When Kary Kleman decided in 2015 to move his family from their home in Dubai to war-torn Syria, he assured relatives back in the US that he had only good intentions.
“He said he could not live in a life of luxury knowing what was going on in Syria, and that nobody was helping the people there,” said his mother, Marlene, on Wednesday. “We believe he has a good heart.”
But the 46-year-old American now stands accused of fighting for the Islamic State, the terrorist group, and could face criminal prosecution on his return to the US.
Kleman was detained by Turkish border police last week while entering from Syria with his Syrian wife and two women whose spouses were killed in Syria or Iraq, according to Turkish officials.
When told of his situation by the Guardian, Kleman’s family denied that he had joined Isis and said he had been trying to make his way to the American embassy in Istanbul and return to the US.
Not long after arriving in Syria, Kleman told them he had learned the information that led him there “was all a scam”, according to his mother, and his situation became confusing to his family.
Relatives said that about 18 months ago, they alerted the FBI that Kleman may be in danger. An agent told them the bureau needed to look into whether he had become involved with wrongdoing, according to Kleman’s sister, Brenda, who said she “completely agreed” with their caution.
“I told Kary that you have to work with them, and if you’ve done everything right, be calm and it will work out,” she said.
The US state department and the FBI’s field office in Jacksonville, Florida, had not responded to questions about Kleman and his alleged activities by the time this article was published.
Kleman, who converted to Islam about 15 years ago, was born in Wisconsin in July 1970, according to official records. He attended West high school in the city of Wausau. He later moved to northern Florida, where he met Denise Eberhardy, a divorcee. The couple had a son, Spencer, in June 1991.
Kleman and Eberhardy were married at the Glad Tidings church in Jacksonville in January 1997. But Kleman filed for divorce in 2001. In May that year, a circuit judge agreed that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”, and granted a dissolution.
Marlene Kleman said on Wednesday it was around this time that her son converted to Islam. A friend, whom she could only name as Dave, had converted after marrying a woman from the United Arab Emirates, and guided Kleman into the faith during a difficult time. Kleman grew a beard and became devout.
Through his mosque, Kleman met Maher Abdelwahab, a local Egyptian American businessman, and began working for Abdelwahab’s company, which imported and sold fresh produce.
Abdelwahab told him about a daughter he had back in Egypt, according to Kleman’s mother. He showed Kleman photographs, and soon the pair were talking over email. Kleman went to Egypt and the couple married and had a son. But the relationship soured and Kleman came to believe he was being exploited.
After a spell back in Florida, Kleman moved in 2011 to Dubai to be near his friend Dave, who had by then emigrated with his wife. He met a Syrian girlfriend; they married and had three children.
As the long civil war raged in his wife’s homeland, however, Kleman grew troubled, according to his family. He told his mother that he was taking his wife and children to Syria. As they departed around August 2015, he said wanted to help the people affected by the conflict, possibly working as a handyman or setting up a business.
At the time, Isis was continuing a brutal series of suicide bombings and massacres to defend territory it had seized in Syria, while coming under bombardment from US airstrikes. Gruesome video footage of abducted Americans being beheaded by Isis fighters had shocked the US public through 2014.
Initially his stated plan seemed to have gone smoothly. His wife had a job teaching English, according to Kleman’s mother, and things were going OK.
“Then everything went bad,” said Marlene Kleman. “They were saying Isis had taken control of the city and that Russia was bombing the city, so that’s when they planned to escape.”
Up to 30,000 foreign fighters are thought to have crossed into Syria to fight with Isis. The US government estimates that as many as 25,000 of them have since been killed.