ahmed's life in Minneapolis seemed carefree — a clean-shaven family man obsessed with selfies, shooting hoops at a local basketball court and pumping iron at an Uptown gym.
Below the surface, though, Ahmed faced a well of problems and by late 2013, they were closing in.
Earlier, he had called an ex-spouse "in tears" because an ex-wife from another state was seeking to collect child support, which may have sent Ahmed, then 33, into a tailspin.
By November 2013, he'd flown to London to meet up with friends and shake off the pressure. It seemed to work. Later in the month, while still in London, he'd called a loved one to say he wanted to return to Minneapolis, but first had to change his ticket.
But Ahmed, also known as Abdirahmaan Muhumed, never returned. Instead, he would turn up months later in Syria where he became the first Minnesotan to fight for ISIS, and one of the first to die.
Court documents reviewed by MPR News paint a complex picture of Ahmed's life and sudden change, although they don't explain exactly how he went from a regular guy feeling life's strains to someone ready to join one of the deadliest terrorist groups in modern history. Something happened during that trip to London.
The documents also reveal that one of the first people Ahmed called and communicated with online frequently after he disappeared, and even while Ahmed was still in Syria, was his longtime female friend who was also an FBI informant. It's the first time a woman has turned up in the ISIS cases as an informant.
'I will die here'
Friends say Ahmed was depressed and financially strapped, but that he was no religious fanatic. In London, Ahmed started "relaxing and chewing khat," a leafy green plant containing some stimulant drugs, according to the informant.
Ahmed's friend, the informant who was not named in court documents but referred to as J.A.M., said it came to her as a shock how quickly Ahmed had altered his life trajectory.
She described her friend as "non-religious" and believed that Ahmed was "brain-washed" because he had not discussed jihad, terrorism or Syria, according to a court document.
But in private messages on Facebook and on the messaging app Viber in the spring of 2014, when he was with ISIS, Ahmed began talking to the informant about jihad and Syria, telling her, "I will die here."
"Islam is not just praying u know," Ahmed told her. "Some one who get kill for the sakeof allah can ask allah to for give[sic] up to 70 of his family."
Ahmed reminded his friend to read the Quran.
"I will fight until there is no pain in the Muslim lands," Ahmed told the informant. "If I don't respond to u over a month that means am not here any more[sic] so forgive me for anything."
In 2014, while reporting on Ahmed and other Minnesotans who had gone to Syria to join ISIS, MPR News had communicated with Ahmed through a series of private messages on Facebook. At the time, he told a reporter: "Family is not gonna save me frm [sic] hell fire because muslims are getting kill[ed] and if i just sit here i will be ask in the [hereafter]."
Also that summer, an FBI spokesperson in Minneapolis told MPR News that Ahmed was among more than a dozen Minnesota men who had enlisted to fight with radical groups in Syria. It was the first time federal authorities in Minneapolis had indicated the scope of the problem.
Months later, the FBI would arrest nine men as part of an investigation into a plot to travel to Syria to join ISIS. In this case, a second FBI informant who was part of the conspiracy played a crucial role in helping the government crack the case by secretly recording his friends' conversations.
That informant, Abdirahman Bashir, had previously lied to the FBI and to a federal grand jury about his involvement in the conspiracy.
Bashir's audio recordings of his friends openly talking about their desire to travel to Syria was among the most damaging evidence presented at the trial of three Somali-American men in May. The recordings provided a "fly-on-the-wall view of" the men's conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said at the trial.
The FBI won't comment on when Ahmed's friend started working for the agency, how much she was paid and what evidence she was tasked to gather for the government.
Her profile is starkly different from that of Bashir, who started working for the FBI at the height of the FBI's investigation into the ISIS cases in February 2015 and was paid more than $100,000 for aiding federal authorities.
'Turn off your location'
Bashir and Ahmed share a mutual friend named Douglas McCain, a Muslim convert who also joined ISIS in early 2014.
McCain was also friends with two of Bashir's cousins, the Karie brothers: Hamse and Hersi, who also joined ISIS in 2013 and had attended school with McCain in Minnesota.
McCain exchanged phone numbers, emails and private messages with Ahmed just days before McCain traveled to Syria. He had been living in San Diego at the time.
McCain told Ahmed via Facebook Messenger in March 2014: "In sha Allah" — God willing — "I need to hala at u I am flying to Turkey."
"dont talk like that on here cuz," Ahmed replied, probably unaware that one day his messages will end up in court documents. "turn your location off," he told McCain.
A week later, McCain and another young man named Hanad Mohallim left the country on the same day. They both used the same credit card to purchase their plane tickets for about $1,000 each.
In a sign of how deeply intertwined the relationships were, Bashir, the informant, Mohallim and the Karie brothers are all first cousins.
During his testimony at the trial in 2016, Bashir said Mohallim "was like my brother."
On the morning of his departure, Mohallim told his family he had a job interview and then would head to the gym.
Around midnight when he did not return home, his mother began to worry. She confronted informant Bashir and his younger brother who refused to tell their aunt where her son had gone. She then called the FBI.
She believed the Karie brothers may have influenced her son when he visited them in Canada in 2013. After he returned from Canada, Mohallim became "more religious," his mother told the FBI.
On that morning in March 2014, after praying at a local mosque, informant Bashir dropped Mohallim off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He told the court he knew where his cousin was going, but he kept it to himself.
Before he said goodbye to his cousin, Bashir told Mohallim: "If you go over there and you think it's true jihad, then I'm going to come later on."
He never did. Instead, he flipped in 2015 to become an FBI informant.
His cousin Mohallim, meanwhile, became a source of fascination for the rest of the men he left behind in the Twin Cities. They talked about him in group meetings and started looking for photos of Mohallim on social media.
Eventually, they found out he was killed in an airstrike in 2014, a few months after he joined ISIS.
Waving the black flag
This web of connections illustrate how the first ISIS recruits from Minnesota had inspired the nine men who all ended up getting arrested while attempting to leave the country.
The FBI had sought search warrants for the social media accounts of these men to reveal links between them and to uncover new cases of individuals who aspire to join ISIS.
As these Twin Cities men were trying to find the best routes they could take from Minnesota to Syria to best elude law enforcement, Ahmed was posting on Facebook startling photos from the ISIS frontlines.
Gone were the selfies of the smiling man in Minnesota showing off his biceps. In were the photos of Ahmed in Syria holding rifles and waving the black flag associated with ISIS.
Ahmed's last post on his Facebook page, on July 25, 2014, was a recruitment video calling on his fellow Somalis to join the jihad in Syria.
"The caliphate was born," he said, proudly holding the ISIS flag in a dimly lit video. "And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the commander of the believers."
In June 2014, MPR News asked Ahmed if he had missed anything from Minnesota.
"My kids and my family," he said, adding that he now lives a better life and has better friends.
He said his goal was "to bring the muslims safering to un end."
Then, as if Minnesota and the unhappy life he had left behind were in his thoughts, Ahmed wrote: "I swear by Allah I live un stress life."
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.