A look at how online recruiters loyal to the Islamic State group persuaded a young woman in Washington state to support their extremist cause.
Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday-school teacher and baby-sitter in Washington state, was trembling with excitement the day she told Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.
For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online 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 she had found a mosque just 5 miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in a rural part of the state, he became cold.
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The only Muslims she knew were those she had met online, and he encouraged her to keep it that way, saying 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 station. Instead, she hummed along with the Islamic State 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 group’s ideology is explicitly at odds with the West, the group is making a relentless effort to recruit Westerners, eager to exploit them for their outsize propaganda value. Through January, 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 group’s recruiting effort has been multiplied by an enormous cadre of operators on social media. The terrorist group maintains a 24-hour online operation, and its effectiveness is 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 the Islamic State 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 on the condition that their real names and hometown not be revealed, offered a glimpse into the intense effort to indoctrinate a young American, 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.
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.
After dropping out of college last year, she was earning $300 a month baby-sitting 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.”
On Aug. 19, Alex’s phone vibrated with a CNN alert.
James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by the Islamic State, a group she knew nothing about. The 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 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 Islamic State 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, “A Course in the Art of Recruiting,” written by al-Qaida in Iraq, the group that became the Islamic State group. A copy was recovered by U.S. 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 jihadis 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 Alex 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 Islamic State 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 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 admired the Islamic State. Her life 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 she was increasingly adrift.
By the time Christmas arrived, she felt she had crossed a line. She asked Faisal what it would take to convert.
He said 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.
Faisal said 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, Alex logged on to Twitter and made her declaration. 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 at 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 the pamphlet 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 the Islamic State held a group of employees and customers hostage in a 16-hour standoff in December.
By mid-February, Alex’s virtual community began making more demands. They told her that as a good Muslim she needed to stop following anyone on social media who was a “kuffir,” or infidel.
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.
Faisal interceded on her behalf.
“Your a nice person with a beautiful character,” Faisal wrote her. “In many ways ur much better than many so called born muslims.”
He added: “getting someone 2 marry is no problem Inshallah.”
A few 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 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 could 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 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 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 Mostafa’s computer, they found a document, “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, he was arrested during a trip back to Bangladesh after police raided the orphanage run by his charity. According to the court record, investigators determined he had been running a bomb-making factory.
He was repatriated to Britain in 2010 after a nearly one-year detention in Bangladesh.
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 in the living room, Alex’s computer propped on the glass coffee table, with a New York Times reporter and videographer watching. Her grandmother logged in using Alex’s Skype ID.
“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?”
He gave his word he would not contact Alex again.
Alex agreed to hand over the passwords to her Twitter and email accounts.
Waiting until her grandparents were out, 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.”