Written by Vivian Yee
Two American women and six children affiliated with the Islamic State group have been sent back to the United States from Syria at the request of U.S. authorities, U.S. officials and local forces in northeastern Syria said Wednesday.
The transfer was one of the few repatriations of ISIS-linked women or children from Syria to Western countries since the group lost the last of its territory in March.
The eight Americans were part of a Cambodian American family from the Seattle area that had traveled to Syria to join the militants, according to one of the U.S. officials, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. They had not yet arrived in the United States on Wednesday, the official said.
The group includes four sisters who were brought to Syria by their parents, according to Kimberly Polman, an American Canadian woman who was detained with the family in Syria. She said that the sisters’ parents were killed there.
The other four Americans are young children born to the two older sisters, Polman, who also traveled to Syria to join ISIS, said in an interview in February.
Her account was confirmed by a person close to the family.
The family was among the roughly 12,000 foreign women and children whom local Kurdish authorities have been holding in detention camps scattered across northeastern Syria, along with about 1,000 foreign fighters and at least 60,000 Syrians and Iraqis. All were in custody after being captured or having surrendered to U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces as the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria crumbled.
Now, amid urgent questions about what should happen to ISIS followers marooned in overcrowded camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq, authorities who run the facilities are releasing some of them to return home or to face trial in Iraq — a slow, halting process that still leaves many thousands stranded in miserable conditions without any resolution of their fate.
In the face of security concerns and public opinion that is firmly against repatriating people who are viewed as potential threats, few governments have retrieved their citizens from the camps. Most of those who have been brought back have been children, sometimes accompanied by their mothers.
About 900 Syrian female relatives and children of Islamic State fighters were freed this week under the auspices of local Arab tribal leaders, said Mostapha Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force. Norway recently agreed to take back five orphan children whose parents were ISIS followers. Within the last month, Kazakhstan, one of the few countries repatriating substantial numbers of people from Syria, brought back 469 people, mostly women and children.
Iraq, where thousands more foreign ISIS followers are being held, has sent a little less than half of the 1,060 foreign children it was holding back to their home countries. Of those repatriated, 188 children of Turkish women who joined the Islamic State, as young as 1 and as old as 16, were returned to Turkey last week. Iraq has sentenced some of their mothers to death for their membership in the group.
The Americans repatriated from Syria this week wanted to go back and did so “without any pressure or coercion,” Abdulkarim Omar, a senior official with the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria, said in a statement. He did not identify the Americans or provide any other details.
It was not clear whether they would face prosecution when they came back to the United States, or what would happen to them.
Polman said the Americans had originally been a family of seven — a mother, father and five daughters, who were still children when they came to Syria. The parents and eldest daughter were killed in Syria, she said, leaving four younger daughters, two of whom married ISIS fighters and had children.
The four surviving sisters and four children are now being repatriated.
The Islamic State, which once controlled territory the size of Britain across Iraq and Syria, lost its last scrap of territory in late March, after a four-year military campaign to defeat it.
As the Syrian camps overflowed last winter and the Kurdish authorities and humanitarian groups alike struggled to shelter, feed and care for thousands of ISIS followers and their families, foreign governments were forced to weigh the futures of their citizens with new urgency.
Apart from the security concerns, there are logistical, moral and legal dilemmas. Prosecuting ISIS suspects at home can be difficult because of unwieldy laws and uneven battlefield evidence. When it comes to women, whose roles in the group were fluid, and children, who were given no choice about joining but may have received training or been coerced into violence, it can be hard to pinpoint who may pose a risk and who may not.
Some countries, like Britain and Australia, have chosen to strip their ISIS-linked nationals of citizenship. A few, including Kosovo, Russia, Kazakhstan and Indonesia, have repatriated large numbers. Others are allowing Iraq to prosecute their citizens, despite well-publicized concerns about its disregard for due process rights, reliance on confessions obtained under torture and use of the death penalty.
The Trump administration has pushed other countries to take back their citizens, but it is unclear how many Americans the United States has repatriated. Only a small number of Americans went to join the Islamic State, with many more coming from European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Though it has brought back and prosecuted a handful of the small number of American fighters who joined the Islamic State, the administration has sought to bar Hoda Muthana, an American woman accused of spreading propaganda for ISIS, over a technical question about her citizenship.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the government was working to verify the citizenship of people claiming to be American in conflict zones on a case-by-case basis.