CRF Blog

How Did Two All-Americans Fall In With ISIS?

by Bill Hayes

In a case study for Psychology Today, Mike Mariani asks, How Did Two All-Americans Fall In With ISIS?

On a 90-degree day in August 2015, two FBI agents arrived at the house of Oda and Lisa Dakhlalla in Starkville, Mississippi. Oda, originally from the West Bank, was active at the mosque just across the street from their home. He also tutored Mississippi State students in calculus and trigonometry, earning him the nickname Yoda. For years the couple ran the family’s restaurant, Scheherazade’s, named after the ingenious storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights. Lisa, a Muslim convert who grew up in New Jersey, was known in Starkville as “the hummus lady.” She made her recipe for friends and sold the dip at a local farmers market. Lisa’s cooking was so popular that the couple hosted dinners attended by mayors, police chiefs, attorneys, students, and faculty from around the world.

On several occasions, in fact, the Dakhlallas had served dinner to these two agents. Worried about perceived threats to his mosque, Oda had often called the FBI field office in Jackson, and he and his wife had become acquainted with a few of its agents; they became friends of the family. So when they told the Dakhlallas the news about their youngest son, Muhammad, Oda thought they were joking. “Come on guys!” he said. “You are pulling my foot! Let me fix you something to eat.” Lisa, however, saw the expressions on the agents’ faces and sensed that this was not a joke. The agents explained that they had intercepted the couple’s son and the woman accompanying him, Jaelyn Young, at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus, Mississippi, earlier that morning. The couple were at the gate about to board Delta Airlines Flight 5073 to Istanbul; from there they planned to cross the border into Syria. The agents informed the Dakhlallas that their son had been arrested for trying to join ISIS.

It took a long time for Oda Dakhlalla to realize that the FBI agents were not, in fact, playing a bad joke on him: His 22-year-old son planned to meet, at Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, ISIS handlers who would then ferry Young and him to Syria. There, they would join the terrorist organization’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Oda could be forgiven for his disbelief. Muhammad, called Mo by family and friends, had a 4.0 GPA at Starkville High School and had graduated cum laude from Mississippi State just a few months prior to his arrest. He had been accepted into the school’s graduate program in psychology and was supposed to start classes about a week after he was picked up at the airport. While Dakhlalla studied hard, he also hung out with friends, played pick-up soccer, and immersed himself in video games like Final Fantasy. While he didn’t drink — his father forbade it — he still attended house parties at Mississippi State. Altogether, Dakhlalla was a recognizably American kid: gaming nerd, soccer player, industrious student, and respectful son.

That same morning, three hours from Starkville in Vicksburg, Mississippi, another pair of FBI agents were making an equally grim house call — one met with similar incredulity. When the agents informed Leonce and Benita Young of their daughter’s arrest, Benita, a school superintendent, told them, “I think you have the wrong house.” Jaelyn Young, who was just shy of 20, also had a strong academic background. She hadn’t just been an honor student at Warren Central High School, though. She was a talented gymnast, a cheerleader, part of the homecoming court, and a member of the robotics and math clubs. She was a textbook well-rounded overachiever, the kind of teenager who throws her work ethic into an array of pursuits. At her sentencing a year later, she would recount her earlier aspirations of attending medical school to study neurosurgery. [more]