Zarine and Shafi Khan just wanted to protect their kids. Loving parents, they watched their children closely and sheltered them from the outside world, but it was this sheltering that may have made the children easy prey to online ISIS recruiters.
“They are very innocent,” said Zarine Khan, describing her three oldest children. “Extremely naive.”
Federal agents arrested three of the couple’s five children in October at O’Hare international Airport as they tried boarding a plane for Austria and then Turkey.
Their oldest son, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan, has been indicted on terrorism charges. Law enforcement officials say Khan was planning to join the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group known worldwide for public beheadings and a progressive social media campaign aimed at recruiting westerners.
The teens had airline tickets, passports and, according to the prosecutors, a plan to join the terrorist group ISIS. Mohammed Hamzah Khan's then 17-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother were arrested but have not been charged.
In their first local television interview, the teens' parents described the day their lives changed forever.
“It was a Saturday and we slept late since it was a weekend. After six we do Fajr, the Morning Prayer, and then we took a nap,” Zarine Khan said. “After some time the door [bell] rang. The agents were knocking. They came inside and said ‘Do you know where your children are?’ I’m like, 'They’re home. They are sleeping.'”
The Khan’s did not realize this was a raid. Zarine Khan led federal agents upstairs to the children’s rooms.
“I moved the covers and they were not there,” she said. “That was as if the earth had just moved from under our feet.”
Across town FBI agents were questioning three of the Khan children.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Shafi Khan. “Totally shocking. We didn’t know what to do.”
Back at the Khan house, agents scoured the family’s modest Bolingbrook home. The search went on for 10 hours. That would be the first of several searches. Agents confiscated journals, sketches and letters belonging to the Khan teens – which the government has said in court indicates the teens were planning to join ISIS.
“We were shocked,” said Zarine Khan. “I don’t know what they were thinking. Where did they get all these ideas from?”
“It wasn’t them,” said Shafi Khan. “To be honest it’s totally different thinking.”
“It’s not their thinking,” Zarine added. “Someone online brainwashed them into all of these ideas. This is not how Hamzah and my children are. This is not how they are.”
She says she knows this because of the way they raised their children.
At the age of 20, Shafi Khan came to Chicago with his parents in the mid ‘80s. Eight years later he returned to his home in Hyderabad, India, for an arranged marriage with Zarine – who was 21 at the time and studying microbiology at the main university in Hyderabad.
The couple then came to Chicago together in search of an American life. More than 80 relatives eventually followed. Shafi earned a degree in biological science, but Zarine gave up her dream of a biology-related career once she got pregnant.
The Khan’s admittedly raised their five children in an insular, sheltered world that centered on two important things: family and religion.
The children straddled two worlds, learning to be devout Muslims, praying five times a day, memorizing the Quran and attending only Islamic schools. At the same time, they enjoyed American comic books, pizza and cartoons.
“They were really into watching Ninja Turtle cartoons,” she said. “They very much liked Ninja Turtles. They still loved Arthur cartoons, his cartoons, his books. …On the X-box they would sometimes play Naruto. They love Naruto, the Japanese ninja. They would idolize him. They would pretend they are the characters.”
This fantasy world of superheroes and comics provided an escape for Hamzah and his siblings, from their strict home life.
“We didn’t let them go out or have a lot of freedom,” Zarine said.
The family had one computer with internet access. Shafi and Zarine monitored the children’s online use. When Hamzah was young, the television broke and the family decided not to replace it.
“Maybe we sheltered them too much,” said Zarine. “We were very protective of our children, especially of violence, of things going on in the world.”
This meant the Khan children had little experience to the real world – something that years later would haunt Shafi and Zarine Khan.
“We didn’t give them the exposure that we should have,” said Zarine Khan.
Their oldest, Hamzah, was perhaps the most sensitive of all the kids. His parents describe him as a fun-loving teen that tried hard to make his younger siblings and friends laugh.
“I don’t remember any time I’ve seen him angry,” said Zarine. “He would just be laughing and joking around and fooling around. He’s not serious, a very mild-mannered person, very polite, very well mannered.”
In the months leading up to Hamzah’s arrest, Zarine noticed a change in her son. He began spending more time alone in his room and was on his phone more often. But the change was not enough to alarm her. She chalked it up to typical teenage behavior.
Strangely, the overprotective parents did not think to monitor Hamzah’s cellphone. According to court records, his attorney and his own parents, the teen used an app called KIK to secretly communicate with ISIS recruiters.
“The phone is very hard [to monitor],” said Shafi Khan. “You can’t even see what’s going on. Who’s on the other side. Who’s texting who. We thought it was just friends in the US.”
His parents believe he was brainwashed.
“He was not able to differentiate who he was talking to. How can you trust somebody who is somewhere? All kinds of people over the internet. He was gullible. He was very naive and innocent. If he was smart he wouldn’t talk to somebody he didn’t know.”
Whether brainwashed or motivated by his own ideas, the government felt it had enough to arrest the 19-year-old.
“He would never hurt anyone,” said Zarine. “He would never hurt even an animal, forget about hurting a person.”
“He didn’t have any problems with the law. He doesn’t even know how to hold a gun, let alone firing it,” said Shafi Khan.
Whether delusions of a fantasy world or a real desire to join ISIS, Hamzah faces 15 years behind bars if found guilty of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
“It’s hard,” Zarine said through tears. “It’s very hard. Our family’s not the same anymore. I’m sorry. He was the life of our family and he’s not there. It’s like the whole life has been sucked out. We try to maintain a normal routine.”
But normal is not easy right now for the Khans. Shafi and Zarine Khan visit their son Hamzah in jail often, but can only see him through a video monitor.
Khan’s younger brother and sister have not been arrested. Both teens are in counseling.
“We just have to be patient,” said Shafi Khan. We are praying and hoping that everything will be all right.”
Complete Coverage: Mohammed Hamzah Khan:
02/06/15: How Terrorists Recruit Teens Online