His friends know him as “Mo.” And he is the most unlikely ISIS recruit you will ever meet.
In fact, in virtually every way Mo, whose real name is Muhammad Dakhlalla, was an ordinary and typical American college student. But he was arrested with a fellow Mississippi State University student just over a year ago, trying to board a plane to go join the notorious terrorist organization. How did that happen?
“Where do you want me to start exactly?” he said, laughing somewhat nervously, as he sat recently for the first extensive, tell-all interview with CNN in a federal prison.
Today, Mo, just 24, is at the start of an eight-year prison sentence for trying to join and help ISIS. But he is hardly a radical Muslim extremist. Remarkably, he said he got into this whole mess because he fell in love.
Falling into trouble
Born and raised in Mississippi, Mo is the youngest of four brothers and has both Muslim and non-Muslim friends. He dated very little and had few girlfriends until his senior year at Mississippi State. There, he met and fell for Jaelyn Young, a sophomore studying chemistry who in high school was an honors student and cheerleader.
“In the beginning of my senior year I met this lady,” Mo said, recalling his strong feelings for her.
“She was beautiful and things like that,” he said, “but also another thing that I find attractive in a woman is one who’s, you know, bright, intelligent, open-minded. And that’s how I got to know her a bit. We started hanging out. She not only was interested in me, but she had told me prior to us being together that she was interested in Islam.”
Islam is the religion in which Mo grew up. His father, Oda, is an imam, who originally hailed from Bethlehem in the West Bank before settling decades ago in Mississippi. Mo’s father, along with his mother, Lisa, a New Jersey-born woman who converted to Islam, helped found and build the Islamic Center of Mississippi in Starkville.
Not long after they became a couple, Jaelyn converted to Islam, and it was a complete surprise to Mo.
“At one point, you know, she told me that she’s very serious about Islam, and she wanted to become a Muslim,” he said. “Then on that day when she did, actually it was a big surprise for me. My parents actually found out first that she became a Muslim. I was actually at the mosque at that time, saying my prayers. And I came back to find out that she had become Muslim, and I had no idea.”
Then came another surprise, he said.
“A few weeks later, and I never said anything to her about this, or, like, tried to, you know, force her … she decided to wear the full hijab or niqab by herself. Like, it was on her own — her own choice. You know, she was wearing it from her head and full robe that you typically see of Muslim women.”
The niqab she wore covered every part of her in a black shroud, leaving only slits for her eyes visible, according to Mo’s family.
Jaelyn was changing fast, he said, becoming stricter and more conservative in all parts of her life.
“As far as, like, the rapid stages that she was going through, I may have, should have been, like, scratching my head a little bit. I should have had … a skeptical, like, analysis of, like, ‘OK, maybe we’ve gone a little too fast,’ ” he said laughing.
But, he said, he was deeply in love.
“And, you know, that love can ultimately … blind out your intelligence, your reasoning. I believe that. I mean, without that love there, I don’t believe I would be here today, with my charge and talking to you today. … I wouldn’t have even considered it at all.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons rarely grants access to convicted felons such as Mo. CNN’s interview was an exception, an agreement between the Department of Justice, CNN and Mo. His words shed light on just how powerful ISIS’ online propaganda can be for American youths. Jaelyn, who was also convicted in the case, has refused to speak to CNN.
Pursuing her conversion and new religion, Jaelyn went to the Internet. And there, she found ISIS.
Jaelyn merely showed Mo the videos — the clips did the rest.
“It started out with when … she first became Muslim, you know, she wanted to learn more. … I’m not sure how she came across some of the videos that she did at first, but I remember, like, some of them. Like, one of the first ones I remember seeing, a video that how ISIS came to be. And it was basically mentioning … historical struggles in the Middle East. And then somehow it ties that back into, you know, everything is, like, the Western society’s fault. You would see a lot of non-Muslims using like, vulgar language, and a whole lot of slander on top of that.”
Mo followed Jaelyn’s lead. “When she showed me that video, I think it’s just kind of like — brought a tenseness in her and … really strong anger in her. And she expressed those things to me. And, you know, me being in love with her, I felt those same things I guess, just because she was feeling it.”
Mo said the goal was never to take part in jihad or commit violence — but rather to help out as fellow Muslims in the newly forming Muslim state.
“When she first looked at these videos, she had … a strong belief that, ‘OK, this is the group to really help out, you know, the Muslims.’ “
“What really, like, stuck out for me were well, what I thought from the videos were people helping rebuild towns — people helping the needy — what we consider humanitarian.”
Crazy as it sounds, the young lover said he did what his partner did.
“Throughout the time she convinced me of that … I don’t know exactly how, you know, it came to be, but I know that she knew I loved her at that time, and I was just going to follow whatever she said, and I felt like she knew that, like, I was going to follow anything that she said.”
They began communicating through the Internet with people they thought were in ISIS, in Syria. In one note, Mo wrote: “I’m good with computers, I’m good with I.T., I can help here.”
‘I won’t be coming back’
According to the FBI, Jaelyn reached out to a contact she thought would help her and Mo travel to Turkey, cross the border into Syria and join ISIS. The two secretly married, began an intensive preparation period and bought one-way plane tickets to Istanbul.
And on August 8, 2015, Mo and Jaelyn packed their bags. He wrote a touching goodbye letter to his parents. The first lines read: “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ve decided to leave and I won’t be coming back.” A small heart is scrawled at the bottom of the page. Then the couple went to the airport near Columbus, Mississippi. They got as far as the boarding gate, and then they were arrested.
At that moment, Mo said, everything changed. “Oh, my heart sank,” he said. “I felt like my whole body shut down. Just because, I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s, like, what now, what the heck are we doing?’ “
The FBI said both Jaelyn and Mo confessed at that moment. But they didn’t have to. It turns out the online ISIS recruiter who had been helping make arrangements for the couple was in fact an FBI employee.
This past spring they both pleaded guilty, and they were sentenced in August. Mo was given a lighter sentence, citing his cooperation with authorities. Jaelyn, considered by authorities to be the mastermind, was sentenced to 12 years.
Throughout the interview, Mo never once mentioned Jaelyn’s name.
He also finds it difficult to speak about the other woman in his life — his mother. She was suffering from cancer when he was arrested, and she died earlier this year.
“It is one of the biggest regrets that I have in my life — still haunts me to this day,” he said. “That I would prefer this woman that I’ve only been together with for under a year, and lie to my mother about where I was going. And my mother’s always been supportive throughout my life, you know, I never felt like, you know, I needed to do anything behind her back. I could always be full-front honest to her. But all it took was getting caught up for love of a lady, and that I threw — throw your life away.”
He also regrets that during this time of confusion, especially about religion, he failed to reach out to his dad, an imam who would have never taught his son to kill or hurt anyone.
“I wish I’d reached out to the Muslim community. I wish I’d just reached out to my dad, because my dad’s very knowledgeable in this stuff. Not only in Islam, but the Middle Eastern politics. You know, if I had just asked him, he would just illuminate me on what was really happening with this group.”
Asked about homegrown terrorists, or those in ISIS who have viciously killed innocents across Europe and in Syria, Mo said he would never wish to be part of anything like that.
“They have a lack of understanding of Islam, because the main focus of Islam is peace, you know. Submit your will to God,” he said. “ISIS, you know, kind of twists that to say that, you know, ‘If we’re doing things for the will of God, you know, you gotta come and join us as, you know, because we’re the real Muslim community.’ ”
“I feel like that I should owe people back to say, ‘Hey, don’t do what I did.’ That’s not what they are doing over there. What ISIS is doing over there — that’s not Islam. … If you ever feel like you’re thinking about doing this, contact the Muslim community. They’re going tell you, ‘No, this is a whole terrible idea.'”
Today, Mo is not bitter; in fact, he said he is relieved he was caught. He knows that had he made it to Syria there is a good chance he would be dead. He remains a devout Muslim. He will be 32 when he leaves prison.