WASHINGTON -- 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 three 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, Syria 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.
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.