COLUMBUS, Miss. (Christian Examiner) - Friends and family of a young Mississippi State University couple are stunned by the news that Muhammad Dakhlalla and Jaelyn Young were arrested and charged by federal officials over the weekend for attempting to join ISIS.
The two confessed to FBI agents that under the guise of traveling on their honeymoon, the pair planned, instead, to travel to Syria and join ISIS. Though news reports differ in whether the pair were actually married or were going to be married, family and friends of the couple told the Clarion Ledger that the two had only been in a relationship for a few months and neither seemed capable of what they've been charged with doing.
According to a timeline provided by court documents, the FBI began observing Young in May of this year after she made several statements through social media that were supportive of ISIS and began talking online with undercover FBI agents.
In July, Young reportedly made a point to celebrate the shooting of four marines in Chattanooga, tweeting "What makes me feel better after watching the news is that an akhi carried out an attack against US marines in TN! Alhamdulillah, the numbers of supporters are growing...."
Young, 20, a native of Vicksburg, reported to be a "recent convert" to Islam, is the daughter of Leon Young, a Vicksburg police officer and Benita Young, a middle school principal. In a letter she wrote to her family intended to be read after she and Dakhlalla had left the country, she allegedly took credit for being the mastermind behind the plan.
'THEY WERE TAUGHT RIGHT AND WRONG'
Iris Ragen told the Clarion Ledger that Young, a friend of her daughter's, "had some very good parents and I know she came up in a home where they were taught right and wrong." Ragen described her as a "a nice young lady who was very smart." A news report said she was an honor student.
The Vicksburg Police Department released a statement that was shared on WVBG's Facebook page, calling Leon Young a "respected 17-year veteran" of the department who "has done an excellent job in performing his duties and responsibilities as an officer." They also said that Leon Young has served in the military for 21 years and completed fourteen military deployments, serving with "integrity and honor.
"The family is devastated and it is our understanding had no knowledge of or involvement in Jaelyn's plans. We understand that the Young's love their daughter and have supported her educational career and will stand by her through the legal process. At this time the Young family is going through an extremely difficult time and we would like to keep them in our thoughts and prayers."
Dakhlalla was a recent graduate of Mississippi State University, where Young was a sophomore majoring in chemistry. The son of a local imam, Dakhlalla lived at home with his parents and planned to pursue his graduate degree in psychology this fall, according to Dennis Harmon, an attorney from Columbus and a family friend who is representing Dakhlalla's parents, Oda and Lisa Dakhlalla.
Harmon said the Dakhlallas were shocked by what's happened. "They're acting like they got a two-by-four right between the eyes. Mo was supposed to start grad school Monday. That's where they were expecting him to go."
The family, who has lived in Mississippi for "decades" according to Harmon, is devastated. "They're some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet," Harmon told the Clarion Ledger. "Oda is very devout, both of them are devout but we're not talking about -- they're not confrontational with Christians. That's why I'm a family friend. It is the idea of Islam as a religion of peace for Oda and Lisa. That's the way Mo and his brothers were raised."
However, assistant U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner compared the couple to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and said they did not need a gun or military training to be harmful.
"What they need is a violent, extremist ideology, and that's exactly what they have espoused," Joyner said, according to the Vicksburg Post.
The couple appeared in a Mississippi courtroom on Tuesday for preliminary and detention hearings and were denied bond and remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service. The charges they face carry a maximum or potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
The growing number of Americans converting to Islam and supporting the efforts of ISIS is causing concern.
Young wasn't the only American woman to openly praise the attack on the recruiting office in Chattanooga in July. Another woman, Arial Bradley, born in Chattanooga and raised in a Christian home, wrote that she was "gifted" " w/ the news of a brother puttin fear n in the heart of kufar [non-believers] n the city of my birth. Alhamdullilah [thanks be to God]." Bradley lives in Syria and is married to an ISIS fighter.