WASHINGTON – In March, President Donald Trump’s administration lavished praise on the Kingdom of Morocco for taking back eight Moroccans who had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State terror organization.
“Repatriating foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin is the best solution to prevent them from returning to the battlefield,” a State Department spokesman said in a March 10 missive.
Six days earlier, State Department lawyers were in federal court arguing that Hoda Muthana – who was born in New Jersey, raised in Alabama and secretly traveled to Syria in 2014 – should not be allowed to return to the U.S. Now the mother of an 18-month-old boy, Muthana says she regrets her choice, wants to return home and is willing to go to prison for her offenses.
“I am the one who has to live with my foolish and rash teenage decision for the rest of my life,” Muthana told USA TODAY from the refugee camp in northern Syria where she has been detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a partner in the U.S.-led coalition that has been fighting the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
The contradiction in U.S. policy has raised sharp questions about the Trump administration’s approach to Muthana’s case. Her family’s lawyer says it reeks of hypocrisy. Terrorism experts say it’s counterproductive at best, dangerous at worst.
“What you want is for these people to be off the streets,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University who conducts research on terrorism and Middle East security issues. “Having them go to trial, go to jail, is a good thing.”
If the Trump administration is successful in barring Muthana’s return to the U.S., she would become stateless. What does that mean?
“No country recognizes you … You are adrift and without a home,” said Charles Swift, an attorney representing Muthana’s father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Trump administration’s decision to bar her from the U.S.
The question of what to do with thousands of former ISIS fighters and followers is increasingly urgent. On March 23, the Syrian Democratic Forces – America’s main military ally on the ground – declared victory over ISIS after it regained control over the last patch of Syrian territory where the terrorist group had tried to establish its own state.
As many as 7,000 captured fighters are being held by the SDF, according to James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
SDF officials have warned they don’t have the ability or authority to keep all those terrorist prisoners, and they’ve called for an international tribunal so the detainees can be prosecuted under international law.
But Jeffrey rejected that. At a March 25 briefing, he told reporters that the majority of the 7,000 fighters are Syrian or Iraqi, and they would be dealt with in their home countries.
“There is a process underway to get those people back to Iraq and back to their Syrian communities for de-radicalization and reintegration or in some cases punishment, and we’re focused on that as our first priority,” he said.
“The second priority is to pressure countries to take back their own citizens who may or may not have committed crimes under their systems,” Jeffrey said.
He couldn’t provide an estimate how many of the 7,000 prisoners are from Europe or other non-Arab countries.
Experts say there’s little danger that someone like Muthana will return to ISIS.
But more hardened followers may well find their way back into battle.
“She wasn’t someone who was this long-time clandestine operator,” said Byman, the Georgetown University terrorism and security expert.
“But when you start to get large numbers of these people – which is what the case is right now – and you have some people who aren’t yet captured, you’re creating a system where people have an incentive to try to escape justice.”
The Trump administration’s handling of the Muthana case will likely inspire other western countries “to try to think of ways to dodge” repatriating their own foreign fighters, he said. Britain is already doing that.
One country that has surprised human-rights advocates for welcoming back ISIS women and children: Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has said that children in particular didn’t choose to go to Syria and they should not be abandoned in a conflict zone.
Tanya Lokshina, a Moscow-based advocate with Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian organization headquartered in New York, said Russia began repatriating some women and children in 2017 and now is focusing exclusively on bringing back Russian-born children who were taken to ISIS by their parents.
“I believe that for Russia, this is the matter of political prestige, a rare chance to claim a moral high ground if compared to many Western states,” Lokshina said in an email to USA TODAY.
If the Trump administration allowed Muthana to re-enter the U.S and face prosecution, legal experts said she could be charged with providing material support for a terrorist group and providing material support for a terrorist act – violations that could lead to decades in prison if she were convicted.
But it’s not clear that U.S. prison officials would really know what to do with her.
Daniel Koehler, director of Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, said there are effectively no U.S. de-radicalization or rehabilitation programs for extremists run by the federal government.
“The U.S. is behind most European countries by 10 to 20 years when it comes to de-radicalization initiatives for violent extremist terrorists,” Koehler said.
Europe’s more extensive programs are a result of decades of confronting extremists – including left-wing groups in Germany in the 1970s, neo-Nazi groups in Scandinavia and the Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom.
In the U.S., it would be more effective to run an online program to counter ISIS’ propaganda and recruitment efforts, featuring former ISIS devotees trying to convince others not to join, Byman, of Georgetown University, said.
Someone like Muthana could have credibility, he said, if she were willing to telling others: “I thought it was going to be awesome, but it was horrible, and here’s why.”
Hjelmgaard reported from London; contributing: Nadia Al Faour from Roj Camp, Syria.
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