Trump’s Double Standard for Islamic State Returnees

Donald Trump threatens Europeans with releasing terrorists who are not allowed to return to their home countries. At the same time, he denies re-entry to an American member of the Islamic State.

Thousands of men and women from overseas have joined the Islamic State over the past several years. It’s not only in Europe that one is now confronted by the question of whether the terrorists should be able to return to their home countries and be tried there − and how that might work. In the United States, the case of Hoda Muthana is now making headlines, one of the “IS brides,” as the media call her.

Muthana asked U.S. authorities to let her return after she was captured by Kurdish troops. The mother of an 18-month-old son was born in 1994 in Hackensack, New Jersey. She later lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and in 2014 she flew to Syria, and from there she joined the Islamic State group in Syria. In Raqqa, she married, in succession, Islamic State group members from Australia, Tunisia and Syria; two of them were killed in battle.

Muthana is said to have actively supported the terrorist activities of the Islamic State group in 2015 by calling for violent action overseas: “Americans wake up!” she wrote, among other things. “Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that the 24-year-old woman isn’t a U.S. citizen and thus does not have the right to return to the country. “She does not have any legal basis, no valid U.S. passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States.” Shortly afterward, President Trump tweeted, “I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!”

Muthana’s family is from Yemen; her father was a diplomat. In fact, the right to citizenship through birth in the U.S. doesn’t automatically apply to the children of diplomats, because they aren’t subject to the country’s rule of law. But Muthana’s lawyer said that her father left diplomatic service a few weeks before she was born, which would make her a regular citizen of the U.S. Before her departure for Syria, she is said to have applied for a new passport.

At the moment, Muthana is being held in a Syrian refugee camp and has spoken with several foreign media outlets. She appears to now regret having joined the Islamic State group. In an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, Muthana said that she had been “starved” and “literally ate grass.” Asked what she would say to U.S. officials, she responded, “I would tell them please forgive me for being so ignorant, and I was really young and ignorant and I was 19 when I decided to leave.”

Muthana said that she was also the victim of “brainwashing” and now knows that she committed a grave error. Through her strict upbringing, she said, she had oriented herself more and more strongly toward Islam, and at the time believed everything that she read. Hassan Shibly from the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, who is representing the family, wanted to create understanding for Muthana. “At the end of the day … Hoda was a 19-year-old vulnerable young woman who was brainwashed and manipulated by these criminal masterminds,” he said in an interview.

The Islamic State group terrorists acted in ways that were similar to those who rape children or recruit for gangs, Shibly said. Muthana just wants to make amends for her mistakes and has asked to go to trial before an American court.

Re-entry ‘in Handcuffs’

Seamus Hughes, who researches Islamic State group terrorism at George Washington University, said that, given the crimes committed by the Islamic State group, there were “thousands of legitimate reasons” to doubt the motives and justifications of Muthana and others. It would be wrong, Hughes said, to reduce the women to the status of “IS brides” and to deny their role in the crimes. The U.S. still has the duty to allow them to re-enter, but “in handcuffs.”

Many of Trump’s supporters have welcomed Trump’s refusal to accept Muthana. Washington Times commentator Tammy Bruce, for instance, wrote that Muthana had forfeited her right to return to the U.S. Instead, she should be put before an international court. Yet Trump’s administration has questioned the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court in The Hague multiple times. And Trump’s critics see his behavior in the context of his recent demands on European nations as particularly self-serving and hypocritical.

Identity Often Hard To Prove

Trump has, in fact, threatened to release 800 Islamic State group terrorists if European countries don’t allow them to re-enter and put them on trial. As is often the case, the president made his threats last weekend on Twitter. It generated resentment among the European politicians gathered at the Munich Security Conference.

Trump wrote, “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them.” There was no subsequent agreement with the Europeans.

The difficulty for Germany and other countries is, among others, that there is no repatriation agreement with Syria, and proving the identity of these individuals may be difficult to impossible in many cases. In any case, it’s not nearly as easy as the Americans imagine, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Monday in Brussels.

Muthana isn’t the only Islamic State group follower who wants to return to the U.S. According to estimates, about 300 American men and women tried to join the Islamic State group. George Washington University was able to identify 64 individuals, most of whom successfully traveled to Syria or Iraq. Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 foreign Islamic State group members were Europeans. Almost all American men are said by The New York Times to have had their passports returned to them after they were taken captive. According to the newspaper, it is unclear why this isn’t the case with the at least 13 women and children.

One of them is Kimberly Gwen Polman, who is also being held in a Syrian refugee camp. She is 46 years old, studied administrative sciences and has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. “I don’t have words for how much regret I have,” Polman told The New York Times. Like Muthana, she has had no contact with American officials. The FBI didn’t comment on the report but stated that all Americans who had joined the Islamic State group should be legally prosecuted.

The discussion about American Islamic State group members could also serve another purpose among others for Trump besides demonstrating a tough stance toward terrorism. Trump has already made clear several times that he would like to amend the right to citizenship. Until now, those who are born in the United States are American citizens. Judges and politicians from all sides are against it, but in an interview with Axios last October, the president recommended that the citizenship of children of immigrants without documentation to be in the U.S. should be revoked.

Trump would love to do that with an executive order, but until now, he has heeded advice from his advisers and his party not to do so. Until now, citizenship can only be revoked in proven cases of treason, and that generally happens to those who previously gained citizenship through naturalization, rather than birth. Trump could use the case of Islamic State group terrorists with American citizenship to reignite the discussion.

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