The smell of skewered chicken, lamb and onions wafted throughout Gyro King, a popular eatery on Foster Avenue in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn last Monday. Steam rose thick over the grill as customers of varying ages edged over the counter, gently competing to place orders for a falafel over rice and other specialties found in halal takeout restaurants. On the outside of the door, a sticker advertised Koranic studies. It was business as usual.
But two weeks earlier, a mob of reporters were crowding around the takeout restaurant to ask the owner, Zakarya Kahn, if he had seen any indication that one of his employees, who had just been arrested, had intended to join ISIS.
Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, who worked in a nearby basement where he chopped and prepared lettuce for the establishment, was arrested at his Brighton Beach home in a joint FBI/NYPD raid on Feb. 25, as his roommate, Akhor Saidakhmetov, 19, attempted to board a flight to Turkey. Juraboev’s plan, police said, was to meet Saidakhmetov in Syria where they would then join the Islamic State.
Patrons of the fast food spot and local residents seem surprised that something so menacing sprouted in their backyard.
“It was quite upsetting to me and my neighbors, because it’s a peaceable neighborhood,” said Brian Kelly, 77. “People work hard and they have to be up early and out and we can’t have any of this danger or nonsense.”
Kelly, who was born in this neighborhood and lives only a few blocks away from his childhood home on Coney Island Avenue, has seen the community go through myriad shifts, most recently with the influx of Pakistani immigrants that has occurred over the past 20 years. He has eaten at the Gyro King on Foster Avenue, and says the workers were quiet and treated him well. Kelly said that while the employees at King were friendly, Juraboev, who he said he met once, seemed visibly standoffish.
In the days after his arrest, bits of information about Juraboev came out in press reports. In posts to a website for ISIS supporters, he asked if it was “possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here.” He also allegedly posted on an Uzbek-language website that he would kill President Obama if ISIS asked and proffered to plant a bomb in the Coney Island neighborhood as well, according to the FBI.
People in the neighborhood speculated about what he might have been thinking.
“Sometimes they misunderstand the religion or something,” said Kensington resident and taxi driver Matin Chowdary. “When you have no knowledge and somebody tells you this is the right thing, you don’t know.”
Chowdary, who used to pray at the Makki-Masjd mosque on Coney Island Avenue, one of the mosques that Juraboev attended, spoke of the need for community involvement to correct misconceptions about the Islamic faith that may be held by some Muslim youth.
“You see which (mosque) you pray, it doesn’t matter. It’s online. It is a global thing,” Chowdary said, adding that how children are raised plays a critical role.
“I think my son has enough information about what is right and wrong because I talk to him,” he said.
Noman Khan, who studied civil engineering in Pakistan and has also been working in Gyro King for the past two months, echoed what his boss has been telling reporters over the past week; Juraboev was an introverted character who worked alone in the basement.
“It’s horrible news if somebody is working for you and he’s involved in such activities, but definitely, definitely, we had no idea about it. He was a lonely type. He would not talk to anybody,” Khan said. “Yes obviously we’re surprised to hear that and we’re like everybody—everybody here is kind of scared—it’s horrible and we condemn these things.”
ISIS, an extremist group located in Syria, has maintained a continuous presence in the public eye with the release of overtly gruesome and brutal videos that showcase public beheadings and mass executions. The group is technologically adept at social networking and targeting young Muslims. A study released this past Thursday by the Brookings Institution and financed by Google Ideas titled, “The Isis Twitter Census,” reported that the Islamic State is operating some 46,000 Twitter accounts. Unfathomable stories of teenagers and 20-somethings abandoning their families in America to join ISIS is becoming part of a growing narrative about the magnitude and power of the Islamic State. And its association in this Brooklyn community is unnerving to those who live here.
Nathan Cunnings, 25, who lives in the area and has been coming to Gyro King for the past three years, was surprised to hear that one of the restaurant’s employee reportedly had intentions of joining ISIS, but said he would not stop going because of one person.
“I wouldn’t expect it,” Cunnings said. “It’s close to home. It’s scary.”
The community in and around Ditmas Park and Kensington has a unique mystique that can make a passerby feel as though they have been instantaneously transported to another region of the world. Interspersed within the canvas of Halal resturants are pizzerias and small establishments, like car washes and 7-11s, run by residents who were raised or have spent decades in the neighborhood. But the falafel joints, clothing stores that specialize in hijabs and jewelry, Pakistani cafes, small mosques and gated doorways with signs written in Urdu pointing to hair threading and henna salons serve as a backdrop to a community that appears to have little connection with the rest of the city. It is a place where English is seldom heard and internet access can be considered a luxury. And although it is the closest that ISIS has hit to home, some residents have not even heard or seen the sensationalized videos that ISIS has been so successful at disseminating.
Omar Zaman, manager of halal restaurant MashAllah located on Coney Island Avenue, said he had heard about the incident from some customers. “I’m glad he wasn’t Pakistani,” Zaman said. “It would have made a lot of trouble for us.” Zaman, like many others in the neighborhood, said that although he did not think the incident was a threat to the community, the idea that extremist websites could be accessed by younger Muslims was troubling.
Brooklyn resident Haza M., who came from Sudan and has four children, had not heard about the recent arrest. She says she does not have internet or television, but was shocked that an extremist group could hit so close to home. She was reluctant to give her last name out of fear.
“We think we are safe here,but it makes me afraid,” Haza said. “This is scary.” Haza, who has three teenage girls and a daughter who is in elementary school, said she feels pressure to talk to her sons and make sure that they will not become susceptible to any recruitment sites.
“I know teenagers at this age listen to everything,” she said, “that’s why this is scary.”