The defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has prompted some of the group’s Western fighters to try to make their way back home. Like many countries, the U.S. is now faced with a difficult question: should American citizens who have joined and fought for foreign terrorist organizations be repatriated as full-fledged American citizens?
For months, Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old American citizen, and her 18-month-old son, Adam, have been detained in a refugee camp in northeastern Syria.
For months, Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old American citizen, and her 18-month-old son, Adam, have been detained in a refugee camp in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish-run facility is home to 1,500 Western wives and children of ISIS fighters, who come from “at least 40 countries from Denmark to Russia.”
Once one of ISIS’ most prominent online agitators, Muthana now says that she deeply regrets her decision to travel to Syria to join the militant group four years ago. “I would like to apologize to all Muslims for what we’ve done, we painted such a horrifying picture of Islam to the world, it’s practically unforgivable. ISIS ruined my life and my religion.”
Muthana has made public pleas to be allowed to return to the U.S. with her son. However, none of the camp’s detainees are allowed to leave unless a government grants them permission, and the Trump administration has flatly rejected taking back the young woman and her son.
But what drove Muthana, who has become the center of a fierce political, legal, and diplomatic controversy in the U.S., to join ISIS, to begin with?
The Radicalization of Hoda Muthana
Ahmed Ali, Muthana’s father, came to the U.S. in 1990 to work as a Yemeni diplomat to the United Nations (UN). Shortly after civil war broke out in his homeland in May 1994, Muthana’s father lost his UN position. Unable to return to Yemen, Ahmed Ali and his wife, Basma Eshayri, applied for permanent U.S. residency. Muthana’s father became a naturalized citizen in 2009; though his wife’s citizenship application is still pending.
Muthana, the youngest of five children, was born in October 1994, in Hackensack, New Jersey. In the late 1990s, Muthana’s family moved to Hoover, Alabama, because her mother had family there and her father found work at a convenience store. Muthana claims that her distant and strained relationship with her parents and the restrictive lifestyle that they imposed on her greatly contributed to her isolation and online radicalization.
In November 2014, Muthana, then 19 years old, secretly withdrew from college and used her tuition money to buy a ticket to Turkey. She eventually settled in the Syrian city of Raqqa, then one of ISIS’ two main hubs, where she married an Australian jihadist named Suhan Rahman. Soon thereafter, following Rahman’s death, Muthana married a Tunisian fighter, Adam’s father, who was later killed in Mosul.
Muthana was again briefly married to a Syrian fighter last year, when she, along with hundreds of other women, retreated deeper into ISIS’ ever-shrinking territory. Several weeks later, Muthana and her son were captured by Kurdish forces and taken to a refugee camp. Now, she is striving to go back to the only home she has ever known.
The Fight to Return Home
Only 250 to 300 Americans left the U.S. (in comparison to the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Europeans who left their countries) to join ISIS, and only a handful have returned.
Only 250 to 300 Americans left the U.S. (in comparison to the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Europeans who left their countries) to join ISIS, and only a handful have returned. Consequently, there has been no national debate in the U.S. about the issue of repatriating former ISIS members until Muthana’s case. Despite expressing remorse for her actions and being willing to face the U.S. justice system, the Trump administration took the “extraordinary step of declaring that she is not a U.S. citizen.”
On February 21, a day after President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that he had issued an order to bar Muthana from entering the U.S., her father filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for unlawfully attempting to revoke his daughter’s citizenship. In response, the State Department has argued that Muthana never qualified for American citizenship since the U.S. government was never informed of the change in her father’s diplomatic status.
The Trump administration contends that, in the eyes of the law, her father was still a diplomat, thus making her ineligible for U.S. citizenship at birth. Charles Swift, Muthana’s Texas-based lawyer, has claimed that the government’s assertion is preposterous.
Muthana’s family has provided documents from the UN showing that her father was terminated from his diplomatic job before she was born. Furthermore, the U.S. government had already issued Muthana two American passports based on those records.
Federal Judge Reggie Walton denied Swift’s request for expedited consideration of the family’s case in early March, ruling that Muthana “did not face irreparable harm or danger by waiting in the refugee camp as her case proceeds at the normal pace.”
The ramifications of this case could be far-reaching, according to Swift. In his lawsuit against the Trump administration, Muthana’s father claims that if the government can “unilaterally” strip Americans of their citizenship, then the rights of all U.S. citizens are threatened by extension.
Muthana has not been in contact with U.S. officials since she surrendered to Kurdish forces. If given the chance, she told the Guardian that she would ask for forgiveness for the “ignorant” actions of her 19-year-old self. “I believe that America gives second chances. I want to return, and I’ll never come back to the Middle East. America can take my passport and I wouldn’t mind,” the 24-year-old said. But will Muthana’s words of remorse be enough?
Not only does this case raise questions about the protections that American citizens enjoy under U.S. law, it has also forced the American people to reflect on whether immigrants from certain backgrounds have “a higher burden of citizenship.” Ultimately, Muthana’s case could set a dangerous precedent for generations to come and it could be yet another example of America’s growing prejudice against non-white minorities in the age of Trump.
Beyond the issue of precedent, a few more concerns deserve consideration. First, by denying Muthana’s return to her birth country, she is in effect being allowed to escape justice for her actions. It could be argued that she needs to be held accountable, charged, tried, and punished for her crimes instead of being left to roam free, stateless, and desperate abroad.
By taking back citizens who joined ISIS, the U.S. and other European countries could stand to gain invaluable information about the inside workings of ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Second, despair and hopelessness could lead her to take extreme measures or even make her vulnerable to being recruited by extremists once more. By taking back citizens who joined ISIS, the U.S. and other European countries could stand to gain invaluable information about the inside workings of ISIS and other terrorist groups. The re-patriated nationals could also be recruited to speak out against Islamist militants to deter others from joining these organizations.
Finally, the critical role that Washington has played in the conflicts that have spawned ISIS, and other terrorist organizations in the Middle East and North Africa region, must not be forgotten. The U.S. and their allies contributed to the problem, and now, it is their duty to be a part of the solution. This process of healing can only begin when these countries take back their citizens and allow for true justice to be served. Both Syria and Iraq have already paid a heavy price for ISIS’ terror and it would simply be immoral for the U.S. to let them deal with the aftermath alone.