According to an in-depth Buzzfeed News report, a 20-year-old Alabama college student from Hoover was radicalized through social media and ultimately abandoned her family to join the so called Islamic State.
The student, who Buzzfeed identifies as “Hoda,” now resides in an ISIS-controlled area of Syria, leaving her family in Birmingham to wonder exactly how it all happened.
“I want to apologize for what my daughter did,” Hoda’s father, Mohammed, told Buzzfeed. “I believe she’s been brainwashed. She’s not that kind of girl. They brainwashed her.”
Mohammed and his wife moved to the United States from Yemen in 1992. All of his children were born here and are American citizens. He says he “controls his kids” like “every family,” but that ISIS “found somehow, some way to (get) through” to his daughter.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for Mohammed to come to grips with is that at present he gave his daughter appears to be the way they “got through” to her.
Upon her graduation in 2013, Mohammed gave his daughter her first cell phone.
“When (Hoda) got a cell phone, she went on it like any teenager happy with a phone, and she opened Facebook and I saw some of her pictures, herself, and I told her, ‘No, that’s not acceptable,” he recalls.
“Sometimes she (was) scared, and I thought, What do you have?”
He found what he described as “Islamic apps,” like the Qur’an, but nothing that sparked suspicion. He was actually more suspicious that she was talking to boys than he was that she was being radicalized.
Hoda now says that she became interested in deepening her commitment to Islam by watching radicalized Islamic scholars on YouTube. And initially her family liked the changes they saw in her.
“I dressed and behaved more modestly,” she said. “It helped me with my temper and made me a better persons overall. They liked the change until they saw me getting ‘jihadi’.”
She later set up a Twitter account without her father’s knowledge and gained thousand of followers, ultimately interacting with known ISIS members.
One of the few Twitter followers she had who actually knew her personally from the Birmingham Islamic Society – which vehemently condemns ISIS on its website – said she was clearly different online than in person.
“She was kind of an activist, but it didn’t show in person,” the friend told Buzzfeed. “She would post really controversial issues on Twitter, sometimes, or like, religious issues. (But in person) you would never have thought that she was anything other than a quiet, shy girl.”
While she maintained the “quiet girl” act at home and began isolating herself from her friends, she identified more and more with radicalized ISIS members and supporters online – the people who would ultimately help her execute an elaborate plan to abandon her family and move to ISIS-controlled territory.
She started her journey by lying to her parents, telling them she needed to go to Atlanta for a college field trip. She left one morning last November carrying only a purse and a school bag. Later that evening she told her family she had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus, and rather than coming back to Birmingham, she would have to stay the night in Atlanta. The following day the family received a call from an unknown number. It was Hoda. She was in Turkey and revealed to them that she was becoming a member of the Islamic State.
“People are nice (in Hoover) but they’re all about the dunya (the material world), which I didn’t like,’ she said.
And in spite of what her father now says, she speculates that her parents may have had some inclination of where things were headed.
“They didn’t know I was leaving, but they had an idea,” Hoda said. “They’d see news reports about girls who have made it (to Syria) and say things like, ‘Hoda would probably do that.”
She now laughs off the idea that she has somehow been brainwashed.
“Everyone’s parents or family members says that about those who have come here,” Hoda said. “To that I say, ‘Fear Allah, fear Allah, with what you accuse us of.”
Online, she’s even bolder, urging Muslims she left behind in Alabama to violently attack their enemies.
“Americans wake up!” she tweeted on March 10. “Men and women altogether. You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades…go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Kill them.”
Around Christmas of last year, Hoda married a 23-year-old ISIS fighter. He was killed by Jordanian air strikes less than three months later. In spite of that, she has remained committed to staying in ISIS-controlled territory.
“She’s gone,” her father said. “She’s gone.”