ISIS and the Lonely Young American – Rukmini Callimachi/The New York Times
Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.
For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online — the most attentive she had ever had — who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.
One in particular, Faisal, had become her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.
But when she excitedly told him that she had found a mosque just five miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in rural Washington State, he suddenly became cold.
The only Muslims she knew were those she had met online, and he encouraged her to keep it that way, arguing that Muslims are persecuted in the United States. She could be labeled a terrorist, he warned, and for now it was best for her to keep her conversion secret, even from her family.
So on his guidance, Alex began leading a double life. She kept teaching at her church, but her truck’s radio was no longer tuned to the Christian hits on K-LOVE. Instead, she hummed along with the ISIS anthems blasting out of her turquoise iPhone, and began daydreaming about what life with the militants might be like.
“I felt like I was betraying God and Christianity,” said Alex, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by a pseudonym she uses online. “But I also felt excited because I had made a lot of new friends.”
Even though the Islamic State’s ideology is explicitly at odds with the West, the group is making a relentless effort to recruit Westerners into its ranks, eager to exploit them for their outsize propaganda value. Through January this year, at least 100 Americans were thought to have traveled to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq, among nearly 4,000 Westerners who had done so.
The reach of the Islamic State’s recruiting effort has been multiplied by an enormous cadre of operators on social media. The terrorist group itself maintains a 24-hour online operation, and its effectiveness is vastly extended by larger rings of sympathetic volunteers and fans who pass on its messages and viewpoint, reeling in potential recruits, analysts say.
Alex’s online circle — involving several dozen accounts, some operated by people who directly identified themselves as members of the Islamic State or whom terrorism analysts believe to be directly linked to the group — collectively spent thousands of hours engaging her over more than six months. They sent her money and plied her with gifts of chocolate. They indulged her curiosity and calmed her apprehensions as they ushered her toward the hard-line theological concepts that ISIS is built on.
As a Christian, Alex presented the need for an extra step in the process. Yet she helped close the gap herself: Trying to explain the attraction, she said she had already been drawn to the idea of living a faith more fully.
Extensive interviews with Alex and her family, along with a review of the emails, Twitter posts, private messages and Skype chats she exchanged, which they agreed to share with The New York Times on the condition that their real names and hometown not be revealed, offered a rare window into the intense effort to indoctrinate a young American woman, increasing her sense of isolation from her family and community.
“All of us have a natural firewall in our brain that keeps us from bad ideas,” said Nasser Weddady, a Middle East expert who is preparing a research paper on combating extremist propaganda. “They look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack.”
Enticing the Lonely
To get to Alex’s house from the nearest town, visitors turn off at a trailer park and drive for a mile past wide, irrigated fields of wheat and alfalfa.
“My grandparents enjoy living in the middle of nowhere. I enjoy community,” Alex said. “It gets lonely here.”
She has lived with her grandparents for almost all her life: When she was 11 months old, her mother, struggling with drug addiction, lost custody of her. Her therapist says that fetal alcohol syndrome, which has left Alex with tremors in her hands, has also contributed to a persistent lack of maturity and poor judgment.
That only partly explains what happened to her online, her family says.
After dropping out of college last year, she was earning $300 a month babysitting two days a week and teaching Sunday school for children at her church on weekends. At home, she spent hours streaming movies on Netflix and updating her social media timelines.
“All the other kids spread their wings and flew,” says her 68-year-old grandmother, who has raised eight children and grandchildren in a modest but tidy home the size of a double-wide trailer. “She is like a lost child.”
Then on Aug. 19, her phone vibrated with a CNN alert.
James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by ISIS, a group she knew nothing about. The searing image of the young man kneeling as the knife was lifted to his throat stayed with her.
Riveted by the killing, and struck by a horrified curiosity, she logged on to Twitter to see if she could learn more.
“I was looking for people who agreed with what they were doing, so that I could understand why they were doing it,” she said. “It was actually really easy to find them.”
She found herself shocked again, this time by the fact that people who openly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took the time to politely answer her questions.
“Once they saw that I was sincere in my curiosity, they were very kind,” she said. “They asked questions about my family, about where I was from, about what I wanted to do in life.”
One of the first relationships she struck up was with a man who told her he was an ISIS fighter named Monzer Hamad, stationed near Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Soon they were chatting for hours every day, their interactions giddy, filled with smiley faces and exclamations of “LOL.”
“Hole,” she wrote at 10:13 a.m. on Oct. 6.
A minute later, she added: “Hello* stupid autocorrect.”
He replied: “haha how are you?”
“did you think of what i said aboyt islam,” he asked, his messages sprinkled with typos.
What happened next tracks closely with the recommendations in a manual written by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that became the Islamic State, titled “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” A copy was recovered by United States forces in Iraq in 2009.
The pamphlet advises spending as much time as possible with prospective recruits, keeping in regular touch. The recruiter should “listen to his conversation carefully” and “share his joys and sadness” in order to draw closer.
Then the recruiter should focus on instilling the basics of Islam, making sure not to mention jihad.
“Start with the religious rituals and concentrate on them,” says the manual, which was reviewed in the archive of the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University in Washington.
Hamad instructed Alex to download the “Islamic Hub” app on her iPhone. It sent her a daily “hadith,” or saying by the Prophet Muhammad.
She felt as if she finally had something to do.
“I was on my own a lot, and they were online all the time,” she said.
Her Twitter timeline through that period is peppered with posts from her that begin, “Sincere question,” followed by a theological query. They were answered immediately. If before she waited hours to hear back from friends, now her iPhone was vibrating all day with status updates, notifications, emoticons and Skype voice mail messages.
She occasionally pushed back, questioning how the jihadists could justify beheadings. But she had already developed deep doubts about the Islamic State’s portrayal in the media as brutal killers.
“I knew that what people were saying about them wasn’t true,” she said.
Her Skype discussions had even uncovered an unexpected bit of common ground with Hamad, who seemed to know a lot about the Bible.
Later in October, Hamad asked her to reread the Bible and report back on how Christ described himself.
He guided her to verses like John 12:44: “And Jesus Christ cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in He who sent me.’ ”
He explained to her that Christ was a man who deserved to be revered as a prophet. But he was not God.
The discussion unmoored Alex, who had chosen a quote by Jesus to illustrate her high school yearbook page.
One morning, roughly two months after she first began communicating with ISIS supporters, Alex asked to see the pastor of her Presbyterian church. She wanted to know whether the idea of the Trinity that Christians believed in — God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — meant they were polytheists.
Friendly at first, the pastor ushered her out after 15 minutes, telling her she needed to trust in the mystery of God, she said.
The arguments she was hearing online are the textbook approach to luring Christians to radical Islam, says Mubin Shaikh, a former member and recruiter for an extremist Islamist group, who testified before Congress on the mechanics of radicalization and was among those who tried to intervene online as Alex drifted toward extremism.
“I was debating Christians using these same arguments on Yahoo and AOL chat back in the 1990s, when modems made that loud, beeping sound,” said Mr. Shaikh, who traveled to Pakistan to meet the Taliban before renouncing his radical views and becoming an undercover operative for Canadian intelligence.
The next time she attended service, Alex did not stand when the pastor invited the congregation to take communion.
“what you do not know is that i am not inviting you to leave christianity,” Hamad wrote, when she relayed what she had done. “Islam is the correction of christianity.”
Two days later, Alex wrote: “I can agree that Muhammad and Jesus are prophets not God.”
He responded: “so what are you waiting for to become a muslim?”
Soon after, his Skype icon went gray.
Day after day, she looked for him, but he was gone. She wondered whether he had died in battle.
By the last week of October, Alex was communicating with more than a dozen people who openly admired the Islamic State. Her life, which had mostly seemed like a blurred series of babysitting shifts and lonely weekends roaming the mall, was now filled with encouragement and tutorials from her online friends.
One of her new Muslim “sisters” sent Alex a $200 gift certificate to IslamicBookstore.com. She and others chose books for Alex and mailed them to her home. They included an English-language Quran and a basic study guide.
Among the people who picked up where Hamad left off was a Twitter user called Voyager, whose profile picture showed white stallions galloping through crashing waves.
In November, he asked for her email address and told her his name was Faisal Mostafa and that he lived in Stockport, near Manchester, England. He asked for her Skype ID, and soon they began chatting, cameras turned off in keeping with Muslim rules on modesty.
He typically came online when it was 3 p.m. for Alex, and before long they were talking for hours each day, sometimes till 10 p.m. When she calculated the time difference, she realized Faisal was chatting with her from around 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. his time.
Although he spent all night nearly every night speaking to her, the conversation remained strictly platonic, she said. Each day he had prepared a lesson, starting with the fundamentals of praying. They included the wudu, the ritual washing of the hands, wrists, arms, face and feet before each of the five daily prayers. And he emphasized the need for Muslims to place their heads on the ground while praying, citing a Bible verse in which Jesus did so.
She knelt next to her bed, her forehead touching the fuzzy carpet.
Crossing a Line
After dropping out of college, Alex worked for a year at a day-care center, only to resign after a disagreement with her manager. She quit a call-center training program after three weeks, she said, unable to handle angry calls from customers.
Her online conversations became a touchstone at a time when she was increasingly adrift.
Much of it was innocuous banter, ranging from gardening tips (“Try planting purple asparagus”) to dietary advice (“Try bitter melon tea to lower blood glucose”). Other times, though, the talk focused on the details of an uncompromising Muslim life. By the time Christmas arrived, she felt she had crossed a line.
She asked Faisal what it would take to convert.
He explained that all she needed to do was repeat the phrase “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger,” with complete belief and commitment, in the presence of two Muslims.
This presented an obstacle for Alex, who still knew no Muslims in person. Faisal argued that she could post her declaration of faith, known as the Shahada, on Twitter, and the first two people who read it would count as her witnesses.
The night of Dec. 28, as her family watched television, Alex quietly closed the door. She sat on her bed, a crucifix on the bookshelf beside her. For a moment she thought she might throw up.
Just after 9 p.m. she logged on to Twitter.
Faisal acknowledged her declaration right away. So did another online friend, who went by the screen name Hallie Sheikh and whom Faisal had asked to serve as the second witness.
Within hours, Alex had doubled her Twitter following. “I actually have brothers and sisters,” she posted before going to bed. “I’m crying.”
Months later, the Hallie Sheikh Twitter handle came to public attention: That account had briefly interacted with Elton Simpson, the gunman who opened fire on a contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad in Texas, an attack dedicated to the Islamic State.
Starting in January, packages began arriving on the stoop of Alex’s home, bearing the Royal Mail logo and Faisal’s address in England. Inside were pastel-colored hijabs, a green prayer rug, and books that took her into a stricter interpretation of Islam.
She was excited to receive them, but at times the lessons they contained seemed foreign to Alex, even silly – like the admonition against wearing nail polish, because it prevented water from reaching her fingernails when she performed wudu.
One pamphlet hewed to the most extreme interpretations of Islam, laying out “The Rights and Duties of Women.” Those included unquestioning acceptance of polygamy, and warned that daughters should expect to receive only half the inheritance of sons.
Each bubble-wrapped package Faisal sent her included bars of Lindt chocolate.
She said he explained why the brand had special significance: It was inside the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney, Australia, that a man claiming to be acting in the name of ISIS held a group of employees and customers hostage in a 16-hour standoff in December.
At the urging of another Twitter user, she skimmed a biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State.
By late January, she had split her life in two, heeding Faisal’s admonition to “keep a low profile.” She kept her hijab in the back seat of her truck, pulling it over her frizzy red hair only when out of sight of her house.
Church days were the hardest. She continued to prepare her Sunday school lessons, doing her best to sound convincing. In the pews, she bowed her head alongside the rest of the congregation, though in her heart her prayers were different.
The only person who knew of her conversion was her cousin, who was starting to flirt with the idea herself. Together they went to the Dollar Store and bought two toilet plungers. In a park, they put on their head scarves and used the handles to spar in an imaginary sword fight.
When Alex’s grandmother became suspicious about the overseas packages, Faisal arranged to send them to the cousin’s home.
But Alex felt increasingly distressed about lying to her family. And as her secret grew, so did her sense of isolation.
Mr. Shaikh, who spent years recruiting for extremist groups before recanting, says the isolation is intentional. “We look for people who are isolated,” he said. “And if they are not isolated already, then we isolated them.”
Weeks after she converted, Alex had still not met any Muslims in real life.
Online, she discovered that there was a mosque near her home. When Faisal looked it up, though, he learned that the mosque’s steering committee had posted a statement disavowing the Islamic State. He dissuaded her from going, saying it was a government-infiltrated mosque, she said.
In early February, a number of other Twitter users, including Mr. Shaikh, read Alex’s timeline and recognized the signs of her growing radicalization. They threw lifelines into the digital sea.
“I know they seem sweet,” wrote one who went by the handle @KindLadyAdilah. “They are grooming you,” she added, “If you went there you would die or worse.”
“Can I just ignore them?” Alex asked, “I swear I have, like since last night, cutting off ties is hard and they gave me stuff.”
On Feb. 13, @KindLadyAdilah advised her to stop accepting their gifts. Alex promised she would tell Faisal to stop sending them.
But a few days later another envelope arrived at her cousin’s house, containing more chocolate and a Hallmark card decorated with a cutout of a kitten. When she opened it, two $20 bills fell out.
“Please go out and enjoy a Pizza TOGETHER,” it says, signed, “Twitter friends.”
Alex spent her Valentine’s Day curled up on her bed, discussing the theological justification for suicide bombings with an ISIS supporter. She does not know his real name or even what he looks like – his profile picture was of a roaring lion. His handle was @SurgeonOfDeath.
By mid-February, Alex’s virtual community began making more demands. They told her that as a good Muslim she needed to stop following people on social media who were “kuffar,” or infidels.
The fact that she continued to follow a handful of her Christian friends proved to be unacceptable. On Feb. 16, a user on Twitter who openly supported the Islamic State accused Alex of being a spy.
Immediately, people she considered her friends began blocking her.
If only days earlier she had been trying to disentangle herself, now she was begging them not to cut her off. She offered to provide her Twitter password to anyone who wanted to examine her messages.
“To whom it may concern,” she wrote. “A bunch of people thought I was a spy and I’m not, honest,” she said. “I’ve been a Muslim since December 28th and I took the Shahada on Twitter and I’m about 92% sure that being Muslim saved my life.”
It was Faisal who interceded on her behalf.
He introduced her to the administrator of the @InviteToIslam account. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors jihadist propaganda, the account belongs to a radical Islamist group based in Birmingham, England, that is in regular contact with ISIS fighters. The administrator of the account is accused of having played a role in the radicalization of a 15-year-old English girl who left to join ISIS earlier this year, according to media reports.
The @InviteToIslam administrator arranged for Alex to do “a Skype verification.” After an exhaustive interrogation about her online contacts and intent, she was cleared.
“Your a nice person with a beautiful character,” Faisal wrote her three days after the ordeal. “In many ways ur much better than many so called born muslims.”
He added: “getting someone 2 marry is no problem Inshallah.”
A few more days passed before he elaborated: “I know someone who will marry you but hes not good looking, 45 bald but nice muslim.”
In their hourslong Skype sessions, Faisal emphasized that it is a sin for a Muslim to stay among nonbelievers, and their talk increasingly began revolving around her traveling to “a Muslim land.” Though he never mentioned Syria, Alex understood that was what he meant, she said.
She had already begun to imagine her role with the Islamic State as a mother, she said — a goal that felt painfully elusive in rural Washington, where her last relationship ended traumatically years earlier.
On Feb. 19, Faisal suggested she meet him in Austria so that he could introduce her to her future husband, she said. Alex would need to be accompanied by her “mahram,” or male relative. When she asked whether her 11-year-old brother could fulfill that role, Faisal said that would be acceptable.
Two days later, he began asking how and when Alex would get herself and her little brother to Austria.
“Tickets 2 Austria rtn are not that expensive inshallah when (your brother) is ready both come 4 hloiday I’ll buy ur tickets,” he messaged on Feb. 21.
Three minutes later he added: “how long it goin to take (your brother) 2 get out?”
It was around then that Alex began suspecting that Faisal was speaking with other women, too. He acknowledged it, but shrugged it off: “My wife says shes fine with me & my female twitter sisters as long as i don’t run off to syria with them ha ha ha.”
It was only then that Alex searched his name on Google, she said.
Over multiple pages of results, she learned that a man named Faisal Mostafa who ran his own Islamic charity called the Green Crescent, with the same address that the packages to her had come from, was originally from Bangladesh, in his 50s and married with children.
In 1995, the police raided Mr. Mostafa’s home, finding firearms, bullets, shotgun cartridges, timers and explosives, according to the court minutes. Initially accused of plotting a terrorist attack, he received a four-year sentence for firearms possession, after arguing that the explosives were part of his Ph.D. research at Manchester Polytechnic on the corrosion inside tin cans.
He was arrested a second time in 2000, along with another Bangladeshi immigrant. In a trash bag left outside a building where the two had met, investigators found plastic gloves, a kitchen scale and traces of the explosive HMTD, according to news reports. On Mr. Mostafa’s computer, they found a document titled “Mujahedin Explosives Handbook.”
While his co-defendant received a 20-year sentence for plotting a large-scale explosion, Faisal Mostafa was acquitted.
On March 25, 2009, Mr. Mostafa was arrested during a trip back to Bangladesh after the police raided the orphanage run by his charity. According to the court record, investigators determined he had been running a bomb-making factory, after finding explosives and a library of jihadist literature. “It has been proven by the evidence and testimonies that Faisal Mostafa and 11 others,” the court proceeding said, “had chalked out a blueprint for grooming each child as a militant.”
He was repatriated to Britain in 2010 after a nearly one-year detention in Bangladesh.
Alex sheepishly asked him about the jail stints, apologetic for prying into his past. She said he acknowledged having been imprisoned, but characterized it as unfair harassment because of his Muslim faith. He said he had been tortured while in custody.
Multiple attempts to reach Faisal Mostafa for comment were unsuccessful, including by Skype, repeated emails and letters delivered, and accepted, at the address from where he sent Alex packages.
Alex’s grandmother often wakes up before dawn. That is how she noticed that her granddaughter was not sleeping much – seeing her face framed by the halo of her tablet computer in the dark. They began having regular fights, until March, when Alex’s family decided to confiscate her computer and phone at night.
Alex said she found ways to sneak messages to her online community, borrowing phones from friends.
On a sunny morning in late March, Alex’s grandmother decided to confront the man she believed was trying to recruit Alex to the Islamic State.
The family gathered on the brown couch in the living room, Alex’s computer propped on the glass coffee table, with a Times reporter and videographer watching. Her grandmother logged in using Alex’s Skype ID.
No answer. She tried again, and again.
Many tries and more than an hour later, he answered: “Salaam aleikum. Can you hear me?”
Alex’s grandmother identified herself. “I can hear you,” she said.
He hung up.
Unsure what else to do, Alex’s grandmother typed out a long Skype message to him.
“You need to know she is very important to us,” she wrote. “Why would you EVER think that we would let her leave us under the circumstances you were asking?”
She continued: “What are you thinking? We have raised her 24 years to be a faithful Christian woman. Not to be brain washed by you.”
After a few minutes, the family saw an ellipsis next to Faisal’s icon, indicating he was replying.
“I understand you may consider us being radical Muslims whatever that maybe? Well please don’t believe everything on fox news!!” he writes, his message riddled with typos. “We don’t agree with terrorism AT ALL … You have my word but also the word of her friends IN NO way will we ever try to make her harm others or do anything which is illegal.”
She typed: “Nothing you say explains the offer of a trip to Austria, the free ticket, the offer of a marriage deal with an old, bald man.”
He replied that the marriage offer was “a joke.”
Then he gave his word he would not contact Alex again.
Afterward, Alex agreed to hand over the passwords to her Twitter and email accounts. Her grandmother changed them to prevent her from using them. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents came to the house and downloaded her electronic communication history after Alex’s family contacted the agency. An F.B.I. official at state headquarters would not discuss details of the case.
In an email to the family, one of the agents later wrote that no one wanted “to see her get caught up in any of the dangers that she has been extremely close to in the past.” But he acknowledged that Alex was also under scrutiny, saying the agency’s goal was not just to keep her safe, “but also the rest of the country safe as well.”
After the online showdown with Faisal, Alex and her grandparents left for a much-needed vacation in their recreational vehicle, seeking to reconnect.
Alex found she could not stay away from her online friend for long, though. Even though she had come to feel she couldn’t trust him, she still missed his companionship.
Waiting until her grandparents were out clamming on a windy beach on the Washington coast, Alex logged into Skype, the one account her family had forgotten to shut down.
Faisal wrote her right away, and months later they are still exchanging messages.
“I told her I would not communicate with you,” he wrote. “But I lied.”