“Message to America. The Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors.” Posted on Twitter and Facebook on July 10, 2014, by Nero Saraiva, a self-professed Portuguese Islamic State fighter already on the radar of Western security services, the cryptic message received little attention.1 But 40 days later, it gained an entire new meaning. On August 19, 2014, the Islamic State published a four-minute, 40-second English video on the internet.2 Its title: “Message to America.” Its content: the shocking murder of American journalist James Foley.
British and Portuguese intelligence officials eventually came to the conclusion that Saraiva’s post on social media was no accident, but that he had advanced knowledge of James Foley’s fate and might have been involved in the production of Islamic State videos.3
Saraiva had arrived in Syria in April 20124 as one of the first European foreign fighters to join the conflict. He allegedly became part of a group responsible for a wave of kidnappings of Western citizens5 and became close to the British jihadis known as the “Beatles”a led by Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State executioner known as ‘Jihadi John.’6 While in Syria, Saraiva maintained several social media accounts where he shared images of his daily life in the jihadi battleground: pictures of weapons, armored cars, and Islamic State flags were mixed in with mundane images of landscapes, cats, horses, and food.7
In Syria, according to the author’s investigative reporting and court documents, Saraiva was the most senior member of a jihadi network of Portuguese nationals who joined the Islamic State.8 The group had bonded in London, to where they start moving in the early 2000s, and had become radicalized under the influence of hate preacher Anjem Choudary9 and the online preaching of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.10 The network included several sets of brothersb and childhood friends, all with roots in former Portuguese colonies in Africa. According to court documents, in the United Kingdom they had lived on welfare state benefits and had been able to create a scam that allowed them to obtain thousands of pounds in state subsidies, which they used to travel to Syria, recruit several British jihadis, and support Nero Saraiva’s activities in Syria.11
Aside from Nero Saraiva, the other key figures in the Portuguese jihadi network were Sadjo Turé, a recruiter and treasurer;12 Edgar Costa, an ideologue and trainer;13 and his brother Celso Costa, who appeared in several Islamic State propaganda videos.14 Edgar Costa, Celso Costa, and Sadjo Turé first traveled to Syria in April 2012 with Nero Saraiva.15 But while Saraiva stayed in northern Syria, the two Costa brothers and Sadjo Turé returned to Europe in August that year.16 The network would then expand to include Portuguese nationals Fabio Poças and Sandro Marques, who were also living in London at the time and were unknown to the authorities.17 Between 2013 and 2014, the five of them traveled to Syria with their respective wives and children and were reunited with Saraiva.18 Two other alleged members of the network, Cassimo Turé and Rómulo Costa, remained behind, in Portugal and the United Kingdom, respectively.