In a video interview released Sunday, a New York Times reporter challenged an Islamic State terrorist on why he had killed an idealistic young couple as they traveled through his country on a bike trip around the world.
Rukmini Callimachi, who reports on ISIS for the Times, was able to speak with Hussein Abdusamadov while he serves a life sentence in Tajikistan for leading the deadly attack last year. She pressed him on why he had targeted Jay Austin and Lauren Goeghegan, noting they had “never killed anyone.”
“They firmly believed that if they were kind to other people, other people would open their hearts to them,” she said. “And for the vast majority of their trip, this was the case.”
But Abdusamadov made clear that he did not see his victims as fellow humans. He killed them because they were non-Muslim Americans, he explained matter-of-factly.
“We received an order and followed it. We didn’t have plans to ask them questions or talk to them,” he said. “They said they were Americans and laughed. Americans had to be killed.”
“Evil is a make-believe concept”
To take the trip of a lifetime, Austin and Lauren Goeghegan, both 29 years old, left behind lives and careers in Washington, D.C. Austin, a vegan, had worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Geoghegan, a vegetarian, had worked in the Georgetown University admissions office.
As they biked across country after country, they shared their experiences and thoughts on Instagram and on a joint blog. Their posts captured “the openheartedness they wanted to embody and the acts of kindness reciprocated by strangers,” Callimachi said in an August eulogy of the couple.
“You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,” Austin wrote from Morocco. I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own.”
He continued: “By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”
Austin and Goeghegan arrived in Tajikistan last July, just over a year into their trip. They were biking in southwest Tajikistan – a region that borders ISIS-territory in northern Afghanistan – when a car rammed them. Five men got out of the car and stabbed the couple to death along with two other cyclists, one from Switzerland and the other from the Netherlands.
What Hussein Abdusamadov believes
After the attack, which made international headlines, Tajikistani security forces quickly killed four of the perpetrators and arrested Abdusamadov. He is in prison in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where he spoke to Callimachi for the latest episode of “The Weekly,” The Times’ new Hulu show.
“I formed my own group here and committed the attack,” recounted Abdusamadov, who maintains his allegiance to ISIS. “When Muslims are being killed everywhere, we must try to kill non-believers wherever we find them. When they stop killing Muslims, we will stop too.”
Asked how he selected Austin and Goeghegan for death, Abdusamadov said that he met them at a gas station just prior to the attack.
“I talked to them,” he said. “I asked them where they were from. I asked them what nationalities they were and they told me they were Americans.”
As to whether he feels any regret, Abdusamadov said: “When Americans kill Muslims, they don’t regret it. We’re the same way. We will continue.”
Channeling Austin and Goeghegan, Callimachi then tried to appeal to Abdusamadov on a humanistic level.
“When I look at you now, I see another human being. When you look at me, what do you see?” she asked.
The meaning of the millennial bikers killed by ISIS
Before their adventure ended in tragedy, Austin and Goeghegan’s travels often bore out their idealistic worldview. Their blog posts documented numerous acts of human kindness, including a man giving them ice water on a sweltering day in Botswana and a couple in Morocco offering them a room for the night and sending them off with a loaf of homemade bread.
However, as Callimachi reported in 2018, they “also noted flashes of cruelty,” such as a group of men trying to push them off a mountain pass and a driver nearly running Austin over in traffic. Ultimately, Callimachi noted, their murders held “a worldview as diametrically opposed as imaginable to the one Mr. Austin and Ms. Geoghegan were trying to live by.”
Austin and Goeghegan’s decision to travel to Tajikistan did not seem particularly risky at the time, Snopes pointed out in a thorough fact-check of a Pluralist headline. The U.S. State Department listed the country as Level 1 “travel advisory,” which comes with advice to “exercise normal precautions.”
Yet given their stated views, some conservatives have read Austin and Goeghegan’s as a cautionary tale, not just about the perils of travel but also about liberal naivete. In their telling, an overly generous understanding of human nature is behind much of today’s progressive movement, from calls to radically scale back immigration enforcement to efforts to crackdown on firearms – not to mention growing Democratic support for socialist-style economics.
Since the millennial couple was killed, ISIS has expanded its footprint in Afghanistan and been blamed for additional attacks in Tajikistan. The State Department has raised its threat evaluation of the country to Level 2, saying: “Exercise increased caution in Tajikistan due to terrorism.”
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- Jay Austin and Lauren Goeghegan.: Instagram