World

U.S. says Alabama woman who joined ISIS can't return, despite pushing other nations to repatriate

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says an Alabama woman who left home to join ISIS in Syria is not a U.S. citizen and will not be allowed to return to the United States.

Secretary of state says Hoda Muthana, 24, has no 'legal basis' to enter the U.S.

In a suit filed Thursday, Hoda Muthana's father argues that she is an American citizen by birth and should be allowed to come back to the U.S. with her toddler son. (Hassan Shibly via Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says an Alabama woman who left home to join ISIS in Syria is not a U.S. citizen and will not be allowed to return to the United States. 

In a brief statement that gave no details as to how the determination was reached, Pompeo said Hoda Muthana, who said she made a mistake in joining the group and now wants to return with her 18-month-old son, has no "legal basis" to claim American citizenship.

"Ms. Hoda Muthana is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States," Pompeo said. "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."

The 24-year old made headlines this week when her lawyer said she wanted to return to the U.S. with her 18-month-old son after realizing she was wrong for aligning herself with the terrorist organization.

The announcement by Pompeo comes just two weeks after the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling on its allies to repatriate their own citizens detained in the conflict. 

It also comes one day after it was reported that the U.K. Home Office would be stripping Shamima Begum — who joined ISIS at 15 along with two other school girls — of her citizenship. Begum's lawyer has said the family is considering all legal avenues to challenge the decision.
Pompeo's statement comes one day after it was reported that the U.K. Home Office would be stripping Shamima Begum — who joined ISIS at 15 along with two other school girls — of her citizenship. (Laura Lean/Reuters)

On the issue of Canadian citizens in ISIS territory, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said Canada will not risk the lives of its diplomats to repatriate those detained in Syria.

Birthright citizenship issues

Muthana's status had been considered by lawyers from the departments of State and Justice since her case arose, according to one U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official would not elaborate but said Pompeo's statement was based on the lawyers' conclusions.

An attorney for the woman's family, Hassan Shibly, said the administration's position is based on a "complicated" interpretation of the law involving her father.

To say that I regret my past words, any pain that I caused ... would be hard for me to really express properly- Hoda Muthana

"They're claiming her dad was a diplomat when she was born, which, in fact, he wasn't," Shibly told The Associated Press. 

"She was born in Hackensack, N.J., in October 1994, months after her father stopped being a diplomat," he said in a statement to CBC News. "The Trump administration continues its attempts to wrongfully strip citizens of their citizenship."

In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, U.S. President Donald Trump took credit for the move. 

Most people born in the United States are accorded so-called birthright citizenship but there are exceptions. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a person born in the U.S. to a foreign diplomatic officer is not subject to U.S. law and is not automatically considered a U.S. citizen at birth.

Muthana's case is unusual, if not unprecedented in that she once held a U.S. passport. Passports are only issued to citizens by birth or naturalization, according to Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who has studied the phenomenon of foreign Islamic State fighters and families.

Hughes said the decision is also unusual because it comes just days after the Trump administration urged European nations to repatriate extremists from Syria as the Islamic State nears collapse.

"If you are trying to make the case that others should take back their people, it stands to reason that you would do that, too," he said. 

'A big mistake'

On Tuesday, Shibly said Muthana regrets her actions and is putting herself at risk by speaking out against ISIS from a refugee camp in Syria, where she has lived since fleeing the group a few weeks ago.

​Muthana, who dodged sniper fire and roadside bombs to escape, is ready to pay the penalty for her actions but wants freedom and safety for the 18-month-old son she had with one of two ISIS fighters she wed, he said. Both men were killed in combat.
In a handwritten letter released by Shibly, Muthana wrote that she made 'a big mistake' by rejecting her family and friends in the U.S. to join ISIS. (Hoda Muthana/Provided to CNN)

In a handwritten letter released by Shibly, Muthana wrote that she made "a big mistake" by rejecting her family and friends in the United States to join ISIS.

"During my years in Syria I would see and experience a way of life and the terrible effects of war which changed me," she wrote.

After fleeing her home in suburban Birmingham in late 2014 and resurfacing in Syria, Muthana used social media to advocate violence against the United States. In the letter, Muthana wrote that she didn't understand the importance of freedoms provided by the United States at the time.

Watch: Captured ISIS members face uncertain future:

Thousands of captured foreign ISIS fighters face an uncertain future in Kurdish prison camps as some want to return home, including several Canadians. 5:09

Muthana's lawyer said she was "just a stupid, naive, young dumb woman," when she became enamoured of Islamic State, believing it was an organization that protected Muslims. 

Shibly said she left her family in Alabama and made her way to Syria, where she was "brainwashed" by IS and compelled to marry one of the group's soldiers. After he was killed, she married another, the father of her son.

A valuable intelligence asset?

"To say that I regret my past words, any pain that I caused my family and any concerns I would cause my country would be hard for me to really express properly," said the letter.

Shibly said Muthana was brainwashed online before she left Alabama and now could have valuable intelligence for U.S. forces. But the FBI didn't seem interested in retrieving her from the refugee camp where she is living with her son, he said.

Muthana's father would welcome the woman back, Shibly said, but she is not on speaking terms with her mother.

Ashfaq Taufique, who knows Muthana's family and is president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, said the woman could be a valuable resource for teaching young people about the dangers of online radicalization were she allowed to return to the United States.

"Her coming back could be a very positive thing for our community and our country," Taufique said.

For his part, Shibly said he intends to file a legal challenge to the government's decision to deny her entry to the country. 

"She's an American. Americans break the law," said Shibly. "When people break the law, we have a legal system to handle those kinds of situations to hold people accountable, and that's all she's asking for." 

With files from CBC's Shanifa Nasser

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