From the outside, Samy el-Goarany seemed to have it all.
The son of a successful real estate broker, he lived in a big house with an indoor swimming pool on two acres in New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley. As a teenager, he got into a good college in Manhattan and seemed set to follow his father into real estate.
Then he went off to Syria and joined the Islamic State group.
When he was killed in fighting a year ago, his father told friends his son had died in a car crash, his body so badly burned it couldn’t be recovered. But the true story of el-Goarany’s death remained a secret until October, when federal prosecutors revealed details in a criminal case against an Arizona man accused of aiding IS by recruiting American fighters.
Shocked childhood friends were unable to explain why the skinny, studious history buff they once knew walked away from a promising future to die in the Middle East around the time he would have turned 25.
“I had been close to this guy for the past 10 years, and I honestly wouldn’t have suspected him of joining this deplorable group,” one friend, Peter Kwon, wrote on Facebook. “To find out about this is sad, infuriating, and quite frankly, disturbing.”
In a brief interview outside his home in Greenville, New York, el-Goarany’s father, Mohamed, said his son had been manipulated into travelling to Syria by Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal, the Avondale, Arizona, man now scheduled to go to trial next month in New York.
“He made him go over there,” Mohamed el-Goarany said.
Federal prosecutors said el-Goarany traveled through Turkey to Islamic State-controlled territory inside Syria in January 2015.
He made the trip, they claim, after communicating online for several months with el-Gammal, who also visited the Queens apartment el-Goarany shared with a younger brother.
Lawyers for el-Gammal suggest he did so willingly.
The government’s own court documents indicate that el-Goarany “was a sophisticated, strong-willed young man who formed his own beliefs and arranged and financed his own travel,” said el-Gammal’s attorney, Sabrina Shroff.
After federal agents arrested el-Gammal the following August, el-Goarany appeared in a YouTube video wearing military fatigues and sitting on a mat in a sparsely decorated room to declare that he had come to Syria “out of my own will” and without any assistance. El-Gammal has pleaded not guilty.
Former friends of el-Goarany were reluctant to speak about him, but those who did said they were stunned to learn of the turn his life had taken.
Born in the U.S., el-Goarany was the son of an Egyptian civil engineer who became a developer and real estate broker in New York after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1980s. He lived in a town of fewer than 5,000 people about a 90-minute drive north of New York City.
Friends at Goshen High School knew Samy was a Muslim, but he was not a proselytizer. Classmate Sean Larkin said the two frequently talked about Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other religions before they graduated in 2008.
“Samy was never shoving Islam down anyone’s throat,” he said.
The family is warm and outgoing, said Quazi Al-Tariq, past chairman of the Middletown Islamic Center, located just miles from the el-Goarany family home. But since news of their son’s fate was made public, they have felt “ashamed and helpless.”
After the news broke, Samy’s younger brother tearfully told Al-Tariq that his brother had been “reading a lot of literature about Islam and politics.”
He attended Baruch College in New York City from 2009 to 2013, according to a LinkedIn profile, though a college spokeswoman refused to confirm his enrollment there, citing privacy rules.
How and why el-Goarany’s beliefs hardened is unclear.
Reviewing almost 44,000 pages from his Facebook account, the FBI determined that el-Goarany had received both religious instruction and training from the Islamic State after travelling overseas, prosecutors said in a court filing.
Last fall, someone contacted el-Goarany’s younger brother to tell him that his older sibling was killed in Syria, prosecutors said. That person sent photos of a four-page, handwritten letter in which the elder el-Goarany advised his brother to listen to the lectures of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
“You see how my life changed for the better when I came to the Land of Islam,” he wrote. “You are a witness to my transformation.”