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U.S. repatriates last Americans from Syria charged with supporting ISIS, Justice Department says

Prisoners stand in a cell at a prison in Qamishli holding Syrian men accused of being Islamic State militants. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

The United States has repatriated the last four Americans held by Kurdish allies in Syria who were accused of supporting the Islamic State, the Justice Department said Thursday.

The transfers come as Washington has been pressing allies, particularly in Western Europe, to take back their own citizens who traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the militant group.

Since 2016, the United States has repatriated 27 Americans from Syria and Iraq, 10 of whom were charged with terrorism-related offenses, Justice Department officials said. Of the rest, 15 were minors at the time of repatriation and two were women who were not charged.

As of this week, “the United States has brought back every American supporter of ISIS known to be held by the Syrian Democratic Forces against whom we have charges,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.

Kurdish-led forces put down revolt by ISIS detainees at a Syria prison

The news drew praise from terrorism experts. “The United States has been pretty forward-leaning on this and have practiced what they preached,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Hughes noted that the United States has the advantage of having fewer foreign fighters overseas and strong terrorism laws that make prosecutions easier. “But putting all that aside, it’s still an impressive feat,” he said.

Hughes, who keeps a database on foreign fighters, said there are at least three Americans who traveled overseas to fight for the Islamic State who are still detained in Iraq or Syria, though he does not know if all are being held by the SDF.

Two of the defendants who were brought back this week, Emraan Ali and his son Jihad Ali, appeared in federal court in Miami on Wednesday. Emraan Ali, who also holds Trinidadian citizenship, and his son are charged with providing and conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State. Emraan Ali traveled to Syria with his family, including his son, in March 2015 to join the group, according to officials. There, the men received military and religious training and fought with the Islamic State, they said.

The men surrendered in March 2019 to the SDF, the U.S.-backed, predominantly Kurdish militia that has done the bulk of the fighting against the Islamic State in Syria. Emraan Ali was designated in 2018 by the Treasury Department for transferring funds from Trinidad and Tobago to Syria in support of the Islamic State.

The other two suspects, Abdelhamid Al-Madioum and Lirim Sylejmani, were transferred and made court appearances two weeks ago, officials said. Al-Madioum, a Morocco native and naturalized citizen, traveled through Turkey to Iraq and Syria in 2015, and was captured by the SDF in 2019, officials said. Al-Madioum appeared in federal court in Minnesota.

Sylejmani, a Kosovo-born naturalized citizen, was charged with providing and conspiring to provide material support, and with receiving training from the Islamic State. He was captured in 2019 and appeared in federal court in D.C.

Pentagon won’t take over ISIS prisons if US-allied Kurdish forces withdraw, officials say

Following the dismantling of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, the Pentagon estimated that 10,000 militant prisoners have been held by Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria — more than 2,000 of them from outside Iraq and Syria. Most are North Africans, but about 800 are Europeans, including from Britain and France.

Last year, President Trump threatened to dump “thousands” of fighters into Europe, saying that if those nations refused, “I’ll have no choice but to release them into the countries from which they came, which is Germany and France and other places.”

Public and political opinion in Europe has been sharply opposed to repatriation. European governments have said that evidence of militant crimes is often insufficient to stand up in their courts, and there is widespread fear that acquittals or reduced sentences would allow the release of dangerous terrorists.