IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Friend Joined ISIS

I struggle to accept that the woman who liberated baked goods from restaurant dumpsters to give to homeless people has turned into this.
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Katherine Burke
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I struggle to accept that the woman who liberated baked goods from restaurant dumpsters to give to homeless people has turned into this.

I met Ariel in 2006, a time when the whole world felt like a simmering pot that was bound to boil over. We meet through friends at a squat in Chattanooga's North Shore neighborhood. The North Shore is where lost children from local rural ghettos go to find freaks like themselves. I was an impostor working with our local socialist commune during the day and slinking back to my cozy suburb at night. 

Ariel, however, was the real deal. She stayed with friends or temporary boyfriends, or lived in her car. She had jobs but still had to fight tooth and nail for every mouthful. Life had made her ballsy but not cold. Everyone I've talked to about her spoke of her kind, gentle manner. She was not jaded or too cool for anything. She was often a bit smelly, kind of hairy, and her clothes were wrinkled and full of holes. 

For me, it was love at first sight.

Whenever I think of Ariel, I remember an essay by Patti Smith about Edie Sedgwick. Ariel and Edie shared the same blonde pixie cut and petite, skinny body type, but it was the way Patti described Edie's actions that reminded me of Ariel: Edie standing over a crowd at an art event, letting the long bell sleeve of her Pucci dress dangle above the fray. This is how I picture Ariel now, light as air and just out of reach.

The Ariel I knew.

The Ariel I knew.

She did not seem so far away on the morning of July 20th last year. I was lazily clicking around Facebook on my cigarette break when I saw the same Buzzfeed article being posted over and over. The subtitle read, "How did a homeschooled, evangelical Christian from Chattanooga become an ISIS wife and mother?" A picture of Ariel accompanied the words. 

I felt a chill run through me, and I had to sit down. I knew Ariel had converted to Islam four years ago, that she had met and married a Syrian refugee. What I didn't know — and what Buzzfeed reported — is that Ariel, her husband, and their two children had moved to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria in 2014, though there was no evidence that she or her husband had done anything unspeakable yet. 

Buzzfeed found out about Ariel after she tweeted praise for an Islamic extremist who had committed a mass shooting at an army recruitment center. Her comments sent the internet into a rage, and when Buzzfeed looked into the engineer of all this chaos, they found out it was a white girl from Tennessee. 

Ariel was not the first of my friends to go out searching for something only to end up a million miles away from herself, but somehow, this time was worse than all the others.

At a party that July night, I got drunk and joked about the stupid girl I knew who ran off to ISIS. I was trying to believe that I did not have to feel bad about this one. Maybe when someone does something so enormously dim-witted, it's no one's fault — but of course that was bullshit. 

Later, I found myself reading through her tweets. Her life in Syria did not seem so bad. She mentioned reading the Koran, cooking for her husband, having friends, and playing with her kids. What was unnerving was the casual way she talked about bombs dropping near her home; she said she did not care if they fell on her house, turning her toddlers into martyrs for her cause. 

I reread the article a fifth time, then a sixth. The reporter had talked to several of my friends who still lived on the North Shore and seemed to believe Ariel's history of poverty, her homeschooling by fundamentalist Christian parents, and a love life fraught with abusive, controlling men had brought her to this point. I still could not embrace the idea that the friend I had danced topless with in basements, the girl who ran our local community garden and who liberated baked goods from chain-restaurant dumpsters to give to homeless people had turned into this.

Ariel shortly before she converted. This photo, by Robert Parker, became the main image in the Buzzfeed article.

Ariel shortly before she converted. This photo, by Robert Parker, became the main image in the Buzzfeed article.

Ariel and I drifted apart after I moved to Savannah in 2011. When I saw her fervent posts about Allah, I was not surprised. Ariel adopted dogmas the way dry ground absorbs water. I admit, it was one of the things I liked about her. Were we not supposed to experiment? Everyone says we're searching for something, but Ariel seemed like the only one who was actually looking. She did have a tendency to adopt the beliefs of whomever she was dating, but I thought this was just another phase. 

I became more concerned when friends told me she rarely left her house, that she was spending all of her time in prayer and searching for a Muslim husband online. I still didn't confront her. It's not that I didn't care — I think the problem was that I really did love Ariel. I think I desperately wanted her to still be the same person inside. In my worst moments, I think I might have been too happy to just bask in the glow of her light. I did not want to kill the romance by getting to know the damaged person inside.

After the Buzzfeed article was published, nobody on the internet seemed to have much compassion for her. (Surprise!) When my denial finally turned to anger, I spent a fruitless night scrolling the comments. There were lots of death threats and "slut" and "whore" name-calling. I wondered if any of these people had ever gone hungry; how many of them had given someone a blow job in order to have a place to sleep? No one's life is easy, but is that not the core of empathy? The knowledge that we all know pain? 

Eventually, the thought of her family reading these comments combined with picturing her babies being ripped apart by explosions became too much for me. I had to mourn Ariel and move on.

It's been a year. I'm still working on it. I was looking for clues; I wanted all the pieces to fall into place so that I could finally believe there was nothing I could do or could have done. That didn't work. I will go to my grave regretting not trying to help Ariel. I fantasize about being a spy who could rescue her children. I'm terrified that this is just a phase — that she will wake up one day totally fucked with no escape. 

However, I no longer believe that the Ariel I knew and the person Buzzfeed wrote about are two different people. I do not think Ariel joined ISIS because she was tired of struggling or looking for somewhere to belong. Ariel was a fighter; she fought her parents, she fought the system, she fought for herself, and now she has a new cause. She just doesn't know how to lay down her arms anymore. At her core, she is still the same person.

When I think of Ariel, my Ariel, she warms my heart. I have been told love can cross oceans, last decades, and find you at the darkest point of your life. Unfortunately, I now know that it would take all of these miracles combined for me to talk to my friend again.