An American woman who traveled to the battlefields of Syria to marry and have a child with an Islamic State fighter says she wants to come home and face the U.S. justice system, her family’s Florida-based lawyer told USA TODAY.
Hoda Muthana left Alabama to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, four years ago at age 19. While in Syria she called for Americans to be attacked and she spread the group’s propaganda online.
She is now one of an estimated 1,500 foreign woman and children – the spouses and children of Islamic State militants – being held in a Kurdish-run detention camp in northern Syria.
Muthana is there with her 18-month-old son. The child’s father is not alive. Two of her previous husbands, both Islamic State militants, are also dead. Muthana is not allowed to leave the camp and has armed guards protecting her from Islamic State sympathizers.
“The government needs to engage with her, but not just her; all of these people who joined ISIS” from the West, said Hassan Shibbly, a legal representative for the Muthana family. “If she broke the law then the justice system can deal with her, and if she didn’t break the law, she should come back anyway so it can be determined if she is a threat.”
More: American, British ISIS brides Hoda Muthana, Shamima Begum plead to go home
Shibbly said Muthana has realized she made a mistake in moving to Syria and now wants to return to the U.S. to face justice and “pay any debts she has to society.” He said she also wants to speak out against the Islamic State and help de-radicalize other Americans.
Muthana abandoned her family and fled to Syria in 2014, a year after she graduated from high school. She briefly studied at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Shibbly shared a letter Muthana wrote this week in which she describes herself as “naive, angry and arrogant” when she decided to journey to Syria.
“During my years in Syria I would see and experience a way of life and the terrible effects of war which changed me,” Muthana writes in the letter.
“Seeing bloodshed up close changed me. Motherhood changed me. Seeing friends, children and the men I married dying changed me. Seeing how different a society could be compared to the beloved America I was born and raised into changed me.”
Shibbly, who is the executive director of the Florida Council on American Islamic Relations in Tampa, said it was not clear from a legal standpoint whether Muthana’s “marrying into ISIS” could warrant a “material support charge” to Islamic State activities, which range from terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe to beheadings in Iraq and Syria.
Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard law professor, said if he were advising Muthana he would tell her that coming back to the U.S. would be “risky.” Dershowitz told the New York Post her case would be a “close call” even if all she did was tweet and send emails.
Muthana claims to have had no contact with U.S. authorities, and Shibbly said she can leave the camp only if the U.S. government asks for her release. It’s not clear if it has. U.S. immigration authorities were not available to answer questions about her case, including whether a U.S. citizen can be barred from entering their own country.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency referred questions about Muthana to the U.S. State Department, which has not responded to USA TODAY’s query.
Only six American militants have returned from fighting or training with militant groups in Syria, according to New America, a Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy research institute. All have been taken into custody. Muthana appears to be the first American spouse or partner of an Islamic State fighter who has sought to return home.
Muthana’s case comes amid a similar one in Britain involving Shamima Begum, 19, from London, who gave birth to a baby boy over the weekend in the same camp where the Muthana is being held.
Begum, who left Britain for Syria at age 15 and married an Islamic State fighter, wants to return to Britain for the sake of her child’s welfare but British authorities, including the nation’s interior minister, have indicated they might try to block her return. However, they might find that difficult to do because a British national can’t theoretically be prevented from returning home unless that person is also a national of another country.
Begum, now 19, isn’t.
The teenager’s London-based lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, said Tuesday that the British government has informed him that it is trying to strip Begum of her British citizenship.
As for Muthana, “whether it’s a few years in jail, 20 years in jail, or no jail, she’s open to the legal process and she’s not asking for a free pass, just due process,” Shibbly said.