1 of 4
Felipe Dana, Associated Press
In this Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, file photo, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters take a break as the fight against Islamic State militants continues in the village of Baghouz, Syria. With the weakening of the Islamic State and President Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria, former members of ISIS are seeking to return to the U.S.

SALT LAKE CITY — An American-born woman who joined the Islamic State four years ago is now “disillusioned with jihadism” and wants to return to the United States.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the direction of President Donald Trump, announced Feb. 20 that Hoda Muthana will not be permitted back into the U.S. Muthana's case is unique because it is not clear whether she is an American citizen, but it has fueled a debate on whether other Americans who were formerly members of IS should be allowed to return home.

This dilemma has taken on increased significance with the weakening of the caliphate and Trump's desire to pull American troops out of Syria, as IS strongholds collapse and some former IS members now want to return to the U.S. and other Western countries.

So far, 16 Americans have made it back to U.S. soil, most "in handcuffs," Bennett Clifford, a research fellow for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told NPR.

Who is Hoda Muthana?

Muthana joined IS in 2014 when she was a 20-year-old college student at the University of Alabama, according to The New York Times. Twice-married to IS fighters who were killed in battle, Muthana is now living in a refugee camp in Syria with her 18-month-old son.

Attorney Hassan Shibly
This undated image provided by attorney Hassan Shibly shows Hoda Muthana, an Alabama woman who left home to join the Islamic State after becoming radicalized online. Muthana now wants to return to the United States, Shibly, a lawyer for her family said Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

Although she was born in New Jersey and raised in Alabama, officials say she is not an American citizen because her father was a Yemeni diplomat, and children born on U.S. soil to diplomats cannot claim birthright citizenship.

Charlie Swift, director of the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, told the Times that Muthana is technically a U.S. citizen because she was born a month after her father was discharged from his position as a diplomat to the United Nations.

A consensus has not yet been reached on Muthana’s citizenship status.

Why does Muthana’s case matter?

According to the Times, Muthana is one of at least 13 Americans — most of whom are women and children — who have been detained in Syrian detention camps due to challenges to their citizenship status.

Muthana’s case is indicative of the unique dilemma women face when they attempt to return to their country of origin after joining a militant group.

The majority of American men who have pledged allegiance to IS have been captured on the battlefield and repatriated back to the U.S. to face charges, the Times reported.

Figuring out what to do with “ISIS wives” — whose actions may be less measurable than those of men who are directly engaging in battle — has proven complicated for both the U.S. and Europe.

Felipe Dana, Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter reacts as an airstrike hits territory still held by Islamic State militants in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria. With the weakening of the Islamic State and President Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria, former members of ISIS are seeking to return to the U.S.

Clifford told NPR that “women, in some cases, are able to draw on this narrative that since they were not fighting members of the group and relegated to either logistics or house management or other activities on behalf of the Islamic State — that they’re less culpable for their actions.”

Although they may contribute to ISIS in different ways than men, Clifford said that these women aren’t “any less complicit or culpable in what the Islamic State did.”

So far, around 300 Americans have either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join a variety of militant groups, including IS, according to a 2018 report from the Program on Extremism. Around 13 percent of American IS recruits are women, Clifford said.

Should U.S. take them back?

Some experts say that under international law, it’s illegal to leave a citizen stateless, which means nations have a duty to repatriate their citizens, Time reported. For example, if Muthana is found to not be a U.S. citizen or her U.S. citizenship is revoked, she will be stateless because she is not a Syrian national, according to The New York Times.

Others argue that repatriating former members of ISIS can actually serve U.S. military interests.

Bryant Neal Viñas, the first American to join Al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks and who was later repatriated, argued that taking back Americans who have joined militant groups is an opportunity to shore up national security and obtain valuable counterintelligence.

In an opinion column published March 4 in The New York Times, Viñas wrote that former “foreign fighters” can provide the government with insider intelligence on how IS operates and where its leadership is located, as well as insight on why people become radicalized and seek to join militant groups in the first place. Repatriates can also educate youth and help them realize that the reality of fighting for IS is very different than how it’s presented in Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube videos, Viñas said.

Felipe Dana, Associated Press
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter, right, guides a woman and boy that were evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants at a screening center outside Baghouz, Syria, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. With the weakening of the Islamic State and President Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria, former members of ISIS are seeking to return to the U.S.

Viñas added that repatriation is also a way to hold former IS members accountable for their actions. If they really want to return home, he said, they need to be "willing to admit they made mistakes" and "ready to atone for them in prison."

“The United States can serve as an example for its allies — bring back the Americans who joined the Islamic State and let the American legal system do its work,” Viñas wrote. “After they serve the appropriate penalty under law for their actions, the country might even end up with a new counterterrorism resource.”

After serving over eight years in federal prison, Viñas now works for Parallel Networks, a counterextremism nonprofit, showing “that there is life after terrorism.”

A repatriation plea

Others argue that repatriating former members of IS could be dangerous.

This argument has been levied against Muthana, who in 2015 spread IS propaganda and posted tweets on a now-suspended Twitter account that encouraged violence against Americans, USA Today reported. Frank Brocato, the mayor of her hometown of Hoover, Alabama, told USA Today that she "posed a threat to Americans."

"She's not welcome in Hoover as far as I'm concerned," city councilman John Lyda told USA Today.

Some have voiced concerns that former members of IS could launch attacks in their countries of origin once repatriated, as well as radicalize others. Monitoring these former members "represents a huge burden for governments," Alexander Smith of NBC News argued.

Felipe Dana, Associated Press
A woman holds a child as she waits to be screened by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Friday, March 1, 2019. With the weakening of the Islamic State and President Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria, former members of ISIS are seeking to return to the U.S.

Even if prosecuted and jailed, former members of IS may be dangerous because they could radicalize other inmates, said Shiraz Maher, director of King's College London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

Plus, he added, there's always the question of what should be done with them once they leave jail.

In comparison to other Western democracies, the U.S. has strict laws for dealing with former members of militant groups — and is more likely to prosecute them. Clifford told NPR that the U.S.'s material support statute "allows travel to join a foreign terrorist organization itself to be criminalized by prison sentences of 15 to 20 years. Very few other Western countries have statutes like that. And if they do, they carry lesser prison sentences."

Other countries face concerns

In a Feb. 16 tweet, Trump asked England, France, Germany and other European countries to "take back" over 800 of their citizens who were fighting for IS.

This could be difficult to pull off, experts say.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told NBC News, "These people can come to Germany only if it is ensured that they can immediately be taken into custody."

In order for German jihadists to be taken into custody, each person has to be extradited, their identities confirmed and evidence gathered against them that would stand the test of a European court, which would be extremely difficult, NBC News reported.

French justice minister Nicole Belloubet said she would take back militants on a "case-by-case basis" rather than all at once, Time reported. France has lost more militants to IS than any other European country, and in the past refused to repatriate IS fighters or their wives.

Britain said former militants could only return home if they were to obtain consular help in Turkey, but unofficially, the government "would rather they did not come back," NBC News security analyst Duncan Gardham said.

Other European countries haven't clarified their stance on the issue or what will happen to their citizens who were formerly members of the caliphate remains unclear.

44 comments on this story

According to a 2018 report from King's College London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, around 6,000 Western European nationals have joined IS, and about a third of them have already returned home. The Guardian reported that the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces currently have custody of hundreds of foreign IS members, as well as their wives and children.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are currently fighting the vestiges of IS near the Iraqi border, and a spokesman for the group told the Guardian that if they came under attack the foreign detainees could potentially escape. He added that they would not intentionally release the foreign fighters, but eventually their countries of origin would need to take charge of them.