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By Rukmini Callimachi. Alex, a year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam. For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online — the most attentive she had ever had — who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim.

One in particular, Faisal, had become her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and , painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith. But when she excitedly told him that she had found a mosque just five miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in rural Washington State, he suddenly became cold. The only Muslims she knew were those she had met online, and he encouraged her to keep it that way, arguing that Muslims are persecuted in the United States.

She could be labeled a terrorist, he warned, and for now it was best for her to keep her conversion secret, even from her family. So on his guidance, Alex began leading a double life. Instead, she hummed along with the ISIS anthems blasting out of her turquoise iPhone, and began daydreaming about what life with the militants might be like.

Through January this year, at least Americans were thought to have traveled to jihadists in Syria and Iraq, among nearly 4, Westerners who had done so. The terrorist group itself maintains a hour online operation, and its effectiveness is vastly extended by larger rings of sympathetic volunteers and fans who pass on its messages and viewpoint, reeling in potential recruits, analysts say. They sent her money and plied her with gifts of chocolate. They indulged her curiosity and calmed her apprehensions as they ushered her toward the hard-line theological concepts that ISIS is built on.

As a Christian, Alex presented the need for an extra step in the process. Yet she helped close the gap herself: Trying to explain the attraction, she said she had already been drawn to the idea of living a faith more fully.

Extensive interviews with Alex and her family, along with a review of the s, Twitter posts, private messages and Skype chats she exchanged, which they agreed to share with The New York Times on the condition that their real names and hometown not be revealed, offered a rare window into the intense effort to indoctrinate a young American woman, increasing her sense of isolation from her family and community.

She has lived with her grandparents for almost all her life: When she was 11 months old, her mother, struggling with drug addiction, lost custody of her. Her therapist says that fetal alcohol syndrome, which has left Alex with tremors in her hands, has also contributed to a persistent lack of maturity and poor judgment. That only partly explains what happened to her online, her family says. At home, she spent hours streaming movies on Netflix and updating her social media timelines. James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by ISIS , a group she knew nothing about.

The searing image of the young man kneeling as the knife was lifted to his throat stayed with her. Riveted by the killing, and struck by a horrified curiosity, she logged on to Twitter to see if she could learn more. She found herself shocked again, this time by the fact that people who openly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took the time to politely answer her questions. One of the first relationships she struck up was with a man who told her he was an ISIS fighter named Monzer Hamad, stationed near Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The pamphlet advises spending as much time as possible with prospective recruits, keeping in regular touch. Then the recruiter should focus on instilling the basics of Islam, making sure not to mention jihad. Hamad instructed Alex to download the Islamic Hub app on her iPhone. They were answered immediately. If before she waited hours to hear back from friends, now her iPhone was vibrating all day with status updates, notifications, emoticons and Skype voice mail messages.

She occasionally pushed back, questioning how the jihadists could justify beheadings. Her Skype discussions had even uncovered an unexpected bit of common ground with Hamad, who seemed to know a lot about the Bible. Later in October, Hamad asked her to reread the Bible and report back on how Christ described himself. He explained to her that Christ was a man who deserved to be revered as a prophet. But he was not God. The discussion unmoored Alex, who had chosen a quote by Jesus to illustrate her high school yearbook .

One morning, roughly two months after she first began communicating with ISIS supporters, Alex asked to see the pastor of her Presbyterian church. She wanted to know whether the idea of the Trinity that Christians believed in — God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — meant they were polytheists. Friendly at first, the pastor ushered her out after 15 minutes, telling her she needed to trust in the mystery of God, she said.

The arguments she was hearing online are the textbook approach to luring Christians to radical Islam, says Mubin Shaikh, a former member and recruiter for an extremist Islamist group, who testified before Congress on the mechanics of radicalization and was among those who tried to intervene online as Alex drifted toward extremism. Shaikh, who traveled to Pakistan to meet the Taliban before renouncing his radical views and becoming an undercover operative for Canadian intelligence.

The next time she attended service, Alex did not stand when the pastor invited the congregation to take communion. Day after day, she looked for him, but he was gone. She wondered whether he had died in battle. By the last week of October, Alex was communicating with more than a dozen people who openly admired the Islamic State. Her life, which had mostly seemed like a blurred series of babysitting shifts and lonely weekends roaming the mall, was now filled with encouragement and tutorials from her online friends.

She and others chose books for Alex and mailed them to her home. They included an English-language Quran and a basic study guide. Among the people who picked up where Hamad left off was a Twitter user called Voyager, whose profile picture showed white stallions galloping through crashing waves. In November, he asked for her address and told her his name was Faisal Mostafa and that he lived in Stockport, near Manchester, England. He asked for her Skype ID, and soon they began chatting, cameras turned off in keeping with Muslim rules on modesty.

He typically came online when it was 3 p. When she calculated the time difference, she realized Faisal was chatting with her from around 11 p. Although he spent all night nearly every night speaking to her, the conversation remained strictly platonic, she said.

Each day he had prepared a lesson, starting with the fundamentals of praying. They included the wudu, the ritual washing of the hands, wrists, arms, face and feet before each of the five daily prayers. And he emphasized the need for Muslims to place their he on the ground while praying, citing a Bible verse in which Jesus did so. After dropping out of college, Alex worked for a year at a day-care center, only to re after a disagreement with her manager. She quit a call-center training program after three weeks, she said, unable to handle angry calls from customers.

Her online conversations became a touchstone at a time when she was increasingly adrift. Other times, though, the talk focused on the details of an uncompromising Muslim life. By the time Christmas arrived, she felt she had crossed a line.

This presented an obstacle for Alex, who still knew no Muslims in person. Faisal argued that she could post her declaration of faith, known as the Shahada, on Twitter, and the first two people who read it would count as her witnesses. The night of Dec. She sat on her bed, a crucifix on the bookshelf beside her. For a moment she thought she might throw up. Faisal acknowledged her declaration right away.

So did another online friend, who went by the screen name Hallie Sheikh and whom Faisal had asked to serve as the second witness. Within hours, Alex had doubled her Twitter following. Months later, the Hallie Sheikh Twitter handle came to public attention: That had briefly interacted with Elton Simpson , the gunman who opened fire on a contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad in Texas, an attack dedicated to the Islamic State.

Inside were pastel-colored hijabs, a green prayer rug, and books that took her into a stricter interpretation of Islam. She was excited to receive them, but at times the lessons they contained seemed foreign to Alex, even silly — like the admonition against wearing nail polish, because it prevented water from reaching her fingernails when she performed wudu.

Each bubble-wrapped package Faisal sent her included bars of Lindt chocolate. She said he explained why the brand had special ificance: It was inside the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney, Australia, that a man claiming to be acting in the name of ISIS held a group of employees and customers hostage in a hour standoff in December. At the urging of another Twitter user, she skimmed a biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi , the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State.

Church days were the hardest. She continued to prepare her Sunday school lessons, doing her best to sound convincing. In the pews, she bowed her head alongside the rest of the congregation, though in her heart her prayers were different. The only person who knew of her conversion was her cousin, who was starting to flirt with the idea herself.

Together they went to the Dollar Store and bought two toilet plungers. In a park, they put on their head scarves and used the handles to spar in an imaginary sword fight. But Alex felt increasingly distressed about lying to her family.

And as her secret grew, so did her sense of isolation. Shaikh, who spent years recruiting for extremist groups before recanting, says the isolation is intentional. Weeks after she converted, Alex had still not met any Muslims in real life.

Online, she discovered that there was a mosque near her home. He dissuaded her from going, saying it was a government-infiltrated mosque, she said. In early February, a of other Twitter users, including Mr. They threw lifelines into the digital sea. On Feb. Alex promised she would tell Faisal to stop sending them. She does not know his real name or even what he looks like — his profile picture was of a roaring lion. His handle was SurgeonOfDeath. The fact that she continued to follow a handful of her Christian friends proved to be unacceptable.

If only days earlier she had been trying to disentangle herself, now she was begging them not to cut her off. She offered to provide her Twitter password to anyone who wanted to examine her messages. He introduced her to the administrator of the InviteToIslam .

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors jihadist propaganda, the belongs to a radical Islamist group based in Birmingham, England, that is in regular contact with ISIS fighters. The administrator of the is accused of having played a role in the radicalization of a year-old English girl who left to ISIS earlier this year, according to media reports.

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