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U.S. Repatriates 11 American Citizens From ISIS War Camps in Syria

The Biden administration has repatriated a family of 10 U.S. citizens stranded for years in desert camps and detention centers in Syria run by a Kurdish-led militia that was fighting the Islamic State, officials said.

The government also brought two half-brothers to the United States, only one of whom, aged 7, is a U.S. citizen. The resettlement of the other boy, believed to be 9 years old, is the first time the United States has taken in someone from the war zone who is not a U.S. national.

The government announced the anticipated transfer Tuesday in a statement from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who said there had been a “complex repatriation and resettlement” involving 11 U.S. citizens, including five minors, and “one 9-year-old child. non-U.S. citizen sibling of one of the U.S. citizen minors.

He added: “This is the largest repatriation of American citizens from northeast Syria to date. »

The press release announcing the transfer did not identify the 12 people. But two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said 10 of them were a family that The New York Times reported on in September, consisting of a woman named Brandy Salman and his nine children born in the United States, approximately 6 years old. at around 25.

The other two, officials said, are the sons – one biological and one adopted – of a man named Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, who was repatriated in 2020 and pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported this month that her two young sons had been found and would soon arrive in Minnesota to be raised by her parents.

Later on Tuesday, charges against one of Ms Salman’s daughters, Halima Salman, now aged around 24, were unsealed. She is accused of having received weapons training from a foreign terrorist organization.

The aftermath of the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate – which continued to carry out terrorist attacks after losing control of its former territory – has led to a continuing problem in northeast Syria, where dozens thousands of people remain effectively imprisoned in the custody of the authorities. Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Around 45,000 people live in the IDP camps, mostly women and children. They include about 17,000 Syrians, about 18,750 Iraqis and about 9,000 “third-country nationals” from more than 60 countries, officials said. The militia also holds approximately 8,800 adult men in prisons of war.

Most adult men are suspected of having joined Islamic State, including some who traveled to Syria or Iraq from Europe. Some brought their families with them.

The United States encourages other countries to take back their nationals – prosecuting them where necessary – and, in some cases, providing military logistical assistance. The same transfer operation that brought the dozen people to the United States also extracted six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens and one Finnish citizen who are returning home to their respective countries, Mr. Blinken said. Among them are eight children.

Since 2016, when ISIS’s caliphate began to collapse, the United States has repatriated 51 American citizens – 30 children and 21 adults, according to the State Department. This number includes the 11 citizens brought in early Tuesday.

Many countries – particularly in Europe – are reluctant to allow the return of their citizens, particularly men, fearing they pose a threat to their security. Some fear that, under their legal system, any incarceration for joining the Islamic State would last only a few years.

The Times reported last fall that Ms. Salman’s husband, originally from Turkey, apparently took the family to ISIS territory in 2016 and was later killed. Most of the family will now live with her mother in New Hampshire, and the Department of Health and Human Services, working with local human service authorities, has developed a plan to help them integrate into the company, officials said.

However, one of Ms. Salman’s daughters, Halima, was arrested when the military plane carrying the group landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday morning. Later in the day, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York ordered him detained, the Justice Department said.

In the criminal complaint accusing her of receiving weapons training from ISIS, an FBI agent cited as evidence various photos of her and other electronic files on a cell phone that the government recovered in Syria in 2019 and which, according to the complaint, belonged to a man. said she got married there.

In 2022 and 2023, Human Rights Watch and United Nations investigators separately interviewed one of Ms. Salman’s sons, now around 18 years old.

He then lived separated from the rest of his family in what the Kurdish militia describes as a rehabilitation or deradicalization center for young people. Guards took him there in early 2020, he told investigators, as part of a controversial policy of removing boys from the main displaced persons camps, Al Hol and Roj, when they reach puberty .

The teenager told investigators his father tricked the family into going to Syria – telling them they were going camping while in Turkey and only later revealing they had crossed the border — and that his mother had largely kept the children indoors because she was scared. The Times was unable to verify the details of this account.

The U.N. investigator also said the teen expressed “great distress and concern” over his inability to meaningfully communicate with his mother, and he showed her paintings and drawings that represented together. He also talked about burgers and the lack of rap music, she said.

Human Rights Watch also featured the teen – masking his face and using a pseudonym – in a video about children stranded in Syria after their parents took them there to join ISIS. In it, he said: “It’s not just me. There are a lot of us children, you know. No one wants to stay, just like growing up here and doing nothing. That’s what we all feel.

In the case of the two half-brothers, a court filing against their father, Mr Al-Madioum, said that in 2015, while he was a student and visiting Morocco with his family, he fled to join ISIS.

He eventually married the widow of a slain ISIS fighter and fought in combat himself and was seriously injured, including losing part of an arm. He surrendered in March 2019 to the Kurdish-led militia and was brought back to the United States to stand trial in 2020.

A court file also mentioned that he was with “his two young children” at the time of his surrender to the militia. But, officials said, only one of the boys is Mr. Al-Madioum’s biological son. Mr. Al-Madioum is said to have adopted the other boy when he married their mother, the widow, who herself was subsequently killed.

The transfer of people presents many challenges. The Kurdish militia does not have complete and accurate records of everyone it detains, and the mixed parentage of many children further complicates efforts to get countries to take them.

Ian Moss, deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, said in an interview that in welcoming the 9-year-old boy who is not a U.S. citizen but has a connection to the country through his brother, the United States sought to set an example.

“It is important, for the purposes of reintegration, not to divide families,” he said. “And as we continue to work to solve this problem, we need to think creatively about how to preserve family units.” Inevitably, this means that – just as the United States has done – countries will have to offer resettlement to people who are not their nationals.

There has been some movement in recent years. In 2022, nearly 3,000 displaced people have been repatriated – or, in the case of Syrians, returned to their original communities inside the country – more than the number who left militia custody from 2019 to 2021 combined. In 2023, more than 5,400 people have been repatriated or returned to their communities of origin.

“As governments undertake the repatriation of their nationals, we call for thoughtfulness and flexibility to ensure, to the extent possible, that family units remain intact,” Blinken said.

He added: “The only lasting solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the IDP camps and detention centers in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate and, where appropriate, ensure that wrongdoing is held accountable. »

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With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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