Iraqi Family Identifies Son As ISIS Teen At Heart Of SEAL Eddie Gallagher Trial The name of the young ISIS fighter was not revealed in U.S. court proceedings, and the records are sealed. NPR has identified the fighter with the help of Iraqi officials and the teenager's family.
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Iraqi Family Identifies Their Son As ISIS Teen At Center Of Navy War Crimes Trial

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

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

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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.]

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