Repatriating former ISIS members is a contentious issue, but if Tania Joya’s account is to be believed, there was never a bomb hidden behind her burqa. Tania Joya has gone by many names, including “ISIS bride,” “First Lady of ISIS,” and most recently, “the other woman” of a Texan Republican. Joya, who was famously married to Yahya al-Bahrumi, the highest-ranking leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria who is of American descent, has made a comeback in American news.
This time, she took part voluntarily in a seven-month political sex scandal with Republican congressman Van Taylor. Unusually, she had contacted Taylor’s opponent to discuss the situation and was her whistleblower. She claimed that her goal was to expose his hypocrisy.
Many women have found themselves married to the Islamic State, just like Tania Joya. But unlike her, they don’t always have the chance to start over and reintegrate into society.
In places like the Al-Hol camp in Syria, tens of thousands of “ISIS brides” and children are currently suffering in captivity. Over 64,000 women and children from such camps were to be repatriated, the United Nations requested 57 nations to do in 2021. Repatriation, however, entails a danger: what if people going home are still radicalized? The Indian government has yet to decide what to do about at least four Indian women who joined ISIS and now want to return home.
When the Taliban broke out of Kabul jails in August 2021, there was a ray of hope for the women’s return to their home countries. The women were being held in an Afghan prison after turning themselves into Afghan forces.
“I see everyone praying for the safe return of children from war-torn Ukraine,” Bindu Sampath, a Malay mother whose daughter joined ISIS in 2016, made this statement. “I, too, pray for the safe return of my child,” she said.
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Tania Joya was born Joya Choudhury in Harrow, north London, United Kingdom, in 1983 to a Bengali-Bangladeshi family that was “culturally Muslims.” Growing up in the UK, she encountered bigotry. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, she joined a group of fundamentalist Algerians and became a “jihadi hardline.”
Story From London to the Levant
The fortunate ones included Tania Joya. Her narrative starts in a tiny London neighborhood. Joya, a Bangladeshi immigrant’s daughter, reportedly had a challenging childhood, which she attributes to her “upbringing within a conservative Bangladeshi-British family”.
As a teenager, she became friends with a group of extremely conservative classmates, started wearing a jilbab, and started learning the Quran. Even though her family despised it, she started to feel like she had found her place in society, even though she was growing more alienated due to her radicalization.
When she was 19 years old, John Georgelas, an American Muslim convert, entered her life. She had the opportunity to live as a strict Muslim in the American South after the pair were married and moved to Texas in 2003. When her husband was briefly detained for accessing passwords and planning to hack a pro-Israel lobby’s website, she discovered a stronger community here and established more roots.
Around the same time, she started watching TV and “wearing colorful headscarves, form-fitting clothes, and three-quarter-length sleeves.”
After serving his sentence and being freed from prison, her husband eventually took their family of five to Egypt in time for the Arab Spring. The family eventually ended up in Syria from there, and that was where Tania Joya drew the line. Her husband abandoned her at the Syrian-Turkish border and gave her, together with their children, to a human trafficker who was smuggling refugees.
Tania Joya was six months pregnant with her fourth child and had three sons at the time. 43 kg was her weight. The family managed to travel from Istanbul to London and then, at last, to Texas. Joya insisted that she didn’t want to remain in Syria because of the way that others were treating her and because jihad was no longer just “academics, theory, and dreaming.”
“They believed their religion would deliver them justice so they went with an idea of Islamic utopia,” the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism’s director, Dr. Anne Speckhard, told ThePrint.
According to Tania Joya, she just knew that her husband was establishing contacts with numerous extremists. However, reports suggest a far more sinister reality: Yahya al-Bahrumi was the Islamic State’s primary English-language media creator, laying the groundwork for what would later develop into a highly effective propaganda apparatus. He is assumed to have passed away in 2017.
Ex-jihadist Tania Joya Now Fights to ‘Reprogram’ Extremists
The narrative of Joya didn’t end there. Since leaving her husband and Syria in 2013, she has shifted her attention to “reprogramming” extremists and assisting them in reintegrating into society because she believes that as a “former Islamic jihadist,” she is qualified to do so.
She filed for divorce from her husband in 2015, gave her parents-in-law joint custody of her four sons, and began a new life. As far as Joya is aware, her ex-husband, the former Greek Orthodox Christian John Georgelas, who has been going by the alias Yahya al-Bahrumi for 17 years, is still working for the Islamic State in Syria, where he is rumored to be the organization’s most senior American recruit and the head of its English-language propaganda department.
Joya, on the other hand, has forsaken Islam, is growing more drawn to Jewish traditions and rituals, accompanied her sons to Temple Shalom a few months ago to help with sukkah decoration, and says she plans to travel to Jerusalem.
According to her dating profile, her husband “had gone off to become the next Osama bin Laden.” By the time she married Craig Burma and started examining Christianity in 2019, she had also started investigating Judaism.
The demise of the ISIS caliphate in 2017 brought about a new issue: the desire of Western jihadists or their spouses and children to return home. Tania Joya understood she had something to contribute. These individuals must be “de-radicalized” and “rehabilitated,” she emphasized. “It’s reprogramming them and giving them a sense of hope in the political process.”
Additionally crucial is to “get them to understand the psychology and the patterns… what led them to extremism,” understanding “the rejection many in the US and Europe faced growing up there, the cultural conflict, the crisis they went through,” she said.
“Once it’s all explained to them, very logically, they will accept it just as I did.”
Tania Joya favors sending back foreign rebels from the Middle East so they might face justice in their home nations. Even though the US follows that strategy, many European nations, including France, are hesitant to accept jihadists. 11 French nationals were given death sentences for their involvement with ISIS in Iraq in May and June 2019.
Tania Joya has worked to support Shamima Begum’s return to Britain after she joined a jihadist organization at the age of 15. Because of the public’s animosity for Begum as a result of her lack of regret, the British government deported her from the country in February 2019.
Around 12,000 foreign militants from 40 different countries have been housed in Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, including 4,000 women and 8,000 kids whose fathers are jihadists.
Nations where Islamic extremists are stuck in refugee camps “are responsible for these individuals,” said Tania Joya. “We can’t just push them off to the Middle East, to the Kurdish people… the abuses they’re facing in these camps are only confirming their beliefs of radicalization.”
Tania Joya is taking part in the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program run by the Clarion Program, a US nonprofit organization that, according to its website, seeks to inform individuals “about the growing phenomena of Islamic extremism.”
According to Shireen Qudosi, national program coordinator for PVE, the program offers “communication models” that “provide seminars for adolescents so that before a youngster is even brainwashed or introduced to radical ideas, they’ve truly been inoculated” against religious and ideological extremism.
“That goes from gangs to radical ideologies: Antifa, neo-Nazi groups, Islamist extremism,” she said.
Texas Lawmaker’s Former Mistress
Tania Joya, the former lover of Texas Representative Van Taylor, explains why she decided to come clean about their connection when he abruptly withdrew from consideration for re-election.
Joya, who previously gained attention for being married to an ISIS fighter, revealed to The Dallas Morning News in a story that was published on Monday that she first came forward to Republican candidate Suzanne Harp, Taylor’s primary rival, after growing tired of seeing Taylor’s face on billboards all over Plano.
“All I wanted was for Suzanne Harp to just say, ‘Hey, I know your little scandal with Tania Joya. Would you like to resign before we embarrass you?’ But it didn’t happen like that,” Tania Joya told the paper.
Tania Joya alleged that from October 2020 to June 2021, she had an affair with the Texas lawmaker. Taylor and she “were quite close” after they met, she added, adding that they had met while working to assist ex-extremists. When she came forward with her allegations, she was unaware that the primary election was only five days away, according to what she told the News.
In an interview with the right-wing website Breitbart News, Joya also expressed her opinion. She said in a piece posted on Taylor’s website on Monday that “He labeled me his girlfriend, his mistress,” she told the site Taylor in a story published Monday. “I told him that I found him attractive. After that for an entire month, every day during October 2020, he wouldn’t stop messaging me like crazy. It was just so distracting. He was going crazy for it.”
A request for additional comment from PEOPLE was not answered by Taylor’s office.
This week, Joya provided further information about her side of the connection with Taylor in an interview with the News. She claimed that once, under the “condition that (she) don’t tell anyone,” he provided her $5,000 to help with some of her expenditures.
“I didn’t want to tell anybody anything,” she continued before adding, “I needed help. I was like, just help me out because that’s the least, the very least, he could do.”
When Joya’s account became public, Taylor was running for re-election for a third term. Since then, he has withdrawn from the contest, presumably giving the seat to Collin County Judge Keith Self.
“About a year ago, I made a horrible mistake that has caused deep hurt and pain among those I love most in this world. I had an affair, it was wrong, and it was the greatest failure of my life,” Taylor wrote.
“For months, Anne and I have been working to repair the scars left by my actions. I am unworthy, but eternally thankful for her love and forgiveness,” to his fans, he wrote.
Self pleaded with the public on Wednesday to protect Taylor’s privacy in an interview with local station KXAS “and let him handle this with his family in his way.”
“I just ask people to respect that,” Self said. “My response is that we need to be praying for Van and Anne and their girls. And beyond that, we’ll deal with the political side but this is something that transcends any campaign.”
Taylor confessed to disappointing his supporters in an email, according to The News “so many other family members, friends, colleagues, supporters and the people of the 3rd Congressional District whom I have had the great honor and privilege to represent.”
“I am truly sorry, and I hope in time I can earn their forgiveness,” he wrote.