A Mississippi woman charged with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization, the Islamic State militant group, pleaded guilty to the count in court Tuesday.
Jaelyn Young, a former Mississippi State University student, could spend up to 20 years in prison and a lifetime of probation, along with fines totaling $250,000. Ms. Young’s fiance, Muhammad Dakhlalla, pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month. Both await sentencing.
Mr. Dakhalla, 23, and Young, 20, both United States citizens, were apprehended last August while attempting to board a flight to Turkey en route to Syria, and IS. The couple was arrested at a Mississippi airport following a months-long investigation by federal agents.
Young's story follows a now-familiar pattern of young Westerners sympathetic to prejudice and persecution experienced by Muslims around the world turning to the brutal militant group. The Islamic State capitalizes on these sympathies, telling young people that they will be able to help marginalized Muslims by joining the militant group.
Young says she converted to Islam last March, and became invested in the treatment of Muslims in Western countries such as the US and Britain. She also began wearing a burqa and following the actions of IS online, calling the group "liberators."
"After her conversion, Young distanced herself from family and friends and felt spending time with non-Muslims would be a bad influence," a prosecution statement read, according to The Associated Press.
A sudden interest in Islam combined with social disconnection can be a red flag for families, but one that parents may be unsure how to address because they worry that involving authorities could land their children in jail, Christianne Boudreau, a Canadian mother who has started a program designed to support parents in family-based interventions, told the Monitor's Warren Richey last fall.
Boudreau’s Hayat Canada program is based on the research of Daniel Koehler, director of the Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. Mr. Koehler also has organized an international network of mothers who have lost sons and daughters called Mothers for Life.
His idea is that Islamic State recruiters are operating largely unopposed in their efforts to identify and radicalize vulnerable men and women in Western countries.
“What I am doing is leveling the playing field, building up an opponent where so far there was no opponent,” he says.
In effect, Koehler, Boudreau, and other counselors serve as advocates for the family – specialists trained to help families pull a son or daughter back from the brink and into the protective embrace of the home and community.
“I would look at the family, figure out the individual driving factors for the radicalization, and then I would bring in external experts or others,” Koehler says, describing his process.
“For example, if the family member is experiencing bullying in school or treatment with disrespect, or needs to find a job, education, anything like that, I would talk to the teacher, talk to the head of the school, or talk to the employer and try to investigate everything that is driving the radicalization.”
It is unclear what factors may have contributed to Young's radicalization, but understanding her story could help families to intervene before they become so deeply entrenched that law enforcement becomes involved.
Young watched footage of IS actions, such as a video of the militants throwing a man accused of being gay off a roof, and expressed her support for the actions of the shooter who opened fire at a military center in Chattanooga, Tenn., last July.
"Young continually asked Dakhlalla when they were going to join (the Islamic State group) and began to express hatred for the US government and to express support for the implementation of Sharia law in the United States," the prosecution said.
By May of last year, Young had begun seeking help online to connect with IS. She commented on Twitter that she was interested in traveling to Syria to join the militants, after which undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents contacted her. The agents posed as IS recruiters and were able to find that she wanted to use her math and chemistry skills to help treat wounded fighters with Dakhlalla, who they said she pushed toward joining the terror group.
"Do not alert the authorities. I will contact you soon. I am safe. Don't look for me because you won't be able to retrieve me if you tried. I am leaving to become a medic," Young wrote in letter to her family, the AP reported.
Dakhlalla and Young were married in an Islamic ceremony in June, and initially planned to claim they were on their honeymoon to cover for their travel to IS. The couple now joins the more than 80 US citizens who have been charged with conspiring to join or aid the Islamic State since 2013.
Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.