Posted on May 10, 2024

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

Charlie Savage, New York Times, May 7, 2024

The Biden administration has repatriated a family of 10 American citizens who had been stranded for years in desert camps and detention centers in Syria run by a Kurdish-led militia that battled the Islamic State, according to officials.

The government also brought to the United States a pair of half brothers — only one of whom, said to be 7, is an American citizen. The resettlement of the other boy, who is said to be 9, is the first time the United States has taken in someone from the war zone who is not an American national.

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

He added, “This is the largest single repatriation of U.S. citizens from northeast Syria to date.”

The statement announcing the transfer did not identify the 12 people. But two officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said 10 were a family The New York Times had reported on in September, consisting of a woman named Brandy Salman and her nine American-born children, ranging from about 6 to about 25.

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

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

The aftermath of the collapse of the ISIS caliphate — which has continued to carry out terrorist attacks after losing control of its former territory — has led to a festering problem in northeastern Syria, where tens of thousands of people remain effectively imprisoned in the custody of the Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

About 45,000 people are living in the displaced persons camps — mostly women and children. They include roughly 17,000 Syrians, about 18,750 Iraqis and about 9,000 “third-country nationals” from over 60 countries, officials said. The militia is also holding about 8,800 adult men in wartime prisons.

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

The United States has been encouraging other countries to take back their nationals — prosecuting them where appropriate — and in some cases providing military logistical help. 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 going home to their respective countries, Mr. Blinken said. Among them are eight children.

Since 2016, when the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, the United States has repatriated 51 American citizens — 30 children and 21 adults, according to the State Department. That number counts the 11 citizens brought in early Tuesday.

Many nations — particularly in Europe — have been reluctant to allow their citizens to return, especially men, fearing that they pose a security threat. Some fear that under their legal systems, any incarceration for joining the Islamic State would last only a few years.

Even small children who were the offspring of ISIS families are often stigmatized. As a result, large numbers of children have been left to grow up under brutal circumstances and are considered vulnerable to radicalization in the camps.