“I told Zach, ‘I came here, you’re born here, you could become president,’” Yusuf Abdurahman says of his 19-year-old son Zacharia in the Independent Lens documentary, which premiered on PBS January 20. Abdurahman fled Somalia’s civil war 25 years ago and settled in Minneapolis. Zacharia was arrested in April 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for his plans to work with the extremist group.
Abdurahman, who is a devout Sufi Muslim, explains in the film why people see Islam and those who practice it as a monolith. "Many non-Muslims do not know what Islam is. They do not understand that within Islam there are many different sects, denominations and schools of thought…. The radical ones are the ones that hijacked my faith," he says.
With the lens focused on the Abdurahmans as father and son try to mend their relationship, Lau interviews family members and an FBI informant involved in the sting that led to Zacharia’s arrest. In a larger context, the film explores the racism and prejudice many immigrants endure in the United States, the struggle of growing up Muslim in America and the targeted techniques that radicalized groups use when recruiting.
When Abdurahman asks his son during one of their many calls how he got pulled in, Zacharia responds honestly. "ISIS started putting out videos that showed what appeared to be devastating carnage and destruction left by these planes. The coalition like the United States and different countries, they started an air campaign against ISIS," he says. "You see houses tumbled to the ground…. Whole streets on fire and babies crying. And there was a video of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq. People who shared my religion being victimized worldwide. So this infuriated me and enraged me. How could Muslim blood be so cheap?"
Visibly bothered by his son’s decision not to talk to him about his feelings, Abdurahman reminds Zacharia that choosing the wrong ideology got him into trouble. And Zacharia agrees. "Back then, I didn’t know there were ideologies and interpretations," he says. "Back then I didn’t know how to decipher."