ROJAVA, Syria — The belief in an afterlife and the fear of eternal damnation is one way to manipulate a believer. Such manipulative tactics worked on Hoda Muthana, a then 20-year-old college student, who in 2014 lived between two worlds: her strict Yemeni parents and as an average teenage girl growing up in the West. Hoda is now 24 years old and spent five years inside the ISIS Caliphate.
“I didn’t ‘have my own cell phone until I graduated from high school,” Hoda explains in an interview conducted by ICSVE researchers in March 2019, in Camp Roj, Syria, where she is being detained as a former ISIS bride by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “So, I was dying, basically without [it]. Can you imagine someone that old not having a phone or anything?” she asks.
As a person who valued social connection, Hoda recalls having had only a handful of friends in America, which she attributes to her strict uprising. “I don’t think I ever had a best friend. I think I just had friends here and there. At school. I would see them at the mosque. I wouldn’t be able to see them anywhere else. Maybe if I bump into them in public or something. I was never allowed to go chill with them,” she explains.
“I had contact with a laptop and stuff, but it wasn’t the same as having a phone everywhere you go,” she further explains, adding, “I felt very lame really. So, once I did get it, I was very much into it. It was my first time, so I was always using it and I did most of the social media basically. I got into Twitter.”
Huda recalls ISIS’ prowess and exploitation on social media platforms during that time period. She discusses how the group succeeded in making inroads into her personal life: first luring and later fully integrating her into the subcultures of the Islamic State’s strong Twitter presence. Six years ago, ISIS recruiters operated in plain sight on Twitter, Facebook, and other mainstream social media platforms. Reflecting on her social media experience six years ago, Hoda vividly describes, “There’s basically a Twittersphere of Muslims. That’s what they used to call it. And in that group, at the time, we were all not very practicing [Muslims]. We were just being our normal selves. We just all got this account and we all started following each other. We got to know each other and stuff and then suddenly I think some people in the group became practicing and they started inviting us to become practicing as well. They would put up verses and quotes and stuff so we would be exposed to that as well.”
In describing her religious upbringing, Hoda notes, “I was practicing at home, but this started online,” while also highlighting the power of a contemporary, “networked” form of religion in expanding commitments to her beliefs. In regard to her family, she explained, “We would go every Friday for prayer but it’s a traditional thing. Not like, ‘Oh, I have to go pray, it’s obligatory.’ More social. We had the attire. We had the hijab. [But,] we didn’t even have modest clothing. I could be able to wear anything, but just wear a hijab. We would pray and we would fast but that’s it. We didn’t have any knowledge of our religion,” Hoda explains.
Referring back to the “Twittersphere,” she clarifies, “In the beginning it [the verses on Twitter], was just to get you practicing basically. Verses about, I think, hellfire, heaven, things that the Prophet Mohammed would do, maybe to get you closer to heaven, because if you follow his way, you know this is what we believe, if you follow his way. It was just basic things. Nothing radical yet.”
“I like my religion,” Hoda states, adding, “my mom was only happy with me when I got deep into the religion because it was decided that I always wanted to go against my culture. I always wanted to go out, I wanted to talk to anyone. I wanted to do what I want[ed].” In a phone interview with the first author, Hoda’s father, Mohammed Muthana, describes his daughter as bucking her mother’s authority in the home. Despite her rebellious streak, or perhaps because of it, Hoda seemed to have found an outlet in religion. “My religion was basically my only sanctuary due to my mom. So, I was kind of forced to go in it. But I did go in it,” she admits. “I felt like I had people that understand me and stuff [on Twitter. And,] I did enjoy it and I did become practicing for awhile, before I became radical,” she further explains.
“After we became practicing,” Hoda recalls of her Twitter group, “I think someone, it just took one or two people out of the group, to become jihadi. “Hoda recalls the changes in her behavior: “I was becoming more modest. I wanted to do things, like cover myself. I started wearing abaya. My mom traditionally wears abaya. She was happy [when I wore it].”
Like many of the 144 ISIS members the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have interviewed over the past three years, Hoda first heard about the conflicts in Syria via the Internet and on mainstream news. “I heard online, from Twitter basically,” she recalls. And with the rise of the Islamic State, she began believing that it was her obligation to go live under the newly declared Islamic Caliphate and that to fail to do so meant risking damnation and hellfire. She explains:
“After [the Caliphate was declared], of course, they had to invite us to it. So, they were interpreting things, verses. Giving out quotes and verses. Verses that if you do read them, they are very black and white. Especially about the immigration [hijrah] that it’s obligatory on you to immigrate to Islamic State, and if you don’t, you are doomed basically to hellfire, and this is what scared me the most. They would, yeah, they started mentioning stuff [to describe hell on Twitter]. I started looking up stuff myself and I would get even more scared. I wanted to do anything obligatory on me really to avoid going to hell.”
Hoda addresses the question of what motivated her obedience and love of religion:
“As I was growing up, I never really was practicing in the way that I had knowledge and stuff about religion, but always in the back of my mind I was scared of hellfire, because it was something my mom scared me about. She would just constantly remind me how I was not being good to her. She would say, ‘You’re going to end up going to hell,’ and ‘Allah is going to punish you.’ Stuff like this. I don’t think she really knows much really. She just knows there’s punishment there. Eternity…, yeah.”
Hoda reflects on the troubled and complex relationship she had with her strict and conservative mother. “My parents are originally from Yemen. That says a lot already,” she explains, as a cynical look crosses her face. Hoda prefers not to publicly disclose the details of their relationship, continuing to honor her mother. In an interview with the first author, Hoda’s father alluded to conflicts between mother and daughter, describing Hoda as “lazy” with household chores and how such actions would make her mother angry. Hoda tells another, more worrisome story, however, but prefers to keep it silent for now.
She describes the matter-of-fact estrangement and disdain between them. She is candid on how she expected and anticipated a fall out in their relationship:
“I did not like my mom at all. Sometimes when our eyes meet, we automatically look away or she would dis me, or something, you know. It’s never something nice if I look at her and she looks at me. On occasions, she was happy with me like when I graduated. It’s big things like on holidays. Not in general. I know this is a massive part of me leaving my family. I had no relationship with my mom at all. Nothing. I would see girls with their mothers. I wouldn’t get jealous. I would get very sad I would wish my mom was like that.”
Gifted with her first cell phone, her personal portal to the Internet, Hoda did what most teens do: she found like-minded teens to bond with that enabled her to separate from her family. Eventually, she fell prey to the persuasive power of ISIS and al Nusra recruiters active on their platforms that were questioning youth just like her.
Hoda joined the “Twittersphere” of Muslims gathering as the regime of Bashar Assad turned against his people during the Syrian uprisings and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance as the Caliph at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, declaring the Caliphate and urging all Muslims to join. She, like other naïve and impressionable youth, fell for it all.
When asked how many of them were in her [online] group, she replies, “Thousands,” adding, “I would say most of the youth who were in ISIS came [to Syria] because of Twitter. Confidently, I can say that. It was Twitter as well as western media.” Indeed, the fact that the Western media and social media platforms influenced and drove events and messages coming out of the newly declared Caliphate remains beyond dispute and raises issues of culpability in youth who fell into their grasp—whether it is the fault of the youth only. “Western Media exaggerated it as well,” Hoda continues. “We would hear that there was a Caliphate, but then we saw on the news that there actually was, and we’d say, ‘Woah! Ok, so it is true, ” she explains.
“Me, at the time before I left, I was very practicing [religiously] but I was not cultural at all,” she explains, parsing out how she embraced her new online peer group’s militant jihadi version of Islam and rejected her Yemeni cultural upbringing in favor of it. “I hated my culture. Not in the sense of food and clothing and stuff but in a sense of sexism, basically. They let the men do everything and they don’t let the women do anything at all. We’re expected to marry our cousins. My brothers can do whatever they want. I would dread looking at my future,” she notes.
“Me and my siblings were close,” Hoda describes her relationship with her siblings, how they would commiserate, “We would complain about our parents all the times. We would complain about our future. We were scared of our future.”
Hoda was expected to marry after graduating and earning her degree in business administration. She disagreed with, as she described, her “mom’s expectations” when it came to marriage and her mother’s views that most of her life decisions should wait until marriage, stating, “I did not want to listen at all. At this time, [I was] 18, 19. I was in my second year [of college]” and she knew marriage was coming for her whether she wanted it or not, she explains.
Hoda feared that her husband might be chosen by her mother, from among their family relatives in Yemen, someone from her village in Yemen, that could entail being sent back to Yemen. “I had no interest in marrying someone from my country let alone [being sent back there],” she explains, as the pent-up desires of adolescence started to strive from within. “I wanted to do my own things. I wanted to go to school by myself. I didn’t want my dad driving me all the time. I wanted to go hang out with my friends, which I didn’t do much of at all, actually. I wanted to like get a job and get married to whom I want. Not to whom my parents want, and I knew it was impossible,” she continues.
Fearing familial rejection and repercussions if they failed to toe the line, Hoda’s sister and three brothers complied. “None of us really stepped out and said you know, we’re going to do things because we were all afraid,” she explains. While her family did not believe nor enforce honor killings, such killings remain ingrained in certain segments of Yemeni culture. On that note, Hoda states, “If we do anything out of the line in the family, which is what I did coming here [to Syria]. Basically, getting married, having a child without permission, this is all something that Yemenis in general would do [an honor] killing for. The ones who are really extreme with traditions basically.” Although her family did not believe in honor killings, Hoda and her siblings seemed to know not to step out of line. However, she recalls that her brothers had it easier, stating, “The boys in the family in Arab tradition, the boys get a pass for everything typically.”
As Hoda reminiscences about her involvement in the “Twittersphere,” she states that at first she used it to share her religious beliefs and life as a Muslim in the West, but later came across more sinister discussions that idealized and romanticized the accounts of the Syrian conflict and where hijrah—an obligation on all Muslims to emigrate to lands ruled by shariah law and to fight jihad—became a centerpiece of terrorist groups’ propaganda narrative. Hoda, who according to her family’s traditions was only to separate from her family via marriage, was, in her own convoluted manner, accomplishing her Western adolescent task of separating from her family in embracing a strict form of Islam that her family did not follow while simultaneously rejecting their cultural interpretations of the same.
Looking back, Hoda’s father, Mohammed Muthana, recalls his daughter as actively involved in her high school, participating in radio programs and also being a gifted artist. She was, according to her father, active in humanitarian causes like giving blood and helping to build homes in programs like Habitat for Humanity. Mohammed also recalls maintaining his strict watch over his daughter, but he somehow missed the effect of the social media world on her despite that he would regularly check her phone and that he would only find Islamic apps installed on it. In fact, he was very pleased that Hoda was memorizing whole verses of the Quran and becoming much more religiously observant. What he failed to realize, however, was that his daughter was emotionally and mentally separating herself from her family and preparing to leave home to join a war zone.
“I do remember actually asking people with more knowledge than me, ‘Is it allowed for me to go as a woman alone?’ because in our religion we are not allowed to travel alone. And they would say yes. And I would ask them is it obligatory on me, and they would say yes as well. So that’s what scared me,” she states. Hoda, like many youth who fell prey to ISIS seduction over the Internet, had made the Twitter “scholars” her new religious authority, although, in retrospect, she acknowledges how little they actually knew. “I looked up at these people thinking they are more knowledgeable, but now as I look back on it, I know they have nothing,” she states.
Hoda’s online community also encouraged her to listen to the sermons of Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American imam and al-Qaeda ideologue, also venerated by ISIS, who preached in English, popularizing the concept of hijrah and encouraging jihad against Western powers. Awlaki is credited with inciting thousands of English-speaking youth onto the militant jihadi path. He was also involved in numerous terror plots, including the Christmas underwear bomber in which an airliner was to be downed over Detroit,[i] and was the spiritual advisor of Nidal Hassan, the shooter in the Fort Hood massacres.[ii] In London, Roshonara Choudhry, dropped out of a promising university career as she fell prey to watching Anwar al Awlaki’s videos. Influenced by his sermons online, she took up a knife and stabbed a Parliamentarian who had voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.[iii] Other than the video sermons she had watched in succession over the Internet, Roshonara had no other discoverable ties to terrorism. Such is the power of al Awlaki’s preaching, which at the time of Hoda’s recruitment into ISIS, was still freely accessible on YouTube. Despite having been killed in an airstrike in Yemen in 2011,[iv] al-Awlaki’s sermons seem to have endured well beyond his death and in the age of Islamic State as well, coupled with the fact that al-Awlaki was also from Yemen and thus would carry weight in Hoda’s estimation as a scholar.
When asked if she ever went in search of competing arguments or consulted with others about these virulent views of Islam, Hoda admits, “No I should have. I don’t think I crossed them. I don’t think I had contacted people who were speaking against it.” Indeed, it is one of the primary reasons we are interviewing her—for our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project—which takes in-depth psychological video interviews of ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners and breaks them down into short video clips to fight ISIS and other violent extremist groups’ propaganda. The hope is that those who are imbibing of ISIS poison might get another message from such short video testimonies and turn away from the violent extremist path. At the time Hoda followed the disastrous path online, there was very little competing for her attention in the Internet space, at least nothing as emotionally compelling as images that depicted the conflicts in Syria and invoked sympathy by many to travel to Syria and help beleaguered Muslim brothers and sisters suffering under Assad’s cruelties coupled with encouragement to come build a just and righteous Islamic State.
Like most who follow groups like ISIS, Hoda had begun narrowing her focus to those who preached the same point of view, and she had, intentionally, per their instructions, began separating and isolating herself from those who might set her path straight again.
“I know, maybe if I spoke to someone in person about it, they’d be against it, but I didn’t dare do that actually,” she recalls. Her Internet peers had set her against her religious community. She was led to believe that only the militant jihadi strict interpretations of Islam were correct, “No one really was into religion in my community. I really thought I was the only one,” she states, despite her parents’ apparent joy in seeing her memorize sections of the Quran, her decision to wear an abaya, etc.
Hoda had also separated herself from her Muslim peers by virtue of becoming more conservative. “I was the only one my age wearing abaya, only one my age covering. I stood out a lot. I remember I was following this guy on Twitter when I wore abaya and he said I look like ISIS. This is while I was still at American college,” she explains. While separation from family, mosque leadership, and peers during a time when ISIS recruiters and propaganda were poisoning her life, Hoda was also grasping at any means to get away from the future she believed her parents were inevitably planning for her despite her wishes to do otherwise.
Hoda also lacked knowledge to judge for herself about militant jihadi groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Such terrorist groups are known to take Islamic scriptures out of context and twist them for their own purposes to legitimize their actions, making it hard for those with less, or no religious knowledge, to understand that their religion is being manipulated against them. Hoda recalls, “For me, it was more that I would see online. I would look at it myself for my own eyes in the texts, and there it was. So, I [would] think, really, I can’t avoid this. I can’t avoid it. Because If I avoid it purposefully, while I do have the knowledge, like what’s going to happen to me? I was scared.”
Unable to please her mother who, according to Hoda, constantly reminded her that she was going to end up in hell, Hoda used her new religious lifestyle and practices found mainly online to ensure her own eternal safety. She switched from her inability to please her mother to a newfound compulsion to try to please Allah. “I practiced everything I could at home,” she explains. “I was even doing voluntary stuff. I was fasting every other day. That’s the highest form of fasting. I was doing everything I could, avoiding everything that was forbidden.”
Torn between her very strong love for her newly-embraced religious traditions and her extreme fears of damnation and hellfire, which were as real to her as the threat that she could be soon married off and sent to Yemen, Hoda was eager to believe, perhaps failing to question what a bright young girl should have questioned. Seeing hope and escape from the problems surrounding her in the promise of this chance opening to make hijrah to the Islamic State Caliphate, the answer to all her problems was presented. And it seemed that it would convey personal agency to her over the big decisions looming in her life: when and who to marry, where to live, and how. Likewise, it also ensured that her eternal life, despite defying her parents, was safeguarded.
Seeing her escape, Hoda leapt through this open window of possibility. “When I saw this opportunity and I did think at the time. I really truly thought it was obligatory on me. I was scared of hellfire basically. I had to come,” she explains. She further adds, “When I saw this opportunity, I jumped for it because I felt like I could do whatever I want with my future.”
Her choices seemed bleak and terminal—both coming in the next years as her college graduation was a mere two years away. It was Syria or possibly Yemen in her mind, “Either that, or I go there [to Yemen] and get married,” she explains.
Hoda’s final decision point came when she saw another young woman take the leap. “Someone out of the group, I think it was a woman, out of the Twitter group, did come to Syria first. And she said, I think she said, that women are allowed to come, and women have to come. When I heard that, I thought I didn’t have a choice really. From then, I made the decision to leave,” she shares. Role models indeed make it easier—another thing to keep in mind when one is considering the power of extremist groups operating over the Internet. They can invoke other people’s journeys and stories to make it more real and more compelling to also join. In our case, we believe the converse is also true—real stories of disillusioned and disappointed ISIS insiders can also be role models to avoid making the same mistake.
Realizing that this endeavor required stealth and preparation, Hoda recalls pulling all the necessary plans and measures together. “I just collected money here and there,” she tells us, although in other accounts she has stated that she cashed in her tuition money after dropping out of school.[v] “I applied for [a passport],” she explains. Although Hoda’s American citizenship has been hotly debated with President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both denying that she is a U.S. citizen, and the Obama administration revoking her passport in 2016, after she had already left to ISIS,[vi] Hoda and her father both state that she was born months after he had been dismissed as a Yemeni diplomat posted to the United Nations, due to the civil war in Yemen. “I was born in New Jersey,” Hoda states, and to a father who was already out of his diplomatic status, indicating that she was born as an American.
Her father, however, was aware that issues over her passport could be raised. Hoda claims she had an American passport as a child. “I never left America,” she echoes her father’s worries over it, adding:
“He would always tell, me my whole life, we need to fix your case basically. He’s like, if you ever travel anywhere, they might not bring you back because they might say that you’re not a citizen, because they think that I was working while you were born but I wasn’t. He quit I think in July or something and the papers came in September of 1994. [Hoda was born in October of 1994.] So, my dad would never let me travel. He’d say until we fix your case, you can’t travel. My brother has visited Yemen. My sister has visited Yemen. I never went. The younger and older ones [went to Yemen]. And then they get naturalized as well. And my dad would say you should get naturalized as well but we don’t even know maybe you are a citizen already.”
Hoda claims she did not run into any other issues causing her to doubt her American citizenship. “It was never an issue at school. I completely forgot about it until I saw it on the news,” she explains, referring to her time inside ISIS. She also claims she used her expired American passport to apply for an expedited replacement, which she says that she received within 10 days.
Hoda took the usual route into Syria. She purchased a plane ticket, via Germany to Istanbul, Turkey, and then traveling to the border city of Gaziantep on a bus. She then made contacts in Gaziantep. Prior to her departure, Hoda had made contacts with some individuals on Twitter who instructed her to call a number once she reached Gaziantep. Once in Gaziantep, she described vacillating from car to car, basically changing cars 5 to 6 times after crossing the Syrian border.
Hoda expresses her audacity in leaving home and traveling so far away all alone, while also crediting it to her newfound devotion to her God:
“I’m so shocked really. Finally out of my brainwashed mode, I’m very shocked that I did this. At the time I had trust in God. I had trust in God that he would take me to the point I had to be in. That’s what I felt. I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t feel anything else. I just felt like I was fulfilling an obligation, and it was a big sacrifice, it was something actually to be happy about. It’s something really big – sacrificing your whole life basically for, I wouldn’t say ISIS, I would say [for] God.”
Psychologically speaking, Hoda is describing a dissociative state in which she was able to put all her emotions aside, numb them basically, in the furtherance of her goal—a goal that she knew meant risking her life and safety in what she believed was service to her creator.
Hoda’s was grievously disappointed upon arrival. She was housed at what she described as a bus stop and ended up staying there for three days with no food and blankets. She describes the place as being cold. She recalls how all the present thought that being there was nothing but a “test from God.” She ended up being moved to yet another guesthouse and staying there till late November 2014.
Her next disappointment was being put in the ISIS madhafa, or guest house, in Raqqa, for unmarried women to await marriage proposal. It was a prison of sorts as no one could leave without agreeing to marriage. “I don’t think we knew just yet [what to expect yet]. In the third madhafa, we knew,” Hoda explains. “After Jarablus, we went to Raqqa. And then in that house you can never get out of, unless you get married.”
When I came [to the Caliphate], I didn’t have the intention to get married. I really didn’t. I was the type, I wanted to get married when I was 25, which is now,” Hoda states. She also reflects on her life over the past six years: “Now I’ve been married a couple times.”
Hoda called home only after entering Syria. “I told them [my family] when I crossed the border to Syria. I called my Dad; I think it was couple days after. But I think they have already known because of my sister and then after a couple days, I called my Dad. They were very upset, very, very angry at me. My Dad told me ‘Whatever you do, just don’t get married, I said to him, ‘I can’t avoid that. Only way out is to get married,’” she recounts.
“First it was a German guy [who proposed to me],” Hoda recounts her first proposal of marriage, adding, “I had a meeting with him. I did not accept because I didn’t understand him at all. So I didn’t want to deal with that. And then I had a friend, I made a friend there that already had someone to marry because it was kind of like her old boyfriend back in Australia. So, she recommended me his friend who was single.”
Hoda describes the madhafa as a very disheveled place to live or cohabitate:
“Very disgusting. It was packed. It was like a two-story house, and there’s about 100 people in there. [And] the kitchens were filthy, and the bathrooms were filthy. The, beds, were filthy. It was a very old house. The blankets were filthy. I’m sure there were bed bugs and lice and everyone was developing skin rashes and stuff. It was disgusting. It was very noisy as well. I was not used to that at all. I was not used to seeing lot of kids as well. So, I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Despite not wanting to marry, Hoda hated the madhafa more than she hated the idea of marriage. “I didn’t want to [marry.] I wasn’t ready,” she recounts, but the only way out was marriage. “I just maybe hated my situation at the moment. I wanted to get out of there, but the only way to get out was to get married, so I ended up getting married,” she explains.
Hoda’s first marriage was to a 23-year-old Australian foreign fighter, Suhan Rahman, who went by the ISIS kunya of “Abu Jihad.” When asked if it was a good marriage, she answers, “No. Not really. It was only like 2.5 months anyway. He wasn’t violent. That was good. Gladly, none of my husbands were violent, so that was good. He was very not committed, basically,” she states, a frown crossing furrowing her brow. “He was married before. He didn’t tell me. [He was] still married. I was angry and he would still speak to other women. His first wife actually was still in Australia. So, he could hide it basically,” she shares her first betrayal by her ISIS husbands.
“I told him, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were married?’ Traditionally, we don’t marry someone that was married before, especially as a girl, you know?” In response, he told her, “You didn’t ask.”
When asked if her husband was a womanizer or a philanderer, she nods and continues:
“He didn’t have any religion in him at all. He came because you know Australians, the Muslim Australians, some groups in Australia, basically are kind of aggressive really, and they love to defend their religion, even if they’re not practicing it. So, they heard the call of jihad basically. He came, he, and a bunch of his friends. So, they were just a bunch of people literally who yesterday they were smoking and drinking alcohol and having girlfriends and then next day they came. He wasn’t suitable for me either.”
Hoda claims that her husband, Suhan, an Australian of Bengali origin, who was from Melbourne, forced her to say and to do things against her will. She also claims that Suhan tried to convince her that her father “was a disbeliever and that it’s allowed to take money from him.” She explains, “He tried to persuade me, ‘Tell your dad to bring money,’ he would say, even though he did have money, this guy. He would try to persuade me to bring money and in a form of stealing it basically.”
Instances of ISIS women who were indoctrinated at home by their male relatives, namely fathers, brothers and husbands, are not uncommon, although it remains uncertain if it holds true in Hoda’s case. She did not admit to us about serving in the ISIS hisbah, (religious police) or having any other role in which she would have received arms or religious training or been required to make her bayat (oath of allegiance) to ISIS. Hoda explains that her husband “would teach her things as well that he would learn from them.” She also states, “I don’t know if I was scared of him. I was as well learning. But he made me think that it was ok as well [and] it initiated from him. It was not something I would have wanted to do.”
Looking back, Hoda states that her father never sent her any money, and in retrospect, she is glad he did not break any laws trying to help her: “It’s really good [that he didn’t send money]. I’m glad he didn’t. I did beg for money a couple times. Not in the way that my husband [told me to]. In the way that I really did need help.” She describes enduring many hardships in the Caliphate: “I was really starving some days. I was really not being able to afford anything some days. So, I would ask him please just send me money. I don’t want to help ISIS. I don’t want to do anything. I just want money to eat. That’s all.”
Most ISIS members we interviewed described life inside Raqqa in 2014 as relatively prosperous and somewhat normal for ISIS members who did not buck the system. They relayed life as very normal by conservative Islamic standards, and did not report, as ISIS members, suffering from lack of food or other life necessities. Hoda, however, has a different recollection: “The whole time there. The money they give you is not enough. People were surviving through their families’ money. They would send them money. People would get thousands of [dollars] sent and I would have nothing. I would just have the balance that they give us – that’s $50 a month.” Hoda is referring to her widow’s ISIS stipend, as couples got twice as much and married couples with children received even more for each of their children. “[It was] very, very little. You can’t live on that. I would not have heaters in winter, and I would not have coolers in summer. I was struggling a lot,” she notes.
Hoda recalls being emotionally attached to her first husband, but not loving him due to his dishonesty and wandering eyes, stating, “As [he was] my first relationship, I did attach myself to him. But when I look back on it, I didn’t really love him. I think it was just the first relationship thing. He died in battle. If that didn’t happen, it would probably end up in divorce.”
Divorce for women and becoming widowed in ISIS was not a desirable outcome for many ISIS women we interviewed. The woman typically is thrown back into the ISIS madhafa, where she must stay until she agrees to another marriage. “I was telling him a couple times I want to divorce. But yeah, you do end up going back to madhafa,” Hoda explains.
“In my case, when he died, I was supposed to go to the madhafa basically, but I had men in my house who prevented that,” Hoda explains, referring to her Australian friends who were known in the Western media for their violent extremist views and statements on propaganda aimed at English speakers in the West.[vii] “[They were] an Australian family. I was living with them. I became friends with his daughters,” she states.
Hoda ended up living with some of the most extreme of the ISIS foreign fighters. “They were Abu Zarqawi’s family. And he was very extreme as well,” she recalls, referring to the father figure in one of ISIS’ iconic ghastly photos in which his then seven-year-old son is holding a severed head up for the viewers.[viii] Asked about the photo, Hoda explains, “I came after that, so I didn’t know that was him. I didn’t even see that photo until I came afterwards, and I figured it out actually. But yeah, so, I was initially around people that were very extreme. I was learning things that… I was forced to learn their way. I didn’t have any other source of learning.”
It was during the time period of her first marriage, that Hoda’s alleged infamous and blood curdling Tweets inciting support for ISIS were made under the Twitter handle of Umm Jihad @ZumarulJannah, which has now been suspended. According to Ellie Hall who interviewed Hoda via messaging app Kik, while she was inside ISIS, Umm Jihad uploaded a picture of American, Canadian, UK, and Australian passports held by black gloved hands like those worn by ISIS women, with the caption “Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore, Alhamdulillah’s [thanks be to God].”[ix]
As a result of these Tweets, Hoda came under scrutiny by U.S. security officials for her apparent incitement to terrorism. In one of her Tweets, she encouraged “lone wolf” style attacks on U.S. citizens worldwide. The Tweet reads, “Go on drive-bys and spill their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc. Days parades…go on drive by’s + spill all over their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them.”[x] Her Twitter feed also contained the following Tweets: “Hats off to the mujs in Paris,”[xi] using an abbreviation for “mujahedeen” after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Like other females active on the Internet, she also tried to shame men into joining, “There are soooo many Aussies and Brits here but where are the Americans, wake up u cowards,”[xii] she posted. She also used her account to help incite attacks in the West, including in the United States. “Americans wake up!” she wrote on March 15, 2015, adding, “You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them.”[xiii] In addition, she reportedly Tweeted after the death of her first husband, Suhan Rahman, stating, “ May Allah accept my husband, Abu Jihad al Australi [kunya]. Promised Allah and fought in the front lines until he obtained shahadah.”[xiv]
Hoda now claims that her first husband, and presumably his family, at times controlled her phone. While we have no way of telling whether she is telling the truth, we have heard from many ISIS women that when they were not allowed, or when it was unsafe to go to the ISIS Internet cafes, that they would compose on their mobile phones messages home to their family members and their husbands would then take their phones for them to the Internet café where the messages would send.
Hoda claims she later came to learn what ISIS was really about. She claims she was shocked by the takfiri doctrine espoused by ISIS leaders in which they would pronounce most other Muslims, who did not agree with them, as disbelievers who should be killed, further noting:
“They would declare disbelief basically on anyone who wanted to leave. We were shocked about that, so basically every one of my family members in America are disbelievers. They would say yeah. I didn’t know where they were learning their religion from. I was like, where in the religion does it say this? Give me evidence. Give me something that says being in a place that is not Islamic makes you not Islamic? Most of the world is not Islamic.” Now she states, “Well the Islamic State was not Islamic. If they claimed it to be, it was a very tiny area in Syria. Everyone else out of it to be disbelievers?”
Hoda was finding herself getting confronted in many ways—that the Islamic State she had dreamed of was not the reality she was experiencing: “I remember even getting in trouble just for crossing my legs like this [referring to her current seating position]. One guy came to me and said, ‘Uncross your legs!’ I was like, ‘Why?’ ‘Uncross your legs!’ You can’t say anything back. You don’t want to say anything because it’s like I’m going to end up in jail or… So, you just slowly put your leg back. It was like their police, [the ISIS] shurta.”
After her first husband was killed, Hoda’s widow stipend was cut. “[ISIS] cut my money off because I didn’t go back to the madhafa, so while I was with the Australians, they were taking care of me basically. They had a lot of money with them. They would get money sent all the time [from Australia]. So, I was living with them basically. And then a few months after, I got married again, to his father,” she states, as she points at her almost 2-year-son who has been playing happily with the second author. “He’s Tunisian, Osama Ziad, [from] Tunis,” she states.
“He was young. He was 19,” Hoda recalls. “He told me in the meeting that we had that he was 21.” Despite lying about his age, Hoda recalls him as really good and really nice. He was just studying; he was not a fighter. I know in the news it says all three of my husbands were fighters but the last two were not. The first one was only. [Osama] was just studying religion. He was serving at a shariah academy of sorts,” Hoda explains.
Hoda states that both her first and second husband lied to her. Suhan hid his first wife from her. Osama hid his desire for Islamic “martyrdom” and abandoned her with a newborn. According to Hoda, “Osama did not fight the whole time during their marriage,” though she later noted a desire in him to go and fight. Hoda explains how Osama one day dropped her at her friend’s house and promised to pick her back up in a few weeks. She later learned that Osama had told his friend that he was not returning at all and that he planned to die fighting. Hoda is not aware of any intentions by Osama to engage in an actual suicide mission, only that he wanted to be “martyred,” fighting to death.
“I had a baby right after he died,” Hoda says, looking wistfully over to her son, adding, “He didn’t see his son. My son didn’t see him. It was only a year of marriage. No one really knows where he died. [It was] early 2017. I think February.” Hoda was unprepared for her husband’s “martyrdom.” “It was shocking to me. I didn’t expect it. I was expecting to have a child and the dad be present and stuff. I didn’t want it to happen,” she emotionally exudes.
“You know that once he died, you’re going to end up getting married again,” Hoda states, her voice reflecting the deadness of being choiceless in Raqqa. She continues, “I was just dreading my life at that time. It’s just like a never-ending circle basically. Someone, he dies, and you know your future is just remarrying. There is nothing else to do. There’s nothing to look forward to basically.”
“Really, women didn’t have a role at all,” Hoda explains. “We just sat at home and cooked and cleaned. That was very depressing for me because that was my way of living.” While Hoda describes the reality of most of the women in ISIS, we have also spoken to other ISIS women who served in the ISIS hisbah, or morality police, who were snipers, wore suicide belts, served as recruiters online, spied and carried messages and money for the group, and made bombs, fought, and exploded themselves on behalf of the group. Not all women were bored, or innocent wives and mothers living amongst the group. Some were even invited to return to their home countries and to attack in the West. Hoda was aware of this, but says she was not herself invited into such a role, “No, no, no. Some women were, but I never was,” she vehemently denies.
Other ISIS women owned Yazidi slaves who were raped by their husbands. One German woman who returned claiming innocence was recently charged with allegedly chaining her 5-year-old Yazidi child slave outside the house with no water, as a punishment for wetting the bed, causing her to die of thirst.[xv] This was only discovered because she planned to return to the Caliphate and told others in texts of what she had done her first time in ISIS. Hoda claims she was not involved with slavery, though admitting, “Some people I knew had them, but I never had any.”
Repeating perhaps many divorced women’s dilemma—that is, whose friends are all married—she explains, “Everyone else is involved with their own husband and their own life. If you try to go and just hang around, it’s just like you are invading their space all the time. So it’s like, what else can I do, besides getting married?” When asked if that was threatening to her married friends when she was suddenly marriage eligible, given that their husbands could take multiple wives, she replies, “The times that I am single, I get a lot of hate, yeah.”
Hoda claimed she never went back to the madhafa. She decided to live on her own and provide for herself instead. She ended up running her own business—a shop near her house selling groceries like sweets, drinks, and snacks. She admits her new entrepreneurial life was not easy at all, as she had to do everything on her own. She explains, “Anything that a man can help you with, he can’t transport you because there you are not allowed to ride a vehicle without a man [you were related to], or unless you have a second woman with you, and I never had someone who was available with me all the time and who wanted to go shopping with me and places, so I had to walk.”
“It was scary [giving birth],” Hoda recalls of her time in Raqqa. She was afraid of the stories she heard about hospitals and lack of adequate professional staff, stating, “The only way to get diapers for your child was like a 30-minute drive away. I’d ask so many people, ‘Can you please get diapers for me? Can you get stuff for me because my son needs it?’ People would get stuff for their own kids but they would forget [for me]. It’s not their fault because people would forget. And it was a siege so I couldn’t get it myself.”
Hoda says she was forced to marry again for the sake of her son. She ended up marrying her child’s father’s friend, thinking it would be a suitable marriage, who also was a shariah scholar. The marriage did not last, however. She states, “It didn’t work out, basically. He was not really my type. It was a rushed marriage. It was for the sake of my son.”
At this point, ISIS had evacuated its cadres out of Raqqa into Mayadeen. Hoda explains:
“[My son] was born right before I left Raqqa. I think a few days before I left. I didn’t want to travel before I gave birth, so I gave birth and then I left. There was a siege in Raqqa, and I did not want to be part of it, so I left. There were people who chose to be part of it. They thought it was obligatory to stay. It was [‘Victory or Paradise’] for some people but at the same time, some people thinking it really was [religiously] forbidden to leave that area because they think it was obligatory on them to stay and not abandon a certain section of the Islamic State.”
Hoda mentions some of the reasons that prevented her from leaving sooner. She says she tried to escape twice but was stopped by the Iraqi secret services [the ISIS emni], who sent her back. “We heard about people getting killed. We heard this Turkish guy got executed for wanting to leave,” she states. Hoda had talked to local Syrians about what was likely to happen to her before she made her move. She was also afraid of circulating “rumors” inside ISIS’ last strongholds. According to other ISIS members we interviewed who made it all the way to Baghouz, Syria, rumors were —allegedly started by the Iraqis who did not want deserters—that women who abandoned ISIS to turn themselves in would be raped by the YPG, Americans, Syrians, or Iraqis, or that they would be sold into prostitution in Iran by the Iraqi militias. Rumors also were that those who turned themselves into the YPG would be turned over to the Iraqis. Foreign fighters were told their countries did not want them back and that the Americans were going to cut a deal with ISIS and move them into the desert and use them in the fight against Iran.
Hoda now says she was brainwashed by Twitter, and that she, like many of the others similarly lured in by ISIS’ propaganda and recruitment machine, gradually woke up once inside the Caliphate:
“I don’t really have a time really [when I woke up]. It’s just like I’d have phases where I’d want to go back and I’d get drawn back by threats and you get scared. There’s not much you can say or do once you’re there. Even online. Your phone gets taken off of you and checked and if [find] any messages or saved [discussions about wanting to leave], you go to jail. It was up until the very end that I told my dad and my family that I wanted to come back. And my lawyers.”
Hoda and her son did not make it to the bitter end in Baghouz. Instead of continuing with the group fleeing bombings, she decided to escape from ISIS—despite the dangers and consequences in the event she was caught. “I left [ISIS] in Shafa. I was trying to find a way out for a while. When I finally did, I just walked out really,” she explains. “I couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew smuggling out was too expensive. I couldn’t wait to accumulate money because first of all there was no way to make money. There was like 80 percent rate of inflation,” she notes.
Other ISIS cadres we interviewed have told us about how the prices of sugar, wheat, milk and meat made these normal items completely unaffordable. Some described paying upwards of $80 for a pound of wheat or flour. Many who stayed till the end in Baghuz said that all they could afford was to buy feed that even cows would not consume and try to cook a porridge from it, or that they even resorted to eating grass. “It was really bad. I couldn’t afford anything. I couldn’t eat. My draw [last straw] was my son eating grass. We literally ate grass once,” Hoda recalls.
Hoda describes her January 2019 journey out of ISIS’ last stronghold as “scary and dangerous,” adding:
“I had a stroller coming out with me and everyone was like why don’t you put your son in the stroller? I said, I’m afraid of the stroller hitting the IEDs and my son exploding or something. So, I was holding onto my son the whole 8-hour walk. I was holding him with the blanket on. Because we were walking in the desert, it was very cold and we lost our way. It was dark. No one had lights. The leader told us to sleep in the desert for one night. So, we slept there for a night and I probably slept 20 minutes because it was that cold. I could not sleep. I had him gladly, in a blanket—a warm blanket. I kept feeling his hands and feet and his nose to see if he was warm. He was. I was really happy that he was warm. But I didn’t get any sleep. After that we woke up basically when the sun came up and started walking again. A few hours later we got to a checkpoint with the PKK [Syrian Defense Forces]. They asked us a few questions and then they took us.”
Hoda was in Camp Hawl and later transferred to Camp Roj, Syria, after receiving threats by other still dedicated members of ISIS. Women in Camp Roj have told us that there are some ISIS die-hards, Arab women who still try to enforce ISIS rules to cover, etc. and who also somehow get alerted—probably via contraband mobile phones—when women in the camp denounce the group to journalists. Women have told us of being confronted by these women with knives and having their things stolen as retribution and that they fear that their tents could be lit afire as punishment for denouncing the group. This is no idle threat. Three children, all under age five, recently died of a tent fire in Camp Roj. Yet, Hoda does denounce the group, also giving us permission to create counter narrative video clips of her speaking against it. When asked if she found the Islamic State she had been searching for, she answers, “No. We found hell on earth, basically. That’s the way we describe it now. We sometimes say, if there’s a hell on earth, we definitely found it.”
Hoda is currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and like all of the sixty ISIS members we have interviewed so far in their custody, she says her treatment is good:
“We were more happy with them, [better] than when we were with ISIS, because straightaway they knew our situation. They said, ‘You guys have been starving so much,’ and they gave us food. Stuff that we haven’t seen in a long time. Months, many, many months. We haven’t seen juice. We haven’t seen bread. We haven’t seen chocolate. We haven’t seen anything for a long time. And we actually got malnourished and a bunch of the women who came out at the time I came out, we lost a lot of hair from the effects of it. So, it’s part of why we don’t take our scarves off [now]. Even though some of us do want to.”
Hoda admits she would take her headscarf off now, if she wasn’t embarrassed about her hair loss. “I lost a big chunk of my hair, yeah.” Looking ahead and hoping to return to the United States, she states, “Once I go back, I’m not going to be the same again,” She wants to be free now, in charge of her own decisions and wiser about them.
Whether or not Hoda will make it back to the United States, however, remains debatable. Ironically, she left her home in the U.S. in response to Twitter and now finds her return home barred in a Tweet issued by President Trump[xvi] announcing that he had directed the Secretary of State “not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!” Mr. Pompeo also issued a statement declaring that Hoda “is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States.” He went on to say that Hoda did not have “any legal basis, no valid U.S. passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States.”[xvii]This was based in part by the Obama administration issuing a statement stating that her passport had been issued in error.[xviii]
“I’m so afraid to speak here,” Hoda says. She claims she was moved to this camp due to death threats in Camp al-Hawl. “Once I get home to America, I can literally open my mouth for everything. I can tell you guys absolutely everything. There’s still the risk here. I’m so afraid of things happening,” she concludes.
Hoda, like the other ISIS mothers in this camp and in other camps run by the SDF, is being held without charges. Perhaps the charges have not been communicated to her yet. In Hoda’s case, there is a dispute over whether she is even an American citizen, a dispute her family and lawyer are confident they will win. That said, she might potentially face serious charges upon return if the allegations against her hold ground. American Shannon Connelly,[xix] for instance, received a 4-year prison sentence for attempting to travel to join ISIS and Samantha El Hassani, also American, is potentially facing a much longer prison sentence for her time spent in ISIS.[xx]
Hoda’s son is almost 2-years old. He, too, like the hundreds of other younger and older children of ISIS parents, is being held in detention. It is unfortunate that his fate is tied to that of his mother. His citizenship is currently under scrutiny as well. The issue of citizenship also raises some other thorny questions. For instance, Shamima Begum, who joined ISIS leaving from the UK as a minor, a 15-year-old, had her citizenship stripped just before she gave birth. According to the UK law, Shamima Begum’s child was entitled to British citizenship and “the rights it confers.”[xxi] However, the UK refused to repatriate him. Malnourished in the camp, he died soon after birth.[xxii]
The camps have had Typhus outbreaks with mothers and children dying of Typhus, and there are no vaccinations. Medical care is meager and the food allotment is limited and lacks fresh fruits and vegetables. Hoda’s son is a sickly child. She tells us that he has chronic bronchitis, which is clearly observable. Mothers who do not receive money from their relatives to buy fruits and vegetables live from rice and lentils basically and some suffer malnutrition. Immediate and urgent steps are needed to address the return of children currently living in languishing camp conditions in Syria.
Hoda’s case is clouded by whether she is the one who wrote and issued the aforementioned alleged Tweets. That said, she is likely to face prosecution for her involvement with ISIS if she is ever allowed to return to the U.S. However, her case, like others of ISIS’ Internet-based seduction, raises issues of greater culpability than hers alone. At the time she was being drawn into ISIS, ISIS was able to make free use of Twitter and other social media platforms to communicate and seduce vulnerable populations into their ranks. Hoda was convinced that traveling to Syria provided her escape to enter her adulthood free of her mother’s demands and that she was also saving her eternal soul by doing so. Yet, she found neither salvation or freedom inside ISIS and now speaks against the group. Perhaps she does that in a bid to come home, but on that score, in our opinion, she speaks genuinely from bitter experiences inside the group. Likely she is right—trying to avoid hell, she instead found hell on earth inside ISIS.