Safya Yassin was arrested last month for threatening the lives of federal agents with pro-ISIS messages. But her complete online trail raises the question of whether she was a true believer in the Islamic State or just a lonely single mother who yearned for attention. Members of her family, for what it’s worth, think she’s anything but a Muslim fanatic.
“She believes in Jesus Christ as her personal savior,” one of Yassin’s cousins told The Daily Beast. “I gave her her first Bible, and she still has that.”
On Feb. 18, the Federal Bureau of Investigation took Yassin into custody after they said she “retweeted the personal identifiable information of two FBI agents with the statement ‘Wanted to Kill.’” Yassin also allegedly shared photos and addresses of U.S. military personnel and tweeted that a “media personality ‘would be better off without her head,’” the complaint added.
More than 80 people have been charged with ISIS-related crimes in the U.S. since 2014. Most of the accused were not planning attacks on the homeland. Instead, they’re believed to have tried to go abroad to join the caliphate or given money to the cause. For others, the involvement was largely virtual. Last year, an Ohio man was arrested after reblogging a GIF of military servicemembers that said “kill them wherever you find them.”
Yassin was hugely popular online, with thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter. Yet neighbors said they hardly ever saw the reclusive woman mother of two who lived with her father.
People who knew her online, however, grieved.
Another identified her as a “beautiful sister who is being oppressed for holding on to the haqq [truth].”
“Safya Yassin was a thorn in kuffars [apostates’] heart when she was back on Twitter last year,” one follower wrote. “They started flooding her with nude photos so she left Twitter and started using facebook.… May Allah hasten their release.”
“The day is near when the #IslamicState uses the Jets & Weapons from the Kuffar against them. Insha’Allah,” tweeted @Muslimaah_224, with the telltale green bird.
The affidavit cites another tweet in which Yassin declared that “‘Islamic State Supporter’ means supporter of Islam.”
“It’s really hard to identify leaders within the Twitter community, but she’s certainly a prolific voice,” Audrey Alexander, a researcher at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told The Daily Beast. “She produces quite a bit of original content from a lot of her accounts, so she’s not just retweeting stuff and sharing information.”
Alexander noted that Yassin’s posts frequently focused on domestic issues, and drew theological conclusions that evade many other supporters.
“She is questioning whether ISIL is the end of times army,” Alexander said. “That’s something that a lot of the community doesn’t necessarily latch onto, which is why we believe her views are quite well informed.”
Family members told The Daily Beast that Yassin was born to a white mother in California and an Arab father who immigrated to the U.S. from Jerusalem as a teenager.
“The real story is, she’s not a terrorist,” her aunt, Sandra Mick, told The Daily Beast. “She retweeted and reposted what other people had posted, that’s the story.”
“She’s never been outside this country. I doubt she’s even met a real Muslim,” Mick said.
Indeed, photos and available information about Yassin show someone far from the strict ISIS rules for women and Muslims. She liked sports and music concerts and was photographed wearing T-shirts and tank tops.
Yassin’s cousin Janice Valenti even says she is a Christian.
Yassin tagged Valenti in a Facebook status fondly recalling the Bible she had given her, the cousin said. Valenti also said Yassin taught her two children Christian prayers.
Yet Yassin’s remaining Facebook account has a cover photo with an ISIS slogan held up in front of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
“The disbelievers used to be called ‘barbarians’ and described as ‘uncivilized’ — they can still be called barbarians, they are just dressed in nicer/cleaner clothes is all, and have modern day tools to act like uncivilized beasts and barbarians,” her last post reads. “What they see as backwards is worshiping Allah, women being modest and covering, shariah law and even Halal food is backwards to these barbarians.”
And such a split between online and offline personas isn’t uncommon for Americans arrested for supporting ISIS, particularly those who are seen as loners in their real lives.
“I think this is one of the steps they had to take in the legal system to take her case farther and see if she’s a big threat,” Alexander, the researcher, said. “You can be sort of a nobody, and rise to a certain height online.”
Yassin’s online presence predates ISIS, but features the same strain of paranoia about the government and distrust of authority.
Over the past several years, she had been involved in online communities for “vaccine damage” awareness and worried about “chemtrails” poisoning Americans. In one post, Yassin and friends discussed a (false) 20,000 percent increase in autism over the last 20 years, with friends calling it conservative.
“Flu has been declared an epidemic. 2,257 People have been Hospitalized. Yet 1 in 54 boys will be diagnosed with Autism,” Yassin, mother to an autistic boy, wrote in 2013. “Where is the alarm from the CDC on that? While the flu lasts on average 5 days, Autism lasts a lifetime.”
“If she was passionate about GMOs [genetically modified organisms], Monsanto, something like that… she would go out and protest about that,” Valenti said.
Another aunt said she was stunned by the anti-government posts on Yassin’s feed.
“I called my sister and I said, have you read some of the stuff she puts on Facebook?” Pat Hulse told The Daily Beast.
But that didn’t mean Yassin was angry or cruel, her aunt said.
“She’s real sweet. When my mother died and stuff, she knew I was in Kansas City,” Hulse said. “She gave us concert tickets. She goes, ‘I won concert tickets, but I think you could use a break.’”
Wendie Fox became friends with Yassin after buying Kansas City Chiefs tickets from her on Craigslist several years ago. They bonded over medical issues (Yassin told her she had pain from a work-related accident) and went to concerts and sporting events together.
“I would trust her with my life, literally,” Fox said. “She would come visit me at my house because I was in a really bad car accident. She would come visit me at the hospital.”
Fox said she saw Yassin get harassed, both for looking “Muslim” and having an autistic son in public school. One time, Fox said, a teacher made a remark about 9/11 to Yassin. (The incident was corroborated by her father, Omar, during a recent court hearing about her detention.) Micks, her aunt, told The Daily Beast that Yassin’s son had so much trouble in school that she eventually pulled her kids to homeschool them.
And one of her few close friendships seems to have alerted authorities. Court documents say Yassin was turned in by a Facebook friend who converted to Islam at Yassin’s behest, but later grew alarmed that Yassin was openly advocating for the Islamic State.
“Yassin told the complainant that he/she would go to hell if he/she did not divorce his/her non-Muslim spouse and get rid of his/her dogs and all of his/her non-Muslim friends,” court documents state.
But Yassin was close to her non-Muslim family, who worry about her case. Yassin’s children have been in state custody since her arrest, Mick said. To her knowledge, they hadn’t been released to Yassin’s father, who she described as a good man.
Mick said she worries about how they’re being treated in their small community.
“They look just like their mother,” she said.