By VOA's Extremism Watch Desk
Rasid Tugral won fans in the social media stratosphere for his mesmerizing photos of the night sky over his Turkish homeland. He shared images – such as one of a juniper tree against a glistening Milky Way – on a National Geographic website. He entered a prestigious graduate program in astrophysics in Finland. Smart, handsome, adventurous and outgoing, he seemed destined for a career studying the skies.
But Tugral yearned for something more. An observant Muslim raised in a conservative household, he became drawn to jihadi websites while in college. Tugral took their radical interpretation of Islam to heart. Early in 2015, he slipped away from his family and a comfortable life, joining Islamic State (IS) jihadis fighting inside Syria.
By last August, Tugral was dead, an apparent casualty while fighting for IS against Kurdish forces. He was 27.
Thousands of young Muslims, lured by IS ideology and propaganda, have traveled to join and fight for the terrorists' self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Like Tugral, many abandoned lives of privilege and potential. His story stands out, however, because of the extensive written and photographic record he left documenting his transformation over more than a decade.
Over the years, Tugral bequeathed revealing self-portraits, playful cat pictures and arresting celestial scenes; musings about outer space and his religion; and tirades against unbelievers. In a detailed letter shared online last year, he chronicled day-to-day experiences with IS: stints of boredom, grueling training and dodging airstrikes. He sanctimoniously defended Islamic State’s most barbaric practices, including beheading people and enslaving women for sex.
“Whoever dies without having fought in jihad or having thought about jihad has died as a munafiq” – a hypocrite, Tugral wrote on Facebook, citing a hadith, an Islamic saying attributed to the religion’s founder, Muhammad. Mainstream Islamic scholars such as Mohammed Abdelfadel contend that militant extremists pervert the faith and the meaning of jihad, and that the religion in fact condemns terrorism and attacks on civilian noncombatants.
What led Tugral down this path toward radicalization and a violent end? A team of VOA journalists sought answers by reviewing Tugral’s social media posts and the 14-page letter from his early days in Syria, translating those from Turkish. The team also interviewed some of the young man’s friends and associates, as well as other sources including, briefly, his father.
Jihad was not the path on which Tugral started, nor one that his natural humor, curiosity and intellect might have predicted. His life and death provide a tragic case study in the false glory of IS ideology for a lost generation of young Muslims caught up in its delusions.
Raised in devout family
The second of three siblings, Tugral grew up in Ankara’s Sincan district in a family that prizes education and religion. His father holds a Ph.D. in Turkish literature and teaches at a high school. His older brother is a software engineer who also composes music; his younger sister has been a student; and a paternal uncle is a mathematics professor.
Suleyman Tugral, the patriarch, blogged about Islam from 2008 to 2014, sharing poetry and his conservative perspectives. He also linked to his doctoral dissertation on “The Value System in Quran,” in which he endorsed militant jihad and called Jews and Christians cursed for not believing in Allah and the prophet. “A painful punishment is awaiting them,” he wrote.
He and his wife, a homemaker, enrolled Rasid as a high school student in private studies of the holy book – a common practice among pious families.
In late 2007, Tugral entered Middle East Technical University (METU) – widely known as Turkey’s Harvard – to study physics. The secular campus provided a sharp contrast from his home life, said Nihat Celik, a former classmate who was one of several associates to confirm the authenticity of Tugral’s writings and social media posts.
“He was going to school during the day in a liberal environment. But at night he was with his family at his religious and conservative home,” Celik said. “It is not possible to meld these two different approaches to life in the same pot.”
At METU, Tugral became known for his interests in astronomy and photography – and for his sometimes goofy antics. “He was a genius. He used to ask very good questions,” said a professor who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. But Tugral “wasn’t the best student, as he lacked discipline and missed a lot of classes.”
Tugral signed up for the university’s astronomy club, befriending its leader, Utku Boratac. Together, they studied the night skies on camping trips. They also helped with the TÜBİTAK National Observatory’s annual stargazing events for the public, Boratac told VOA.
Tugral started sharing his astronomy photos on a National Geographic member page in 2010 and competed in a 2012 NASA photo contest to adapt images from the Hubble Space Telescope. On social media, he adopted the nickname Nükleer Kedi or Nuclear Cat, recognizing his fondness for, and photos of, felines.
A ‘crazy’ noncomformist
Amusing and at times outlandish, Tugral “always cracked jokes and made fun of everything,” recalled a classmate who requested anonymity for fear of being publicly associated with Tugral. “Once, he came to school in tights,” the classmate said. Another time, he showed up shirtless and in shorts.
An avid cyclist, hiker and swimmer, Tugral would push himself physically. The classmate recalled that “once, he was bored and biked all the way from Ankara to Konya,” a distance of 262 kilometers, or almost 163 miles, from Turkey’s capital to the southern city.
“Most of the people I know would say that I’m crazy, but they also covet to be like me because I usually do whatever I’d like to. My riding experience might be one of them,” Tugral wrote on the guest-lodging website Couchsurfing.
“I like to laugh and make people laugh (though sometimes I cry, too). People around me are not ... bored most of the time.”
Edging toward radicalism
At METU, Tugral remained an observant Muslim but freely socialized with people who didn’t necessarily share his interest in praying, fasting and avoiding intoxicants.
“Once, we were all drinking alcohol,” said another friend who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being targeted by extremists. Tugral “did not drink with us, but he started making fun of himself for not drinking.”
In 2013, he participated in anti-government protests – and began looking more toward his faith for understanding. He began to change, his astronomy pal Boratac said.
Tugral gradually distanced himself from METU’s secular majority. He grew a beard and stopped cutting his hair, following IS custom. He railed on Facebook that “the communists at METU immediately gather and laugh when you greet your brothers by touching foreheads.”
He spent more and more time with the university’s mosque community and devoted hours to discussing the Quran “passage by passage and word by word,” Boratac said. “One time, he made a Facebook post about Islam and I tried to comment ... to start a conversation. But he never responded.”
Sometimes, he’d immerse himself in Quranic studies for days, even a couple of weeks, without leaving the mosque, Celik, who also was in the astronomy club, told VOA. He attributed his friend’s radicalization in part to his participation in a mosque study group. By spring 2014, “one other person from that group went to Syria or Iraq,” Celik said. “We don’t know what happened to him.”
Newsweek, in a 2015 article on jihadi recruitment that profiled Tugral, reported that a former mosque study group member joined IS and shared jihadi videos online with Tugral. The story said Turks with IS sympathies had escaped notice while the Turkish government concentrated on foreign fighters crossing its border with Syria.
Tugral occasionally led prayers at the university mosque because of his oratory skills, Ufuk Tastan, a research assistant in METU's physics department, told Turkey’s BirGun Daily newspaper. They had been students together.
Soon, Tugral began publicly expressing support for jihad. On Facebook, he grieved the deaths of Syrian civilians who, according to him, were killed by Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. He also denounced Turkey’s government and society.
“From time to time, he criticized the government for corruption and bribery,” Celik said, and he also believed that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “interpreted Islam in a wrong way.”
Studies in Finland
Tugral graduated from METU in the spring of 2014. That fall, he entered a master’s degree program in physics at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä. He welcomed the dramatic change in climate and geography, writing in Facebook that “definitely, my recent campus is much better than the previous one.”
On social media, Tugral posted photos and marveled at the Nordic country’s colorful autumn, along with pictures of cats, squirrels and other animals.
Tugral was less focused on academics. He gravitated instead to Jyväskylä city’s An-Nur mosque.
“He did not attend classes but spent most of his time at the mosque or on the internet when he was home,” one of his housemates, Anbu Posakkannu, told Turkey's BirGun Daily newspaper.
Posakkannu said Tugral “often said he wanted to join the Islamic State.” VOA was unable to reach Posakkannu.
Tugral’s METU astronomy pal, Boratac, told VOA he’d teased his friend about his beard. “I mockingly asked him, ‘How did they let you enter Finland with this look? Didn’t they ask if you were going to jihad?’” Boratac recalled.
“ ‘They judge you by your intentions, not by how you look here,’ ” Tugral shot back, according to Boratac.
But the grad student’s intentions had drawn suspicion, according to the BirGun Daily. Finnish security officials opened an investigation in late 2014, the paper reported.
Newsweek's story on Tugral also reported that police, “alarmed by his Facebook posts,” had questioned Tugral off campus.
The mosque’s president, Khalid Bellamine, confirmed to VOA that Finnish security personnel had contacted him about Tugral. But Bellamine said he hadn’t “met Tugral in person, and no one [knew] him in the community here.”
“From what we observed, he visited the mosque during late times and he talked to no one,” Bellamine said. “If I suspected anything about him, I would clearly have reported it.”
Before leaving Finland for the university’s winter break, Tugral toted his DSLR camera to the Helsinki Cathedral and to the Lapland region’s 7 Fells Hostel because its owner “was also an experienced photographer like me,” he wrote on Facebook.
A feint, then flight
Tugral returned to his family home in Ankara, using it as a way station before venturing deeper into jihad. He told his parents he planned to spend the night of Jan. 10, 2015, with friends at METU. Instead, he packed a light backpack and set out for Syria.
“Before departing, I put my trust in God,” Tugral wrote later.
He hitchhiked, flagging down a minibus. Climbing in, “I realized that I forgot my camera,” he wrote. He had carried it everywhere, documenting the skies, his surroundings and his own evolution. The oversight, he decided, was “no big deal.”
Crossing into Syria
That recollection and what happened afterward is recounted in Tugral’s long letter, composed in fragments while he lacked ready access to the internet and social media in Syria. Titled “Greetings From the Land of the Caliphate,” he shared it publicly via a Facebook link on March 25, 2015.
At the southeastern Turkish border city of Sanliurfa, he fell in with men from Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia who wanted to fight for the Islamic State. Together, they made the illegal crossing into Syria. “We had to run for a long time. It was smart of me not to take a heavy suitcase,” Tugral wrote, congratulating himself.
A long-haired Afghan IS member collected the men and drove them past a huge black IS flag en route to the Syrian town of Tal Abyad. They were taken to a house lit by candles. Their passports, electronic devices and all other belongings were confiscated – but Tugral persuaded an IS fighter to give him a few minutes on his phone to email his family.
“It was very hard connecting to the internet because of bad reception,” he wrote, noting his phone was seized before he could send all his emails. “ ‘Where am I going?’ I started wondering to myself, but whatever.”
The IS interrogated the newcomers and gave each a new nickname. Tugral wrote, “Mine, of course, was Abu Huraira” – Arabic for Cat Father.
Brotherhood and boredom
Days later, Tugral was transferred to another house, with bullet-pocked walls, that “probably was taken as war booty,” he wrote. It held about 20 people, and Tugral noted their diversity and their willingness to support IS. One man had been a professional kickboxer in Germany, another was a mechanical engineer from Bangladesh. Still another came directly after his release from a French jail. One man paid $15,000 to travel from China.
After a few more days, Tugral and eight other recruits boarded a minibus bound for Raqqa, the IS-declared capital. “See you in heaven,” he said they told the rest of their housemates, describing a joyous farewell.
Tugral explored Raqqa while waiting impatiently for the Sharia education and fitness training that IS required before combat. The city “was big and crowded. ... People continued to live in a normal manner without cutting off heads,” he observed in his letter. “Islamic State’s most beautiful side is the ban of smoking everywhere,” he added, but he complained of exhaust from “burning diesel oil everywhere,” in motorcycles and heaters.
Tugral spent two weeks in Raqqa, huddling with other foreign recruits in a chilly house short on water, with little more than eggs to eat. He had a sore throat, a minor complaint compared with the frightening airstrikes that rattled doors and windows “as if a strong wind was blowing. ... Every moment we are facing the fear of a bomb falling on our heads.”
Preparing for war
Over several months, Tugral was moved among a series of houses, including in and near Raqqa, then Homs. He complained of living conditions that were cold, crowded and dirty. “We were almost 30 people all sleeping in a room, and more people were brought in constantly,” he wrote in his letter.
At one point, his dwelling was downright primitive: a cave, although IS had outfitted it with "sponge beds," a washing machine and a power generator. “There were also many goods taken as booty," he wrote, including blankets with a United Nations label that likely were intended for refugees.
Tugral’s physical training began on the first day at the cave. Recruits practiced moves such as leapfrogging and slogging through mud. Tugral, wearing a jacket and pants he’d bought in Finland, “didn’t want to crawl in the mud with them, but I had to,” he wrote, advising prospective recruits to bring camouflage clothing.
His cave mates included a British civil engineer and the man’s son. “They knew something about constellations, and I, without waiting for them to ask, started explaining it to them,” Tugral wrote. Although the cave had electricity, most of the city did not. No light pollution could obscure the stars.
“I can say that the sky is clear almost everywhere in the Islamic State.”
Fear of the skies
Almost everywhere, the recruits were hounded by airstrikes. Planes from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “were flying over us every day. ... One air bomb was so close that its noise deafened us and it made a big ditch next to us.”
Tugral tired of living like a caveman. And he acknowledged problems with the Islamic State: poor sanitation, poor organization and, among some recruits, questionable motives. A Moldovan recruit who’d previously been with al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front “told me that some of the mujahedeen [jihadis] come for worldly benefits because they get good money and housing from the Islamic State,” he wrote.
Still, Tugral envisioned a utopian future.
“The Islamic State isn’t an excellent state. Yes, it’s an Islamic state but the people’s errors are not the state’s fault,” he wrote. “… Things don’t function perfectly here, cleanliness is not given much heed, and traffic rules are not implemented. But we will try to fix everything step by step especially with the help of the immigrants” – an IS term for foreign fighters.
After at least a month in the cave, he and five other recruits were chosen as commandos and invited to join a group of established IS fighters.
Conditions suddenly improved, Tugral recorded. The commandos moved to a house just outside Homs. Each person was issued a new blanket. And their Tajik cook “made meals close to our culture,” butchering a sheep every week to provide meat. “Bananas and oranges were served almost every day. We were also given three to four Snickers [candy bars] a day.”
For his first battle, Tugral was tasked to provide medical care because of first-aid training he had at METU. “I was the ‘doctor,’” he wrote. “The slightest medical knowledge one has might come in useful here.”
“That was the first time I heard the sound of bullets so closely: bang, bang,” he recalled. He and others “began hiding behind the hills as we heard the sound of tanks and artillery.” After hours of freezing wind and rain, he got permission to retreat. The tent serving as a field hospital held two dead and six wounded, he wrote, and the “smell of blood all over.”
After another night of fighting, Tugral and his fellow jihadis returned to base “in triumph,” he wrote in his letter. Two tanks were taken as spoils, along with a light truck, a few rocket-propelled grenades “and three chopped heads.”
He later defended IS beheadings in a Facebook exchange with his Turkish astronomy pal, Boratac, who asked why Tugral was involved with “a group that slaughters innocent people and chops off heads? This is psychopathic.”
Tugral countered that it was just punishment for Syrian regime supporters, “who have killed so many innocent” civilians, and for “rejecters” of Islamic authority “who have become America’s slaves.” He similarly defended IS jihadis taking women, predominantly members of the Yazidi religious minority, as sexual slaves.
Beheadings served a strategic purpose, he told Boratac: “This stuff is only for TV to scare the enemies. When they see this, they will be afraid of us and run away.”
A jihadi bride
Sometime in the first half of April 2015, Tugral was hurt in a clash with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Tal Abyad. He went to Raqqa to recover from the unspecified wound or injury.
The next month, he married Aisha Zevra Et-Turki, an IS female supporter also from Turkey.
In an earlier Facebook post, he’d written that unmarried jihadis get a $100 monthly salary and share a house with six other fighters. Foreign fighters “have four months to get married. ... The Islamic State gives you a house in addition to financial support for your wives and children.”
After the wedding, Tugral dramatically cut back on social media. Boratac reached out on Facebook, asking why he’d gone quiet and hoping to persuade him to return to Turkey.
“He said he has just gotten married and his wife was jealous to see him spending too much time on social media,” Boratac told VOA. “I couldn’t tell if he was joking or he was being serious.”
Tugral’s subsequent Facebook and Twitter posts, though less frequent, revealed his growing aspirations for radical jihad and steadfast piety. He protested airstrikes – by the Syrians, Russians and U.S.-led coalition – and civilian deaths. He advocated doing everything according to Sharia law, “all the way from eating your food to going to the restroom.”
He criticized Syrian Arabs, who, he contended on Facebook, couldn’t correctly recite from the Quran or even offer a proper Islamic greeting: “When I say, ‘Peace be upon you,’ to the regular people of Raqqa, they respond, ‘Hello, hello.’ I’m really sick of this.”
For unbelievers, a 'ticket to hell'
The old Tugral, the one consumed with a passion for science, did not completely disappear. He occasionally reposted some of his archived astronomy photos. He commented on geology, drug companies, and how computer storage eventually could be as limitless as the stars.
On Twitter, he praised the work of scientists such as the late American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman – though he admonished them “to convert to Islam before death comes to you.” Tugral once met and was photographed with Nobel Prize-winning U.S. physicist Walter Kohn. But after Kohn's death in 2015, Tugral tweeted that, as a non-Muslim, the scientist “took a ticket to hell, unfortunately.”
Death came to Tugral in early August, in a clash with U.S.-backed Kurds north of Raqqa, according to IS social media. He’d been fighting there as the Islamic State lost ground.
In a brief interview, the slain jihadi’s father told a VOA reporter that Tugral’s wife had confirmed his death in a phone call. The body would be buried in Syria, she said.
Suleyman Tugral told the reporter, who’d gone to the family’s Ankara flat in mid-August, that he was trying to retrieve Tugral’s body and that he'd asked Turkish authorities to investigate. “We don’t know how he died,” the elder Tugral said. “We took the issue of his death to the Ankara prosecutor’s office and we are waiting for [its] response.”
He declined to discuss his son further, and other relatives turned down interview requests.
‘Hope to see you in the afterlife’
Tugral’s final Facebook entry appeared Aug. 31, almost a month after he died:
“If I don’t write here for a long time, know that my time in this world has ended and I have reached the afterlife. Pray for me that Allah will accept me as a martyr. This message has been set up automatically. Hope to see you in the afterlife.”
His Facebook page remains live, but his Twitter account recently was blocked. In a statement responding to VOA, Twitter said it has “suspended more than 360,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related” to IS, since mid-2015.
Salih Doğan, a Turkish researcher on politics, international relations and security at Britain's Keele University, estimated "thousands of people from Turkey" have joined IS. Though "all may have been influenced by the atrocities of the Damascus region in Syria," he told VOA, motives vary among the recruits. Some may be steered toward jihadi ideology by growing up in a conservative family, by feeling unjustly targeted, by rebelling against low status or by anticipating financial gain.
"It is a terrible thing to see these people go this way," Doğan said. "I think the bottom line here is to fill an emptiness inside a human being's inner and emotional world."
Questions about Tugral still haunt his astronomy friend, Boratac.
They had once seen, in the night sky, an unexplained bright light that Boratac speculated could be a UFO. Rasid listened quietly and later did some research. “He told me, ‘No, idiot ... it’s a satellite.’ He then taught me to never draw conclusions without research.”
So, Boratac wonders, how could Tugral have been so misled by IS propaganda and cruelty?
“It makes me question … how did he get to that point? He was once a funny man who took nothing seriously. That same man ended up to justify chopping off heads.”
His METU classmate, Celik, theorized that Tugral was unable to find a bridge between two divergent worlds: “I believe he was very confused and very mixed up in his own mind — religion on the one hand and science on the other.”
“I think his inner world was very dark,” Celik said. “I could feel that even before he joined IS.”
This story was reported by Uzay Bulut, Kasim Cindemir and Rikar Hussein on VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk in Washington, with Yildiz Yazicioglu contributing from Ankara, Turkey. It was written by Carol Guensburg. Unless otherwise noted, photos were obtained from Rasid Tugral’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.