Gone Girl: An Interview With An American In ISIS

Why would an American college student run away to Syria and join ISIS? Meet Hoda, a 20-year-old woman from Alabama — and the devastated father she left behind.

HOOVER, Alabama — In her first tweet from Syria, “Umm Jihad” uploaded a picture of four passports — American, Canadian, U.K., and Australian — being held by hands garbed in the black gloves worn by the most conservative Muslim women. “Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore, alhamdulliah [thanks be to God],” she captioned the image. Now that they were living under the Islamic State, no other nationality mattered.

Using her account @ZumarulJannah, which has now been suspended, Umm Jihad expressed contempt for the United States. “Soooo many Aussies and Brits here,” she tweeted. “But where are the Americans, wake up u cowards.” If other American ISIS supporters couldn’t make it to Syria, she said, “Terrorize the kuffar [derogatory term for non-Muslims] at home.”

“Americans wake up!” she tweeted on March 19. “Men and women altogether. You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades..go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them.”

BuzzFeed News has confirmed this anti-American ISIS member is a 20-year-old American citizen named Hoda who ran away from her home in Hoover, Alabama, in November to become an ISIS member, bride, and, now, widow.

After BuzzFeed News identified Hoda and found her family, she agreed to give a series of exclusive interviews from Raqqah, Syria, over the messaging app Kik, on the condition that no images of her uncovered face would be published.

The family requested BuzzFeed News not use Hoda’s last name, or the names of her mother or siblings due to concerns about their safety. In addition to the Kik conversations with Hoda, BuzzFeed News spoke at length to her father, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammed.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who fled Yemen with his wife more than 20 years ago, Mohammed watched from across an ocean as his country descended into civil war. As each of his five children was born, far away from falling bombs and tribal violence, he thanked God for their lives in the United States.

Mohammed never imagined that his youngest daughter would grow to hate the country that had given the family refuge, or that she would run away from home to a battlefield in the Middle East.

Driving through Hoover, located roughly 20 minutes outside of Birmingham, Alabama, it’s impossible not to notice the yellow and red flags attached to every other light pole and signpost. “Hoover: Voted Top 30,” they display. “Out of 550 cities, Hoover ranked in the Top 30 as one of the Best Places To Live in the US.”

The suburb has a significant Muslim population and three mosques. Locals say this is due to the town’s proximity to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, or UAB, a school that attracts students from around the world through international recruitment and education programs, some of which are in Middle Eastern countries. Hoda studied business here before she left for Syria.

At the heart of the community is the 25-year-old Birmingham Islamic Society, which has on its homepage “An Open Letter Condemning ISIS Ideology” and “Our stand Against Terrorism.” Citing the Qur'an, the society states in no uncertain terms that they and their members oppose ISIS and, in the 23-page letter, lays out all of the ways that ISIS has violated the tenets of Islam.

Each week, two police officers are dispatched to direct traffic in the overflowing parking lot of the town’s central mosque for Friday prayers. At the service on the first Friday of April, the imam delivered a sermon about how parents are responsible for guiding their children and leading by example.

Hoda’s father, a deeply religious man, said he cannot understand how he failed to do this with his youngest daughter, and guilt weighs heavily upon him. “I want to apologize for what my daughter did,” he said.

Mohammed is a compact man, with wispy graying hair and haunted eyes behind glasses that filled with tears throughout the interview. He speaks English with a heavy accent and a slight tremor, due more to his emotional state than his command of the language.

The father of five said the only reason he agreed to talk to BuzzFeed News is because he hopes that by sharing his family’s story, it will save another family from losing a child to ISIS.

“I believe she been brainwashed,” Mohammed said, when first asked about his youngest daughter. “She’s not that kind of girl. They brainwashed her.”

“Everyone’s parents or family members says that about those who have come here,” Hoda said of her father’s accusation. “To that I say, 'Fear Allah, fear Allah with what you accuse us of.'”

Mohammed said that he and his wife permanently moved to the United States from Yemen before their first child was born in 1992. All of his children were born in the United States, Mohammed said, and all the members of his family are American citizens. Like many in the Hoover community, the women in his family dress modestly and wear the hijab whenever they leave their home.

Many people, including Hoda during her Kik exchanges, described her parents as “very strict,” a fact that Mohammed does not dispute. “I'm sure that every family controls their kids like I do, and like I did to Hoda,” He said. “But [ISIS] found somehow, some way to go through.”

Mohammed was the person who gave Hoda the device that would ultimately let ISIS supporters get through to his daughter — her smartphone. Hoda received hers in May 2013 after graduating from Hoover High School. Mohammed explained that his children did not have phones until after graduation.“Their present from me is a cell phone,” he said.

The use of the phone, however, was limited by the family’s conservative rules. “When [Hoda] get a cell phone, she went on it like any teenager happy with a phone, and she opened Facebook and I saw some of her pictures, herself, and I told her, ‘No, that's not acceptable,’” he said. Although Hoda’s brothers and Mohammed himself have Facebook accounts — with pictures of themselves visible — the women of the family were not to have social media accounts or use messaging apps to communicate with anyone besides family members.

To enforce this, Mohammed would often check his daughter’s phone. When Hoda would object, claiming that everything on her phone was hers, and private, Mohammed said he would respond, “Yeah, you're private but I am a father; I need to know what you do.”

“When I get the phone from her,” he said, “Sometimes she scared, and I thought, What do you have?”

What Hoda had on her phone, Mohammed said, were Islamic apps. “Nothing but hadiths, Qur'an, suras. Nothing suspicious that makes me worried about her actions. Nothing.” If anything, he and his wife were concerned that Hoda might be secretly talking to boys.

Although she had been a practicing Muslim all her life, over the year and a half before she left for Syria, she had visibly become more devout, due, in part, she said, to scholars and interpretations of Islam she found on the internet.

“I started getting interested in my deen [religious life] around 2012,” Hoda said on Kik of her religious awakening. “I felt like my life was so bland without it. Life has much more meaning when u know why ur here.”

She explained that she started watching scholars lecture about Islam on YouTube.

These internet scholars influenced her faith more than her local religious influences, according to Hoda. “I didn’t like my Islamic community far too much.”

Hoda’s newfound dedication to her faith was a source of pride to her father, particularly her commitment to memorizing the Qur'an. Mohammed said that she would write out the words of the holy book in English and Arabic to help her memorize, filling many books. He was particularly proud, he said, when Hoda memorized one of the most important chapters of the Qur'an, Surat Al-Kahf, which tells the story of the societal backlash against the first adopters of Islam, who were forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in a cave. According to Muslim teaching, people who recite this surat on Friday will be forgiven their sins until the next Friday.

Mohammed said that he had no idea that her devotion would lead her to ISIS. “When I heard her memorizing one of the biggest suras — Surat Al­-Kahf — I was comfortable because she’s a true Muslim, disciplined, but I didn’t know she’s going to go that far. Honestly. Nobody knows.”

Hoda said that her parents saw her change over time as she deepened her faith. “I dressed and behaved more modestly,” she said. “It helped me with my temper and made me a better person overall. They liked the change until they saw me getting ‘jihadi.’”

Unbeknownst to her father until after she ran away, Hoda’s “jihadi” evolution was both influenced by and supported by social media. In the fall of 2013, she secretly set up a Twitter account and, over time, gained thousands of followers. Online, she “met” known ISIS members and supporters, like Aqsa Mahmood, who ran away from her home in Scotland to join the militant group. She would post religious and activist posts freely, under many different usernames, among them @AhlulDhikr and @ZumarulJannah.

A former classmate and casual friend of Hoda’s was one of her few followers who actually knew her in real life. The woman, who wears the hijab and is an active member of the Birmingham Islamic Society and UAB’s Muslim Student Association, asked not to be named because she did not want to be associated with Hoda’s actions. She said that Hoda was “very different” on Twitter than she was in person.

“She was kind of an activist, but it didn't show in person,” she said. “She would post really controversial issues on Twitter, sometimes, or like, religious issues.“ Hoda’s friend said that she was confused by this change. “You would never have thought that she was anything other than a quiet, shy girl,” she said.

According to her friend, Hoda portrayed herself on social media to be more religious than she actually was. “It was like a different personality,” her friend said. One example she gave was the fact that Hoda claimed online that she had only worn the modest robe-like dresses called jilbābs and abayas in public since the eighth grade. “But like, she would only wear pants,” she said. (Hoda said that she never claimed to have dressed modestly from such a young age and struggled with her dress until "late 2013.")

Hoda's friend said she guessed Hoda lied because she had gained thousands of followers by tweeting in this conservative, religious persona. “I really think that her Twitter was her alter ego,” she said. “What she lacked in her personality she would make up for on Twitter.”

Increasingly, Hoda’s alter ego supported radical interpretations of Islam. “She posted a lot of really weird things” that were “radical” and “religious extremist,” her friend said. “Things that aren’t average Muslim women views.”

Hoda would tweet about the stupidity of nationalities and nationalist identity, her friend said, or “call out” other Muslim women for not wearing the hijab “properly,” stating that all Muslim women should wear the niqab, a conservative covering that shows only a woman’s eyes.

As soon as BuzzFeed News started asking the friend about Hoda’s Twitter account, she guessed that Hoda had left to join ISIS. “I just kind of expected it from her,” she said.

Hoda’s classmates and her father both described her as someone who didn’t have any friends in real life. According to her, this was a conscious choice on her part.

“I literally isolated myself from all my friends and community members the last year I was in America,” she said, explaining that she didn’t want to associate with anyone who didn’t share her interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that she said demanded every Muslim move to ISIS-controlled territory. “As I grew closer to my deen, I lost all my friends, I found none in my community that desired to tread the path I was striving for.”

Hoda told BuzzFeed News that she had been planning to move to Syria since November 2013. “People are nice [in Hoover] but they’re all about the dunya (the material world), which I didn’t like,” she said.

Hoda said that her parents weren’t entirely in the dark about what their daughter’s newfound religious interest might lead to. “They didn’t know I was leaving, but they had an idea,” Hoda said. “They’d see news reports about girls who have made it [to Syria] and say things like, ‘Hoda would probably do that.’’’

“I was in Washington, D.C., when she left me — when she left home,” Mohammed said softly.

Hoda had planned her departure carefully for a time when her father would be far away from Alabama. “I’m good with coming up with ideas and excuses on the spot,” she said of her elaborate strategy to get to Syria, explaining that people she had met online had helped her with the planning.

She told her parents that she had to go to Atlanta — approximately three hours from Birmingham — for a college field trip. Although they initially refused to let her go, Mohammed said that he finally gave his permission after Hoda told him that her grades would suffer if she missed the trip. On a morning in late November, she left her house, carrying only her purse and a school bag, as she did every day she commuted to UAB.

That evening, Mohammed said, Hoda called her sister and and said that she had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus — instead of the bus that would return students to Birmingham, she boarded the bus for the girls who were staying overnight in Atlanta. She told her sister that she didn’t have good cell service, that her phone battery was dying, and begged her to tell their parents that she would be back with the rest of her classmates the next day.

“For me, this is terrible news, her to stay one night,” Mohammed said. “It’s unacceptable.” He called his other children from D.C. and told them to retrieve their sister (his wife does not drive or speak English). “I told them, ‘Take the car, go to Atlanta, and look for her tonight and bring her. Don’t stay there without coming back home. Don’t come back without her.’” But since Hoda hadn’t given her sister any information about her specific whereabouts, the siblings didn’t know where to go, and they were forced to wait until the “bus” returned.

“Next day, 5 o'clock came, and then my big son, he went to meet her on the bus,” Mohammed said. “There’s no bus. There’s nothing.”

As her brother waited, Mohammed’s other daughter had received a message at home from an unknown number. It was Hoda, using a new phone that she had purchased. She was calling from Turkey, she said, and she was on her way to become a member of the Islamic State.

“They panicked, of course, like every family did,” Hoda said of her family’s reaction to her message.

Hysterical, Hoda’s sister called Mohammed with the news while he was attending a reception. “She was screaming on the phone,” he recalled. “She is terrified. I took the phone and people around me realized that something is wrong. She was crying, she’s terrified. She said, ‘[Hoda] lied to us,’ that’s her word. ‘She lied to us, she lied to all of us.’”

Mohammed said that he immediately called the FBI. He hoped that Hoda might still be traveling, and the authorities might be able to stop her. “They are very helpful,” Mohammed said of the U.S. government. “They understand the situation, they are very helpful. They doing their job.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI both refused to comment to BuzzFeed News. “It's the policy of the Department of Justice and the FBI to neither confirm or deny any investigation,” said Paul Daymond, public affairs specialist for the FBI’s Birmingham Division.

“I was in Washington that night and I couldn’t even stand on my feet,” Mohammed said, blinking back tears. “That was the last thing someone can imagine about one of his beloved kids, leave like that and go that far. It's the last thing you could imagine to happen to us.”

When he returned to Alabama the next day, Mohammed said, he was able to call Hoda. She was already in Syria.

During this first phone call, Mohammed said, Hoda told her father that she had traveled to Syria to work as a missionary, saying that she was living in a building with orphans and widows. “She promised me in the beginning, ‘I'm that kind of girl that you raised. I will stay that kind of girl that you raised. I'm not going to do anything wrong. I'm not here for ISIS.’”

She told him that she went to Syria for this work because a khilafah, or caliphate, had been declared, and every true Muslim was required to travel to the Islamic State if they wanted to go to heaven. She urged her parents to “make hijrah” or migrate, to the Islamic State, which she called “the best thing” to do as a Muslim.

Mohammed argued with her through text messages, pointing out her duty to her parents as dictated by Islamic law, but Hoda remained firm in her resolve to stay in Syria.

After ordering his other children to stop communicating with Hoda, Mohammed sent her a message saying that he would not talk to her until she was was ready to come home.

Scrolling through his phone, Mohammed, translating from Arabic, read the message aloud, “As I am telling you with every right I have upon you as your father, that I will never be pleased with you and will be displeased with you as long as you do not leave that group and leave Syria and lead a safe, peaceful life with us. When you wake up and you see you have angered me and your Allah and wish to do tawbah [repentance], I will be here to welcome you.”

In the days following Hoda’s arrival in Syria, her family began to realize the many elaborate steps she had taken to prepare for her hijrah.

“She get her passport by herself,” Mohammed said. Hoda’s passport had expired, he explained, and she secretly removed it from the “safe place” where the family keeps important documents in order to renew it.

Hoda told BuzzFeed News that she used her college tuition money to pay for her plane ticket. “I signed up for classes and withdrew [from] them immediately so I could get a check back,” she said.

A month after Hoda’s departure, she contacted her father and told him that she wanted to escape ISIS and come home, because she was facing pressure to get married. Mohammed had warned his daughter this might happen when she first arrived in Syria.

“I told her that once you are there, it's not your choice [to choose whom you marry],” he said. “They going to do with you whatever they want to do, they are not for God, true Muslims.”

Mohammed said that she asked him to send her $2,500 to help her get to the Turkish border and obtain documents that would list her as a refugee.

“I told her, 'I'm going to send you money if you want, if this is what you need to do,' Mohammed said, “But is going to go through channels. I'm not going to be able to send money like that; I'm not stupid to send money like that.” However, when Hoda stopped engaging in messages about her escape or providing more details about her specific plan, he said, he realized that his daughter was not being honest with him. “I realize that then she lies to us, once she get there,” he said.

Hoda confirmed to BuzzFeed News that she was not telling the truth to her father about why she wanted the money. “It would never cross my mind to come back,” she said. “I wanted to see if he’d help me out during troubling times. It was just a test. I knew he wouldn’t send me anything anyway.”

Around Christmas, Hoda sent Mohammed a message saying that she had been married to a mujahid, or fighter. He described this news as a “disaster,” and admitted that he has still not told his wife about this development.

The bride’s male guardian (her father, in most cases) is normally a vital part of an Islamic wedding, or nikkah, as he both gives away the wife-to-be and formally consents to the match. However, ISIS bends these rules to allow runaways to marry. “My father’s consent isn’t needed because he’s condemned a fardh of the deen,” Hoda said, explaining that she didn’t need her father’s permission to marry because he was against ISIS.

“Nothing is forced here,” she said, dismissing her father’s claims that she and other women in ISIS are forced into marriage. Even knowing that her union with a fighter would hurt her family, Hoda said she had no reservations on her wedding day. “I felt the most content,” she said. “I wanted to marry under an Islamic state rather than the West and since it means obeying Allah, what my parents think has no affect on me, I feel indifferent.”

Hoda confirmed to BuzzFeed News that she married 23-year-old Suhan Rahman, an Australian also known as Abu Jihad al-Australi, on Dec. 20, less than a month after she arrived in Syria. After her marriage, she took on the new nom de guerre “Umm Jihad.” However, the union was short-lived. On March 17, she said, Rahman was killed in battle. The next day, Hoda posted on Twitter that her husband had been killed after only 87 days of marriage. “May Allah accept my husband, Abu Jihad al Australi. Promised Allah and fought in the front lines until he attained shahadah [martyrdom].”

She also posted an image of Rahman’s dead, blood-soaked body to Twitter and offered to send the same picture to her father, telling him that her husband had been killed by Jordanian airstrikes.

When Mohammed replied with the same message urging her to repent and come home, he said that Hoda sent him a reply telling him to stop. “I’m not going to come back,” he read from his phone. “This is the right place for me to live and I am really ready to die, to meet my God as a true Muslim.”

Hoda denies that she told her father she was "ready" to die. "I told him that I'm obeying Allah and if that means sacrificing everything, then I will," she said.

Despite being kept from the worst of the news, Mohammed’s wife has barely left the family home in the four months following her daughter’s disappearance. “Always crying,” he said. “She don’t want to face anybody. She scared, she terrified to meet other women,” who would inevitably ask about her youngest daughter.

In a now-deleted post on the question-and-answer website Ask.Fm, Hoda explained that while she doesn’t miss her mother or “anything” about her life in America, “this doesn’t mean that I despise her. I’m looking forward to seeing her in Jannah [heaven] inshallah [if God wills].” She echoes this when asked over Kik about her mother’s distress. “Allah and His Messenger come first,” she said.

Mohammed said that he has carefully tried to keep Hoda’s disappearance and her current location from everyone but the U.S. government, his wife, and his children. Even his other family members — in America and Yemen — have no idea, he said.

In addition to worrying about his family’s safety, Mohammed fears a backlash from the Muslim community and their neighbors in Hoover. “The fact she's gone,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “They're blaming me and her mother. That's the mentality of our society.” He took off his glasses. “I know that there are people who will understand. They may sympathy with you, but a lot of people will make fun.” He began to cry, removing a paper towel from his pocket to wipe his eyes.

“Nobody knows about her, until now,” he said. “That will bring us a lot of pain, a lot of suffer, but this our life, we have to face it.”

One of the facts that the family will have to face, Mohammed said, is that they may never see Hoda again. He hadn’t seen his daughter’s radical tweets until he was shown them by BuzzFeed News. “I didn't know that, honestly, some of these, all of these facts that you show me,” he said. “I don't know how to deliver them to my wife, to my kids. But looks like we lost her.”

“She's gone,” he said quietly, with an air of finality. “She’s gone.”

When asked if he had anything to say that he hoped his daughter would read, Mohammed was momentarily lost for words. “After what I heard here,” he said, “if you are that kind of girl that I raise, stop abusing other people. Stop doing what they try to push you to do. To hurt innocent people, other innocent people. In America, or in Syria, or in any place in the world.”

Mohammed worries that it will be hard for his children to find jobs or marry if it is known that their sister is a member of ISIS. But Hoda doesn’t believe that her siblings will suffer because of her choices. “They can do whatever they want with their lives,” she said. “Me being here doesn’t affect anything.” Even if her family is shunned by the community, she added, “I don’t live for reputation.”

Mohammed is especially determined that Hoda’s older sister, whom he describes as a bright, hardworking university student, is able to have a good life in America. “[She] is my hope for the future,” he said. “Because I lost one girl, but I still have hope. I still have another one.” His daughter, he said, is everything to the family now.

More than anything else, Mohammed fears that once Hoda’s decision to join ISIS becomes known, strangers will target him and his family as radical Islamists. Still, he said, there is no place he would rather be than America.

“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.”

“I don't know how to say it, but honestly, it could happen anywhere,” he said. “In America or outside of America. But there's really no safe place and positive place to raise your family as here in this country. We have full freedom to participate our religion, go to mosque, do our prayers and listen to scholars and read books and come back to our homes and live free life. This is the best place for family. It's a dream for everybody, and it's still a dream, it's going to be a dream for all of us.”

UPDATE: In 2015, the family requested BuzzFeed News not use Hoda’s last name, or the names of her mother or siblings due to concerns about their safety. When her identity was made public in 2020, BuzzFeed News updated this story to confirm that Hoda Muthana is its subject.

This post had been updated to include additional comments from Hoda.

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