After Ariel Bradley met a Muslim man online and moved to Sweden to marry him, most of her friends stopped hearing from her.
They weren't surprised that she had flown so far away. Or that she had so wholeheartedly adopted her new Muslim faith. That was her style.
The Hixson-born 29-year-old had once been home-schooled and Pentecostal. She wrote Bible verses in black marker on the roof of her car. "I love JC," it read.
Later, during her teenage years, she ran away from home and school and abandoned that identity. She moved into a socialist group home on Tremont Street where the floor was covered in mattresses and stale Panera bread left for anyone who was hungry. Those who knew her then said she was a full-fledged egalitarian, a feminist who refused to wear much more than a bra and a mini skirt, an atheist who called Christianity a delusion.
She was among the first activists working with Chattanooga Organized for Action in 2010, a group that pushes for racial equality, fair housing policy and empathy for the poor. During the same year, she became interested in The Twelve Tribes, a religious sect that owns and runs The Yellow Deli restaurant and lives communally. She started to dress more modestly, pulled cardigans over her bare shoulders and wore skirts past her knees.
Then she started wrapping a scarf around her head. She was working at the University Pizza and Deli, which was owned by a Palestinian man and was a gathering spot for local Muslims. Friends say she was infatuated with a young Muslim man. On her Tumbler account, she started writing about the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At some point, she converted.
Friends thought it was just another phase. They laughed about her new obsession. They called her "vanilla ice cream" because she went with everything so easily. But her views became extreme very quickly. It seemed even the Muslim Americans she befriended weren't truly following Allah. Online, she began to search for a husband.
She argued with her non-Muslim friends, who questioned her abrupt ideological shift. Aria, a friend who didn't want her last name used, said the once staunch feminist became judgmental of other women.
"The way women dress is like rags on a soulless hanger," Aria said Bradley told her.
The number of foreign fighters traveling to fight in ISIS exceeds 20,000* 100 from America* 500-600 from United Kingdom* 500-600 from Germany* 1,200 from France* 150-180 from SwedenSource: The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.
Not long after, she disappeared overseas. A few people from home saw her return to Chattanooga a handful of times over the next few years, once when she had her daughter, but almost no one, including her mother, knew much about her life abroad.
Then on the day after a 24-year-old Muslim man from her hometown attacked two military sites in Chattanooga, killing five servicemen, a tweet, found and confirmed by the online news site BuzzFeed, offered some terrifying insight.
"Gifted this morning not only with Eid but w/ the news of a brother puttin fear n the heart of kufar [non-believers] n the city of my birth. Alhamdullilah [thanks be to God]," Bradley wrote, before making her Twitter feed private.
Now many believe that Bradley, who changed her name to Umm Aminah on social media, is living in an ISIS-controlled territory with two children and her husband. On a YouTube account, also found by BuzzFeed, Bradley's posts indicate that she was planning a trip to Syria in late 2013. BuzzFeed reported that she confirmed her husband was an ISIS fighter, but none of her friends or family at home have any direct knowledge of their link to ISIS.
After 9/11, the threat of al-Qaida and terrorism seemed external. We focused on airports, on patdowns and electronic scanning machines. The government expanded surveillance to be the most intrusive in American history. The fight seemed to be about what was over there and what could come over here.
But stories like Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez's, who friends and family have described as an American boy until life failures and struggles with mental illness and addiction drew him into radical Islam, and stories like Bradley's illustrate a more sinister and psychological threat that experts say is real.
While we know of only two Chattanooga youth who have drifted into an affinity for violent anti-American, anti-Western sentiment, experts say ISIS is attracting Americans and other Westerners from across the globe to join their fight to establish a world governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law, both directly and indirectly.
The propaganda of groups like ISIS mostly reach those like Abdulazeez and Bradley over the Internet. Their message is that America and the West are poisonous morally and complicit in the killing of innocent Muslim lives and that America is an enemy to wage war on.
So far, researchers believe nearly 4,000 Western European civilians have traveled to ISIS territory to join the Sunni militant groups, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, based in London. About 100 Americans are believed to have joined the militant organization as of January. Others were caught trying to leave the United States and have since been prosecuted.
There was 19-year-old Shannon Conely caught in April 2014 boarding a plane in Denver, Colo., headed to a camp near Turkey to marry a member of ISIS that she met online.
A year later, Keonna Thomas, a 30-year-old mother of two from Philadelphia, was arrested after she bought a plane ticket to fly to Turkey to join ISIS and become a martyr.
Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez
And last October, the FBI arrested 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan of Illinois as he boarded a plane, allegedly headed to join the fight with ISIS.
"We are all witness that the Western societies are getting more immoral day by day," Khan wrote in the letter that was later published in his federal complaint. "I do not want my kids being exposed to filth like this."
Those who join ISIS or commit acts of terror on American soil, like Abdulazeez, don't follow an exact profile, experts say. But they are typically around 25 years old, they often are isolated from their families, unmarried, suffer from a mental illness or a past physical abuse and have an aching desire for meaning in their life.
But those characteristics describe millions of Americans, said Dr. Mike Jensen, the lead investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
"People often ask, 'What are the warning signs? What's the profile? Can law enforcement have a checklist?' The answer is no," Jensen said. "But sometimes it's a mixture of a perfect storm."
There is a debate about how to reach the vulnerable before it's too late. Some believe the Obama administration hasn't recognized the risk or done enough to address it.
Last year, the federal government launched a pilot program in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles aimed at helping communities identify Americans who were being persuaded by extreme ideology. The goal was to monitor the behavior of those at risk and work to intervene.
In Los Angeles where the efforts took place, the local Muslim communities were divided about the approach, according to media reports in that city. They worried it was just a way for the government to further monitor law-abiding American Muslims and could lead to racial profiling.
"We have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence," Obama said in February at a summit on the topic. "We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."
In Chattanooga, Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, has said how shocked he was to find out that a young man who went to his mosque harbored radical ideas. He doesn't see how anything Abdulazeez learned locally could have led to such thinking or to such a tragic plan. Moving forward, though, he said they will be very conscious of the risk.
The imam and other spiritual leaders plan to pay close attention to the youth, especially since the attack on July 16, to make sure the young people understand what Islam actually teaches.
"[We are] trying to protect them from the information on the Internet and other sources that are not Islamic," Issa said. "We're offering more guidance from the imam for the true Islamic peaceful way of living."
Issa added that he has always been open to working with law enforcement, both local and national. Their mindset has been that threats to America must be reported to authorities. Had they known of Abdulazeez's intentions, they would have done something about it.
Other experts on terrorism and radicalization believe it's the responsibility of the community - parents, churches, friends, local leaders - not the government to monitor their children to guard them against radical doctrine.
And perhaps, like the story of Bradley, there are warning signs, even if they can only be spotted in retrospect.
"She seemed very resentful and embarrassed about her upbringing," said John Burke, who knew Bradley for years. "She wasn't exposed to the pop culture as a child so she seemed to latch herself on to whatever. It was super easy for her to mold herself into whatever she wanted, like an empty shell."
Burke's sister, who moved to Savannah, Ga., and asked that her first name not be used, said Bradley was kind-hearted. When she didn't have money for a friend's birthday, she made shampoo out of essential oils, avocado oil and oatmeal.
Looking back, friends now say Bradley seemed like the perfect target. She was a person who just wanted to feel accepted. But her longing took her to the edge and they don't understand who she has become.
"I feel betrayed because I thought this was somebody who had a good heart," Burke said. "The other part of me is I'm worried about my friend. I want her to escape and come home. But I don't even know if the old Ariel still exists, or if she ever was Ariel."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
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