ISIS bride Tania Joya: ‘My crime was being an idiot, joining a really bad idea’
Tania Joya, who was married to John Georgelas, once known as the highest-ranking American in ISIS, does not want to be blamed for her ex-husband’s misdeeds.
“My crime was being an idiot and getting married too young and joining a really bad idea,” she says in a new documentary, “A Radical Life,” which begins streaming Thursday on Discovery+. “That was my mistake but it’s not a crime.”
The documentary takes an unfiltered look at Joya’s journey from British schoolgirl to Jihadi bride to single mother living in Texas.
She was born in 1983 to a “culturally Muslim” Bengali-Bangladeshi family, the daughter of an airline employee and a caterer. Joya experienced racism while growing up in London, she says in the documentary; according to a 2017 Texas Monthly interview, this even included her tormenters using the roof of the family’s car as a toilet.
A childhood surgery on a misshapen leg reportedly led to constant worrying about her health, which in turn led to her becoming a more devout Muslim. As she was mocked in public and scorned by her own family for wearing a full-length jilbab and face-covering veil, she turned to a community of other extreme worshipers — which helped lead to her becoming radicalized after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In 2003, Joya attended an anti-war rally and was given a pamphlet with a link to a website that connected Muslim singles for marriage. That’s when she began corresponding with an American convert to the religion, John Georgelas, who was living in Syria.
Georgelas had been raised in a privileged lifestyle in Plano, Texas, with no exposure to Islam. His grandfather served in the military and his father was a doctor who had been a colonel in the US Army. According to Texas Monthly, Georgelas took a junior college class on world religion that led him to seek out local Muslims. Two months after 9/11, he converted to Islam, changing his name to Yahya al-Bahrumi.
He eventually became fluent in classical Arabic and Islamic law and was close to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the ISIL spokesman, chief strategist and director of foreign terror operations.
The couple was 19 when they married, sharing a dream of jihad and raising children to be jihadists. They moved to Southern California, where al-Bahrumi got a job coding but was found guilty of hacking into the website of a pro-Israel lobbying group. In 2006 he served three years in prison; Joya — by then the mother of one boy and pregnant with another — confesses that those were the happiest years of her 12-year marriage.
“I was able to spend more time outside,” she says in the doc. “I saw how friendly people were. I started wearing regular clothes because I didn’t like people seeing me as a threat.”
But when al-Bahrumi was released from prison — even more radicalized — the couple moved to Egypt.
There, Joya homeschooled their sons and says it “made me realize that I really want them to go to university rather than destroy society … but John wouldn’t have it.”
She reveals that her husband didn’t teach their oldest son to ride a bike or play with a ball, but did teach him how to use a gun.
“I wanted to live a comfortable, stable life but John had other plans,” she says.
Al- Bahrumi, who was obsessed with the idea of establishing a caliphate, then allegedly tricked Joya into traveling to Syria. By then they had three boys and she was six-months pregnant with their fourth. After two weeks of living in a war zone, without running water and constant bombing, she had had enough; Joya contacted American authorities and told them she wanted out and was willing to share whatever information she had.
She was told to make her own way to Turkey and then the UK, and had only a two-week window to get to the US, or says would never be allowed back in again. Al-Bahrumi drove her to the Turkish border and never looked back after saying goodbye, a gesture that, Joya says, hurt terribly.
After a caliphate was declared in mid-2014, al-Bahrumi was able to make it to its capital, Raqqah, to employ his coding skills and produce high-quality English-language propaganda for ISIS.
He urged Muslims to emigrate to the caliphate state and not only defended terrorism but argued that it was compulsory for Muslims.
Once back in the US, Joya, who gave birth on American soil, began working undercover.
“I wanted to do something to make up for the past,” she says. “I was never coerced.”
Eventually, she began “talking to jihadists [online] and getting information. I owed [the US] and it was the only way I could really help.”
Joya says she stayed in contact with her estranged husband, who told her he had taken up arms and been badly injured. The last contact they had was over seven years ago when he sent an email to their four sons, in which he encouraged them to become jihadists. Joya says in the documentary that she has no plans to share the email with her children.
On social media, her ex urged followers to hate non-Muslims and declared that Muslim leaders who did not support an Islamic State should be executed. He is believed to have died during the 2017 Mayadin offensive, at the age of 33, but his death has never been confirmed.
One thing that isn’t mentioned in the documentary is the political scandal Joya was involved with earlier this year, in which she revealed she had had an affair with US Rep. Van Taylor, who was then running in a primary election.
Days after this became public, Taylor announced the suspension of his reelection campaign and admitted to the affair.
But Joya, who remarried and is now divorced, freely acknowledges that her former in-laws support her and her boys financially.
Without al-Bahrumi’s parents, “I’d be in a homeless shelter and my kids would be in foster care,” she says.
Her oldest son, Michael now 16, is interviewed in the documentary.
According to Joya, he’s drawn to radical YouTube videos and describes his father as having “had a good soul.”