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Why Did Two Twentysomethings from Central California Try to Join ISIS?

Both Bernard Augustine and Everitt Jameson sought escape from their own lonely lives. What do their stories tell us about the allure of the Islamic State for young, angry American men?

On a December day in 2015, in a small farming community near Modesto in Central California, 20-year-old security guard Bernard Augustine sat down at his computer, popped open a browser window and searched, “How to safely join ISIS?” He clicked on a page with the title, “How Does A Westerner Join ISIS? Is There A Recruitment Process?”  

Two weeks later, Augustine opened another browser window and typed “Jihadology,” bringing him to the website Jihadology.net. That night, he sat at home alone on New Year’s Eve watching ISIS beheading videos. A couple of months after that, in February 2016, he arrived at San Francisco International Airport with a one-way ticket to Tunisia. Turkish Airlines, however, informed him he needed to buy a round-trip flight, so he acquired the cheapest return flight he could find. The U.S. customs agent who processed Augustine asked him about the purpose of his travel. Previously, he’d explained to someone close to him, “I’m not mad or mentally ill, I really truly am on a path to fight for justice.” But to the customs agent, he simply said he was going on vacation. 

Augustine proceeded to board Turkish Airlines flight number 80, flying to Istanbul before his connecting flight to Tunis. Only one step remained — find someone from ISIS. 

* * * * *

Two years later in Modesto, Gordon Jameson was shocked when FBI agents showed up to arrest his son Everitt on terrorism charges. “He just ain’t no terrorist, no way,” Gordon told the press. “He would never hurt people. Not ever. It’s just unbelievable. That’s not who he is.”

Everitt was an ex-Marine who now worked as a tow truck driver. The 26-year-old father of two had come home from his service overseas and converted to Islam. He lived in Modesto and attended the mosque there as well as the Islamic Center in nearby Merced. Gordon recalled the talks he’d had with his son about his new religion. “We’d talk about Jesus — not argue, just talk — and he’d say, ‘Yeah, dad, we all believe in the same God.’ He never once spoke about hate or wanting to hurt anything. He never said anything about wanting to blow people up.” Gordon added that he’d even teased Everitt about his conversion by nicknaming him “ISIS.”

But according to the federal criminal complaint against him, on October 27, 2017, Everitt sent an FBI informant a text that read, “I am here to beg to join the cause against [sic throughout] darul kuffar. I’m ready.” 

Two days later, the informant asked in a follow-up text: “Are you a revert?”

“Yes I am. That is what will make me more useful,” Everitt replied. “I can blend in.”

By December, Everitt had attracted the full attention of the FBI. A surveillance team had begun watching him, and soon thereafter, an undercover agent reached out to him, posing as a fixer for ISIS. On December 12th, the agent used a social media platform to message Everitt. “We are in desperate times,” they wrote.

“Cal on me when I’m needed [again sic throughout]. Anything for Dar al Islam. Anything for Ummah,” Everitt replied. 

The next day, the undercover agent told Everitt that the “sheikhs” wanted to know how far he was willing to go, how he was “able to help” and “to make sure you are ready.” 

“Anything. Tell them anything,” Everitt responded. “I can suit up and take myself to our brothers. Or whatever they need done here. Alhamdulillah. I know this very well. I have no doubt. I am ready. Give the word and it shall be done.”

“I have news for you but I trust you know that what we are talking and sharing is between you, me and Allah only,” the agent messaged Everitt 24 hours later. “A brother will be contacting you in the next day or so.”

“I will be waiting with anticipation,” Everitt wrote back. 

A week later, FBI agents arrested Everitt on charges of providing material support to terrorists and planning a Christmas Eve attack on Pier 39 in San Francisco. 

* * * * *

Just before Bernard Augustine arrived in Tunisia in 2016, he posted online that [sic throughout], “Islam will destroy the global banking elite and will bring justice to the entire world, because how can you fight those who do not live for worldly gain. How can you fight those who love death more than life. The whole world is against the Muslims and although they were a minority they couldn’t be defeated in Afghanistan. And now they rose up to conquer Iraq and Syria. And within a 100 years it will be the whole world.” 

In a more confessional post, he added, “I did some wrong things and lost my peace. But I only wish to do good things so when I die I’ll have peace in my last moments. That’s my paradise.”

Once he arrived in Tunisia, Augustine explained via email to a family member: “My purpose in life is to seek the ultimate justice. I see a lot of very wrong and truly evil things happening in this world, things you don’t know about. I’m not mad or mentally ill. I really truly am on a path to fight for justice. True justice. I can’t… sit in ignorance. There is no other meaning in life to me. There is two reasons why this is the best path in life for me. 1. When I die, if God accept me. We will all live in paradise forever. 2. If I pass on before you, you and [name redacted] and [name redacted] will learn to see the injustice and because of you being able to see it you will be able to defend yourselves against it. I’m doing this so you [name redacted] and [name redacted] will learn how to protect yourselves from the manipulation of the masters of evil and their lies. … The good people in this world bring balance and push back against evil. And give their lives freely in the process. Today in this day and age I believe this is the right path.” 

Augustine then blocked his family on social media and disappeared into Tunisia. His dream of joining ISIS, however, was never realized. Within a week of entering the country, he was arrested by Tunisian police and charged under the nation’s new anti-terrorism laws. The 20-year-old was sentenced to two years in Tunisian prison. 

After he served his time, Augustine was returned to American authorities. His legal team tried to argue that he couldn’t be tried again due to double jeopardy, but to no avail — there’s no such protection under international law. And so, legal trouble awaited him back at home, too.

* * * * *

Everitt Jameson became especially focused on Islam when he lost custody of his two children — a three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. After his wife was locked up in the Central California Women’s Facility, Everitt needed to get divorced before he could regain custody of his kids. “My children are in foster care, this divorce will allow me to get them back,” he explained in an August 2017 court filing. But the court didn’t act fast enough. According to his father, Everitt was told that his children were “adopted out.”

“He lost his kids for good, and he was devastated,” Gordon Jameson told the press. “He jumped through every hoop they put up for him to get his kids back. They did him pretty well dirty.”

That’s roughly around the same time the undercover FBI agent contacted Everitt, having heard from an informant that he was looking to do something big to retaliate against the West. On December 15, 2017, the agent was joined by a second undercover agent, and together, they offered to meet Everitt to go over his proposed action.

When Everitt arrived at the meeting, he was instructed to join the agents inside of a parked car and told to sit up front. According to the federal criminal complaint against him, Everitt expressed within minutes that he was “willing to do anything for ‘the cause.’” In particular, he bragged that he owned a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook and that he could also provide $400 a week to ISIS now that he had steady work as a tow truck driver. When the undercover agents asked him if he understood what he was saying, Jameson said he did. (He also had told them that he was willing to go to Syria and fight for ISIS.)

The agents, knowing they had an admission of guilt, asked Everitt where and when he planned to strike. He responded that he thought Pier 39 was a perfect target because of all the holiday tourists. He explained that he could use explosives to funnel them into one place, where he could then use an assault rifle to inflict the highest possible death toll. He was positive he could be ready by Christmas, a mere week away. He also added that he didn’t need an escape plan, because he was “ready to die.”

The FBI agents told him not to do anything without their approval; first, they needed to run his planned operation past the “sheikhs.” They did, however, ask if he was willing to make a video or write a letter for the cause. He agreed, choosing to write a letter. 

On December 18th, one of the undercover agents contacted Everitt to ask him if he could rent a storage unit for the operation. Per the federal criminal complaint, “[Everitt] responded by indicating that he had been ‘very busy tonight.’ Moreover, Jameson told [Undercover Employee 2], ‘I also don’t think I can do this after all. I’ve reconsidered.’ The [Undercover Employee 2] stated, ‘We only can do Allahs will,’ and [Everitt] replied, ‘In Sha Allah one day I can. But I can’t.’”

No matter his apparent change of heart, following this exchange, the FBI arrested Everitt. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for providing material support for ISIS. The letter he wrote, along with his conversations with the FBI agents, was used as evidence against him. 

Similarly, despite the time he’d already served in Tunisia, Augustine was convicted of violating U.S. anti-terrorism laws last month and is currently awaiting sentencing. He likely faces 15 to 20 years — even though he never met anyone from ISIS.

It’s unclear exactly how serious of a threat either Augustine or Everitt were. But what is perfectly clear is their motivation — loneliness and anger. For Augustine, it was a desperate grasp for purpose and belonging. For Everitt, it was feeling as though the system had fucked him over and torn his family apart. So while the idea of two California twentysomethings from the same town pledging their allegiance to ISIS might get all the headlines, their story is very much an American tale of young men driven to violence. 

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