A former US cheerleader would have traded her miniskirt and pompoms for a burqa and an Islamic State flag had she not been arrested before traveling with her fiancé to Syria.
20-year-old Jaelyn Young pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. She faces up to 20 years in prison, up to $250,000 in fines, and lifetime probation.
The former Mississippi State University student pled guilty before a federal judge in Aberdeen, Mississippi. US District Judge Sharion Aycock will sentence her at a later date. Her fiancé Muhammad Dakhlalla, who plead guilty to a similar charge on March 11, is also awaiting sentencing. Both are jailed in Oxford.
The couple was arrested on Aug. 8 of last year before boarding a flight from Columbus, Mississippi to Istanbul. Prosecutors say the two had contacted undercover agents in May to discuss methods of traveling to Syria.
“I found the contacts, made arrangements, planned the departure,” Young wrote in a letter to her family before attempting to travel to Syria.
According to court papers, Young converted to Islam in March 2015 while studying chemistry at Mississippi State University.
“After her conversion, Young distanced herself from family and friends and felt spending time with non-Muslims would be a bad influence,” prosecutors wrote earlier this month.
Prosecutors say Young became infatuated with the Islamic State “in part” by watching pro-ISIS videos, such as one in which ISIS militants kill a man by tossing him off a roof after accusing him of being gay. They also say she expressed admiration for Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who opened fire on two military installations at Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 2015. That attack killed four marines and a Navy sailor.
“Young continually asked Dakhlalla when they were going to join (the Islamic State group) and began to express hatred for the U.S. government and to express support for the implementation of Sharia law in the United States,” prosecutors wrote.
Back in August, Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander denied the couple bail on the grounds that their willingness to commit terrorism was “probably still there” despite each having no criminal record.
Prosecutors had urged Alexander to deny bail based on conversations Young and Dakhlalla had with undercover agents.
“They don’t need a gun to do harm,” said Assistant US Attorney Clay Joyner. “They don’t need military training to do harm. What they need is a violent, extremist ideology, and that’s exactly what they have espoused.”
An FBI agent’s affidavit stated both had confessed to their plans following their arrests. In the letter to her family, Young expressed they intended to become medics for ISIS militants in Syria.
Young was a former cheerleader, honor student, and homecoming maid at Vicksburg’s Warren Central High School. She is the daughter of a school administrator and a veteran police officer who served in the Navy Reserve.
She is one of several US citizens arrested for supporting or attempting to aid ISIS, since the terror group rose in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. Some including Douglas McArthur McCain have even died fighting for the militants abroad.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center, at least 100 Americans have tried to join ISIS in Iraq or Syria. National Intelligence Director James Clapper puts that number at 180 as of April 2015. Experts say most are young people aged 18 to 30.