OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — A young Mississippi couple who are charged with attempting to join the Islamic State were ordered held without bail Tuesday, pending federal grand jury action on the charges.
Twenty-year-old Jaelyn Delshaun Young and 22-year-old Muhammad “Mo” Dakhlalla, who were arrested at a Mississippi airport just before boarding a flight with tickets bound for Istanbul, went before U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander in Oxford on Tuesday.
Alexander denied bail, saying that even though the pair have never been in trouble with the law and have relatives willing to oversee their home confinement, she believed their desire to commit terrorism is “probably still there.”
During the two-day hearing, prosecutors had urged Alexander to deny bail, citing statements Young and Dakhlalla made to undercover agents and handwritten farewell letters they left for their families saying they would never return.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner likened them to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, saying that like him, they could commit violence with knives, vehicles or homemade weapons.
“They don’t need a gun to do harm,” Joyner said. “They don’t need military training to do harm. What they need is a violent, extremist ideology, and that’s exactly what they have espoused.”
Alexander agreed that their apparent methodical planning overcame a recommendation by federal court personnel to allow pretrial release.
“It was a very calculated, step-by-step thing,” Alexander said of the planning that led the pair to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport Saturday morning. FBI agents arrested them there, filing criminal charges that both were attempting and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group, a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
An FBI agent’s affidavit said both confessed their plans after their arrest. Defense attorneys declined to comment after the hearing, but told Alexander the material didn’t prove either had committed a crime.
The families of Young and Dakhlalla were still trying to come to grips with the accusations.
Dakhlalla’s family is “absolutely stunned” by his arrest, said Columbus lawyer Dennis Harmon, who represents the family. He said Tuesday they have been cooperating with the FBI.
Dakhlalla’s father, Oda H. Dakhlalla, is the longtime imam of the Islamic Center of Mississippi in Starkville, Harmon said, and has previously been reported to be a native of Bethlehem, in the West Bank. His New Jersey-born mother, Lisa Dakhlalla, has run a restaurant in Starkville and sold Middle Eastern food at farmers’ markets. Harmon said Dakhlalla is the youngest of three sons and was preparing to start graduate school at Mississippi State University.
Harmon said the FBI searched the Dakhlalla home over the weekend and that the family “did not expect this at all.”
The center is in a quiet, older neighborhood in Starkville and the Dakhlalla’s home, which sits across the street, is surrounded by high hedges. A sign stating “private property, no trespassing” greet visitors at the entranceway to the home.
When approached Tuesday by The Associated Press, Dakhlalla’s father referred all questions to the family’s attorney.
Court papers say both Young and Dakhlalla are U.S. citizens. Mississippi State University spokesman Sid Salter said records show Dakhlalla graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, while Starkville High School confirmed Tuesday that he graduated from there in 2011.
Salter said Young was enrolled until May as a sophomore chemistry major but has not enrolled for classes since. Young, originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a 2013 honors graduate from Warren Central High School, The Vicksburg Post reported.
Young’s father, Leonce Young, is a 17-year veteran of the Vicksburg Police Department. He and his wife were present Tuesday for the hearing, but declined to speak to reporters afterward. In court, prosecutors said Jaelyn Young had been trying to convert her sister to Islam as well.
The government says FBI agents began interacting online with Young in May about her desire to travel to Syria to join the group. It says her Twitter page said the only thing keeping her from traveling to Syria was her need to earn money.
“I just want to be there,” she is quoted as saying. In later conversations peppered with Arabic phrases, she said she planned a “nikkah,” or Islamic marriage to Dakhlalla so they could travel without a chaperone under Islamic law.
In June, the first FBI agent referred Young to a second agent posing as an Islamic State facilitator. The charging document says Young asked the second agent for help crossing from Turkey to Syria, saying, “We don’t know Turkey at all very well (I haven’t even travelled outside U.S. before.)”
Young touted her skills in math and chemistry and said she and Dakhlalla wanted to be medics treating the injured. Later, the charge says, she told the second FBI agent Dakhlalla could help with the Islamic State’s Internet media, saying he “really wants to correct the falsehoods heard here” and the “U.S. media is all lies when regarding” the group, which she called by its preferred internal name, Dawlah.
Dakhlalla told the first FBI agent online in June that he was “good with computers, education and media” and that his father had approved his marriage to Young. In July, according to the charges, he said, “I am willing to fight” for the Islamic State group.
Young later told the FBI that she and Dakhlalla got married June 6. She also expressed a desire to “raise little Dawlah cubs.”
The FBI said Dakhlalla and Young both expressed impatience over getting passports and the charges say Dakhlalla paid $340 to expedite passport processing on July 1.
Associated Press writers Jack Elliott Jr. in Jackson and Chevel Johnson in New Orleans and photographer Rogelio Solis in Starkville contributed to this report.
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