The day she left to join the Islamic State, Jaelyn Young took a floral backpack with clothes, craft supplies, and a scrapbook. Muhammad Dakhlalla, whose friends call him Moe, packed a bar of soap, gray sweats, and a pack of Starburst minis. She was organized: Her wallet held bank cards and insurance cards, plus a Sonic receipt tucked inside. He loved video games: His only t-shirt featured the robots of Portal 2. On that hot August day, they were headed to Turkey, on their way to Syria.
Moe, 22, had graduated from Mississippi State University in Starkville a few months earlier, in the spring of 2015, and had been accepted into a psychology master’s program there for the fall. He has a friendly, slightly dorky demeanor in conversation, ever the goofy baby brother of an expressive Muslim family. Jaelyn, just turned 20, was a sophomore in chemistry, working in a lab on nanoparticles. High-school friends describe the tiny Vicksburg native as a “spunky, smart robotics chick” from a strict black family, with a Navy veteran and police officer for a father and a school superintendent for a mother. The two started dating in November 2014; she converted just a few months later. By June, they had wed in an Islamic ceremony, although they never obtained a marriage license. Moe and Jaelyn were both academically talented, but neither planned to return to school. God willing, Jaelyn allegedly told their online recruiter, they would be overseas by summer’s end.
The weeks dragged on. They applied for passports, waiting impatiently for them to arrive by mail. Moe wondered whether they’d be assigned a city or could pick one. She wanted to be a medic. He yearned to be a fighter. They asked questions about religion classes and wondered if they would be tested on their knowledge of Islam.
She was nervous about traveling, she allegedly told her recruiter—she had never been outside the United States. He asked about basic training and whether ISIS follows Islamic law. “I am not familiar with sharia,” he allegedly told the recruiter. “I am excited about coming … but I feel I won’t know what all I will be doing.”
Finally, it was time to leave. They used her mom’s credit card to buy tickets on Delta, with a connection in Amsterdam. She carried $367.50, more than enough for a taxi or train to the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where they planned to meet their recruiter. They would stand out, she wrote, because of her “big bushy curly hair,” but she asked the recruiter to bring a head scarf for her to wear during the rest of their journey; she was ashamed to go uncovered but scared to wear a hijab while traveling for fear of drawing attention to herself. Early on a Saturday morning, they drove about half an hour to Columbus, Mississippi, expecting little security trouble at their small regional airport as they departed for their new life.
They were arrested while preparing to board their flight. Jaelyn and Moe weren’t actually talking to ISIS recruiters. Their contacts had been undercover FBI employees the whole time.
Extremist ideas have never been easier to access. Propaganda videos, like the ones Jaelyn and Moe were watching around the spring of 2015, are on YouTube. Extremist communities can be found through Twitter and Facebook; pseudonymous accounts can be opened with just a few clicks. The vast majority of people who watch and read propaganda never act on it. But some begin to believe that the American media offer only a “thick cloud of falsehood” about ISIS, as Jaelyn put it.
In the past three years, the FBI has invested significant resources in tracking and arresting these ISIS sympathizers in the United States. Between March 2014 and April 2017, 125 people have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. But in February 2015, FBI Director James Comey said there were terrorism investigations happening in all 50 states, and later that year, he said more than 900 were open. ISIS, said Comey, is “putting out a siren song through their slick propaganda, through social media, that goes like this: ‘Troubled soul, come to the caliphate. You will live a life of glory; these are the apocalyptic end times. You will find a life of meaning here, fighting for our so-called caliphate. And if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.’”
The FBI closely monitors online communities that discuss ISIS, at times running so many undercover accounts that agents end up investigating one another: An FBI policy guide, obtained and published by The Intercept, notes that online investigations have “previously resulted in resources being wasted by investigating or collecting on FBI online identities,” or employees working undercover. The Bureau also takes tips from a network of sources—from security firms to random vigilantes—who monitor these communities.
The small group of people who have been arrested on ISIS-related charges are an idiosyncratic bunch—they come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and each case is distinctive. But many do share important traits with Moe and Jaelyn. According to the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law, their median age is 25. Three-quarters are American citizens. Nine out of 10 are male. Over one-third are converts to Islam. Although roughly a quarter of cases have involved people of Arab descent like Moe, whose father is Palestinian, most come from other ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans like Jaelyn. Few have criminal backgrounds. Many live with their parents. And roughly 90 percent of cases involve social media, sometimes including online conversation with a recruiter, either real or undercover.
A recent court case shows that activity on Twitter may now be all it takes to get arrested on ISIS-related charges. In February 2016, for example, a Missouri woman was arrested for allegedly retweeting pro-ISIS solicitations of violence against U.S. government personnel. She was charged with making threats across state lines—a novel approach to prosecution in terrorism cases. But the plurality of prosecutions are brought and closed on one charge: conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS. These are cases of people caught on the verge of action, like Jaelyn and Moe—at the airport, or with plane tickets ready in hand. While a handful of cases have involved weapons charges, most don’t. These lonely, isolated admirers of the caliphate hope to join their allies abroad.
ISIS sympathizers pose a terrifying dilemma for law-enforcement officials, who have to sift through droves of online aliases engaged with propaganda—whose owners might live in America or abroad—to identify people who credibly wish to harm the United States. The accounts may not be accessible because of encryption, the FBI agents working the Mississippi case told me, and leads can go dark. Americans expect their government to prevent violence before it happens: Their shared national nightmare is the plot that goes undiscovered before an attack or the known sympathizer who gets away. Faced with such high stakes and uncertainty, the FBI is left to teeter between catching people before they act and walking along with them until they violate the law.
The most remarkable thing about Jaelyn and Moe is that theirs was a largely straightforward case. In less than three months, the FBI had crafted a powerful indictment against them. Theoretically, when the Bureau comes across two kids like Jaelyn and Moe—lost, in love, and grasping toward a dark future—agents could try to set them on another path, reaching out to their families and communities. In reality, though, that’s not what the country has asked them to do.
Jaelyn was good at everything in high school. Yearbook photos show her in cheerleading, robotics, and a competitive singing group; she was nerdy enough to join the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta, the math club, but cool enough to be on the homecoming court twice. The “jolliest junior” of Vicksburg’s Warren Central High School was widely liked and friends with everyone from the band kids to the choir kids to the “redneck country kids,” said her classmate Katie Martin.
Even now, teachers speak about Jaelyn in the shorthand of a glowing report card. “Talk about a wonderful student—she stands out in my mind as one of the top students I’ve ever taught,” said Teri Vollor, who teaches chemistry and history. “She was one of those charismatic, outgoing, fun-loving, cheerleader-types—with a brain. That’s a very unusual combination.” Jaelyn attended Triumph Church, where her mom, Benita, teaches Sunday School. The pastor, Mike Fields, remembers her as a “precious, well-mannered” girl. (Jaelyn declined a request for an interview, and although I spoke with her parents in person, they did not respond to requests for help with fact-checking.)
Coverage of Jaelyn’s case focused on her cheerleading and popularity, but she was most involved with robotics. Her small group, Team 456, would meet at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, spending hours tinkering with their machines. They attended major competitions, where they met famous astronauts and engineers. Jaelyn even met Phil Bryant, the Mississippi governor, at a competition once. (“He crashed our robot into a pillar,” Will Ballard, one of Jaelyn’s teammates, said.)
Although Jaelyn had a lot of friends, “I don’t really remember a lot of people going over to her house, ever,” said Cory Schweitzer, another robotics teammate. Her parents were strict, he said: early curfews, frequent phone calls, no offering rides to other kids. Jaelyn floated among friend groups, never really landing with one. “A lot of times, she seemed almost lonely,” Schweitzer said.
While Jaelyn and her sister, Kaylin, were growing up, Benita was often the only one at home. Their dad, Leonce, is a police officer in Vicksburg who served as a petty officer in the Navy. He did more than a dozen tours of duty abroad, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gone for months at a time, he missed Jaelyn’s first days of school, special events, and high-school graduation. “She begged me not to go,” Leonce said of Jaelyn in court. “But I had a moral obligation to my country.” Benita seemed to regret being so tough on her daughters. It was “just me and my two girls,” she testified. “I had to grow some pretty thick skin to be that strong person because Dad wasn’t there.”
The girls argued a lot. “I’m sorry most of our years were spent fighting and yelling/cursing at one another,” Jaelyn wrote in a letter to her sister. “We were both very strong characters. The things we thought we disliked in each other were only things we disliked in ourselves.”
Jaelyn was in junior high the first time Benita noticed the cuts—five or six razor scars visible on her legs. Benita recalled in court that she scolded Jaelyn because they “looked intentional,” but she didn’t press the issue. Time went on, and Benita thought everything was fine. But looking back, she said, she saw that moment as an early sign that Jaelyn was struggling.
Jaelyn quit the cheer squad her senior year. Leonce told me she was focusing on academics, and Benita testified in court that Jaelyn had been bullied by other girls. By that time, Jaelyn only had one real, close friend, Benita said—likely referring to Kimberly Melton, the daughter of one of the robotics coaches. That September, Kimberly died accidentally after taking cold meds, one of the other robotics coaches wrote on a team message board. She aspirated her own vomit, he wrote, and developed a lung infection. After that, Jaelyn felt like even more of a loner, her mom said in court. Everyone else saw her as charmed, but “she thought a lot of people disliked her.”
Jaelyn graduated from Warren Central in 2013 and headed three hours north to Mississippi State University. Like a lot of college freshmen, she slowly fell out of touch with people back home. According to friends, Jaelyn started hanging out with a group of largely Asian American and international students. “Jaelyn used to be one of the sweetest [girls] I know,” said one of those friends, Inho Yoon, a Korean student two years above her at MSU. “Friendly and kind.”
The second half of Jaelyn’s freshman year brought big changes. She expressed interest in finding a religion that fit her, a friend told me, and started researching Hinduism and Buddhism. At the end of the semester, she got an apartment, but Ballard said she kept it a secret from her parents. That spring, she also started dating Matthew, a mechanical-engineering student a few years older than her from the Mississippi Delta. They had a rocky relationship and took a break over the summer when he left the country to travel in Asia. But when she came back to school that August, she spent a lot of time hanging out with Matthew and his friends—including Moe.
The Dakhlalla family is well-known and well-liked in Starkville, where they’ve lived for nearly two decades. Their small house sits on Herbert Street across from the Islamic center, and Oda Dakhlalla, Moe’s dad, led prayers there for many years. Lisa, Moe’s mom, used to be known as the town “hummus lady” in honor of the spreads she sold at the farmer’s market and at the family’s restaurant, Shaherazad’s. Oda came to the United States as a teenager and ended up at Ole Miss for grad school. Lisa grew up in New Jersey in a white, Christian family. She converted to Islam after she met Oda, and brought her son from a previous marriage, Donovan, to live with them. Oda and Lisa had three kids together—Salah, the oldest, just finished medical school, and Abdullah, the middle brother, earned his doctorate from Mississippi State.
Moe is the youngest. The Starkville native practiced tae kwon do and graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. He also helped his parents out—Jane Harmon, a family friend, said she spent long hours with Moe painting and decorating Shaherazad's when he was a kid. He never complained, said Sami Austin, Harmon’s sister. His manner was always “peaceful.”
Moe started college in the fall of 2011, where he studied computer engineering and psychology. He fell in with a nerdy crew who liked to play board games and video games. He participated in the Muslim Students Association, although not as actively as his brothers. Moe would volunteer from time to time, said the faculty adviser, Rani Sullivan, and “if there was food, Moe was going to be there.” Moe’s brothers would study the Koran; they prayed regularly and fasted. But while Moe went through the motions of religious ritual, he told me in a letter, he was not particularly devout. “I was taking things for granted,” he wrote, “blindly following the faith.”
Oda, however, pushed the boys to be more religious. He was disappointed with their level of devotion to Islam—“they were praying but not focusing, maybe, in their prayers,” he told me—and he could get particularly aggressive with Moe, friends and family said. One by one, the Dakhlalla brothers moved out of the house, leaving Moe alone with his parents. Moe felt pressure to please Oda, who wanted him to get married and get into grad school, he told me: “I was the only one at home, trying to take care of my parents and go through college.” Lisa and Oda fought a lot; family friends said the couple had grown distant and often yelled at each other. Moe describes himself as a “momma’s boy,” but his mother was sometimes checked out, family friends said. She was also a bit of a prepper, distrustful of mainstream media and terrified that the economy would fail and society would fall apart. She kept a month's supply of food on hand, for example, and wanted to have gallon jugs stored in case something happened to the water supply.
Moe is the kind of guy who’s awkward and shy around girls. At the start of his senior year in the fall of 2014, he told friends he had a crush on someone he knew from the gym, but he gave up after a few weeks of fruitless flirting. And that’s when he started spending more time with Jaelyn.
Matthew’s friends thought Jaelyn was bad news. They said she was manipulative, demanding, and pushy, but Moe didn’t think they were being fair. As the weather got colder, and she and Matthew started fighting, Moe was there to listen. They started hanging out, first in groups, then one on one. When Matthew found out they were spending so much time together, he was shocked and betrayed. He and Jaelyn broke up, and in November 2014, she and Moe started dating.
From the beginning, Moe and Jaelyn were isolated. Moe’s friends disapproved of the way the two got together and became less eager to hang out. Friends say Moe had to ask Jaelyn’s permission to go out and see people, and she would get mad when he stayed out late without telling her. When the couple would hang out with Moe’s brother, Abdullah, “They would be to themselves, sitting in a corner,” said Jonathan Dobbs, one of Abdullah’s close friends. “Moe would be on his laptop playing games. ”
Meanwhile, Jaelyn started getting interested in Islam. During her sentencing hearing, Jaelyn claimed Moe introduced her to the religion, although prosecutors alleged elsewhere that she had been interested in converting before they started dating. She said the shahada—the Muslim profession of faith—around March 2015, at Moe’s parents’ house. He taught her what he knew: how to pray, how to recite the Koran in Arabic. She traded shorts and tank tops for modest skirts and dresses. She started covering her head, first with cloth in rich purple and green, and later, only in black. Moe was happy she had converted to Islam, he told friends. Oda also really wanted him to marry a Muslim. When Jaelyn converted, Oda told me, he cried with joy.
Despite their apparent happiness, Jaelyn and Moe each felt under pressure. She was working in a chemistry lab and planning to take the MCAT. “Mom, I just don’t think I can do it,” Jaelyn said during a phone call one night with Benita. “It’s too much.” She had been anxious, she testified in court, and often contemplated suicide. Benita, thinking she was just going through a normal college experience, didn’t have a lot of sympathy. “Tough up, Jaelyn,” she thought.
Meanwhile, Moe felt lost. He was about to graduate and had the option of getting a master’s in psychology at Mississippi State. But he didn’t really want to pursue it. Friends observed that Moe gained weight and appeared tired and depressed. Moe told me he felt “guilty for making mistakes” in his love life—“no more letting someone run my life by telling what’s right and wrong,” he said. He asked family for advice on how to make Jaelyn happy and keep the relationship going.
Many were surprised when they married in early June of 2015. Oda had been hoping to pick Moe’s bride himself, dreaming of someone tall—while he thought Jaelyn was too short for Moe, he told me, he eventually let up and consented to the match. Members of the Starkville Muslim community were invited to their nikah at Oda’s house, but many declined. “It was all a bit fishy, and Abdullah and many of the other brothers at the masjid,” or mosque, “knew it,” said Dobbs. Most folks in the community didn’t know who Jaelyn was: She had rarely attended Muslim Student Association events at school, let alone prayers at the mosque. “There was no contract, no clergy, no agreement of witnesses,” Dobbs said. “We were told the day of and that it would be a potluck dinner.”
But the couple’s closest friends and family didn’t understand what was really going on in their relationship: Over the course of roughly three months, they had slowly become fascinated by ISIS. That spring—it’s not clear exactly when or why—Jaelyn started watching videos featuring Anjem Choudary, the British extremist imprisoned in 2016 for swearing an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. Friends say she started asking questions about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and circulated an article claiming Muslims were supposed to pledge allegiance to the caliphate. She downloaded at least one issue of Dabiq, ISIS's online propaganda magazine. Moe joined in: He allegedly downloaded the organization’s guide to making the trip overseas and started watching the videos with Jaelyn. In one clip the couple viewed, ISIS threw a man, presumed to be gay, from the roof of a building.
Jaelyn’s online presence transformed—gone was the short-skirted cheerleader of her high-school yearbook photos. Her Facebook profile showed two women in hijabs. Her Twitter page allegedly referred to the handle @1_Modest_Woman, perhaps her or her recruiter; “I just want to be there :( #IS,” she wrote. Online, Moe allegedly referred to her by an Arabic name presumably adopted as a nom de guerre—Aaminah, meaning “trustworthy.” Jaelyn began avoiding calls and texts from her family and later took down “posters of my favorite shows and music artists,” she testified. The Mississippi teen had always loved heavy metal.
On May 13, around the time of Moe’s college graduation, the FBI made its first publicly known contact with Jaelyn online. A person using her account had “expressed a desire to travel to ISIL territory,” the FBI noted, using the government’s term for the Islamic State, and had “tweeted and retweeted links to ISIL propaganda.” Over the next 13 weeks, at least two undercover employees exchanged frequent messages with Jaelyn and Moe on social media.
Details from court documents submitted by the FBI allege Jaelyn and Moe talked about ISIS in disturbingly casual ways—a sign either that they were fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, or that they were living in a total state of unreality. Some of Jaelyn’s comments sound like a sorority girl planning her dream home rather than a terrorist plotting destruction. God willing, she told an undercover FBI employee, she would soon be overseas where she could “raise little Dawlah cubs.”
As innocent and maternal as that may sound, it may also reveal the extent of her commitment: ISIS propaganda has featured children executing prisoners in the style of a video game, and refers to boys groomed to be fighters as “cubs.” There were signs that Jaelyn understood the horrific violence of the group she longed to join. After a sailor and four Marines were murdered in July in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she celebrated. Praise be to God, she said, “the numbers of supporters are growing.”
In fact, the pair seemed frustrated about the way ISIS was portrayed in the United States, including stories about ISIS taking sex slaves. “I cannot wait to get to Dawlah so I can be amongst my brothers and sisters under the protection of Allah,” Jaelyn allegedly said. Moe said he wanted to be a mujahid, or soldier engaged in jihad. “I am willing to fight,” he allegedly wrote. “I want to be taught what it really means to have a heart in battle!”
In letters written to their families before they left, Jaelyn and Moe didn’t mention anything about ISIS, distrust of American media, or elation about the slaughter of Marines. Instead, they talked about hopelessness.
“I feel I was not going to make anything life changing in the future,” Moe wrote to his parents. “Making changes here in America feels pointless to me as people in my [academic] field hate change.” He never signed his offer letter from MSU’s grad program, he said: “I did not want you to be responsible for any financial debt after I had left.” He drew a little heart next to his signature, scrawled in sideways, boyish letters.
“I couldn’t cut it here,” Jaelyn wrote in neat cursive to her parents and sister. “I have failed you and I can’t handle the shame. Please forget me. I am not coming back, I couldn’t if I wanted to.” She claimed to have been planning her escape “for almost a year—ever since things went south.” It’s unclear what she was referring to—perhaps family trouble, or academic stress.
In a separate letter, Jaelyn encouraged her sister, Kaylin, to go on mission trips and protect the environment. “Don’t wait until you start to lose hope and begin to think there is no point in helping anyone at all like I did,” Jaelyn wrote. “That was a dark place and I never want that for you.” She asked her sister to treat their parents well. “When you [realize] what they gave up so that we could have food in our mouths and clothes on [our] backs you would feel just as ashamed as I do,” she wrote. “I would do anything to take back any grief I had given them and to just hug them again.”
Jaelyn and Moe both confessed in their letters and after the FBI arrested them at the airport. Both instructed their families not to look for them, but seemed aware that their parents might contact law enforcement anyways. Jaelyn emphasized that their parents weren’t involved, as though to preempt any charges of complicity. They likely expected their families would find the notes after they were long gone, but the FBI arrested the pair at the airport early in the morning.
In the letter to her family, Jaelyn confessed: “It was all my planning—I found the contacts, made arrangements, planned the departure,” she said. “I am guilty of what you soon will find out.” She never talked about Moe as a husband or boyfriend. His mom and dad had taken her in and acted as her “Starkville parents,” she said, so she repaid them “by allowing their son to come with me.” (“He wanted to,” she added.) As she told the authorities in a separate letter, she left home “fully aware of the consequences of my actions, should I be caught.”
It’s difficult to establish how, exactly, the FBI identifies terrorism suspects. “One [way] could be that [they] have a source,” said Jeffrey Ringel, a 21-year veteran of the Bureau now with the Soufan Group, a security-focused consulting firm. When they find potential targets online, they give the information to the FBI: “‘Hey, somebody new just came onto this website, this is their Twitter handle, this is their email address,’” Ringel said. Alternatively, agents might monitor social media or known recruiting sites themselves.
In this case, the FBI says, Twitter was the way in. “Jaelyn was making open, public comments on social media about her support and willingness” to join ISIS, said Christopher Freeze, the special agent in charge of the Jackson, Mississippi, division of the FBI. “It’s not as if we are trolling, or out there just looking for people to open cases on.” Even non-law-enforcement were tracking her. “We watched her account for quite a while,” said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “She popped up on our radar pretty easily.”
As the FBI talked to Jaelyn and Moe, they would have been looking for a few specific signs of action, Hughes said. “Assume for a second [Jaelyn] doesn’t get to the airport or doesn’t buy the tickets. Then, the FBI is in a bit of a predicament about what to do next,” he said. “What tripped her up was the overt act of trying to travel.” Many ISIS-related cases in the United States involve people who want to go overseas and only get as far as the airport. But some don’t even manage that: They are arrested for facilitating others’ travel or simply purchasing a plane ticket.
The Youngs and the Dakhlallas first realized their children were in serious trouble when the FBI came knocking. Oda thought the agents were “pulling my foot,” he said. He had been asleep, and Lisa was at the local farmer’s market. He went to the door groggy, but brightened when he saw who it was: He had befriended a handful of FBI agents over the years, and he and his wife cooked for a couple of these men often enough that they would request certain lamb dishes.
“I’m glad you are here, man! Come on!” he said. But the officers had only come as a courtesy to break the news of the case: “Oda, we are on an official visit,” they replied. Oda eventually came to feel that it “was nice of them [to] come along with these FBI agents that I did not know,” he told me. But initially, he felt betrayed.
Three hours west in Vicksburg, agents paid the Youngs a similar visit. “They came here for 35, 40 minutes, told us she was being charged with conspiring to be a medic or something, and they left,” Leonce told me. He claims he didn’t get any help from the Navy or the Vicksburg police department, where he works: “They don’t care,” he said.
As Jaelyn’s and Moe’s parents tried to process what was happening, they faced an enormous challenge: finding and affording a defense attorney capable of representing a client facing terrorism charges. Across the United States, just over 500 al-Qaeda and ISIS cases have been brought since 9/11. Over time, the federal prosecutors who work terrorism cases have gotten good at it, in part because the government has dedicated substantial resources to developing their skills—the Department of Justice even created a division for sharing best practices. But defense attorneys experienced in ISIS cases are hard to come by, especially in Mississippi.
Moe’s case was handled by Greg Park, a court-appointed assistant federal public defender with a quiet, deep voice. He said the attorneys in his office have been trained on how to handle these kinds of charges, but he also sought help. “I did reach out to other attorneys throughout the country who have handled similar cases and discussed their approach and the results they received,” he said. “And I did an abundance of research on my own.”
Meanwhile, Jaelyn switched attorneys a few weeks into her case. She went through the initial stages with a court-appointed attorney, Ken Coghlan, who runs a private practice in Oxford. But soon, her father approached Dennis C. Sweet III, a high-profile lawyer in Jackson. Sweet implied in court that he took the case as a favor to Leonce. (Sweet did not return multiple requests for an interview for this story.) Jaelyn’s father now seems to feel they were at a disadvantage. “If I had money,” Leonce told me, “she wouldn’t have gotten 12 years.”
Early in March 2016, Moe entered a guilty plea. Prosecutors dropped all charges besides conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS. Since his arrest, Moe had cooperated with them, including giving them Jaelyn’s letters—hundreds of pages of correspondence she had sent to Moe during their time in jail. Even after planning her trip meticulously, going to the airport, and discovering that the government had been watching her for months, Jaelyn still believed they were in it together.
Calling Moe “my habibi,” using the Arabic word for “my sweetheart,” Jaelyn wondered whether he was thinking about cooperating with prosecutors, “to please non-Muslims who are offended that we would dare consider leaving to fight against them?” At various points, she encouraged him not to present false testimony—that they were going overseas to do an éxposé on what she called “the un-Islamic states.” She wrote, “Hey, remember what our plan was, don’t you?”
In jail, she said, “I often find myself going back and forth in my mind” about ISIS and al-Qaeda. She pushed Moe to keep studying: “Before you say ISIS does not represent Islam, I challenge you to read Sharia or Hadith/Sunnah,” she wrote. But she also felt guilty: “I know you felt I ruined your life completely,” she wrote. “I did. I ruined yours, mine, our families’. I single-handedly screwed up everything that could possibly go wrong.”
When Jaelyn’s lawyer brought the letters to a meeting with her in prison, proving Moe had betrayed her, Jaelyn broke down, Sweet said in court. She pled guilty roughly three weeks after Moe.
The undercover FBI employees in Mississippi didn’t just sit by and watch as the couple’s planning escalated. They answered questions as the couple developed their scheme, providing details about travel, logistics, and what ISIS is like. “They expressed an interest to go,” said Freeze. “We provided some basic options, and then they responded.” The undercover agents gave Jaelyn and Moe several chances to back away from their plan, he said, and yet the couple kept going. “I don’t think we overstepped, and the courts didn’t see it that way either.”
A non-lawyer might see this as a form of entrapment, but legally speaking, it’s not, just as Freeze pointed out. To argue entrapment, a defense attorney would not only have to prove that Jaelyn and Moe never would have gone without the FBI’s encouragement—he would also have to show they had no predisposition to travel overseas. Terrorism suspects who consciously agree to commit criminal acts, no matter how theoretical, tend not to win in court with these claims. “Entrapment is just a high bar generally, and it’s particularly high in terrorism cases,” said Karen Greenberg, the director of Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security.
In all likelihood, Jaelyn and Moe both fared better by pleading guilty than they would have if they’d gone to trial, where the government almost always wins. “If you do go to trial, the penalty is immense,” said Greenberg. Of all the sentences that have been given out in ISIS cases to date, the lowest involved a defendant who cooperated with prosecutors. The highest was awarded to someone who went to trial.
The frequent guilty pleas mean the public rarely gets a close look at the FBI’s methods. Not going to trial means key details about the FBI’s operations never come out, because the findings from the discovery phase are never released. In Jaelyn and Moe’s case, this might have included a fuller transcript of their exchanges with the FBI.
“There’s still a lot you won’t find out because the government will say it’s classified,” said Greenberg. “But there’s an awful lot that does come out. And one of the things that can get litigated in open court is the role of the FBI.”
At the last minute, Jaelyn’s lawyer introduced her mental health as a new factor in the case. Roughly two weeks before Jaelyn was sentenced in August 2016, Sweet submitted a 30-page report, paid for by Jaelyn’s parents, that suggested there was reason for concern about her mental state at the time of her decision to join ISIS.
“She was in trouble, hurting herself physically,” said Sweet at the hearing. “She was in trouble, with her grades dropping, isolation, and other things.” Leonce also tried to take the blame for Jaelyn’s actions. “With me gone, it took a toll on my daughter,” he said. “She was lost. … I’m sure there are other servicemen that might not be in a federal court with their kids, but it [causes] a problem. … Today is my day with my child.” At a previous hearing, when Leonce heard that Jaelyn had celebrated the deaths of servicemen in Chattanooga, FBI Special Agent Stephen Thomason told me, he “broke down crying.”
Clay Joyner, the lead prosecutor, dismissed the claims about Jaelyn’s mental health, noting that the psychiatrist’s report found Jaelyn had “a lifelong pattern of manipulation and lying.” Many of her problems were typical of American college students, Joyner argued: “depression, the issues regarding adolescent brain development, sometimes the absence of a parent, a strict mother.” Another prosecutor, Robert H. Norman, pushed back on Leonce’s plea for leniency. “We also have to face the fact that most ... people” who leave their kids behind to serve overseas “don’t end up in a courtroom with a child charged with betraying her country and wanting to join an organization such as ISIS,” he said.
Young people in America have a rich tradition of feeling lost and trying to find themselves. Some have escaped to the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness, taken up heroin, or plunged into the seedy depths of Reddit. Jaelyn and Moe, however, managed to self-destruct in a way that’s both politically charged and morally horrifying. Grasping blindly at their futures, they scratched the country’s most pressing anxiety: what to do about the fear that we will never, ever be safe.
There may have been another path for Jaelyn and Moe. When the government or its partners identify ISIS sympathizers online, especially people without criminal backgrounds like these two, they could intervene and deter crimes from being committed. This is the approach that “has risen to the top of the heap of counterterrorism issues domestically right now,” Greenberg said: what’s known in the counterterrorism world as “off-ramps.”
In Europe, where countries have greater problems with fighters returning from battlefields in Syria and Iraq compared with the United States, programs vary. The governments of the U.K., the Netherlands, and France have set up hotlines where friends and families can call in to report suspicious behavior. Other programs involve a mentor—someone involved in their mosque, for example, or a mental-health professional—who steps in and takes the would-be ISIS sympathizer under his wing. They might read articles together and critique propaganda found online. The goal is to divert the ISIS sympathizers, who are often young, from taking action.
While there are several models being tested in the United States, including a nascent program in Minnesota featured in Wired in January, “none has really taken hold … as the answer,” Greenberg said. The legality of such programs is complicated: How could investigators share information about suspects gleaned through classified FISA investigations? What would happen to community partners if one of their mentees decided to blow up a mall?
The current political climate presents still more challenges to off-ramp-style programs. Community groups in Michigan and Minnesota have recently rejected grants from the federal government to work on countering extremism, citing the Trump administration’s antagonism of the American Muslim community. Recruiting community partners might become increasingly difficult for an administration that campaigned on the promise to fight, not deter, “radical Islamic extremism.” For its part, the FBI sees Jaelyn and Moe’s case as a lesson about the intensity of the ISIS threat. “This just goes to show that ISIS can reach into small-town America, in Starkville, Mississippi,” said Thomason. “They can reach out on social media and engage two students from very middle-class families.”
The worlds they left behind in Starkville and Vicksburg have lurched on. The spring after Moe was arrested, his mother, Lisa, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then, last December, another member of the Dakhlalla family died: Taqwa, the 2-year-old daughter of Moe’s older brother Abdullah, suffocated in her sleep when a heater malfunctioned in her bedroom. She was just old enough to have met her young uncle before he was arrested.
Oda now lives alone in the little house on Herbert Street, once filled with his wife and children and grandchild. When I visited in January, Jaelyn’s clothes and backpack were still there, stuffed in a trash bag on the back porch; Oda said she had her things mailed to him and Lisa after she was arrested, rather than sending her possessions back home. Oda had trouble sleeping and cried often in the months after Moe’s arrest, he told me. He talks about Islam with an almost numerological obsession, and spends hours on the phone with an imam friend who lives a few hours north. He spent a long time searching for a solution to his son’s situation—he wrote to President Obama, and considered reaching out to former U.S. Senator Trent Lott, whose son, Chet, he said he once tutored. Now, he is resigned. “We live in this life according to the plan of God,” he told me. But “I feel … there [are] traps everywhere.”
Moe tutors fellow inmates in English and math at his prison home in Jesup, Georgia. He exercises a lot and reads sci-fi, and he’s thinking about learning a trade—maybe air-conditioning repair, or electrical work. One thing he appreciates about prison, he told me, is practicing Islam. Instead of watching videos alone in a campus apartment with his girlfriend, or memorizing verses under the watchful eye of his father, he feels he has a community. “I meet about 10-15 Sunni Muslims here on a weekly basis,” he told me in a letter. “The first big lesson I learned from my Muslim brothers is that my knowledge about faith is at an all time low. Just reading about the basics of Islam and the oneness of God is a big change compared to listening to it from my parents and community that I grew up in.” A few months into our correspondence, he started signing off as Muhammad, rather than Moe—the “beautiful Islamic name” Oda was so proud to have given his youngest son.
Vicksburg is mostly silent about Jaelyn. The Army Corps of Engineers sustains the town economically, meaning many of Jaelyn’s closest friends and mentors are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they talk about the girl they once knew who was convicted of terrorism charges. There’s “this undercurrent—and it’s not just among my work friends—that anything positive you say about Jaelyn could label you as an ISIS sympathizer or something like that,” wrote Will Ballard, her robotics teammate, in an email. “After her arrest ... Well, it was like she had died, practically. … She committed a crime and is paying the price for it, but I don’t think she deserves to be entirely forgotten.”
Kaylin Young’s senior year at Warren Central High School started just days after her sister was arrested. Jaelyn refused to see her until February 2016, after spending six months in jail: “I just couldn’t—I can’t handle it,” she told the court. But Kaylin got through, winning a small college scholarship from a local Vicksburg club. The Youngs proudly placed a “Southern Miss Class of 2020” sign on their front lawn.
Benita, whom Jaelyn closely resembles, told me her daughter is planning to share her story once she’s reunited with her family—as of now, that won’t be until 2026. Although Jaelyn said during her sentencing that she hoped for a platform to tell others about “the decision that led me here” and dissuade “those who are considering the same path,” she is not speaking with the press. “My daughter ... just wants to do her time and be left alone,” Leonce told me. “She don’t want to talk to no news media. They already painted a picture for her.”
Leonce has a plan for his daughter. “When I retire ... I’m going to get a house out there in the country,” he told me. “I’m going to go [into town] and get what I’ve got to get for the month, and go back home, and we’re just going to live our days.” Jaelyn’s incarceration is “a hard pill to swallow, but after you swallow the pill, you realize that your child is still alive, and to hell with the rest of it,” he said. “All this is God’s work.”
In an alternate world—one where Jaelyn and Moe had really been talking to ISIS recruiters, and actually made their way to Syria, and truly joined the Islamic State—the young pair might have gotten involved in violence. They might very well be dead by now: The FBI theoretically made them safer by apprehending them, and Moe and Jaelyn have both said they’re glad they were not successful in their attempt to run away.
But it’s also impossible to know what the world would look like had the FBI not intervened. Perhaps Jaelyn and Moe would have found a real recruiter and made their journey. Perhaps they would have abandoned the idea—a passing, absurd notion born of unhappiness and anxiety, corrected with time and space and the natural force of inertia. Or perhaps they could have been found by Muslim community members who wanted to help, not prosecute, them. Maybe they’d still be together, somewhere in Mississippi, learning about Islam and figuring out where they belong.