By Ellie Hall
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — On July 17, the city of Chattanooga woke to the sober reality that the events of the past 24 hours had not been some sort of nightmare — a young man named Mohammad Abdulazeez had attacked a military recruiting center and military base, killing four Marines and bringing fears of Islamist terrorism to the place known as one of the most “Most Bible-Minded” cities in America.
Halfway around the world, however, one woman saw the news on Twitter and posted her joy: “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].”
BuzzFeed News has confirmed that this woman, who calls herself “Emarah bint Aljon” or “Umm Aminah,” is Ariel Bradley, a 29-year-old American from the Chattanooga suburb of Hixson — where shooter Abdulazeez also lived — who has been living in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria for more than a year, with her Iraqi-born husband and their two children. The couple’s first child, a daughter, was born in Chattanooga in 2012. Their son was born in Syria late last year.
“May Allah accept [the Chattanooga shooter] as shaheed [a martyr],” she wrote from her recently restored Twitter account @aminah_umm. “in sha Allah this will make the camps of Emaan [believers] and Kuffr [non believers] known within Chattanooga.”
Ariel’s mother, Dianne Bradley, said she did not know the daughter she raised and homeschooled as an evangelical Christian had willingly joined ISIS until BuzzFeed News approached her on the steps of the family home in Hixson. With an anxious scan of the front yard, lip trembling, Dianne Bradley said her daughter told her family last year that she had traveled to the Middle East with her husband, Yasin Mohamad, on “a mission trip” to help her husband’s family. She said she was concerned when she received a photo of her two grandchildren — 2-year-old Aminah, dressed all in black, holding her infant brother, Yaqub — in March and worried that her daughter was involved with extremism, but she told BuzzFeed News the family had not approached the U.S. government about their concerns about the missing 29-year-old and her family.
When first contacted by BuzzFeed News in late May, Ariel responded to emails and various messages posted to her social media platforms to confirm her identity and location. But she declined subsequent requests to be formally interviewed. Ariel’s relatives, who have been in contact with her as recently as June, also declined to sit down for a formal interview.
BuzzFeed News spent weeks in Chattanooga talking to nearly 20 of Ariel’s friends, ex-boyfriends, and former employers, many of whom spoke on the condition they only be identified by their relationship to Ariel because they fear reprisals from ISIS and negative attention from the Chattanooga community. Despite personal concerns and their confusion over Ariel’s situation, most of the friends who spoke with BuzzFeed News emphasized their affection for Ariel. Nearly all — including the Muslim man she fell for in early 2011 before her conversion but who didn’t return her affection — were puzzled by the same question: How did the bubbly, caring, self-described feminist, who lived and partied with them, who got tattoos and dropped acid, become someone who would embrace a radical ideology that calls for the subjugation of women and the destruction of her home country? ISIS Bride