Gone Girl: An Interview With An American In ISIS
In her first tweet from Syria, “Umm Jihad” uploaded a picture of four passports — American, Canadian, U.K., and Australian — being held by hands garbed in the black gloves worn by the most conservative Muslim women. “Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore, alhamdulliah [thanks be to God],” she captioned the image. Now that they were living under the Islamic State, no other nationality mattered.
Using her account @ZumarulJannah, which has now been suspended, Umm Jihad expressed contempt for the United States. “Soooo many Aussies and Brits here,” she tweeted. “But where are the Americans, wake up u cowards.” If other American ISIS supporters couldn’t make it to Syria, she said, “Terrorize the kuffar [derogatory term for non-Muslims] at home.”
“Americans wake up!” she tweeted on March 19. “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 n drive all over them. Kill them.”
BuzzFeed News has confirmed this anti-American ISIS member is a 20-year-old American citizen named Hoda who ran away from her home in Hoover, Alabama, in November to become an ISIS member, bride, and, now, widow.
After BuzzFeed News identified Hoda and found her family, she agreed to give a series of exclusive interviews from Raqqah, Syria, over the messaging app Kik, on the condition that no images of her uncovered face would be published.
The family requested BuzzFeed News not use Hoda’s last name, or the names of her mother or siblings due to concerns about their safety. In addition to the Kik conversations with Hoda, BuzzFeed News spoke at length to her father, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammed.
A naturalized U.S. citizen who fled Yemen with his wife more than 20 years ago, Mohammed watched from across an ocean as his country descended into civil war. As each of his five children was born, far away from falling bombs and tribal violence, he thanked God for their lives in the United States.
Mohammed never imagined that his youngest daughter would grow to hate the country that had given the family refuge, or that she would run away from home to a battlefield in the Middle East.
Driving through Hoover, located roughly 20 minutes outside of Birmingham, Alabama, it’s impossible not to notice the yellow and red flags attached to every other light pole and signpost. “Hoover: Voted Top 30,” they display. “Out of 550 cities, Hoover ranked in the Top 30 as one of the Best Places To Live in the US.”
The suburb has a significant Muslim population and three mosques. Locals say this is due to the town’s proximity to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, or UAB, a school that attracts students from around the world through international recruitment and education programs, some of which are in Middle Eastern countries. Hoda studied business here before she left for Syria.
At the heart of the community is the 25-year-old Birmingham Islamic Society, which has on its homepage “An Open Letter Condemning ISIS Ideology” and “Our stand Against Terrorism.” Citing the Qur'an, the society states in no uncertain terms that they and their members oppose ISIS and, in the 23-page letter, lays out all of the ways that ISIS has violated the tenets of Islam.
Each week, two police officers are dispatched to direct traffic in the overflowing parking lot of the town’s central mosque for Friday prayers. At the service on the first Friday of April, the imam delivered a sermon about how parents are responsible for guiding their children and leading by example.
Hoda’s father, a deeply religious man, said he cannot understand how he failed to do this with his youngest daughter, and guilt weighs heavily upon him. “I want to apologize for what my daughter did,” he said.
Mohammed is a compact man, with wispy graying hair and haunted eyes behind glasses that filled with tears throughout the interview. He speaks English with a heavy accent and a slight tremor, due more to his emotional state than his command of the language.
The father of five said the only reason he agreed to talk to BuzzFeed News is because he hopes that by sharing his family’s story, it will save another family from losing a child to ISIS.
“I believe she been brainwashed,” Mohammed said, when first asked about his youngest daughter. “She’s not that kind of girl. They brainwashed her.”
“Everyone’s parents or family members says that about those who have come here,” Hoda said of her father’s accusation. “To that I say, 'Fear Allah, fear Allah with what you accuse us of.'”
Mohammed said that he and his wife permanently moved to the United States from Yemen before their first child was born in 1992. All of his children were born in the United States, Mohammed said, and all the members of his family are American citizens. Like many in the Hoover community, the women in his family dress modestly and wear the hijab whenever they leave their home.
Many people, including Hoda during her Kik exchanges, described her parents as “very strict,” a fact that Mohammed does not dispute. “I'm sure that every family controls their kids like I do, and like I did to Hoda,” He said. “But [ISIS] found somehow, some way to go through.”
Ellie V. Hall / BuzzFeed News
Mohammed was the person who gave Hoda the device that would ultimately let ISIS supporters get through to his daughter — her smartphone. Hoda received hers in May 2013 after graduating from Hoover High School. Mohammed explained that his children did not have phones until after graduation.“Their present from me is a cell phone,” he said.
The use of the phone, however, was limited by the family’s conservative rules. “When [Hoda] get 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 said. Although Hoda’s brothers and Mohammed himself have Facebook accounts — with pictures of themselves visible — the women of the family were not to have social media accounts or use messaging apps to communicate with anyone besides family members.
To enforce this, Mohammed would often check his daughter’s phone. When Hoda would object, claiming that everything on her phone was hers, and private, Mohammed said he would respond, “Yeah, you're private but I am a father; I need to know what you do.”
“When I get the phone from her,” he said, “Sometimes she scared, and I thought, What do you have?”
What Hoda had on her phone, Mohammed said, were Islamic apps. “Nothing but hadiths, Qur'an, suras. Nothing suspicious that makes me worried about her actions. Nothing.” If anything, he and his wife were concerned that Hoda might be secretly talking to boys.
Although she had been a practicing Muslim all her life, over the year and a half before she left for Syria, she had visibly become more devout, due, in part, she said, to scholars and interpretations of Islam she found on the internet.
“I started getting interested in my deen [religious life] around 2012,” Hoda said on Kik of her religious awakening. “I felt like my life was so bland without it. Life has much more meaning when u know why ur here.”
She explained that she started watching scholars lecture about Islam on YouTube.
These internet scholars influenced her faith more than her local religious influences, according to Hoda. “I didn’t like my Islamic community far too much.”
Hoda’s newfound dedication to her faith was a source of pride to her father, particularly her commitment to memorizing the Qur'an. Mohammed said that she would write out the words of the holy book in English and Arabic to help her memorize, filling many books. He was particularly proud, he said, when Hoda memorized one of the most important chapters of the Qur'an, Surat Al-Kahf, which tells the story of the societal backlash against the first adopters of Islam, who were forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in a cave. According to Muslim teaching, people who recite this surat on Friday will be forgiven their sins until the next Friday.
Mohammed said that he had no idea that her devotion would lead her to ISIS. “When I heard her memorizing one of the biggest suras — Surat Al-Kahf — I was comfortable because she’s a true Muslim, disciplined, but I didn’t know she’s going to go that far. Honestly. Nobody knows.”
Hoda said that her parents saw her change over time as she deepened her faith. “I dressed and behaved more modestly,” she said. “It helped me with my temper and made me a better person overall. They liked the change until they saw me getting ‘jihadi.’”
Unbeknownst to her father until after she ran away, Hoda’s “jihadi” evolution was both influenced by and supported by social media. In the fall of 2013, she secretly set up a Twitter account and, over time, gained thousands of followers. Online, she “met” known ISIS members and supporters, like Aqsa Mahmood, who ran away from her home in Scotland to join the militant group. She would post religious and activist posts freely, under many different usernames, among them @AhlulDhikr and @ZumarulJannah.
A former classmate and casual friend of Hoda’s was one of her few followers who actually knew her in real life. The woman, who wears the hijab and is an active member of the Birmingham Islamic Society and UAB’s Muslim Student Association, asked not to be named because she did not want to be associated with Hoda’s actions. She said that Hoda was “very different” on Twitter than she was in person.
“She was kind of an activist, but it didn't show in person,” she said. “She would post really controversial issues on Twitter, sometimes, or like, religious issues.“ Hoda’s friend said that she was confused by this change. “You would never have thought that she was anything other than a quiet, shy girl,” she said.
According to her friend, Hoda portrayed herself on social media to be more religious than she actually was. “It was like a different personality,” her friend said. One example she gave was the fact that Hoda claimed online that she had only worn the modest robe-like dresses called jilbābs and abayas in public since the eighth grade. “But like, she would only wear pants,” she said. (Hoda said that she never claimed to have dressed modestly from such a young age and struggled with her dress until “late 2013.”)
Hoda's friend said she guessed Hoda lied because she had gained thousands of followers by tweeting in this conservative, religious persona. “I really think that her Twitter was her alter ego,” she said. “What she lacked in her personality she would make up for on Twitter.”
Increasingly, Hoda’s alter ego supported radical interpretations of Islam. “She posted a lot of really weird things” that were “radical” and “religious extremist,” her friend said. “Things that aren’t average Muslim women views.”
Hoda would tweet about the stupidity of nationalities and nationalist identity, her friend said, or “call out” other Muslim women for not wearing the hijab “properly,” stating that all Muslim women should wear the niqab, a conservative covering that shows only a woman’s eyes.
As soon as BuzzFeed News started asking the friend about Hoda’s Twitter account, she guessed that Hoda had left to join ISIS. “I just kind of expected it from her,” she said.
Hoda’s classmates and her father both described her as someone who didn’t have any friends in real life. According to her, this was a conscious choice on her part.
“I literally isolated myself from all my friends and community members the last year I was in America,” she said, explaining that she didn’t want to associate with anyone who didn’t share her interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that she said demanded every Muslim move to ISIS-controlled territory. “As I grew closer to my deen, I lost all my friends, I found none in my community that desired to tread the path I was striving for.”
Hoda told BuzzFeed News that she had been planning to move to Syria since November 2013. “People are nice [in Hoover] but they’re all about the dunya (the material world), which I didn’t like,” she said.
Hoda said that her parents weren’t entirely in the dark about what their daughter’s newfound religious interest might lead to. “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.’’’