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Washington Expects to Repatriate 20 ISIS Suspects

Washington Expects to Repatriate 20 ISIS Suspects

Friday, 14 June, 2019 - 07:45
Women and children evacuated from the ISIS embattled holdout of Baghouz, Syria, arrive at a screening area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, in March. (Getty Images)
Robin Wright
On June 5, eight Americans were quietly flown home from the former ISIS “caliphate” in Syria. The two women and six minors, whose identities were not disclosed, are now being resettled at unnamed locations with help from the US government.

They are not the first citizens of the terrorist group to return. Four other Americans—three men and a woman—await trials on various charges of aiding or abetting the world’s most notorious terrorist group, reported The New Yorker on Tuesday. Three more agreed to plea deals; one has already served time and been released. A lone American opted for a trial and was sentenced to twenty years, although his case is under appeal.

They won’t be the last returnees, either. For months, the FBI has been searching for Americans among the 20,000 foreign fighters who surrendered or were captured on the battlefield. Another 20 or so Americans, including half a dozen fighters, have been identified, US officials told me. Most were in prisons run by the Kurdish-led forces that defeated ISIS or detention camps for women and children. The US intention is to bring them all home—eventually.

So far, the handling of returnees has been far different from what President Donald Trump promised during the presidential campaign. In 2016, Trump vowed to use Guantánamo Bay—the prison camp opened in Cuba to house enemy combatants from the Afghanistan war—for captured ISIS fighters. In his first State of the Union speech, in 2018, he announced a new executive order to keep Guantánamo open, reversing President Barack Obama’s policy.

Instead, the Justice Department has opted to try ISIS returnees in US courts and even to release or resettle some of them. But the process is still in its early stages.

“The United States is committed to taking responsibility for its citizens who attempt to travel or did travel to support ISIS,” Marc Raimondi, the Justice Department spokesman, told me last week, in an email. “We have prosecuted over 100 cases against individuals who tried to travel to support ISIS and have brought charges against several who have returned, including as recently as earlier this year.”

Other Americans may still be underground with ISIS cells in Syria or Iraq, US officials concede. Just identifying US citizens has been tricky. Most foreigners took noms de guerre. Some assumed names denoting nationality—such as al-Amriki, or “the American”—as new surnames. Those could be misleading, however. One 16-year-old fighter—Soulay Noah Su, who took the name Abu Souleiman al-Amriki—turned out to be from Trinidad and Tobago. An unknown number of Americans—possibly even the majority—may have been killed on the battlefield.

The Americans who traveled to ISIS fit no single type. So far, the returnees have included a substitute teacher from Texas, a Baptist mother of four from Indiana, a former student from Columbia University, and an FBI translator who married the terrorist she was spying on. Most were born in the United States; they were not immigrants.

They’re geographically diverse—from Texas, California, Michigan, Virginia, New York, and Indiana. The adults have ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-50s, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The children of American ISIS members include teenagers who accompanied their parents when they left the United States and toddlers who were born to ISIS, according to US officials and lawyers defending ISIS returnees.

Deciding the fate of the ISIS suspects is a legal and moral minefield. National-security interests can conflict with individual rights. Their cases raise unanswered questions about the government’s authority to invoke wartime powers against ISIS without congressional authorization.

The timing of returns so far suggests that the Justice Department may not want to repatriate ISIS members until it has sufficient evidence to indict them immediately upon arrival. American citizens cannot be jailed indefinitely at home without violating their constitutional rights.

The recent return of eight Americans has generated new questions about US metrics for judging affiliation with a terrorist group, notably by female returnees.

For ISIS returnees, the judicial process heavily favors the prosecution, according to Jessica Carmichael, who represented Mohamad Jamal Khweis, of Alexandria, Virginia. An indictment, in 2016, claimed that Khweis volunteered to be a suicide bomber and gave money to ISIS. He was captured after only ten weeks with ISIS, when he was forward deployed in Iraq. In 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years. His appeal is pending.

“The government often has a significant advantage in these types of cases, as the only entity that can bring this person home,” Carmichael told me in an email. Americans who want to leave “are primarily, if not entirely, at the mercy of US government officials for relief. Such a grasp on one’s fate presents profound leverage when it comes to extracting confessions to be used in a criminal prosecution.”

The majority of the 9,000 ISIS fighters captured in Syria have yet to be dealt with, by any nation, as do the more than 70,000 family members of fighters who are being detained separately. They come from some 80 nations. In February, as ISIS was losing ground, Trump called on the world to take back foreign citizens.

The United States has not disclosed the number of Americans who joined ISIS, but it was small, proportionately, when compared with the numbers from Russia, China, European allies, or even nations with small populations.

“Managing the aftermath of the fall of ISIS’ so-called caliphate is a historic challenge,” a State Department official told me last week. “This is a global problem, and the entire international community must now work to identify appropriate pathways for affected groups; this includes durable solutions for displaced civilians, the repatriation and prosecution of foreign terrorist fighters, and the return, reintegration, and de-radicalization of family members.”

So far, however, the United States has taken back only about a third of the known Americans who survived the “caliphate”. For disparate reasons, many of the 80 nations whose citizens joined ISIS have balked at dealing with the messy aftermath of the war.

The New Yorker

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