An American woman and a British teenager who fled to Syria to marry Islamic State group fighters are pleading to be allowed to return home.
Hoda Muthana, 24, left Alabama four years ago for ISIS-held territory in Syria. She was recently found living with her 18-month-old son in the same refugee camp in northern Syria where Shamima Begum, 19, from London, gave birth to a baby boy over the weekend, according to British media reports and Begum’s lawyer.
Muthana told The Guardian newspaper she regrets joining the terrorist group and that she and other recruits like her did so because they were “ignorant” and “brainwashed.”
“I look back now and I think I was very arrogant,” said Muthana, who was married three times in Syria. Her first two husbands died fighting for ISIS and Muthana is thought to be the only American among an estimated 1,500 foreign women and children inside the al-Hawl refugee camp. Her current legal status is not clear and U.S. immigration authorities were not immediately available to answer questions about her case.
Muthana claims she has had no contact with U.S authorities.
She is not allowed to leave the camp and has armed guards.
“I believe that America gives second chances. I want to return and I’ll never come back to the Middle East. America can take my passport and I wouldn’t mind,” said Muthana.
Begum, who left Britain as a 15-year-old, also wants to be allowed to travel home but her story has become the subject of intense debate in Britain because she has expressed little remorse for ISIS’ brutality, including its beheadings, in Syria.
“Yeah I knew about those things and I was OK with it. I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamic-ally that is all allowed so I was OK with it,” Begum told British media, adding: “I never did anything dangerous, I never made propaganda, I never encouraged people to come to Syria.”
Begum had two other children during her time in Syria, but they both died in infancy from malnutrition and illness. Mohammed Akunjee, Begum’s London-based lawyer, said in a statement that Begum’s baby, born Sunday, is believed to be in “good health.”
And she wants to care for her newborn son back in Britain.
Begum’s Britain-based family have argued that Begum’s new son is a “total innocent,” is British and therefore has “every right” to grow up on British soil.
Some legal experts and Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, have argued that Begum can’t be prevented from returning home. Others believe she should be shown leniency considering her age when she left.
However, Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, has indicated he may take steps to block Begum’s return. “My message is clear: if you have supported terrorist organizations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return,” he said last week.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, who claims ISIS has been entirely defeated in Syria despite evidence and testimony from military experts and officials who disagree with that assessment, has urged the U.S.’s European allies to “take back over 800” ISIS fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial.
“The Caliphate is ready to fall,” Trump said in a Saturday tweet. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them … The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”
About 300 ISIS fighters are clinging on Monday to a tiny area in eastern Syria. If this area falls, U.S.-backed Syrian forces are likely to claim the group’s territorial defeat.
Gen. Joseph Votel, in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, testified earlier this month during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that there are between 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters still remaining in Syria. Votel’s appraisal is in line with estimates from the United Nations and U.S. Department of Defense.
The number of young Western women who traveled to Syria to participate in ISIS-related activities, whether on the battlefield or as spouses, is not known. Estimates vary from about 550 to as many as 1,000. In addition to the U.S. and Britain, they traveled from France, Germany, Russia, Scandinavia and from across North Africa.
“Women and children, even if not complicit in or contributing to what (ISIS) was doing, will require repatriation and resettlement assistance,” wrote Daniel Milton and Brian Dodwell, researchers at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the U.S. military academy, in a recent analysis. “Those who were willing participants in the organization will be of special concern to security services.”