ROJ CAMP, Syria (AP) – A woman who fled her home in Alabama in her 20s, joined the Islamic State group and had a child with one of its fighters says she still hopes to return to the United States and serve prison time 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 regrets everything minus his youngest son, now of pre-school age.
“If I need to sit in jail and serve my time, I will. … I’m not going to fight that,” the 28-year-old told The News Movement. “I hope my government sees me as someone young at the time and naive.”
It’s a line he has repeated in several media interviews since he fled one of the extremist group’s last enclaves in Syria in early 2019.
But four years earlier, at the height of the extremists’ power, he had expressed enthusiastic support for them on social media and in an interview with BuzzFeed News.. At the time, IS ruled a self-declared Islamic caliphate that spans about a third of Syria and Iraq. In posts sent from his Twitter account in 2015, he called on Americans to join the group and carry out attacks in the United States, suggesting shootings or carjackings targeting gatherings for national holidays .
In his interview with TNM, Muthana now says that his phone was taken away and that the tweets were sent to him by IS supporters.
Muthana was born in New Jersey to Yemeni immigrants and once held a US passport. She was raised in a conservative Muslim household in Hoover, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. In 2014, he told his family he was going on a school trip, but flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria, financing the trip with tuition checks he had secretly cashed.
The Obama administration revoked his citizenship in 2016, saying his father was an accredited Yemeni diplomat at the time he was born, a rare revocation of birthright citizenship. Her lawyers have contested the move, arguing that the father’s diplomatic accreditation ended before she was born.
The Trump administration maintained that she was not a citizen and prevented her from returningalthough he pressed European allies to repatriate their own detained nationals to reduce pressure on detention camps.
US courts have sided with the government on the issue of Muthana’s citizenship, and last January the Supreme Court refused to consider his lawsuit seeking re-entry..
That has left her and her son languishing in a detention camp in northern Syria that houses thousands of widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.
About 65,600 suspected Islamic State members and their families, both Syrian and foreign, are being held in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria run by US-allied Kurdish groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this month past.
Women accused of IS affiliation and their underage children are largely housed in al-Hol and Roj camps, under what the human rights group described as “conditions that threaten the life”. Camp inmates include more than 37,400 foreigners, including Europeans and Americans.
Human Rights Watch and other monitors have cited dire living conditions in the camps, including lack of food, water, and medical care, as well as physical and sexual abuse of prisoners by guards and fellow detainees.
Kurdish-led authorities and activists have blamed IS sleeper cells for the rise in violence at the facility, including the beheading of two Egyptian girls, aged 11 and 13, at the camp ‘al-Hol in November. Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish groups launched that month also hit near al-Hol. Camp officials alleged that the Turkish attacks 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, making their captivity arbitrary and illegal,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Detention based solely on family ties amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.”
Calls for the repatriation of detainees were largely ignored in the immediate aftermath of IS’s bloody reign, which was marked by massacres, beheadings and other atrocities, many of which were broadcast to the world in graphic films circulated in social networks.
But over time, the pace of repatriations has begun to increase. Human Rights Watch said about 3,100 foreigners, mostly women and children, have been sent home in the past year. The majority were Iraqis, who make up the majority of those detained, but citizens were also repatriated to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and the United Kingdom.
The United States has repatriated a total of 39 US nationals. It is not clear how many other Americans remain in the camps.
These days, Muthana presents himself 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 filth in my life, like there were 100 women and twice as many children, running around, too much noise, dirty beds,” he said.
The only way to escape was to marry a fighter. He eventually married and remarried three times. Her first two husbands, including the father of her child, were killed in battle. She divorced her third husband.
The extremist group, which is 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 same camps. Muthana says she still has to be careful what she says for fear of retaliation.
“Even here, right now, I can’t say completely everything I want to say. But once I’m gone, I will. I’ll be an advocate against it,” he said. “I wish I could help the victims of ISIS in the West to understand that someone like me is not part of it, that I, too, am a victim of ISIS.”
Hassan Shibly, a lawyer who has been helping Muthana’s family, said it is “absolutely clear that he was brainwashed and taken advantage of.”
She said her family wishes she could go back, pay her debt to society and then help others “fall down the dark path she was led down.”
“She was absolutely wrong, and nobody is denying that. But again, she was a teenager who was the victim of a very sophisticated recruitment operation that focuses on taking advantage of the young, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised,” he said.