She married into one of the most brutal terrorist outfits in history, but now Alabama native Hoda Muthana, 24, wants to come home along with the 18-month-son she had with an ISIS husband.
The question is weighing heavily among American legislators, law enforcement and intelligence analysts. What to do with the wives of the ISIS fighters and what threat do they pose to the homeland?
“They should be brought home and charged criminally under terrorism, murder or other applicable laws. At the very least they should be charged with material support to a terrorist group,” Scott Stewart, VP of Tactical Analysis for Stratfor, a leading geopolitical analysis and forecasting firm, told Fox News. “These women should be held responsible for their choices and actions in support of a genocidal death cult.”
Through her attorney, Hassan Shilby, Muthana has pledged her “deep regret” for having been “ignorant and arrogant” when she first fled her home in Hoover, Alabama in 2014 to become a jihadi bride. Shilby also underscored that his client is ready to face any legal consequences and wants to be a voice to stop others from committing the same mistake.
“She is just another victim of these monsters,” Shilby, a lawyer for CAIR Florida who has represented the Muthana family since Hoda left the U.S., told a local Alabama paper this week.
According to The Guardian, Muthana is currently the only American among an estimated 1,500 foreign women and children inside the sprawling al-Hawl displacement camp, which hosts some 39,000 people displaced by the long-running SIS battle in northern Syria.
But accurate figures of exactly how many U.S. citizens have left to join the callous terrorist organization, either as fighters or brides, are hard to come by.
A report released last year by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism estimated that 300 Americans had purportedly joined ISIS and other related insurgent groups in Iraq and Syria at that stage, but it’s not certain exactly how many actually made it into the ranks.
Twelve of those 300 were documented to have returned home. Of those 12, nine were subsequently arrested and remain behind bars. Another two have not been detained, but are known to authorities. The report pointed out that a 12th man returned to the Syrian battlefield for a second time and executed a suicide bombing.
None who have come back has committed an attack on American soil.
“I'm not sure anyone, even the U.S. government, knows for certain. There are dozens of American citizens who are believed to have joined jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and Hyat Tharir al-Sham,” Stewart noted. “However, nobody really knows how many have survived and are still there, other than the handful who have been captured and identified themselves as American citizens.”
The roughly 300 number accounted for about one percent of the overall 30,000 foreign fighters who joined the ISIS ranks in Iraq and Syria, with the vast majority coming from other Middle East countries as well as Europe.
At least 50 additional Americans have been apprehended attempting to leave with the intention to join ISIS, never making it beyond U.S. borders.
Like many of the ISIS foreign wives who faced the perils of being widowed and abandoned, Muthana married multiple times and is believed to have had three ISIS husbands throughout her tenure. She is also known to have been an ISIS recruiter and promoted the “spilling of American blood.”
A U.S-born, 2013 graduate of Hoover High School, Muthana went on, for a short time, to study a business degree at the University of Alabama Birmingham before becoming “inspired” by ISIS radicals she connected with online and subsequently fleeing.
Under the 14th Amendment, according to Stewart, native-born citizens – such as Muthana – cannot have their citizenship revoked against their will, although they can renounce citizenship if desired.
“A naturalized citizen can be denaturalized if they achieved citizenship via fraud, or if they are members of a subversive group – ISIS and al Qaeda would count as such – within five years of being naturalized,” he observed. “That means the U.S. government cannot prevent the women from entering the U.S. if they get here. However, getting to the U.S. could prove to be a challenge if they have lost or destroyed their passports and/or if they have been added to the no-fly list as potential terrorists.”
Muthana is reported to have absconded from ISIS territory just a few weeks ago and surrendered herself to Kurdish fighters. Shilby has said he has contacted the FBI to arrange for her to be taken into custody on return, but claims they have shown “no interest” in her dilemma.
And the U.S. is under no obligation to assist the ISIS wife out of Syria and back to the U.S.
“Legally, we don’t have an obligation to facilitate travel home, but an American who arrives at the border can’t be barred from entry,” explained Dr. Ardian Shajkovci, the director of research at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). “Legally we can only prosecute for laws that were in place at the time of their travel, so no ex post facto prosecution.”
But if there is evidence enough to prosecute, they are prosecuted as terrorists, Shajkovci said – usually under material support for terrorism laws which allow us to prosecute for giving bodily support, money etc. – they can’t just return home and not face the law.
“The U.S. has not thus far refused to take anyone back, but they could,” he continued. “The UK has stripped citizenship and others have as well, especially when there are dual citizenships.”
Reports on Tuesday afternoon by ITV News indicated that another ISIS wife, London-born Shamima Begum who, too, had made an appeal to return home, was to be stripped of her British citizenship.
Typically, the wives are held in a separate area confined from the rest of the displaced population and are well-guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are backed by the U.S. Much of the reasoning for keeping them there is less about a security threat stemming from them, and more about avoiding conflict and retaliation by upset locals who have suffered at the hands of and lost loved ones to the terrorist group.
However, officials have long complained that the wives are often ungrateful and resentful in their own right – threating camp workers with disrespect and fighting amongst each other with accusations of stealing and parental differences.
Several ISIS wives and widows interviewed by Fox News last year said that they wanted to receive visits from representatives from their native governments, but that as of that stage, nobody had reached out to them.
It also remains unclear exactly how many western “wives” went voluntarily or were forced to travel to the now crumpled caliphate – and remain there – but approximations suggest the figure is in the thousands and said to represent more than 120 nationalities.
The U.S and its SDF fighters are in the final fight to completely rid ISIS of its territorial control in Syria, and the question looms large over what will happen to many fighters and their families apprehended and being watched over in the region. This year alone, two Americans – including one minor – were captured by the SDF fighting for ISIS.
President Donald Trump has urged European countries to take back their citizens who fled, but to date the issue seems to be falling flat. On Monday, France rejected the request – insisting it will deal with its some 150 suspected jihadists on a “case-by-case” basis.
Anne Speckhard, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) stressed that in the case of U.S. citizens going abroad to join groups like ISIS, we ultimately have a responsibility to take our citizens back if the government that caught them is not interested in keeping and prosecuting them.
“In the case of the Syrian Defense Forces, they are not a recognized government and have no legitimate way to prosecute them and maybe most importantly they are asking everyone to take the ISIS men and women and children they have in their custody home,” she added. “We should respect that given the SDF bravely fought ISIS in the world’s behalf. Some women committed horrors in ISIS, must most did not bear arms or shed blood, but still get prosecuted. Probably best to give them short sentences and rehabilitation.”