The making of an American terrorist: Hoda Muthana joined ISIS. Now she can’t come back

Nadia Al Faour, Kim Hjelmgaard, Trevor Hughes and Deirdre Shesgreen

Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated which university Hoda Muthana attended. She was enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

ROJ CAMP, Syria – Hoda Muthana is pushing a stroller in the middle of a conflict zone here, and if there's a textbook example of extremism, this probably isn't it. 

That's partly because of what is in Muthana's arms: Adam, her 18-month-old son. He’s a cute kid. Bright brown eyes, like his mom. His tiny hooded coat is emblazoned with patterns of elephants in profile. Some are upside down.  

What Adam couldn't know is that his mother abandoned the comforts of a suburban American life for one of the world's most barbaric terror organizations.

The Trump administration believes Muthana, 24, born in New Jersey and raised in Alabama, is too big a threat to the United States to return. 

"They don’t seem to want to understand what happened in my life that led me to this depraved path. I didn’t just wake up in the morning and decide to join the most horrendous jihadist group in history," Muthana told USA TODAY from the camp in northern Syria where she has been detained by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia since last year amid the collapse of the Islamic State group's self-proclaimed caliphate.

The interview took place in a small office equipped with little besides a few well-worn chairs, a heater and a wall-mounted television with wires protruding every which way.

Muthana sneaked off to Syria in 2014 at age 19. She married Islamic State, or ISIS, fighters and exhorted her fellow Americans to commit mass murder and terror attacks. 

She now is at the center of a political, legal and diplomatic firestorm that carries far-reaching implications for the way the U.S. confronts Americans who join extremist groups. Muthana's story is equally about hindsight, about radicalization's hidden indicators and warnings signs that can be extremely hard to detect. 

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For many, it is about testing the limits of American compassion.     

Muthana used to be devoted to a terrorist organization known for beheadings and other gruesome violence, which militants recorded for recruitment videos. She helped circulate those videos on social media. Now she wants to return to the U.S. with Adam, whom she conceived with one of the ISIS fighters she married in Syria – and outlived.

But there is a major obstacle in her way: President Donald Trump.

The president does not want to let Muthana come back to the U.S., even though she has expressed remorse for her actions and is willing to face the U.S. justice system and near-certain jail time. Trump is trying to block her return in a court case that raises constitutional questions about Americans' citizenship rights.

More: ISIS bride Hoda Muthana's family files lawsuit against Trump

Timeline: Hoda Muthana joined ISIS as it was shocking the world

Yet the legal fight has overshadowed what is perhaps an even more fraught question: How did a quiet and by all accounts respectful high school student transform into a would-be terrorist who aggressively called for the deaths of Americans?

"I would like to apologize to all Muslims for what we’ve done. We painted such a horrifying picture of Islam to the world, it's practically unforgivable. ISIS ruined my life and my religion," Muthana said at Roj Camp, the Kurdish-run holding facility where she is being held with about 1,500 Western wives and children born to ISIS fighters. 

"I don’t want to think about what will come of me if I am not allowed to go back home. It's bleak. I don’t think I will survive," she said as she recounted snippets of her journey from Hoover, Ala., to Turkey to Syria's war-ravaged battlefields. 

Outside, the melodious chirps and trills of birdsong could be heard and pockets of green meadows interspersed with oil fields stretched to the horizon. 

"Sometimes I think if I didn’t have Twitter, I wouldn’t be here," Muthana said. 

'Okay, 9:11'

Hoda Muthana's family moved to Hoover, Alabama, from New Jersey in the late 1990s.

The young woman, her head wrapped in a scarf revealing only her brown eyes, picks up the phone and begins to speak.

"Oh, we're doing it today? Nine o'clock? 9:11, oh. We drop the bombs at Hoover High School. Right on D Hall, the broadcasting class, because I just hate that class and I need to get revenge. Okay, 9:11."

She then hangs up and dissolves into teenage giggles as she reaches up to pull the purple-blue scarf, a hijab-type veil worn by some Muslim women, from her face.

Filmed by a classmate in 2011, the video can easily be interpreted as a harmless prank by a precocious teen – Muthana's implicit punchline about the deadliest terror attacks on American soil in U.S. history never intended to reach a broader audience.

But seen today in a new context, the video, exclusively obtained by USA TODAY, offers a glimpse into the activities of a young woman who three years later would use social media to call on Muslims in the U.S. to "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."

Muthana did not address the video when interviewed in Syria. 

However, Liam Youngblood, 23, who filmed it during the broadcasting class he took with Muthana at Hoover High in 2011, said, "We thought it was a joke at the time, but now you look back and it's kind of chilling.

"It's something that those of us who know her are struggling with," said Youngblood, a coffee shop barista who was known as William in high school. 

'We repudiate and dissociate'

Muthana's family moved to Hoover in the late 1990s from New Jersey. Sitting a few miles outside the regional hub of Birmingham, it is a city of about 84,000 people.

Hoover is bisected by I-459, a commuter highway that corrals the Riverchase Galleria mall and Hoover High on the south side, while the family's brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac and nearby community mosque perch on the hillside to the north.

Muthana's father, Ahmed Ali, came to the USA in 1990 to work as a Yemeni diplomat to the United Nations. His wife, Basma Mohamed Eshayri, already had relatives in Alabama and on the East Coast, including her father, a U.S. citizen living in Buffalo.

In July 1994, with Yemen engulfed in a civil war, Ahmed Ali Muthana was discharged from his U.N. position. Realizing he and his wife could not return to Yemen, the couple applied for permanent U.S. residency, and he became a naturalized citizen in 2009. Basma Eshayri's application for U.S. citizenship is still pending. 

Their daughter, Hoda, was born in October 1994, in Hackensack, New Jersey, the youngest of five children. The Muthanas moved to Alabama, in part because Basma Eshayri had family there, and Ahmed found work helping manage a convenience store.

Muthana was in the class of 2013 at Hoover High. A handful of Muslims attended the  high school at the same time she did, but Hoover is a majority evangelical Christian city. Fewer than 1% of Alabamans identify as Muslims, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center. Nationwide, according to Pew estimates, Muslims make up just over 1% of the total U.S. population.

More: What you don't know about America's Islamic heritage

Muthana and her family worshiped at the Hoover Crescent Islamic Center. A spokeswoman for the center said her daughter attended school with Muthana. She declined further comment in accordance with the Muthana family's request.

Mixed with announcements of youth soccer, family picnics and a ladies' stretch class on the center's website are messages rejecting extremism.

At Roj Camp, Muthana now lives in one of the many tents pitched throughout the camp. Wives and children of ISIS fighters marooned here come from at least 40 countries from Denmark to Russia. They are provided with basic supplies, but conditions are poor. There are no counselors or humanitarian workers on site. At night, the temperature plummets, and it is hard to stay warm. 

When USA TODAY visited in late March, scores of women in face-covering black niqabs and colorful hijabs were walking with their children along the camp's main dirt thoroughfare. Many of the children were dressed in raggedy hand-me-down clothes too big for their small frames. They wore slippers with no socks. 

While the camp's detainees have not been accused of any crimes, they are not allowed to leave unless a government – in Muthana's case, the United States – grants permission. 

For a while, Muthana shared a tent with Shamima Begum, a British teenager who left London for Syria to join ISIS at age 15. Begum's 3-week-old infant son died in Camp Roj in early March from a suspected combination of malnutrition and hypothermia. Two more children of Begum's born to ISIS fighters also died in infancy from malnutrition.

More: U.S., U.K. ISIS brides Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum plead to go home

Adam, Muthana's son, has chronic bronchitis. During the interview, Muthana carefully kept him away from cigarette smoke puffed by the camp's guards, and as Muthana bounced Adam on her knee, he clutched her hijab. 

She described her predicament to USA TODAY as "torture."

"I don’t sleep properly. My mental state is deteriorating," Muthana said as she sat on a plastic chair cradling Adam in the small makeshift office at Roj Camp. 

"I try to stay strong for my Adam. He’s my lifeline. I don’t even want him to know about ISIS. He’s lucky to be so young – he won’t remember a thing."

'Household wasn't a happy one'

Experts say there's no clear-cut path to radicalization for young Western Muslims.

No single profile of a would-be American jihadist fully explains a willingness to travel thousands of miles to a war zone, even though the journey is often wrongly characterized by participants as an effort to fulfill a religious obligation.

The program on extremism at George Washington University has identified 76 Americans, 13 of them women, who traveled to Iraq and Syria to join jihadist groups since 2011. About 50 Americans tried to do so but were prevented by law enforcement, typically arrested at an airport. The average age is 28.

The three U.S. states with the highest ISIS recruitment rates – which have rapidly declined as the militant group has lost virtually all of its territory in Iraq and Syria – are California, Minnesota and Texas.

Muthana's case is relatively unique because she appears to have been radicalized entirely online, without ever having met or conspired with anyone in person, said Seamus Hughes, a former counterterrorism analyst at the State Department who interviewed Muthana's family after she left for Syria in 2014. 

"Hoda Muthana ruined my model," said Hughes, now deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University. He said radicalization usually takes place in a small group with a personal connection among the individuals. 

Still, while loners like Muthana are rare, they are not unheard of. 

John Georgelas, 34, was born into a Greek-American family. He went to high school in Colorado. Friends described him as "philosophical" and "normal." He was the son of a U.S. Air Force doctor. Georgelas converted to Islam and traveled alone to Syria to fight for ISIS in 2013. His whereabouts are unknown. 

Attorneys for Mohamad ­Khweis, a bus driver from Alexandria, Virginia, said he came from a stable home and showed no interest in religion or extremism when in 2015 as a 27-year-old he crossed the Turkish border on his way to ISIS strongholds in Syria.

After a few months, Khweis tired of the ISIS group and, after escaping, was captured by U.S.-led coalition forces in Kurdish-held territory in Iraq and sent back to the U.S.  He's serving a 20-year jail sentence for providing material support to ISIS.

For Muthana, ISIS seemed to offer an escape from her cloistered life in Alabama.

"My household wasn’t a happy one. My father traveled a lot. I got along with my siblings well but my relationship with my mother was always strained," she said. "I never went to her for advice nor comfort. We had no bond; we had no mother-daughter relationship." 

Muthana's classmates remember a young woman who, like many teenagers, sometimes made dark comments or talked back, but only under her breath, and nothing serious. 

The classmates said they were aware she was raised in a strict home – she wasn't allowed to have a cellphone, and her friendships outside the classroom were limited.

But they also said they saw nothing to indicate her future path.

"She was not shy about her faith but it wasn't anything you'd call extremist," said Tripp White, 24, now a graduate student at Southern Oregon University who was in several high school classes with Muthana. 

White said Muthana's religion was a part of her life, but didn't appear to be a major driving force or motivator. He said he would never have expected her to join ISIS.

Will Ogburn, 24, another Hoover High classmate of Muthana's who now works as a digital television producer, said he remembers her as "kind of angry at her situation. ... There were conversations I had with her that were really dark."

Ogburn said he remembers Muthana was strictly limited by her family to just a few friends. She never showed up at parties and rarely socialized outside school.

Muthana's family declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a WhatsApp message to USA TODAY, Muthana's father, Ahmed, would say only that he repeatedly told his daughter not to do any media interviews because they inevitably lead to "more difficulties" for her family. He didn't elaborate.  

'Her mother won't speak of her'

Confidants of Muthana's parents say the family was as shocked and appalled as the rest of Hoover when they learned their daughter had secretly joined ISIS. 

"Her mother won’t speak of her," said Charles Swift, a Texas-based civil rights attorney who is representing Hoda Muthana's father, Ahmed, in the family's case against the Trump administration's attempt to block her return. Her father "despises ISIS, despises his daughter," Swift said. "But she's still his daughter. 

"She betrayed him and the family," Swift said. Her father "felt a great deal of anger and sorrow, but nevertheless he wasn’t going to leave her (in Syria) with his grandson."

Hassan Shibly, a Florida-based civil rights lawyer whom Muthana's parents enlisted to try to persuade their daughter to come home, said: "This was just a girl who was unhappy with her life and was given an opportunity for an adventure. I tried to talk sense into her that she made a horrible decision and that she needed to come back, legally, through the system. She was too brainwashed. She was irrational."   

Since fleeing to the Kurdish-run refugee camp in Syria, Muthana has had to borrow cellphones, and contact with her lawyers and family has been sporadic. Shibly was initially able to communicate with Muthana in Syria through WhatsApp, the encrypted social messaging platform. 

He said that when Muthana was still in Hoover, jihadist recruiters were able to influence her after infiltrating her online chat groups. Shibly said the recruiters isolated Muthana, limiting her communications with friends and family and even telling her not to go to the Islamic Center in Hoover. 

"They knew the mosque would have helped her get away from them," he said, a characterization of events that Muthana confirmed in Syria. 

"All my conversations and contacts were online," said Muthana, who recalled being told again and again online that it was "her duty" to join ISIS' caliphate.

Freedom in a cellphone

After high school, Muthana began studying business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She lived at home but gained a small measure of freedom: a cellphone.

But the same strict family rules that had limited her social life in high school still applied.

"I remember her saying she felt rebellious, once, for going to a boy’s house," said Youngblood, who recorded the video of Muthana performing the skit about 9/11.

By 2014, Muthana had secretly withdrawn from college, using tuition money to buy a plane ticket to Turkey. Then, like most other Western recruits to ISIS, she met up with someone in a hotel lobby in Turkey who smuggled her across the border to Syria.

"There was me and bunch of Russians in the car. We’d keep changing into different vehicles every now and then to avoid being caught," she said.

Eventually, she reached Raqqa, at the time ISIS's capital, and later, its last stronghold.

Muthana was taken to the "House of Women" in Raqqa, a tightly guarded building that she said contained "what seemed like a 100 women and a 100 kids." The building's windows were always shut, its doors always locked. 

"When confronted by reality, I was confused and shocked," she said in Syria. 

She also learned there was a way out: marriage.

Both of her ISIS-fighter husbands, including Adam's father, killed when Muthana was seven months pregnant, died on the battlefield against U.S.-led coalition forces.

Meanwhile, she was given a job. 

Muthana started using her now-suspended Twitter account to spread ISIS propaganda and anti-American messages: "There are sooo many Aussies and Brits here but where are the Americans, wake up u cowards," she wrote in one message.

In another message, she posted a photograph of several passports, including an American one, and wrote: "Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore."

By November 2018 – more than four years into her time with ISIS – the situation for Muthana in Syria had soured. She contacted Shibly, the Florida-based attorney whose help she had spurned. With the U.S. and its allies in Syria on the verge of reclaiming most of ISIS' territory, Muthana was looking for a way out.

"Attempting to flee was basically signing your death warrant," she said in Syria. 

Shibly put Muthana in touch with Swift, a former U.S. Navy officer who made his name in legal circles with his defense of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's alleged driver and the first detainee indicted at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"She felt she may have ruined her life ... but she didn’t want to ruin (Adam's)," Swift recalled Muthana telling him in one of their initial WhatsApp conversations. 

He told her U.S. prosecutors probably had a sealed indictment against her on terrorism-related charges, and the only thing he could do was help her surrender.

In a letter to her family in February, Muthana described herself as "naive, angry and arrogant" when she decided to journey to Syria. "During my years in Syria, I would see and experience a way of life and the terrible effects of war, which changed me. Seeing bloodshed up close changed me. Motherhood changed me. Seeing friends, children and the men I married dying changed me. Seeing how different a society could be compared to the beloved America I was born and raised into changed me."

Muthana added in the letter she was willing if necessary to serve jail time and wanted to help de-radicalize other extremists who had fallen under ISIS' sway.

She fled to Roj Camp with Adam in December 2018 as "ISIS was crumbling," she said.

It was a journey that involved crossing front lines and traversing landmine-filled territory. They arrived unscathed, but there was a new problem. The Trump administration didn't want her. 

"I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!" Trump tweeted after she wrote her family.

Muthana finds that hard to accept. 

"I am the one who has to live with my foolish and rash teenage decision for the rest of my life. What’s inside my mind is torture enough," she said in the camp. "People believe I should do time in jail, but I’ve been doing time since I got to Syria." 

'She’s a terrorist'

In the legal case, the State Department argues Muthana never qualified for U.S. citizenship because, although her father left his diplomatic post before her birth, the U.S. government hadn’t yet been notified of his change in status. The Trump administration contends that means her father was still a diplomat, and foreign diplomats are immune from U.S. laws and their children are not granted automatic U.S. citizenship at birth.

Swift, Muthana's Texas-based lawyer, said that's absurd. 

The family has provided documents from the U.N. showing Ahmed Muthana was terminated from his diplomatic job before his daughter's birth in October 1994, and the U.S. has twice issued Muthana an American passport based on those records. 

The stakes in this case, Swift said, are "far greater than Hoda Muthana."  

It could influence how the U.S. determines citizenship, he said. If the Trump administration can "unilaterally" strip Americans of their citizenship, that threatens the rights of all U.S. citizens, Muthana’s father argues in his lawsuit against the Trump administration.

In March, a federal judge denied Swift's request for expedited consideration of the family's case, ruling Muthana did not face irreparable harm or danger by waiting in the refugee camp as her case proceeds at the normal pace. 

Trump and Pompeo skip the legalese in describing their views on the matter.

"She’s a terrorist," Pompeo told USA TODAY last month. "She put American soldiers’ lives at risk. You ask the family members, those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines all across world, who were serving, trying to take down the threat from radical Islamic terrorism ... this woman chose to use her life to try and kill those people." 

However, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said that by not bringing Muthana back to the U.S. for prosecution, the Trump administration would effectively give her a "get-out-of-jail-free card."

"We have a history in this country of trying to send strong messages that if you commit crimes against the people of the United States, you come back and face the music."

The State Department's attorneys have until mid-April to respond to the family's lawsuit, and the judge could decide the case this summer.

Back in Hoover, Muthana's classmates remain mystified. They've pored over texts, photos and videos from her time in high school, searching for some sort of explanation for what exactly it was that led a young woman into the arms of ISIS. 

There's also widespread disagreement about whether the Hoda Muthana they all thought they knew deserves the chance to return home, despite likely jail time.

"Even some of my more conservative friends have been struggling with this. They knew her, knew her as a person," Youngblood said. "Seeing the president tweet about your high school classmate is surreal."

At Roj Camp, Muthana fears ISIS sympathizers may try to harm her for disowning the terrorists: "I don’t feel safe. I expect retaliation from any side."

USA TODAY's Hjelmgaard reported from London, Hughes from Hoover, Ala., and Shesgreen from Washington. Al Faour reported from Roj, Syria. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The making of an American terrorist: Hoda Muthana joined ISIS. Now she can’t come back