An American interrogation team is questioning the United States’ first Islamic State detainee in hopes that the Iraqi woman, the widow of a senior Islamic State militant, will provide clues about the group’s handling of foreign hostages, U.S. officials said Monday.
A team known as the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which includes officials from the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, was sent to Iraq to question the detainee, who has been identified only as Umm Sayyaf, or “mother of Sayyaf.” Her husband, known as Abu Sayyaf, was killed this weekend after a team of Delta Force soldiers descended on a militant compound in eastern Syria.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing interrogation, said the woman would be asked for information about where and how the group had gained custody of foreign hostages and held them.
“That’s absolutely something we’re going to talk to her about, so we can learn how ISIL conducts hostage operations,” the official said, using another name for the group that has imprisoned and killed American hostages, including journalist James Foley .
While Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian who U.S. officials said helped lead the group’s oil and gas operations, was the primary target of the raid, his wife’s detention marks the first time the U.S. military has taken a prisoner from the militant group. Officials have said that Umm Sayyaf was involved in Islamic State operations and may have been linked to the enslavement of women in Iraq or Syria. They have not provided details of those allegations.
Even as questioning of Umm Sayyaf gets underway, U.S. officials said they had not determined whether the woman would be sent to the United States for trial or further detention or handed over to Iraqi authorities.
“We are working to determine an ultimate disposition for the detainee that best supports the national security of the United States and of our allies and partners, consistent with domestic and international law,” said Alistair Baskey, a White House spokesman.
While officials said they would provide the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors conditions at detention centers globally, access to Umm Sayyaf, they declined to say whether she had spoken with a lawyer.
Baskey said the United States had the authority to detain Umm Sayyaf and other suspected militants under the broad war authorizations that Congress passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The international legal basis for the detention is the consent of the government of Iraq in the context of ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria against ISIL in individual and collective self-defense,” Baskey said.
U.S. officials said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has appealed to Washington for additional military aid against the militants, supported the interrogation of the prisoner on Iraqi soil. But U.S. detention operations in Iraq have been a controversial subject for Iraqis in the past.
In a 2008 status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, the United States committed to handing over detainees to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours. But that deal expired in 2011, and the United States and Iraq do not currently have a similar agreement.
U.S. military personnel in Iraq are afforded legal protections under an “exchange of diplomatic notes” in lieu of a status-of-forces agreement.
“She’s an Iraqi citizen who’s a member of ISIL, so that’s her status,” the defense official said.
Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said transferring the detainee to Iraqi custody could mean she would be subjected to abuse or torture.
“If the U.S. has sufficient evidence that Umm Sayyaf has violated U.S. law, then it should charge her, promptly bring her before a judge and give her access to an attorney and to medical treatment,” Margon said. “If there isn’t sufficient evidence, she should be released.”
The group has documented abuse of female detainees in Iraqi prisons in the past.
Providing more details about the weekend commando raid , officials said that the White House chose to target Abu Sayyaf, who was described as a senior militant but not among the group’s top leaders, because his “sloppy” practices allowed the Obama administration to locate him in a way that hadn’t been possible with other top fighters.
U.S. intelligence officials in Iraq are examining laptops, cellphones and other items the commandos recovered. The captured items will be taken to the United States for further examination.
Adam Goldman and Greg Miller contributed to this report.