What Yahya Abu Hassan has described as the "best day of his life" involved sneaking his emaciated, pregnant wife and three sick young kids through a barbed-wire fence over the Syrian border to Turkey, where he didn't even say goodbye before they were whisked to safety. That day in September 2013 was the day Hassan ditched his family to devote himself to helping ISIS set up a caliphate, his story told in a preview for a longer article by Graeme Wood appearing in the Atlantic's next issue. Wood details Hassan's reputation as one of the most revered "teachers" among jihadist circles, known for his "staggering mastery of Islamic law and classical Arabic language and literature," as well as his fluency in English. When Wood first heard about Hassan in 2014 while researching a previous Atlantic article about ISIS, he was curious about his origin story and started poking around.
First he found links to Hassan and his extreme views, but further detective work involving nomenclature and Google searches led to an astonishing discovery: a DOJ release about the 2006 conviction of data technician John Georgelas, who used to live in Texas not far from Wood, and who Wood determined was Hassan. What Wood found out next about the Greek-American is fascinating. An in-person conversation Wood had with Georgelas' father, Tim, about John—who Tim describes as once an easily swayed "follower" who experimented with psychedelic drugs—is especially revealing, as is Wood's scrutiny of Georgelas' relationship with his ex-wife, once a fellow jihadist. Most chilling is Georgelas' current ISIS role, in which it's speculated he may now hold the second most-powerful position. "He knows how to speak to Americans, how to scare them, how to recruit them—how to make the Islamic State's war theirs," Wood writes. Read the deep dive at the Atlantic. (Read more Longform stories.)