To Khdiga Metwally, the medical records spread across her kitchen table are more than a chronicle of her son’s history of addiction and mental illness; they are proof he is not a terrorist.
Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, a 20-year-old Canadian, faces a possible life sentence when he appears in a New York courtroom as early as next month for plotting a 2016 bombing at Times Square for the so-called Islamic State.
But his mother insists the case is not what it seems.
“Actually, it’s not a terrorist case, it’s a mental illness problem,” Metwally said in an interview at her home in an Oakville, Ont. suburb.
Those reports describe brain damage, bipolar disorder, obsessiveness and drug use beginning at age 14 that led to “huffing” — inhaling air fresheners, bug spray and anything else he could get his hands on.
In many ways, El Bahnasawy’s story is familiar: a youth radicalizes online and decides to kill in the name of ISIS. But medical records from four countries obtained by Global News make it more complicated.
The documents are an unprecedented and intimate look at the psyche of a young man who plotted mass killings in the West under the guidance of ISIS.
And they raise complicated questions.
To what extent does mental health explain the actions of some terrorists? Should terrorists with a history of mental illness be treated differently? Is a person with a mental illness, who engages in terrorism, still a terrorist?
The teen addict
“Abdulrahman has an extensive history of mental health problems and poor function, dating back to childhood,” according to a report by New York psychologist Katherine Porterfield, who reviewed El Bahnasawy’s medical files, met his family and spent 50 hours with him over nine months in 2017.
The medical records date back to the day he was born. In the delivery room in Kuwait City, his mother had a severe uterine rupture. The baby was delivered “swiftly,” according to the hospital report, but the traumatic birth may have deprived the infant of oxygen, possibly causing brain damage.
El Bahnasawy did not speak until he was four, according to Porterfield’s report for the U.S. legal defence team. He was an average student, “described as an anxious, hyperactive, and inattentive child.”
“His most consistent trait was his tendency to fixate or obsess about certain topics or interests,” Porterfield wrote. The solar system, soccer, computers and atheism all monopolized his attention during stages of his childhood. And once he tried marijuana, it became the latest of his all-encompassing obsessions.
He began “incessantly” talking about it. He researched how to grow it and droned on about how much he loved it. He argued with his parents about its benefits. “He essentially showed no interest in any other activities,” the psychologist wrote.
To get him away from what they saw as Canada’s “permissive society,” and hoping he would benefit from being closer to relatives, his parents returned the family to Kuwait. But even in the conservative Gulf state, El Bahnasawy had no trouble finding drugs.
He became addicted to chemical inhalants. When using them, he would hear a man’s voice that he thought came to him over radio waves. “He became one of my only friends and every time I wanted to talk to him I would get high and he was always there,” El Bahnasawy wrote in a letter to the judge hearing his case.
His parents got him into a Kuwait City hospital, where he was diagnosed with substance addiction and depression. To discourage him from relapsing, his father Osama El Bahnasawy videotaped him shaking from withdrawal.
He stayed for 40 days.
But as soon as he got out, he went right back to drugs.
The family returned to Toronto and, after El Bahnasawy disclosed multiple suicide attempts and thoughts of throwing himself off the apartment balcony, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) admitted him.
CAMH records list the substances he had used: heroin, cannabis, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, crack and ecstasy, among others. His files indicate he “did well” at the facility. But when he was discharged, he returned to drugs.
The family next tried a private addiction clinic in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alriyada Hospital thought the underlying problem was bipolar disorder, along with “fits of obsession together with psychotic symptoms,” records show. After seven months, he came out in June 2015, finally off drugs.
El Bahnasawy was 17 when he returned to Toronto and he knew nobody. The medication he was taking seemed to work but it made him gain weight and he stopped taking it. His mother tried slipping it into meals but he found out.
Although he hadn’t previously identified as a Muslim, El Bahnasawy rediscovered the faith after his parents forced him to attend a Mississauga Islamic school, which they felt would not tolerate drug use.
But like everything else, he took it to the extreme. He dropped out of school and did nothing but sit in his room exploring violent jihadist Internet content and chatting online with ISIS supporters.
“Much as he had done with drugs, Abdulrahman put all of his energy and focus into this activity online, even speaking compulsively to his parents and sister about his new beliefs,” Porterfield wrote.
In the fall of 2015, ISIS members in Syria were desperately trying to launch attacks in Western countries. Abu Saad al-Sudani was one of them. U.S. prosecutors called him a “high-level ISIS recruiter and attack planner” active in plotting terrorism in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
Alone in his bedroom in suburban Ontario, El Bahnasawy, began to correspond with al-Sudani. He told al-Sudani he wanted to join ISIS. Al-Sudani said El Bahnasawy would need to prove himself first, so he bought cellphones and collected $500, which he sent to a list of names and addresses al-Sudani had provided.
Having passed his initiation, El-Bahnasawy was encouraged by al-Sudani to help ISIS achieve its ultimate fantasy: an attack on U.S. soil. The target was to be New York City, and the killings were to take place in June or July 2016, to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
A U.S. citizen living in Pakistan named Talha Haroon joined the attack plot and they agreed the operation would involve bombings and mass shootings at a concert venue or the subway, prosecutors alleged. Then a third plotter joined in, a U.S.-based member of the ISIS online network.
The conspirators “repeatedly declared their allegiance to ISIS” and said they wanted their attack to be like those in Paris and Brussels, prosecutors said. El Bahnasawy said he wanted to carry out the next 9/11.
To prepare for the big day, El Bahnasawy bought bomb-making materials and components in Ontario, including 40 pounds of hydrogen peroxide, and shipped them to his U.S. contact.
On May 1, 2016, he sent the U.S.-based conspirator images and maps of the New York subway system that showed the routes the attackers would take and the subway lines they would strike, the prosecutors said.
Needing more money to see the operation through, El Bahnasawy consulted al-Sudani, who put him in touch with “The Doctor,” a Philippine citizen named Russell Salic, who allegedly wired $423 on May 11, 2016.
In the final weeks, El Bahnasawy made plans to travel to New York, using his parents as decoys. He told his U.S. contact he would be arriving “under the guise” of a family vacation. “I will be masked behind my parents back,” he wrote.
The day before the road trip, Haroon wrote that Times Square would be the perfect target. “We have to make an ocean out of their blood,” he wrote, “scar them for life knowing the soldiers of Allah are everywhere.”
The attack was to be a suicide mission, which Porterfield thought was telling. In her report, the psychologist said the hopelessness El Bahnasawy felt about beating addiction had led him to contemplate suicide. And the messaging of the extremist community offered him a path to that end.
“It is my clinical opinion that, below the surface of his submission to Islam and embrace of enslavement to the law of Allah there lurked a self-destructiveness,” she wrote.
“Essentially, Abdulrahman was engaged in a fantasy, the ultimate ending of which was his own destruction. As frightening as his ideas were, they can best be understood as psychological in nature — the terribly misguided thinking of a depressed young person who could not beat addiction.”
The Road Trip
The holiday in New York was planned for the Victoria Day long weekend. Osama said he felt it would be good for the family and there was reason to celebrate.
After months of being turned away by psychiatrists who either did not treat bipolar disorder or weren’t taking new patients, they had finally found a doctor for their son. The appointment was set for the Tuesday after the long weekend. El Bahnasawy had also agreed to go back to school.
They had no trouble crossing the border and saw nothing out of the ordinary on the drive. They got to the hotel in Cranford, New Jersey at about 10 p.m. and pulled into the parking lot.
That was when three cars surrounded them.
“We thought they were gangs. We didn’t know what was going on,” Osama said. “They said, ‘No, no, no, we are the FBI,’ and they showed us their cards.”
They searched the car and took the 18-year-old away.
The family was in the courtroom the next day when El Bahnasawy was indicted. Metwally said they were all crying so much she had trouble hearing the seven counts of terrorism being read into the court record.
Like many before him, El Bahnasawy had been brought down by an undercover counter-terrorism operation. The U.S.-based co-conspirator was actually an FBI informant. All their conversations had been monitored.
That October, El Bahnasawy phoned home to say he was on his way to court to plead guilty. Metwally said she begged him not to do it. “I was like screaming, crying, and he was like, ‘Mom, calm down.’”
Although records show a U.S. Bureau of Prisons doctor had assessed El Bahnasawy as having “unspecified schizophrenia and other psychotic disorder,” the judge found him “competent and capable” of pleading guilty.
“In the spring of 2016, I agreed with others to carry out an attack in Times Square, to support ISIL,” he said in his plea. “Specifically, we agreed to try to set off a bomb in Times Square. I used the Internet and sent materials through the mail in furtherance of the conspiracy, and I also travelled from Canada to the United States.”
His mother doesn’t think he was aware of the consequences of his guilty plea. She believes he only did it because he was scared, not taking his medication and wanted to get out of solitary confinement, where he had been sent for drug use and writing pro-ISIS graffiti on his cell wall.
Metwally doesn’t believe he would have gone through with an attack. She believes he needed mental health treatment, not an undercover investigation and prosecution.
She blames the FBI for what she sees as the entrapment of a sick youth. She blames the RCMP, which cooperated with the investigation, for not intervening before her son left Canada.
“I think my son is a victim,” Osama added. “By ISIS, this guy Sudani, by the FBI agent and by the RCMP.”
The RCMP declined to comment on the case.
In court filings, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, dismissed the notion the undercover agent lured El Bahnasawy, saying the plot was already well underway when it was infiltrated by the FBI.
Nor was El Bahnasawy the “weak-willed and vulnerable victim” the defence made him out to be, Berman said, rejecting a reduced sentence on mental health grounds and noting that El Bahnasawy was not using drugs during the time of the plot.
He said that during the investigation, the FBI was unaware of El Bahnasawy’s medical history, but said mental illness and addiction did not explain or justify what he did.
“Indeed, it is likely that such potential mental instabilities only heightened the threat that El Bahnasawy posed to this country,” Berman wrote.
“El Bahnasawy may be polite, soft-spoken, and articulate, but make no mistake — behind that veil is a dangerous and calculating man who displayed a knowing, willing, and steadfast desire to kill.”
His parents intend to be at the courthouse for the sentencing. Originally scheduled for June 27, it was adjourned last Friday until July or September. Depending on how it goes, El Bahnasawy may never leave prison. They don’t believe the life sentence sought by U.S. prosecutors is appropriate.
“Of course not,” Metwally said.
“Whatever intention, whatever happened, my son is sick and he was manipulated in a very cruel, unfair way.”