Mariyam's attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it's a form of magical thinking. "They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia," she says. "It's hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way."
Chicago's Muslim community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, with a significant portion hailing from the South Asian diaspora. Hamzah's parents, Shafi and Zarine, naturalized American citizens, were born in Hyderabad, the fourth-largest city in India, and are followers of the Deobandi school of Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni strain that stresses strict adherence to Islamic law and has been influential in jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khans, however, follow a pacifist movement that preaches that Muslims' true battle is a spiritual one.
An unassuming young man, Shafi was 20 when he arrived in Chicago with his parents, in 1986. In 1994, he returned to India for an arranged marriage with Zarine, then a 21-year-old student at Hyderabad's main university. Back in Chicago, the couple settled on Devon Avenue, an area famous for being a landing point for immigrants from across the Indian subcontinent. In 1995, their first child, Hamzah, was born, followed by Mariyam in 1996, Tarek in 1998 and another sister in 2000. To support his brood, Shafi, who was still putting himself through college, worked as a customer-service representative at a bank. Zarine, who'd given up her scientific ambitions to marry and have children, worked part-time teaching primary school. By 2005, they joined the migration pattern of many other Indian and Pakistani Muslims and settled in the suburbs west of the city, first in Des Plaines, near O'Hare, and then, after their fifth and final child was born in 2011, in Bolingbrook.
Uninspiring though it might be, the Khans found much to appreciate in the suburbs. In America, you got what you paid for: a house, a car, clean streets, medical care. They appreciated the kindness of Americans and, as Zarine often noted, their "respect for hard work and human life." And yet, neither she nor her husband was ever fully comfortable here. The violence of popular culture in particular bothered Zarine. When Hamzah was about eight, the television broke; the Khans decided not to replace it. Though they had a computer with Internet access, Shafi and Zarine monitored their children's online habits, allowing them to watch cartoons and read the news, but never to surf the Internet alone. "We wanted to preserve their innocence," Zarine later noted to the Washington Post.
Chicago's western suburbs have a drab, workaday quality filled with featureless strip malls and equally nondescript homes. Once lily-white, the area's demographics have followed national trends, and South Asians now comprise almost six percent of the population. In the past decade, at least 15 new mosques and Islamic cultural centers have sprung up throughout the area, quickly assimilating into the landscape: mosque, 7-Eleven, McDonald's, church, Walmart, halal butcher, Taco Bell, synagogue, Planet Fitness.
On September 11th, 2001, Zarine and Shafi had been living together in Chicago for seven years. Hamzah was six, Mariyam four; the younger two siblings were toddlers. The Khans, who were horrified by the attacks, tried not to watch the news. Sometimes, Zarine would hear about women's scarves getting pulled off in public, though it never happened to her. She did, however, get random stares while shopping. Given what happened on 9/11, that was "understandable," she rationalized. But in Chicago, as in most cities across the country, there were more overt examples of discrimination.
Everyone had heard the stories of people who had been hassled or detained at the airport, or whose immigration papers were mysteriously held up. Many Muslim families knew of at least one child who'd been teased and called "Osama" or "terrorist" on the playground. It was assumed, in an era of FBI stings (including several in Chicago), that if a stranger entered a mosque during Friday prayers and started spouting extremist rhetoric, he was likely an informant.
Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing "academic excellence in an Islamic environment." Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it's also a safety issue, he admits. "To be honest with you, I don't want my kids being told they're terrorists."
One of Hamzah's teachers at CPSA, who spoke to Rolling Stone anonymously (the school has refused to comment on the Khans and has instructed its faculty to do the same), doubts Hamzah had the skills needed for a scientific career. "He wasn't cut out for engineering," he says. "He always came across as really naive, just kind of simple." Sexual innuendos went over his head. Though he had a circle of friends, he lacked the go-along-to-get-along sensibility that others took in stride. According to the teacher, cheating has occasionally been a problem at CPSA, where tremendous pressure is put on kids to excel in the sciences, but Hamzah never took part. "That's part of that innocence," he says. "The rest of the kids are like, 'Look, you can't always be this goody-two-shoes.' "
Hamzah saw in Islam a world of infinite wisdom whose rules and ancient history intrigued him. Steeped in the stories of Muhammad, his companions, and the sultans and caliphs who came after them, Hamzah viewed those days as a "simpler" era when Islam flourished across a vast empire, or Caliphate, and the Muslim ummah, or global community, was united. By college, though he still enjoyed making funny videos with friends and listening to rappers like Waka Flocka Flame, he'd begun to see those pursuits as shallow, lacking the honor and romance of being a true champion of the ummah. In 2014, he created a Tumblr page he called "Torchbearers of Tawheed," dedicated to "posts about important events and people from Islam dating from the period of Muhammad [peace be upon him]," though he sometimes posted his own poetry, too. On Twitter, he dubbed himself @lionofthe-d3s3rt – a take on his name, which means "lion," and a reference to historical freedom fighters in the Middle East. He trimmed his beard in the manner of an Arabian prince, and then, because it looked so good, he posted a picture on his Google+ page, standing in front of a suburban home, his black hair wrapped in a Saudi-style headdress, chin raised, eyes fixed on some distant point. Mecca? Chicago? Burger King? Who knew?
Mariyam, while equally invested in her dreams, was more focused. A voracious reader, she made her way through most of the young-adult novels on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and spent hours making plans. She was going to be an astronaut. Then she decided she'd rather be a paleontologist, or a surgeon. Like her brother, she also became a hafiz, which in her case took three years, as she was meticulous about the Quran, memorizing each phrase and passage backward and forward until she could recite it without error. "I like things to be perfect, and I like to be the best at them," she says. This was obvious by simply looking at her, if she'd have allowed it.
Though wearing the niqab isn't generally required in Islam, Mariyam, like her mother, chose to cover all but her forehead and her eyes. In public, Mariyam, a tiny five feet two, appeared as a mute appendage to Zarine, to whom she is fiercely attached. But at home, where she covered only her hair, she was a different, more dynamic girl: intellectually curious, chatty, sometimes angst-ridden and moody. She was concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worried about the suffering of Muslims — especially the children — wherever they were. She also worried about the usual teenage things: her hair, her skin, her weight. Embarrassingly, she now admits, she was obsessed for a while — OK, for about three years — with Linkin Park, whose lyrics she memorized and wrote everywhere. There were also the boys-suck ballads of Taylor Swift, more of a secret passion. Boys themselves were strictly off-limits in the hyperconservative interpretation of Islam imparted by her parents. She could still laugh, joke, ride bikes and climb trees with her brothers, but once she hit puberty, strange boys were to be avoided unless she needed to ask someone for directions.
This, for the most part, was OK, because more than anything, Mariyam was painfully shy. Her niqab was her shield, and behind the veil she could observe, which she did, keenly, but didn't have to engage. This shyness, combined with her innate perfectionism, created a deep well of anxiety that struck her immediately after she finished memorizing the Quran. She'd missed the entirety of middle school, though she'd tried to keep up through home-schooling. As a result, all the torment of those awkward early-teenage years, the best-friendships, rivalries and petty jealousies — all of that had passed her by. So she told her mother she didn't want to go back to school. Zarine begged her to change her mind. "I used to tell her every single day, 'You're going to regret this when you're in college,' " Zarine recalls. " 'You're going to say, "I missed high school life." ' " Mariyam insisted she'd be better off being home-schooled and enrolled in a correspondence program. And so, ninth grade passed and then 10th.
Apart from her studies, her outlets were baking, drawing and watching YouTube videos. She developed a passion for elaborate Arabic eye makeup, which she'd experiment with in her room, trying the Indian-princess look one day, a sultry Arabian look the next, always making sure to take it off before anyone could see. Though she never admitted it, the loneliness was excruciating. After a while, even a trip with her mother to Walmart was exciting.
And then, at 16, Mariyam began to change. She stopped listening to music, stopped watching anime and reading novels. She no longer missed her friends or worried about whether she should return to high school — she knew there was no point. The only thing that mattered to her was religion. While her brothers and sister were off at school and working on projects for the next science fair, she would rush through her lessons in order to curl up in a corner and read the hadiths, the second-hand accounts of the teachings and proverbs of Muhammad, as well as books by many other Islamic scholars.
By 2013, Mariyam had become immersed in the crisis in Syria, or Shaam, as she now called it, which is also what the Islamic State called the territory — encompassing large swaths of Syria and Iraq — that it would later dub the caliphate. Taking the cause as her own, she joined in a hashtag campaign for a Muslim prisoner and retweeted photos of victims of violence in the Middle East. She was influenced by Islamic forums that promoted a stridently anti-Western view — all non-Muslims were "kuffars," all Shias "apostates," and all mainstream imams, Islamic scholars and virtually any Muslims who "watered down their religion" were "coconuts": brown on the outside, but white at the heart.
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the "caliphate," ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new "Islamic State," where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. "In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was 'Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,' " Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. "This time, the message is 'Come and help us build a new state, your state . . . a Sunni political utopia . . . that will protect every single Muslim. . . .' This is a very, very seductive message, and it's also a positive message."
All of the Khan kids were active on social media, but for Mariyam, it was more than just an outlet — it was her voice. Mariyam's life was full of rules, but online she could be anyone she wanted to be: a good Muslim girl, an advocate for the oppressed, even, in a way, an honorary boy who, veiled in the anonymity of the Internet, was free to engage with a bubbling new subculture of people, mostly young men, who she'd never have been able to look at, let alone speak to, in real life.
She found them on Twitter...