Mississippi arrests: How social media is being used against the Islamic State

The arrest of two young Mississippians, charged with attempting to join the Islamic State, shows how authorities are using social media to track recruits before they can get to Iraq or Syria. 

Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle via AP
Vicksburg, Miss. police officer Leonce Young, left, father of Jaelyn Delshaun Young, leaves federal court following a hearing in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Jaelyn Delshaun Young, and Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, were arrested over the weekend on charges that they were trying to travel abroad to join the Islamic State militant group.

Social media has been a powerful recruitment tool for the Islamic State, but authorities now appear to be using it as a weapon against it, judging by the latest arrest of young Americans who authorities say were looking to join the terrorist group.

Federal authorities arrested Jaelyn Delshaun Young and Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla over the weekend on charges that they were attempting to join and support the Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS, in Syria. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Oxford, Miss., denied bail.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had been interacting with Ms. Young in online conversations since May, after she commented on her Twitter page that she wanted to travel to Syria and join the group, according to an affidavit by an FBI agent. 

In her Twitter account – which was still active as of Tuesday afternoon but protected – she gives her name as “Aaminah al-Amriki,” a name that Mr. Dakhlalla also used to refer to her in his communications with FBI agents. On her Twitter profile, Young says that she is "Married Ukhti" and adds: "Don't follow if you are comfortable with living in Dar ul Kuffar" – the Islamic term for "land of disbelief," often contrasted with Dar al-Islam, the "land of Islam."

Young and Dakhlalla were arrested Saturday morning at Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Columbus, Miss., and charged with attempting and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group. 

Both confessed their plans after their arrest on Saturday, according to the FBI affidavit. Both are US citizens and Mississippi residents. 

An FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the case. The charge in the complaint carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. 

The two are just the latest pair of young Westerners to be accused of trying to join the Islamic State – a terrorist group that has seized control of large portions of Iraq and Syria, but is also drawing attention in the West for its sophisticated recruitment of foreigners on the Internet. 

At least 3,400 Westerners have joined the Islamic State, according to US intelligence officials, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said that 180 Americans have tried to go and fight for the group in Syria, according to a CNN report in April.

The would-be recruits come from varied social and religious backgrounds, and the case in Mississippi appears to be consistent with others in showing that the Islamic State can hold a particular appeal to young women, even young women who weren’t raised as Muslims and appear to have good prospects for the future.

Erin Saltman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, says that the group’s recruitment of women is a “game changer,” because they're not just being recruited to carry out terrorist missions. “They’re being recruited to produce the next generation of the Islamic State," she says.

“They’re being told that this is their spiritual duty, that this is their divine right,” she adds. “They’re being told that they’re helping build a utopian society, that they’re the bearers of this ideology to pass on to the next generation.”

There is “no one profile” for young women being recruited, she says. They’re coming from a variety of Western countries, many as recent Muslim converts.

Young was a 2013 honors graduate from Warren Central High School in Vicksburg, Miss., the Vicksburg Post reported. She was enrolled at Mississippi State University in May as a sophomore chemistry major but had not enrolled for classes since.

Dakhlalla graduated from Mississippi State in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, according to a spokesman for the university. His father, Oda Dakhlalla, is the imam at the Islamic Center of Mississippi in Starkville, according to Columbus attorney Dennis Harmon, who represents the family.

FBI agents first interacted online with Young in May about traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State, according to court documents. “I just want to be there,” she is quoted as saying, and in later conversations – peppered with Arabic phrases, including the group’s preferred internal name, Dawlah – she said she planned a “nikah,” or Islamic marriage to Dakhlalla so they could travel without chaperone under Islamic law. 

“Many of the family members and members of the community do not support Dawlah,” she told the FBI agent in late May. She made it clear that she preferred the positive views of Dawlah held by a Muslim family “with whom she spends a great deal of time," according to court documents. 

In June, Young was passed from the first FBI agent to a second agent, posing as an Islamic State facilitator, at which point she revealed more information. Specifying her skills with math and chemistry, she told the agent that she would like to work as a medic treating the injured for the group.

She also told the agent that Dakhlalla could help with the group’s online media presence, saying he “really wants to correct the falsehoods heard here.” The US media “is all lies” when it discusses the Islamic State, she added.

The first FBI agent also made contact with Dakhlalla in June, according to the affidavit. He told the agent that he was “good with computers, education and media.” In July, he also expressed his desire to become a fighter:  “I am willing to fight,” he said, according to court documents. 

The couple got married on June 6, Young later told the FBI. The couple planned to claim they were traveling on their honeymoon as a cover story, she added. Young also told the FBI agent of her desire to “raise little Dawlah cubs.”

On top of underlying “push factors” that can drive a young woman towards the Islamic State – including feelings of alienation or anger at US foreign policy in the Middle East – Ms. Saltman says there’s “an underlying feminist narrative” to the IS pitch to women.

She gave the example of a meme recruiters have been using that spoofs ads for makeup. Instead of the L'Oreal tag line, “Because You’re Worth It,” the online meme depicts a woman in a full burqa with the line: “Covered Girl: Because I’m Worth It.”

“They’re being told this is empowerment,” says Saltman. They’re being told: “You can see the sexualization of women [in the west] and by taking on this spiritual role, by taking on the full veil, you’re refusing to be objectified.”

Women are also playing an important role in recruitment as well, Saltman says. With their husband’s permission, they’re allowed to maintain social media accounts, which many use to answer questions from other women looking to join the group.

On Q&A forums online, she adds, Islamic State wives answer “very basic questions,” including what to pack for their journey to Syria and new life in the caliphate. The effect is to help remove the “fear of the jihadist.”

“You get to go inside the house, they’re Instagramming dinner,” says Saltman. “It really brings this fear threshold, especially for a female, way down. They’re able to talk to a female who’s already made that journey.”

The sight of the FBI monitoring recruiters on social media instead of shutting the accounts down (where they often quickly reappear on another platform) is welcome, Saltman says, but she adds that what officials need is a stronger female counter-narrative to combat the Islamic State messaging.

“You don’t see that powerful female voice standing up and explaining why this is not empowerment, why this is not an adventure, why this is not building a utopian society,” she says. "We need better counter-propaganda messages that talk to women and appeal to women as a whole."

[Correction: This article was updated to correct the make-up company that uses the slogan, "Because You're Worth It." It is L'Oreal.]

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