Jaelyn Young was pretty and smart: an honor student with a police officer dad and dreams of becoming a doctor.
Muhammad Dakhlalla was handsome and thoughtful. He was about to start a graduate program in psychology. Growing up in small-town Mississippi, the son of Palestinian immigrants chose to go by the less threatening name of Mo.
To their families and friends, they seemed like a beautiful couple with a bright future.
Secretly, however, the couple wasn’t planning on spending that future in Mississippi or even America, but rather under the rule of the Islamic State.
Even as they attended class and acted normally in public, Young and Dakhlalla spent hours each day on the Internet, clandestinely planning their move to the aspiring Islamist caliphate, federal prosecutors claim. They plotted to pass off a trip to Turkey as their honeymoon. From there, they would slip across the border into Syria and enter the Islamic State they so longed to see.
They spent months saving up for their new life. And in many ways, they became new people under the noses of their loved ones, at one point praising an attack that killed five Americans in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Dakhlalla, normally quiet, now debated whether to become a media officer for the terrorist organization or to go full bore and take up arms.
Young didn’t dream of being a doctor anymore. Instead, she yearned to be an Islamic State medic, trading her homecoming gown for a veil in order to tend to injured mujahideen.
But even if their families had no clue about the couple’s plan, Big Brother certainly did.
Two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation posed as Islamic State recruiters in order to gather months of evidence against the pair from Mississippi.
And on Saturday morning, just as Young and Dakhlalla thought they were about to slip out of the country, they were arrested and charged with conspiring and attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
The couple is the latest in a series of American citizens allegedly caught conspiring to join the Islamic State. More than two dozen people have been stopped by the FBI while on their way to the self-proclaimed caliphate, the New York Times reported in March.
As in other cases, friends and family members said they were astounded by the couple’s arrest.
Dakhlalla’s parents were “surprised” and “shocked,” attorney Dennis Harmon told the Clarion-Ledger.
“This is not the Jaelyn that I know,” Eddie Melton, who once gave Young an award named after his late daughter, told the Vicksburg post. “She’s loving and kind and caring.”
But a criminal complaint released Tuesday showed the couple had methodically mapped out their actions, including what skills they could bring to the Islamic State.
“It was a very calculated, step-by-step thing,” U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander said on Tuesday during a hearing in Oxford, Miss., in which he denied the couple bail, according to the Associated Press.
Defense attorneys for the pair declined to comment after the hearing, the AP reported, but the attorneys told the magistrate the information presented by the government didn’t prove either had committed a crime. When approached by the AP Tuesday, Dakhlalla’s father referred all questions to the family’s attorney and the attorney said the family has been cooperating with the FBI. Young’s parents were present at Tuesday’s hearing, the AP reported, but declined to speak to reporters afterward.
FBI agents began investigating the couple in May, according to the complaint.
Young and Dakhlalla didn’t exactly make it difficult to discover their Islamic State allegiances. Young, in particular, openly posted on Twitter about saving up to move to Syria.
“The only thing keeping me away is $$$ but working all of this overtime will be worth [it] when I am finally there,” she tweeted, according to the complaint. “I just want to be there : ( #IS.”
Posing as Islamic State facilitators, FBI agents approached Young and began sussing out her beliefs. The then-19-year-old revealed that she and her partner, Dakhlalla, were going to have an Islamic wedding so that they could travel to the Islamic State together without an escort, according to the complaint.
“Alhamdulillah [God be praised] we found jobs … and have been saving up,” she wrote one FBI agent. “We have enough for tickets and other expenses but now we are just waiting on my passport which of course takes forever all of a sudden.”
In messages peppered with Arabic phrases and their Internet abbreviations, Young and Dakhlalla opened up to supposed Islamic State members about their teenage fears, even as they prepared to join a terrorist group.
“I haven’t even travelled outside [the] U.S. before,” Young admitted. At the same time, however, the former homecoming maid — an honor student who competed in robotics competitions in high school — expressed a hunger for knowledge about Islam and the Islamic State.
“This is the true Khalifa” or caliphate, she told an undercover FBI agent before describing what she could bring to the Islamic State. “I am skilled in math and chemistry and worked at an analytical lab here at my college campus. My partner is very good with like computer science/media. We learn very fast and would love to help with giving medical aid to the injur[ed].”
In his own alleged messages with the undercover agents, Dakhlalla sounded similarly eager and naive.
“I wish to be a mujahid [holy warrior] akhi [brother],” he said in one message. “I am willing to fight. I want to be taught what it really means to have that heart in battle!”
In other messages, however, he seemed like he was in over his head.
“Ya Akhi, could you tell me of what I would have to do once I make it to [the Islamic State]?” he asked. “In sha Allah I will go through training and Shariah [the Islamic legal system] first? I am not familiar with Shariah but from what Aaminah [Young] and I researched, [the Islamic State] follows Shariah correctly, right Akhi?”
The two also discussed their plan to get to Syria.
“Our story will be that we are newlyweds on our honeymoon,” Young allegedly wrote on June 6. She then outlined their initial plan to fly to Greece before taking a bus to Turkey and sneaking across the border into Islamic State territory.
“I cannot wait to get to [the Islamic State] so I can be amongst my brothers and sisters under the protection of Allah… and to raise little [Islamic State] cubs In sha Allah,” Young said three days later.
As the summer dragged on, the couple grew anxious about obtaining their passports and making it to Syria before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on July 19. When they finally received them, Young gushed: “We are sooooo happy!!”
At times, Young mocked American authorities in her messages, even as they were being read by the FBI. “We live in a small town with a very small (poo) airport that doesn’t have much, if [any], security,” she wrote on Aug. 4. “That’s one [of America’s] weaknesses — small towns’ airports have poor funding and less educated staff so it is easier to get through.”
In the most chilling moment recorded in the complaint, Young allegedly rejoiced at the news of the Chattanooga, Tenn., shooting in which a lone gunman killed four Marines and a Navy sailor.
“What makes me feel bette[r] after just watching the news is that an akhi [brother] carried out an attack against US marines in TN!” she wrote on July 17, the day after the attack. “Alhamdulillah [Thanks be to God], the numbers of supporters are growing.”
It’s not clear yet how, exactly, the couple allegedly became radicalized, although it appears that Young converted to Islam after meeting Dakhlalla. His father, Oda H. Dakhlalla, is the imam of the Islamic Center of Mississippi in Starkville, where both Muhammad and Jaelyn lived, according to the Associated Press.
“They’ve been together months, not years,” Harmon, the Dakhlallas’ attorney, said on Tuesday, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Melton expressed bewilderment at how the girl he gave an award, the daughter of a police officer no less, could celebrate American servicemen being killed.
“I don’t understand what’s happened to her in the past year,” he told the Vicksburg Post. “Even some of the people who were close to her didn’t see this coming.”
Neither family has commented on how the couple allegedly went so far astray. But terrorism studies suggest the case is an example of a growing trend of Western youngsters longing to be different and looking to jihad.
“The popular notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West is woefully misleading,” anthropologist Scott Atran wrote recently. “Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe.”
The Islamic State appeals to youths because it offers them “something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship,” Atran wrote.
From the federal complaint, it appears Young and Dakhlalla were, indeed, drawn to the Islamic State because it represented a break from their life in Mississippi.
“Alhamdulillah,” Young wrote a week before her arrest, “soon we will taste the freedom of Khalifah.”