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Cheerleader, Honor Student, Terrorist? Inside A Strange Case In Mississippi

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Aberdeen, Miss., this week, a young woman pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Jaelyn Young said she and her fiance wanted to leave Mississippi, travel to Syria and join ISIS. Among the many strange twists in the case, consider these - Ms. Young is just 20 years old, a former high school cheerleader and honor student who had only recently converted to Islam. Therese Apel is covering the case for The Clarion-Ledger newspaper, and she's on the line from Mississippi. Welcome.

THERESE APEL: Thank you, good to be here.

KELLY: Tell us a little bit more what you have learned from your reporting about this young woman, Jaelyn Young.

APEL: For what we know, Jaelyn Young was a high school cheerleader. She had a lot of friends. In 2015, somewhere in the summer, she converted to Islam. And during that time is when authorities believe that she began to really delve into the ISIS propaganda videos and things that are online.

KELLY: Well, do we have any idea what drew her to start looking ISIS videos and other things online?

APEL: We don't know exactly, except she had been dating a boy from Oxford named Muhammad Dakhlalla, who is also a Mississippi State University graduate. And authorities believe that she was kind of the mastermind behind this. But at some point, they began to, you know, discuss these things with FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters - kind of was talking to them about possibly she and Dakhlalla being medics for ISIS. You know, at some point, she drew Dakhlalla into the conversations and he spoke to them about maybe being a communications guy. Meanwhile, she talked about once they got married and got over there, they wanted to have ISIS babies in effect. I mean, it was kind of - it sounded almost like a dreamy, pie-in-the-sky we're going to fall in love and get married and run away only the weird twist was - and join ISIS.

KELLY: Can you speak to the sense of shock that I'm guessing this must have generated in a small town in Mississippi for someone to have turned in such an unexpected direction?

APEL: I think it not only shocked the community, it shocked the state because in Mississippi, we tend to think that everybody's your neighbor. But then when that neighbor turns out to do something like this, it is shocking. I think for Jaelyn's family - her father's a police officer. He's also a veteran, and I think that indicates that it's an intensely personal and hurtful thing for them. And I know for Dakhlalla's family, they also were very hurt by the whole thing, especially given that his dad was an imam in Starkville. And they were an established family in the community. This was not something anybody saw coming with him either.

KELLY: That's reporter Therese Apel with The Clarion-Ledger newspaper. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

APEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.