Samantha Elhassani, an American woman who traveled to Syria with her husband and children to live in Islamic State territory, has been transferred home to the United States and charged with making false statements to the FBI.
Germany’s BILD first reported that the mother-of-two was being transported from a detention center in northern Syria under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-led Coalition’s main partner against ISIS in Syria.
Last week, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials plan to charge Elhassani and another American, Ibraheem Musaibli, for their suspected involvement with ISIS. Both were transferred from SDF custody to the U.S. and arrived on Tuesday, July 24.
The repatriations began on Monday, according to the BILD report.
Elhassani was “charged in the Northern District of Indiana with making false statements to the FBI and will have her initial hearing at the Hammond Federal Courthouse at a later date,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced late on Tuesday.
The Department of Justice charged Musaibli with providing material support to ISIS. The indictment alleges that the 28-year-old Michigan resident “did knowingly provide and attempt to provide material support and resources in the form of personnel (namely, himself) and services” to ISIS from April 2015 until June 2018.
Musaibli was reportedly captured earlier this year by the SDF when he tried to escape the Middle Euphrates River Valley, one of the last ISIS strongholds.
Elhassani says she was tricked, captured and tortured by ISIS
In an interview with PBS Frontline earlier this year, Elhassani said that her husband Moussa tricked her into traveling to Syria after taking the family on a supposed vacation in Turkey in 2015 and then forcing them over the border. The Indiana native said she wanted to leave after arriving in Raqqa and was at one point captured and tortured when she tried to escape.
She gave birth to two more children during the two years the family lived in Raqqa, and her 10-year-old son was depicted last year in an ISIS propaganda video pledging to attack the U.S.
Elhassani and her four children turned themselves in to the SDF at a refugee camp after Moussa was killed fighting for ISIS, according to the New York Times. She said she also brought two Yazidi women that her husband kept as slaves.
The four children are now in the custody of Indiana Department of Child Services, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A Department of State spokesperson told The Defense Post that they had seen the media reports “regarding a family of U.S. citizens in Syria” and reiterated warnings against traveling to Syria.
The U.S. and SDF have urged countries to take back their citizens, citing the challenges of detaining hundreds of foreign fighters and the financial resources needed to host their wives and children.
“Our Syrian Democratic Forces partners have adequate facilities right now to house and care for the detainees. As you can imagine, it is a drain on their resources. They are not a policing organization,” CJTF-OIR spokesperson Colonel Thomas F. Veale told reporters in June.
Two British men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, could also be bound for the U.S. after it was revealed that the U.K. government is willing to forego its usual demand that its citizens not be subject to the death penalty. According to the Telegraph, which broke the story, Home Secretary Sajid Javid believes a successful terrorism prosecution is more likely in the U.S.
Kotey and Elsheikh are accused of taking part in notorious ISIS executions of foreign captives – including U.S. and U.K. journalists and aid workers James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, Peter Kassig, Alan Henning and David Haines.
It’s unclear whether the two, whose British citizenship has apparently been revoked, would be charged in federal courts or transferred to the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Department of Defense spokesperson Commander Sarah Higgins told The Defense Post on Monday that “Guantanamo Bay is an option for long-term detention of enemy combatants. Other options include transfer to foreign partners or prosecution in U.S. courts,” but she could not comment on plans for specific individuals.
Permitting the transfer of Kotey and Elsheikh to U.S. custody might allow the U.K. government to avoid possible legal challenges to the stripping of their citizenship or unlawful rendition.
John Doe, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen suspected of fighting with ISIS, was set to be released from SDF detention in Syria after a federal judge ruled that the U.S. military could not hand him over to a third country – believed to be Saudi Arabia – against his will.
Foreign female ISIS ‘recruits’ in Iraq and Syria
The International Centre for Study of Radicalisation said this week that up to 4,761 foreign women and 4,640 minors became affiliated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Another 730 children were born to international parents inside ISIS-held territory, according to the report released on Monday.
It’s not known how many Americans joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the FBI estimates that 300 Americans left the United States between 2011 and 2017 with the intention of fighting with both jihadist and non-jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, according to a study by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
In January, the French wives and children of ISIS fighters captured in Syria sued the government for refusing to repatriate them. The French government has said that men and women detained in Kurdish-held areas of Syria should be held there if they can be guaranteed a fair trial.
Iraq has also called for the home countries of foreign fighters to repatriate their children. At least 833 children are currently in prison in Iraq, and foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Mahjoub said earlier this month that Iraq has spoken with Azerbaijan, Germany, Russia “and other countries to take their citizens back.”