KABUL — As he listened, Wali Mohammad Darwazi’s worst fears came true. His 23-year-old son, Mohammad Rafi, had vanished two months before with several former classmates from Kabul University. Now, Darwazi was on the phone with one of the classmates, whom he had reached in Syria.
“Rafi has been martyred,” he told Darwazi, explaining that Rafi and other Afghans had been killed in a U.S. coalition airstrike near the Iraqi oil town of Baiji in May. As Darwazi recounted the conversation last week, he fought back tears.
Afghanistan has long been known as a destination for jihadists. But for Rafi, it was a launching pad into the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. He and his comrades are thought to be the first known cases of Afghans killed there while fighting for the Islamic State, linking Afghanistan to other Muslim and Western nations grappling with the specter of their young men waging jihad in the Middle East.
Their radicalization and decision to fight abroad increases the growing concerns about the Islamic State’s emergence in Afghanistan, suggesting that the group’s influence here is deeper than previously known. The possibility of Afghans being trained in Syria and Iraq, and then returning home to fight and recruit, could pose a new threat to the U.S.-backed government as it struggles to fend off the Taliban at a time when the American military presence is a shadow of its former self.
“Afghanistan is a country that has no doors and no windows,” Darwazi said. “Everyone comes and goes, and anyone plays with it based on his own interest.”
Rafi’s recruitment and death occurred as the Islamic State’s footprint in Afghanistan is spreading. Fighters, mostly former Taliban members, have seized some areas and engaged in numerous skirmishes with Taliban forces in recent weeks. Their brutality is growing as they seek to co-opt more disaffected Taliban members to boost their emerging presence in South and Central Asia.
But Rafi’s case is unusual, because he was neither a Taliban militant nor a sympathizer. The son of communists, he grew up in a comfortable middle-class family, loved soccer and tae kwon do, and earned a university degree in computer science. Although Afghan officials and Western analysts have argued that the Islamic State’s extremist ideology does not have strong roots among Afghans, Rafi’s radicalization suggests that at least some segments of the society are supporters.
His family agreed to speak to a Washington Post reporter because they said they wanted to stop more Afghans from following the path Rafi took. Several relatives and friends spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared for their security.
All said they struggled to comprehend how Rafi could decide to enter a faraway world where he would have to kill or be killed. He didn’t face the typical influences that have attracted other young men to jihad, such as a lack of economic opportunity, a disjointed family life or political alienation.
But Rafi’s journey, also pieced together from his Facebook postings, suggests that he was struggling with his identity — and with what it means to be a Muslim. He eventually gravitated to the conservative thought that defines Islam for many of the faithful today. With Afghanistan increasingly connected to the world through YouTube and social media, those who drove him onto the path of holy war were near and far — and included two American-born radical Muslim preachers.
“They misused his innocence,” Darwazi said.
No one knows how many Afghans have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, but the numbers are thought to be modest, compared with the thousands who have flocked there from other Muslim nations and Europe. Afghan jihadists have rarely been attracted to outside conflicts pitting Islam against the West.
But the rise of the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, has struck a nerve among many Afghans. The group’s targeting of Shiites has outraged ethnic Hazaras here; some have joined a militia vowing to fight the Sunni Islamic State, while others have traveled to Iraq to join Shiite militias, according to local media reports.
Hundreds of Central Asians from neighboring countries, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, also have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, according to the Soufan Group, a security and intelligence services firm. They include Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, a U.S.-trained former commander of Tajikistan’s special police unit, and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist group that has sent fighters into Afghanistan.
In January, the Islamic State announced that it would expand into Khorasan, an ancient name for an area that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan. By February, U.S. military and Afghan government officials were warning of some disgruntled Taliban factions who were rebranding themselves as the Islamic State to gain more funds and attention. Some Afghan officials and analysts have dismissed those warnings as exaggerated or a ploy to persuade Washington to extend the U.S. military presence here.
But in recent weeks, the group has escalated attacks in some remote areas. In eastern Nangahar province, it seized the district of Kot and is fighting for control over other areas, said provincial officials and tribal elders.
“They are killing people who don’t accept their invitation,” said Zahir, a tribal elder from Kot who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.
This month, the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch released a video showing fighters beheading an alleged spy, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online postings by militant organizations.
Rafi’s friends and relatives said it was hard to imagine him beheading anyone. His favorite soccer team was Barcelona. He hoped to get his master’s degree in Germany or the United States.
“He loved to study,” Darwazi said. “He was so open-minded and pleasant-mannered.”
After Rafi enrolled in an Islamic culture course at Kabul University, he began to grow more religious, relatives said. He attended mosques in two upscale neighborhoods of Kabul and grew a beard.
On campus, “he would urge a lot of people to come towards Islam,” recalled a classmate who grew up with Rafi. But “when we would meet, he was always his normal self.”
But by last year on his Facebook page, Rafi was criticizing the United States and its allies for remaining silent about the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, also known as Myanmar. And he scorned Muslims who did not defend their brethren.
“For defending our rights, we need Muslims not the so-called Muslims,” he wrote in another post.
His family and friends said they believe some Islamic teachers at the university identified Rafi as a potential recruit and radicalized him in sessions after school or after mosque prayers.
“He was influenced by Afghans who studied in Arab countries,” Darwazi said. “They made him lose his track.”
But Rafi also sought inspiration from the teachings of ultra-conservative English-speaking Muslim clerics — in particular, the Yemeni American Anwar al-Awlaki and Sheik Khalid Yasin, an American-born gang member who converted to Islam and became a preacher. Last July, Rafi posted a passage from Awlaki, who was assassinated in a 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen, urging Muslims to wage jihad.
By this year, Rafi was posting Islamic State propaganda videos and pictures, including a photo of a fighter carrying its black flag and an illustration of a large clipper ship with the flags as sails.
Darwazi noticed that his son was growing distant. Rafi avoided talking with him, even when they were sitting in the same room. He was also eating less, as if to prepare himself for hardship.
“I now realize that he was preparing for Syria,” Darwazi said.
In April, Rafi informed his father that he was going to Jalalabad with friends. In other parts of the city, two of his classmates were telling their parents they would be going with Rafi.
But instead of heading to Jalalabad, the three youths — along with 19 other Afghans — boarded a flight to Iran. Their visas and tickets, Darwazi believes, were arranged by a radical group based in Jalalabad. After arriving in Iran, they crossed into Turkey and then Syria, the classmate told him.
Seven weeks later, Darwazi was on the phone, in tears, learning this story from the classmate.
Sometime before he left Afghanistan, Rafi made one last change to his Facebook page, giving himself a new surname: He had become Mohammad Rafi Khorasani.
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.