8 U.S. Citizens To Be Sent Home From Northern Syria

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 7:17 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Eight American citizens - two women and six kids - in northern Syria are being sent home to the United States. The U.S. government reportedly asked for them to be repatriated. They're thought to be family members of ISIS fighters. Many ISIS fighters were captured by U.S.-backed forces.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this story for months. She's on the line from Beirut.

Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: So what do we know about these women and kids?

SHERLOCK: Well, Kurdish officials tell me that they were actually handed over to U.S. authorities about two weeks ago. Both Kurdish officials and the State Department want to keep their identities private. So - but it's likely that these are family members of ISIS fighters or people who were captured in ISIS territory by U.S.-backed forces who fought the group in Syria.

The Kurds are saying, you know, as you mentioned, there are thousands of these people. And there are camps in northeast Syria where they're being held in prisons. And the Kurds are saying that they're dealing with the people in the camps first, looking at the humanitarian cases. Of course, in this case, the majority of the people coming back to the U.S. are children.

KING: Has the United States done this before - taken back citizens who have some connection to ISIS fighters?

SHERLOCK: We know of one previous case. That's of Samantha El Hassani and her four children, who were repatriated to the U.S. She's now standing trial in Indiana in a federal court, accused of providing material support to terrorism. Although, she's pleading not guilty, saying, you know, her husband dragged her to Syria. The U.S. has said that they want to take back citizens. And President Trump has even urged in a tweet for other countries to take their citizens back. But it's not a blanket acceptance of people from Syria. The State Department says they're looking at the individuals on a case-by-case basis. And there is the ongoing controversial case of Hoda Muthana. She was born in New Jersey. She's been previously issued with U.S. passports, but the U.S. is challenging her citizenship status because her father is Yemeni.

KING: As you point out, this is not just about U.S. citizens. Tens of thousands of people went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. How are other countries handling this with their own citizens?

SHERLOCK: Well, as you say, it's a huge problem. So we're looking at about 46 other countries who are having to deal with this at the moment. And there's 13,000 women and children in the camps in Syria as well as the men in prisons. Some people have - some countries have taken their citizens back, like Kazakhstan and Sudan. But a lot of countries in Europe are saying, you know, we don't want these people back. The U.K. has gone as far as stripping some people of citizenship.

And, you know, although there is now some kind of a softening. Yesterday, the U.K. defense secretary said that minors, children should be, perhaps, brought back. But even that's difficult because in many cases there, you're looking at separating them from their parents.

KING: And then for the people who do make it back to their home countries, what happens to them then?

SHERLOCK: Well, this is extremely complicated. And there doesn't seem to be a single kind of way at looking at this for all the different countries. Every country is wrestling with how to manage this. There's little legal precedent in many ways. One problem is that if you put people on trial back home, it's very difficult to get the evidence that you maybe need to actually be able to prosecute someone. So some people in - for example, in Germany have floated the idea of re-upping the sort of Nuremberg trials that were used to prosecute Nazis.

KING: Wow.

SHERLOCK: In other cases, some have created laws to say, you know, going to Syria was itself a crime. So we've been following the case of an Austrian girl who was 15 when she left Austria. And we've been told that if she comes back, she probably would serve prison time for having gone to Syria. And there's even - the Kurdish authorities in Syria are talking about perhaps trying to set up an international tribunal to actually try these people in Syria or in Iraq.

KING: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.

Thanks, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.