Alabama woman who joined ISIS hopes to return from Syrian camp

ROJ CAMP, Syria (AP) — A woman who fled her home in Alabama at the age of 20, joined the Islamic State group and had a child with one of its fighters says she still hopes to return to the United States, do jail time if necessary, and advocate against extremists.

In a rare interview from the Roj detention camp in Syria where she is being held by US-allied Kurdish forces, Hoda Muthana said she was brainwashed by online traffickers into joining the group in 2014 and misses all but her young son, now of pre-school age.

“If I need to sit in jail and serve my sentence, I will. … I won’t fight this,” the 28-year-old told The News Movement. “I hope my government sees me as young at the time and naive.”

It’s a line she’s repeated in various media interviews since fleeing one of the extremist group’s last enclaves in Syria in early 2019.

But four years earlier, at the height of the extremists’ power, she expressed enthusiastic support for them on social media and in an interview with BuzzFeed News.. ISIS then ruled a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate spanning roughly a third of Syria and Iraq. In messages sent from her Twitter account in 2015, she called on Americans to join the group and carry out attacks in the United States, suggesting drive-by shootings or traffic jams targeting national holiday rallies.

In his interview with TNM, Muthana now says his phone was taken away from him and the tweets were sent by IS supporters.

Muthana was born in New Jersey to Yemeni immigrants and once had a US passport. She was raised in a conservative Muslim family in Hoover, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. In 2014, she told her family she was going on a school trip, but she flew to Turkey and drove through Syria instead, funding the trip with tuition checks she had secretly cashed.

The Obama administration revoked his citizenship in 2016, saying his father was an accredited Yemeni diplomat at the time of his birth – a rare revocation of birthright citizenship. His lawyers challenged the decision, arguing that the father’s diplomatic accreditation ended before he was born.

The Trump administration maintained that she was not a citizen and barred her from returningeven as he urged European allies to repatriate their own detained nationals to reduce pressure on the detention camps.

US courts have sided with the government on the issue of Muthana’s citizenship, and last January the Supreme Court declined to consider his lawsuit to reinstate.

It left her and her son languishing in a detention camp in northern Syria housing thousands of widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released last month, some 65,600 suspected Islamic State members and their families – Syrians and foreigners – are being held in camps and prisons in northeast Syria run by Kurdish groups. allies in the United States..

Women accused of IS affiliation and their minor children are largely housed in al-Hol and Roj camps, in what the rights group called ‘life-threatening conditions “. The camp’s inmates include more than 37,400 foreigners, including Europeans and North Americans.

Human Rights Watch and other observers cited dire living conditions in the camps, including insufficient food, water, and medical care, as well as physical and sexual abuse of detainees by guards and other detainees. .

Authorities and Kurdish-led militants have blamed IS sleeper cells for escalating violence at the facilities, including the beheading of two Egyptian girls, ages 11 and 13, at the al camp. – Hol in November. Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish groups launched that month also hit near al-Hol. Camp officials alleged that the Turkish strikes targeted security forces guarding the camp.

“None of the foreigners have been brought before a judicial authority…to determine the necessity and legality of their detention, rendering their captivity arbitrary and unlawful,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Detention based solely on family ties amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.”

Calls for detainees to be repatriated were largely ignored in the aftermath of IS’s bloody rule, which was marked by massacres, beheadings and other atrocities, many of which were shown around the world in graphic films broadcast on social networks.

But over time, the pace of repatriations began to pick up. Human Rights Watch said some 3,100 foreigners – mostly women and children – have been sent home over the past year. Most were Iraqis, who make up the majority of detainees, but citizens have also been repatriated to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The United States has repatriated a total of 39 American nationals. It is not known how many other Americans remain in the camps.

These days, Muthana presents herself as a victim of the Islamic State.

Speaking to TNM, she describes how, after arriving in Syria in 2014, she was detained in a guest house reserved for single women and children. “I’ve never seen this kind of dirt in my life, like there’s 100 women and twice as many children, running around, too much noise, dirty beds,” she said.

The only way to escape was to marry a fighter. She ends up getting married and remarrying three times. Her first two husbands, including her son’s father, were killed in action. She would have divorced her third husband.

The extremist group, also known as ISIS, no longer controls any territory in Syria or Iraq, but continues to carry out sporadic attacks and has supporters in the camps themselves. Muthana says she still has to be careful what she says for fear of retaliation.

“Even here, right now, I can’t completely say everything I want to say. But once I’m gone, I will. I will be an advocate against it,” she said. “I wish I could help the victims of ISIS in the West to understand that someone like me is not one of them, that I too am a victim of ISIS.”

Hassan Shibly, a lawyer who has helped Muthana’s family, said it is “absolutely clear that she was brainwashed and took advantage of it”.

He said his family wished she could come back, pay her debt to society and then help others “not fall down the dark path she was led down”.

“She was completely wrong, and no one is denying it. But again, she was a teenager who was the victim of a very sophisticated recruitment operation which aims to take advantage of the young, the vulnerable, the marginalized”, did he declare.

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