Iraqi Family Identifies Their Son As ISIS Teen At Center Of Navy War Crimes Trial

Oct 29, 2020
Originally published on October 30, 2020 7:53 am

Jamal Abdullah Naser stands behind the counter of the small grocery store where he works and watches for the first time a video of a wounded teenager, who he believes is his son, just before he was killed by a Navy SEAL.

His large hands dwarf the phone playing the Iraqi television footage of the teenager the day he died three years ago. His lined face is almost expressionless until a tear seeps from one of his eyes as the video shows the teenager, captured and sedated, telling the interviewer that his father beat him to try to stop him from joining ISIS.

The teenager in the video was at the heart of a war crimes trial last year. U.S. federal prosecutors accused Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward "Eddie" Gallagher of crimes, including premeditated murder, by stabbing a teenage ISIS detainee with a hunting knife in May 2017. But the trial was upended by the explosive revelation of a medic who said in court that he — not Gallagher — had killed the teenager by putting his thumb over the breathing tube.

Gallagher was acquitted on all charges except one — posing for pictures with the dead captive's body — and then was granted clemency by President Trump. In what court testimony referred to as a "trophy" photo, Gallagher, surrounded by his men, looks into the camera and clutches the fighter's hair.

Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward "Eddie" Gallagher walks out of military court with his wife, Andrea, during a court recess in July 2019 in San Diego. He received clemency from President Trump after being convicted of posing with a dead ISIS captive's body. He was acquitted of murder.
Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

The medic, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Corey Scott, walked free. He was testifying under immunity when he confessed.

Throughout the high-profile trial and intervention by Trump, the Iraqi captive seemed almost an afterthought. His name was not on the charge sheet in which he was identified only as a "wounded male person." Andrew Dyer, a journalist who covered the trial for The San Diego Union-Tribune, says, "They never said his name in court."

NPR has asked the Navy for the name and other details of the teenager's identity. Despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed in November 2019, the Navy has kept the court records sealed.

Now, NPR has been able to identify the dead fighter based on information from Iraqi officials and confirmation from his family. Iraqi security officials named him as Khaled Jamal Abdullah.

To track down his identity, NPR last year first searched the neighborhoods of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul where the wounded fighter said he was from in the video. No one recognized the teenager.

Security officials initially told NPR there were no official files on the identity of the fighter. But NPR eventually received the name and hometown from security officials who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to release it.

Khaled Jamal Abdullah after running away from home to pledge allegiance to ISIS and join the militant group as a fighter. He had just turned 16.
Jamal Abdullah Naser

Until NPR reached his father last week, his family said they did not know what had happened to their son and had not spoken to a reporter.

Khaled Jamal Abdullah was from the Iraqi town of Shoura, about 30 miles south of Mosul. Before the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the town was home to Iraqi army and police officers who were later dismissed from their jobs.

Naser, Khaled's father, had been an Iraqi intelligence officer under Saddam — a career that included a posting at the Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia. After the war in 2003, his salary and pension cut off, he sold cement.

At the shop in Shoura where he now works, behind a counter piled with potato chip bags, Naser studies the video twice. He says the teen looks like his son, but he wants his wife to see it to make sure.

They had been told by someone who knew Khaled that he had died while fighting but were never able to confirm it.

"A friend of his came from Mosul to my door to tell me he was killed in an airstrike," Naser says when asked what he thought had happened to Khaled. "I asked him, 'What is the proof? Please bring me his phone, or ID or some clothing,' and he never came back."

But Khaled was actually captured in Mosul, according to an Iraqi commander interviewed by Navy investigators. Maj. Gen. Abbas al-Jubouri, commander of Iraq's Emergency Response Division, which worked with the SEALS, said the teenager was the only survivor of a group of 30 ISIS fighters who had run out of food and ammunition.

In the video, the teen is lying on the ground with his head thrown back and a bloody bandage around his leg. He is wearing a faded black tank top and is so thin, his arms look like sticks. Although he is sedated, according to court testimony, he is still lucid in his answers to questions shouted at him by the Iraqi state TV correspondent.

He says he is 17 years old and joined ISIS because it praised him and told him he was doing a good job. He says his father didn't want him to join and beat him to keep him from pledging allegiance to the militant group. He gives his name as Ahmed — the name he apparently adopted after joining up to fight.

According to Facebook posts provided to NPR by his father from before and after he joined ISIS, Khaled changed his user name from "Khaled al-Madridi," after his favorite soccer team Real Madrid, to "Ahmed al-Shoura," a nom de guerre with the name of his hometown.

After pledging allegiance, the teenager removed photos of soccer, a sport forbidden by the group near the end of its reign. The young ISIS fighter's "likes" featured a supporter's page for former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and several pages geared to young women — with photos of fashion and slogans such as "Nothing feels the same as waking up with the one you love" — typical fare for Iraqi teenagers forbidden from mingling with girls.

Fawzia Amin Ahmed, along with her daughter and grandson, watches for the first time an Iraqi TV interview with her wounded and captured son, Khaled, on the day he was killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL.
Jane Arraf / NPR

In their home, Naser's wife, Fawzia Amin Ahmed, her hair covered in a rose-colored headscarf, sits down on their tiled living room floor to see the video. She says she wants to know what happened to her son — the pampered first boy born after three girls. Her youngest daughter, 9, dressed in a pink dress, and a grandson, also 9, crowd around her to see it as well.

"It's him," Ahmed says. "I recognize him from the way he looks and his voice."

Naser again has a tear rolling down his cheek as he listens to his son's last words. His wife is almost expressionless.

"We have had our fill of sadness the past three years," she says. "Whoever takes this road with ISIS doesn't come back."

His parents say Khaled was a normal teenager — a top student who spent his spare time playing video combat games and soccer with his friends. One of his friends, Wisam Raed Ahmed, says it was a shock when Khaled left to fight with ISIS in the ninth grade — they all thought he would finish high school and study engineering.

"He wasn't religious or extremist," Khaled's father says. "He was a normal young guy. He wouldn't even pray sometimes. He would be playing with his friends and I would tell him he should go pray."

Khaled a month after turning 6. His parents say he was a normal teenager.
Jamal Abdullah Naser

When Khaled pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2016, the militants had controlled Mosul for two years, and the U.S. and Iraqi military had started the fight that would lead them to liberate the city. For being a fighter, ISIS paid him $50 a month, his father says.

"He joined at the end of the Islamic State — in the last days," Naser says. "I told him, 'Why are you joining? Look, ISIS is running away from the troops. What are you going to do against the planes and U.S. technology and all those countries?' "

His father promised to buy him a motorbike if he didn't leave. He told him joining would destroy him and the entire family. When Khaled insisted, Naser took away his ID, thinking if he didn't have it, he couldn't join. Naser confirms that he did even hit him to try to force him to stay home.

"After he joined, they took him for a month to train him," Naser says. "When he came back he said, 'Dad,' and started crying. He was a child. He said, 'I can't quit. If I quit, they will punish me.' "

In the roughly 10 months he spent with ISIS, he came home twice to recover from being wounded before he was injured the final time, his father says.

Then, in late 2016, as U.S. and Iraqi forces moved in, ISIS forced the family to move to Mosul as human shields. The police and the mayor's office in Shoura say Naser is known as an honorable man and not an ISIS supporter. But after Iraqi forces took back their neighborhood in Mosul in May 2017, Naser and his family were moved to an Iraqi detention camp where relatives of ISIS fighters were held. To be able to return home under tribal rules, Naser agreed to disown his son legally.

Khaled's parents say they had never heard of the Gallagher trial. U.S. investigators spent weeks in Iraq gathering evidence for the investigation. But Naser says no one ever contacted the family of the victim at the center of it.

The U.S. military has not responded to NPR questions about why the family was not informed.

The location of the teenager's body is unknown. The Iraqi commander interviewed by Navy investigators said he was left dead on the ground.

More than a year after Mosul was declared liberated in July 2017, NPR saw bodies of fighters amid building rubble as civilians returned. The Iraqi government and military eventually collected the bodies and dumped them in a mass grave.

When NPR tells Khaled's parents about the trial in the U.S. and that a Navy SEAL confessed to killing Khaled, they are shocked. International law considers killing or wounding combatants who are unable to defend themselves as a war crime.

"It's true Khaled was a criminal, but he was a prisoner," Naser says. "America has civilization and development and humanity. Why did they do this? He should have been taken to court, and the court would have sentenced him. He was 17. He was a child."

"It is a murder," Naser says. "We consider that they murdered him."

Khaled's town, notorious for the numerous ISIS fighters from there, is a collection of mostly unpainted concrete houses surrounded by the stubble of fallow wheat fields. A sulfur factory that used to employ townspeople is now shut. It's a poor community and, like many in Sunni areas, is alienated from the Shiite-led central government by years of neglect.

Local police commander Col. Adhal Dhiab Aziz says three-quarters of the young people in town joined ISIS.

Aziz leafs through a yellow file folder of printed and handwritten pages listing residents who joined ISIS. There are 33 pages with more than 2,500 names — about a quarter of the town's population — and he is still adding to them. Among them are long columns of young men named Khaled. He flips through the pages until he finds Khaled Jamal Abdullah.

"All of the people here pledged allegiance to ISIS," he says. "Some are dead, some are alive, others are hiding in the desert, some others are in jail."

And one ended up the unknown victim in a U.S. war crimes trial.

Corrections: 10/28/20

An earlier version of this story identified Edward Gallagher as a Navy SEAL commander. Gallagher's rank was chief special warfare operator; he was the senior enlisted man in his SEAL platoon.

In the audio, as in a previous version of the online story, we incorrectly say that Gallagher was pardoned by President Trump. The president granted Gallagher clemency.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher went on trial for war crimes last year, all we knew about Gallagher's alleged victim was that he was around 17 years old and a fighter for ISIS. Gallagher was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the teenager's body for a photo, for which he received a pardon from President Trump. NPR's Jane Arraf and producer Sangar Khaleel spent months trying to learn what was missing from this story, the young man's name and why he joined ISIS. Their work led them to a village in Iraq and to grieving parents. Here's Jane Arraf with her exclusive reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is an Iraqi state TV interview with the wounded ISIS fighter at the center of the Gallagher trial. He's lying on the ground. And his head is thrown back. He says he's 17 years old. He's wearing a black tank top. And he's so thin, his arms are like sticks. There's a bloody bandage around his leg. He's sedated but lucid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KHALED JAMAL ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He says he joined ISIS because they praised him. And he says his father beat him to try to prevent him from joining. Iraqi forces handed him over to Navy SEAL medics to treat him. Shortly after, he was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SITUATION ROOM WITH WOLF BLITZER")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER: All right. There's breaking news. There's a verdict now in the trial of a Navy SEAL accused of murder in the stabbing of an ISIS detainee. I want to go to...

ARRAF: Eddie Gallagher was acquitted in the military trial after one of his men confessed to killing the prisoner himself. Then President Trump pardoned Gallagher of his sole conviction of posing with a dead body. The Navy SEAL who said he killed him was under immunity and walked free. Amid months and months of coverage of the trial, the Iraqi teenager at the center of it was almost never talked about, his name never released. The military has kept court records sealed. There was no autopsy done because his body was left there and then dumped in a mass grave with other ISIS dead. After searching for him in Mosul, we finally tracked his name down through Iraqi security sources. It's Khaled Jamal Abdullah. And in a small town about 30 miles south of Mosul, we found his family. Abdullah's father, Jamal Abdullah Naser, was an Iraqi intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's time, a career that included a posting at the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia. Now he works in a small grocery shop.

JAMAL ABDULLAH NASER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Naser had been told by a friend of his son that the teenager was killed in an airstrike. He's never seen the video of the wounded ISIS fighter, never heard of the trial. U.S. investigators spent weeks in Iraq gathering evidence for the investigation. But he says no one ever contacted the family of the victim at the center of it. The military hasn't responded to an NPR query about why not.

NASER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Naser is a big, friendly guy with stubble of a graying beard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Standing behind the counter next to bags of potato chips, near coolers full of milk and yogurt, he watches the video for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Huh?

ARRAF: He barely changes expression. But as he listens to the wounded teenager say his father beat him to stop him from joining ISIS, a tear rolls down his cheek.

NASER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He says he isn't 100% sure the teen in the video is a son. But he asked us to come back and show it to his wife.

NASER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: (Non-English language spoken).

NASER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: At his home, as we sit on the floor in the living room, his father tells us Khaled was a normal, young guy.

NASER: (Through interpreter) He didn't even pray sometimes. He would be playing with his friends and I would tell him, you should go and pray.

ARRAF: Naser says his son was a good student who loved soccer and video combat games. In 2016, he was in the ninth grade. ISIS had controlled Mosul for two years. And the U.S. and Iraqi military were mobilizing for an attack on the city. Khaled came and said he was joining ISIS. They paid him $50 a month.

NASER: (Through interpreter) He joined at the end of the Islamic State, in the last days. I told him, why are you joining? Look; ISIS is running away from the troops. You are a child. What are you going to do against the planes and U.S. technology and all those countries? You will destroy all of us.

ARRAF: His father promised to buy him a motorbike, whatever he wanted if he didn't leave. When Khaled insisted, Naser took away his ID, thinking if he didn't have it, he couldn't join. He even hit him.

NASER: (Through interpreter) After he joined, they took him for a month to train him. When he came back, he said, Dad, and started crying. He was a child. He said, I can't quit. If I quit, they will punish me. I said, you have destroyed us.

ARRAF: He says Khaled came home twice to recover from bullet wounds in the roughly 10 months he was with ISIS.

FAWZIA AMIN AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Abdullah's mother, Fawzia Amin Ahmed, says she wants to know what happened to her son, the pampered first boy born after three daughters. She watches the video with her 9-year-old daughter on one side, her young grandson on the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Huh?

ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: It's him, she says. Naser tears up again. His wife is almost expressionless.

AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "We've had our fill of pain over the past three years," she tells us. "Whoever takes this road and joins ISIS doesn't come back." When we tell them about the trial in the U.S., that a Navy SEAL confessed to killing Khaled, they're shocked.

NASER: (Through interpreter) America has civilization and development and humanity. It's true, Khaled was a criminal. But he was a prisoner. He should have been taken to court. He was 17. He was a child.

(Non-English language spoken)

ARRAF: "It's a murder," Naser says. "We consider that they murdered him." At the Shoura police station, Colonel Adhal Dhiab Aziz leafs through the evidence of ISIS' reach. It's a yellow folder with columns of names, each one a resident who joined ISIS - more than 2,500 of them from this small town, one-quarter of the entire population.

ADHAL DHIAB AZIZ: (Through interpreter) Some are dead. Some are alive. Others are hiding in the desert. Some others are in jail.

ARRAF: Colonel Aziz says poverty and a lack of jobs in this Sunni area neglected by the central government were the main reasons that young people joined ISIS. The colonel goes down the list of names until he comes to Khaled Jamal Abdullah.

AZIZ: Khaled Jamal Abdullah Naser.

ARRAF: The teenage fighter at the heart of one of the most high-profile U.S. war crimes trials now named and known.

Jane Arraf, NPR News in Shoura, Iraq.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say that former Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Gallagher was pardoned by President Trump. The president granted Gallagher clemency.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.