WASHINGTON, USA – As a shy, studious teenager in Alabama, Hoda Muthana rarely made waves. After her abrupt transformation into a fiery supporter of Islamic State extremists, she is under the scanner of the top levels of the US government.
The 24-year-old, who has since been married to 3 different jihadist men and has a toddler son, says she regrets her turn to radicalism and wants to return home – but President Donald Trump has personally intervened to block her.
Growing up in Hoover, Alabama, a prosperous suburb of Birmingham with a sizable Muslim community, Muthana was raised by strict Yemeni immigrant parents who forbade her from owning a smartphone – ubiquitous among US teenagers – until she finished high school.
The phone opened her world. Muthana says she was pulled in by messages of the Islamic State group which brainwashed her into flying furtively in 2014 to the militants' self-styled caliphate, which then reigned over vast stretches of Syria and Iraq and had drawn in hundreds of Westerners, mostly Europeans of immigrant upbringing.
Once she arrived, social media gave the Alabama girl a global audience among jihadists. In one tweet, she appeared to torch her US passport. In another, she called Americans "cowards" for not coming in greater numbers to the caliphate's de facto capital of Raqa where she lived among Australians.
In a message preserved by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, Muthana hailed the deadly 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper that satirized the Prophet Mohammed, writing "Hats off to the mujs in Paris" and urging similar attacks.
Detained by US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria as the Islamic State's territory dwindles to its last sliver, Muthana said she no longer believes in the extremist ideology.
"It's not Islamic at all. Anyone that says so, I will fight against it," she told ABC News, speaking in a soft, flat voice and sporting a blue veil.
"I'm just a normal human being who has been manipulated once and hopefully never again," she said.
New world on smartphone
Jordan LaPorta, who attended Hoover High School with Muthana from 2009 to 2013, said he saw her nearly every day as they took advanced classes together.
"We were courteous, and she was a nice, quiet young woman," he told AFP.
"No one, myself included, had any idea that this radicalism was festering when the original story broke in 2015. People far closer to her than I were stunned by the news," he said.
LaPorta, now a student at the University of Alabama Law School, said that Muthana later threatened him for comments he made after her turn to radicalism, by tagging him on Instagram, calling him a "nerd" and saying he "deserved a neck" – a threat he reported to the FBI.
Muthana's father gave her a smartphone when she graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She "really found a place of belonging on her phone, online," said Hassan Shibly, a lawyer for the family.
Islamic State recruiters "preyed upon her" and "gave her so much attention and played with her mind and they cut her off from her friends, from her family, from her community, from her mosque," Shibly said.
Father feels American
In a highly unusual move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Muthana is not a US citizen, even though she traveled to Syria on a US passport.
"This is a woman who inflicted enormous risk on American soldiers, on American citizens. She is a terrorist. She's not coming back," Pompeo told the Fox Business Network on Thursday.
The US Constitution's 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, grants citizenship to everyone born in the country – with the exception of children of diplomats, as they are not under the jurisdiction of the United States.
US officials say that Muthana's father, Mohammed, served at the Yemeni mission at the United Nations and that his daughter was never entitled to citizenship. The family lawyer contests this, saying Mohammed Muthana was no longer a diplomat when his daughter was born in New Jersey.
Mohammed Muthana, in a 2015 interview with BuzzFeed News when his daughter's case came to light, voiced sorrow.
"America is my country now," he said. "My kids' country. And if for me as an American citizen, if asked to me to defend this country, I will defend it."
LaPorta, her classmate, said that Hoover residents in a private Facebook group overwhelmingly said they did not want her back. He said she should return but face charges.
"As for me, I do have some degree of sympathy. Young people make mistakes, and she has a young child not implicated in any of this due to any fault of his own," he said.
"But fleeing the country to join a terrorist organization is not an act of mere youthful indiscretion. Actions have consequences." – Rappler.com