This month’s arrest of a young Mississippi couple who allegedly tried to run off to the Islamic State together provides textbook examples of how ISIS tries to lure Westerners to jihad.
Jaelyn Young, 19, and Muhammad Dakhlalla, 22, of Starkville have been charged with conspiring and attempting to provide material support to ISIS. A judge denied bond for the couple last week.
According to The Clarion-Ledger, the two had been in a relationship for a matter of months. Young’s father is a Vicksburg police officer and her mother is a middle-school principal. She was a recent convert to Islam and a student at Mississippi State. Dakhlalla graduated from Mississippi State and was working toward his master’s degree in psychology. His parents — the father born in Bethlehem, the mother from New Jersey — ran a restaurant.
Unbeknownst to the pair, they were chatting online with FBI employees beginning in May when they thought they were talking with Islamic State contacts. The pair ended up buying a ticket to Istanbul through Amsterdam, attempting to fly out of Columbus, Miss., on Aug. 8. They were arrested before they could leave the country.
Many of those conversations included info straight from ISIS handbooks that are distributed online or highlighted things that people should watch for in discerning jihadist sympathies in those around them.
1. Red-flag conversations
Young, communicating with an FBI employee posing as an ISIS member, said that among Muslims she knew in the community “many of the family members and members of the community do not support Dawlah [Islamic State].” The criminal complaint states that Young “expressed that she disagreed with those family and community members and stated ‘…Dawlah is correct.'”
In a paper for the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, Jahangir E. Arasli writes that “although the percentage of violent converts is small, evidence suggests they constitute a growing pool of hundreds, if not thousands, of very dangerous people who represent direct security threats.” What were these discussions she was having in which she was gauging others’ support for ISIS? With whom? Who didn’t raise the red flags? This highlights a major hole in trying to stop the next Boston bombers or Chattanooga shooter: people engaging with would-be jihadis about the subject, but not passing on red-flag information to the proper authorities.
2. The Hijrah
“In that same conversation Young announced that she is preparing for ‘hijjrah,’ a common reference to journeying to the Islamic State. She further stated, ‘I have [a] hijjrah partner and we are planning to leave before August.’ She went on to discuss some of her concerns about being monitored by Government agencies, and she also added that her travel partner was a ‘brother’ and that she would have to have ‘nikkah’ with him so they could travel together without an escort.”
ISIS markets special guides to females on making hijrah, or the caliphate pilgrimage, and also tutors its followers around the world on how to keep government agencies off their tail. FBI Director James Comey has said this is one of the most dangerous parts about ISIS: when they “go dark” online by focusing on encryption, they fall off the grid of what the agency is able to track.
From an August 2014 “cheat sheet” circulated online:
“One might be asking themselves if they can continue using their old social media on these. The answer is yes, but I do not recommend it whatsoever. If one feels they post things in which they would need this security, which is most Muslims upon haqq who are active online, then they should make a disclaimer saying something similar to, ‘I recant all opinions deemed dangerous or violent expressed on this page. This page was run for educational and analytic purposes only, to study the radical Muslim community for recreational purposes. I invite all those who follow this page to leave such corrupt ideology. I am not affiliated with any groups or organizations deemed terrorist or dangerous otherwise by any Western government or union of governments. I am a law abiding citizen in every regard.’”
“And then proceed to delete all other tweets/posts on the page and after leaving this up for a few minutes, simply delete the page. Make no indication that you have done this based on instructions. You are in a war with these people, we have discussed this earlier. Now, once you are on either TOR with a VPN, TOR, and/or TAILS OS, make a new bitmessage email. Make an alias. Sign-up for Twitter on TOR. Do not post pictures or any indication of who you are explicitly. If you feel the need to alter your writing style a bit, if you were a popular page, do so. You can make subtle indications that this is so and so, however, nothing that can be proven in a court of law. Allah’u must’a’n, may we never see inside one of those rooms for such a purpose.”
It’s also important to note that while social media sites try to take down ISIS accounts, they’re overwhelmed to the point where al-Qaeda accounts go practically unnoticed. Jihadist material also tends to go unnoticed in the black hole of file-sharing sites.
3. ISIS wants people to build a state
Young discussed skills that she and Dakhlalla could contribute to the caliphate: “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.” The FBI employee then contacted Dakhlalla via social media and he confirmed, “I am good with computers, education and media. What could I contribute to Dawlah?”
ISIS not only distributes photo essays of beheadings and Shariah punishments throughout the day, but things like dairy farms and teacher exams. Their “job postings” don’t just call for jihadists, but for engineers, HR professionals, administrators and more. A May video with Australian Dr. Tareq Kamleh showed him working at a hospital in Raqqa and encouraging other Muslim medical professionals to come over.
4. ISIS wants to acclimate Westerners for a special reason
Dakhlalla asked, “Would we be appointed to a city or would we choose to go where we want to live when we arrive?” Young later told a second FBI employee poising as an ISIS financier that Dakhlalla “wants to help with media group and really wants to correct the falsehoods hear here. US has a thick cloud of falsehood and very little truth about Dawlah makes it through and if it does then usually the links are deleted (like on youtube and stuff).” She added that Dakhlalla said “a lot of Muslims are caught on their doubts of IS [because] of what US media says and he wants to assure them the US media is all lies when regarding Dawlah. After he sees change in that, he wanted to joint the Mujahideen.”
A May guide by British jihadist Siddhartha Dhar focused heavily on all of the creature comforts of home that his compatriots could find in the Islamic State, from “fluffy, velvety and sweet” ice cream to Snickers bars and “some of the best lattes and cappuccinos around.” Once they reel in Westerners, they can do what Dhar is doing — speak in a voice that Westerners understand, bridge cultural divides, and rally them to jihad in or out of the Islamic State.
5. Decoy holiday travel
When Young was talking in the early June conversation about flying to Turkey on the “story” of being “newlyweds on our honeymoon” she stressed, “We won’t be flying to Istanbul. We will fly to a different country and take a bus to Istanbul.” She said they’d fly to Greece first, states the criminal complaint.
This suggests that Young had seen some ISIS advice. A 50-page e-book published in February noted, “Travelers to Syria usually want to reach Turkey. But for safety reasons, they buy a ticket for an indirect holiday country like Spain or Greece so their destination doesn’t seem suspicious.” The e-book also suggested buying a return ticket to tamp down suspicion.
6. Why they lure women
Later in June, Young reportedly told the second FBI employee that she couldn’t wait to get to the Islamic State to “raise little Dawlah cubs.”
Some of the more chilling footage to come out of the Islamic State training camps is of the “cubs” training — children being abused as they become indoctrinated in how to harm others in the name of jihad. If ISIS wants to build a state, and a movement that they hope will take over Rome, they want women to be reproducing.
7. The lack of ISIS selectivity
Meanwhile, Dakhlalla was communicating with the first FBI employee and said he’d gotten married to Young. He wanted to know if there was “training and Shariah” as soon as he got to the caliphate, adding, “I am not familiar with Shariah but from what Aaminah [Young] and I researched, Dawlah follows Shariaf correctly, right?”
To not know such an integral detail of the caliphate is odd, but ISIS is happy to take the not-so-sharp-in-Shariah recruits if they’re eager to be molded. ISIS’ magazine, Dabiq, is more Quran-heavy than AQAP’s Inspire magazine, which includes more practical how-tos for jihadis.
8. The homegrown base
The FBI stated that Young said on July 17, the day after the Chattanooga shootings, that she felt better after watching the news and seeing the attack. “Alhamdulillah, the numbers of supporters are growing.”
A big part of ISIS’ methodology is encouraging supporters to bloom where you’re planted. Even if someone can’t make it to the Islamic State (and some publications have pitched financial aid programs), they’re encouraged to further the goals of the caliphate where they are. Even if someone is deterred from running off to Syria, for this reason they need to be taken into custody.
“Wolves,” an April call for jihadists in Egypt to activate said, are “one of the first jihad work stages” and simply indicates “individual small cells” who have a greater chance of taking the enemy by surprise or taking down his compatriots. They don’t need “strength or muscle, huge experience in jihad work” and “each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action.”
“Small firewood is what ignites huge and large flames… wolves will increase their expertise and will move with the time and expertise to the largest operations and to expand and diversify the weapon used.”
9. The grand ISIS plan
Several days later, Young allegedly told the second FBI employee that they were concerned about Turkey cracking down on ISIS seeping across the border, adding that hopefully “Dawlah will begin to expand into Europe soon.”
Another indication that she read the terror group’s online propaganda. ISIS has issued many e-books on its strategy to hasten Armageddon, including the sacking of Rome and enlisting “the Islamic State’s secret weapon = secret white converts” to take on Europe. The strategy expects the defeat of a Russia-Iran alliance, the Roman attack on the Islamic State, and the conquest of Rome by 2020.
10. They want intelligence
At the beginning of August, the criminal complaint says, Young noted they’d be flying out of their small town “with a very small airport that doesn’t have much, if [any], security. In fact when we get to Dawlah In sha Allah I can tell you about it. That’s one US weaknesses [sic] — small towns’ airports have poor funding and less educated staff so it is easier to get through.”
A key reason why ISIS craves any Western recruit is to learn whatever snippets of intelligence they can about places they’d like to conquer or attack. They use Google Earth and similar open resources for much of their planning, but there’s nothing like having an adherent who know his way in and out of U.S. landmarks or an employee at a nuclear or water-treatment facility.