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.
“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.
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 was a one-time 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.”
Read More: CNN