ARIEL Bradley was raised in a strict evangelical household in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a proud Christian city in the heart of America’s Bible Belt.
But when Mohammad Abdulazeez fatally shot four Marines there this month in a likely act of domestic terrorism, Bradley was not horrified, as most other folk in her hometown were.
She celebrated it.
By the time of the Chattanooga shootings on July 17, Bradley, 29, had long abandoned her Christian roots and converted to radical Islam. She now lives in Islamic State-controlled Syria with her jihadi husband and their two children.
Using the Twitter handle @aminah_umm, Bradley immediately took to social media to describe news of the shootings as a “gift”, adding that Abdulazeez — who, like her, came from the Chattanooga suburb of Dixson — was a martyr.
It’s the latest instalment in the strange transformation of Ariel Bradley, a homeschooled Christian girl and former free-living socialist who became an IS bride.
According to a BuzzFeed report, Bradley was homeschooled by her strict Christian mother, who provided an education based on the beliefs of the Pentecostal Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Bradley embraced Christian faith but eventually rebelled against her mother’s evangelism, running away from home in her mid-teens and spending the next 10 years bouncing from relationship to relationship, job to job, home to home.
She also traded in Christianity for a new world view. She became an atheist, denouncing religion as “a delusion”, and committed her time to socialist activism. She pushed for racial equality, teachers rights and fair housing, while working to help the homeless.
She moved into a socialist group home where the floor was covered in mattresses and stale bread left for anyone who was hungry, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
She got tattoos, dressed liberally, drank and smoked weed. A friend told BuzzFeedBradley once took so much acid at a Radiohead gig she passed out.
Bradley’s friends adored her bubbly, effervescent personality, but many admitted she defined herself through her relationships.
“The thing about Ariel that was just so weird was that she had such a clearly segmented life,” a friend told BuzzFeed anonymously.
“It was like, when I first met her she was a Christian, and then she was a socialist, and then she was an atheist, and then a Muslim.
“As far as I could tell it was always in relation to whatever guy she was interested in, so if she meets a guy that’s an atheist then she’s an atheist, falls into that for a year. Then the guy leaves and she meets somebody new, and it starts all over again.
“It seemed like whatever guy she was with, she would just crawl into his skin and kind of become him.”
Psychotherapist Zoe Krupka told news.com.au this behaviour was not uncommon among people who have had a strict fundamentalist upbringing.
“What happens is that you end up without a sense of your own self, because you’re so directed and you’re so controlled,” she said.
“That’s how you learn how to be in relationships — you learn how to follow orders, as opposed to having a gut sense of what you believe in, or what you like or dislike. When you have that destroyed as a child, by such a strict regimen, that’s what you know. Love means for you doing what you’re told.
“What we’ve seen of her [Bradley] is that she’s had a number of relationships with people, many of whom hold pretty extreme positions on one end or another, and so her position has been just to attach to someone who feels incredibly certain about everything, because inside she doesn’t have that solid sense of self.
“Without that, you can’t have a healthy relationship because you can only be a sponge. That’s your only option.”
After a few years Bradley became interested in Islam. Having developed an unrequited crush on a young Muslim man she met through work at a restaurant, Bradley began to dress more modestly, made Muslim friends and wore scarfs on her head.
“Maybe she was trying to get closer to me, somehow,” the man told BuzzFeed.
“Maybe she thought that, ‘OK, if I convert to Islam, I will be closer to him’.”
“She said she wasn’t happy with [her life]”, said one of Bradley’s Muslim friends.
“When she started to read about the prophet’s wives and stuff in Islam, she felt that this was the right way to live.”
Bradley converted to Islam in 2011. She began to follow a strict interpretation of the faith, emulating the way the prophet’s wives had worshipped thousands of years ago.
She also wanted a Muslim husband and set up profiles on Muslim matrimony websites.
Around this time, her relationship with her friends became strained.
Bradley met a man online — a 22-year-old Muslim man in Sweden named Yasin Mohamed.
After a few months of chatting online, Mohamed proposed and Bradley, then 26, accepted.
But her friends, both her old friends and her new Muslim friends, were concerned. Mohamed not only had no social media presence or more than a single photograph of himself, he also didn’t have Swedish citizenship or residency.
One friend admitted to suspecting Mohamed was using Bradley for American citizenship.
“Everybody warned her and just said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, you don’t know him, you don’t know anything about his background, you don’t know his family.’ It could be a trick or something,” the friend said.
After she became engaged Bradley grew even more conservative, friends said: she avoided men who weren’t immediate relatives, she dressed differently, she stopped listening to music.
She flew to Sweden to meet Mohamed in December 2011, and they were soon married. Bradley briefly returned to Chattanooga a couple of times but ultimately settled into her new life in Sweden, cutting off her old friends and shutting down her Facebook account.
She also gave birth to a girl, Aminah Mohamed.
By the start of last year, Bradley and Mohamed, with 18-month-old Aminah and another baby on the way, had moved IS-controlled territory in Syria.
Her active presence on social media revealed clues about her life in Syria. In one tweet from February this year, she described herself as the wife of a mujahid — a person engaged in jihad.
“Dua’a [prayers] plz. Being a muslimah, mommy, non Arabic speaker n Sham [Syria] & wife of a mujahid brings heavy trails [sic]. in sha Allah I pass this test,” she tweeted.
Other tweets reveal anecdotes about motherhood: “Turn around & my daughter is covered in white. never leave baby powder at eye level of a 2 year old” she tweeted in February.
At other times she uploaded pictures of bombs being dropped.
Then this, under her Twitter name Umm Aminah, on July 17:
“Gifted this morning not only with Eid but w/ the news of a brother puttin fear n the heart of kufar m in the city of my birth. Alhumduillah.”
It was followed by: “May Allah accept [Muhammad Abdulazeez] as shaheed [witness, or martyr]. in sha Allah [if God wills] this will make the camps of Emaan [believers] and Kuffr [nonbelievers] known within Chattanooga.”
BuzzFeed got Bradley to confirm her identity on social media but she declined to be interviewed.
Back in Chattanooga, friends said they thought Bradley had been brainwashed and hoped she would come home.
“It’s hard to bear,” her closest friend said.
“You have a loved one who joins ISIS. What does that mean? How do you reconcile the fact that you miss this human being, that you love this person?”
“Be it religion, be it a man, be it a marriage, be it a child, be it ISIS, Ariel was always looking for something to define herself, an identity to cling to.”