A woman who ran away from home in Alabama at the age of 20, joined the Islamic State group and gave birth to a child with one of its fighters, says she still hopes to return to the US, serve prison time if necessary and attack extremists.
In a rare interview from the Roj detention camp in Syria where she is being held by US-allied Kurdish forces, Hoda Muthana said she was brainwashed by online traffickers and joined the group in 2014 and regrets everything except her young son.
“If I have to sit in prison, and do my time, I will do it… I will not fight against it,” the 28-year-old told the American network The News Movement. “I hope my government looks at me as a young person at that time and naive.”
This is a line she has repeated in various media interviews since she escaped from one of the extremist organization’s last enclaves in Syria at the beginning of 2019.
But four years earlier, at the height of the extremists’ power, she expressed passionate support for them on social media and in an interview with BuzzFeed News. ISIS then controlled a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate spanning about a third of both Syria and Iraq. In tweets from 2015, she called on Americans to join the group and carry out attacks in the US, and suggested drive-by shootings or hitting vehicles targeting public holiday gatherings.
In her interview with TNM, Mutana now says her phone was taken from her and that the tweets were sent by ISIS supporters.
Muthana was born in New Jersey to immigrants from Yemen and once had a US passport. She grew up in a conservative Muslim home in Hoover, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. In 2014, she told her family she was going on a school trip, but flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria instead, financing the trip with tuition checks she cashed in secret.
The Obama administration revoked her citizenship in 2016, saying her father was a qualified Yemeni diplomat at the time she was born — a rare denial of birthright citizenship. Her lawyers contested this move, arguing that the father’s diplomatic accreditation had expired before she was born.
The Trump administration claimed she was not a citizen and barred her from returning, even as he pressed European allies to return their detained citizens to reduce pressure on the detention camps.
The US courts sided with the government on the question of Mutana’s citizenship, and last January the Supreme Court refused to consider her claim for re-entry.
It left her and her son languishing in a detention camp in northern Syria that houses thousands of widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.
About 65,600 Islamic State suspects and their families — both Syrian and foreign nationals — are being held in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria run by U.S.-allied Kurdish groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month.
Women accused of belonging to ISIS and their minor children are mostly housed in al-Khul and Roj camps, under what the rights group described as “life-threatening conditions.” The camp’s inmates include more than 37,400 foreigners, including Europeans and North Americans.
Human Rights Watch and other monitors noted harsh living conditions in the camps, including poor food, water, and medical care, as well as physical and sexual abuse of prisoners by guards and other detainees.
Authorities and Kurdish-led activists have blamed ISIS sleeper cells for escalating violence inside the facilities, including the beheading of two Egyptian girls, ages 11 and 13, at al-Hol camp in November. Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdish groups launched that month also hit the vicinity of al-Khul. Camp officials claimed that the Turkish attacks were aimed at the security forces guarding the camp.
“None of the foreigners have been brought before a judicial authority… to determine the necessity and legality of their detention, making their captivity arbitrary and illegal,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Arrest based on family ties alone amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.”
Calls to return the detainees to Israel were largely ignored in the immediate aftermath of ISIS’s bloody reign, characterized by massacres, beheadings and other atrocities, many of which were broadcast to the world in graphic videos circulated on social media.
But as time passed, the rate of returns began to increase. Human Rights Watch said about 3,100 foreigners – mostly women and children – were sent home over the past year. Most of them were Iraqis, who make up the majority of detainees, but citizens were also returned to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and the United Kingdom.
The US returned a total of 39 American citizens to Israel. It is unclear how many other Americans remained in the camps.
These days, Mutana presents herself as a victim of the Islamic State.
In a conversation with TNM, she describes how, after arriving in Syria in 2014, she was stopped at a guest house reserved for unmarried women and children. “I’ve never seen this kind of filth in my life, like there were 100 women and twice as many children, running around, too much noise, dirty beds,” she said.
The only way to escape was to marry a warrior. She eventually married and remarried three times. Its first two owners, including her son’s father, were killed in the battle.
The extremist group, also known as ISIS, no longer controls any territory in Syria or Iraq but continues to carry out sporadic attacks and has supporters in the camps themselves. Muthana says she still has to be careful what she says for fear of retribution.
“Even here, right now, I can’t say everything I want to say. But once I leave, I will leave. I will be an advocate against it,” she said. “I wish I could help the victims of ISIS in the West to understand that someone like me is not part of this, that I am also a victim of ISIS.”