A U.S. government decision this month to deny an American-born Islamic State bride's request to return home has renewed debate over the fate of American citizens who have traveled to join IS in Iraq and Syria, with some experts saying the case could set a precedent for preventing U.S. citizens who joined jihadists from returning home.
Hoda Muthana, 24, was born in New Jersey and raised in Alabama. In 2014, while attending business school in Tuscaloosa, Ala., she left the U.S. and traveled to Syria to join IS's self-proclaimed caliphate.
Stranded now with her 18-month-old son in a refugee camp under the control of U.S.-backed forces, and as IS struggles to defend a small area of land in eastern Syria, Muthana now says she regrets her past actions and wants to return to the U.S. to face justice.
The U.S. government, which has maintained it will take home its citizens who fought for IS in Iraq and Syria and has encouraged its European partners to follow suit, says Muthana's case is an exception because she is not a citizen.
"We take all claims of U.S. citizenship by individuals in conflict zones seriously, and work to verify those claims on a case-by-case basis," a U.S official who requested anonymity told VOA.
"The United States will continue to repatriate and prosecute its citizens when possible, as we have done in the past," the official added.
Some experts say Muthana's lawsuit could bring about far-reaching implications on how the U.S. government will handle the cases of other Americans who have joined IS in Iraq and Syria.
"It is certainly possible that the administration could use this case as a precedent to bar other U.S. citizens who became foreign fighters from returning, but I cannot speculate further until the legal case plays out," said Josh Lipowsky, a senior research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project.
The U.S. government's position on Muthana's citizenship centers on the argument that her father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, was serving as a high-ranking Yemeni diplomat in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when Hoda Muthana was born, making her ineligible for birthright citizenship.
Hoda Muthana has disputed the claim, however, saying her father's diplomatic position ended on Sept. 1, 1994, more than a month before she was born.
Muthana's family sued last week, arguing the U.S. government's decision was unconstitutional.
Lipowsky argued that while the details of Muthana's case are unlikely to apply to the cases of foreign fighters who were naturalized citizens, he claimed it shows Western countries are inclined to revoke the citizenship of foreign fighters when legally permissible.
"It seems likely that we will see European countries — and the U.S. — take legal steps to revoke the citizenship of foreign fighters when possible. We have already seen this happening," he added.
The U.S. made a similar decision in 2018 when it tried to send a man with dual U.S.-Saudi citizenship, who had been captured on the battlefield while allegedly fighting with IS, from detention in Iraq to Saudi Arabia rather than prosecute him in a U.S. criminal court.
The U.S. government released the unnamed man last October after having detained him for more than a year without charges and after months of legal wrangling with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dozens of Americans have traveled to Iraq and Syria since 2014 to join IS, and many of them have been captured by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
George Washington University's Program on Extremism has identified 64 Americans in Iraq and Syria with IS membership.
America's European allies, however, are facing a more serious issue because of the large numbers of their citizens who have been captured in Iraq and Syria. The European countries have been even more reluctant to take them back.
Officials from France, Germany and the United Kingdom have said their resistance to take the captives home stems from the difficulty of prosecuting suspected IS fighters because of the problems involved in gathering battlefield evidence.
The United Kingdom's Home Office sparked a legal debate last week when it said it had revoked the British nationality of Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old woman of Bangladeshi heritage who joined IS in Syria in 2015.
Her fate in a refugee camp in eastern Syria remains uncertain, as officials in Bangladesh have also refused to take her back.
1,000 foreign fighters
U.S.-backed forces in Syria say about 1,000 foreign jihadists from more than 40 countries, and thousands of their wives and children, are currently in Kurdish detention centers in northeast Syria. The Kurdish self-administration has complained that its detention facilities are overwhelmed and has criticized the relevant countries for not repatriating their nationals.
Some experts suggest Western countries may make decisions on a case-by-case basis, taking back those foreign fighters they could prosecute, while leaving behind those with an absence of "judicial information."
"While the decision in the Muthana case may partially affect the United States' ability to convince U.S. partners to take back their citizens, ultimately I would expect European countries to continue making decisions about foreign fighter repatriation on their own terms, based on the resources, threat picture and legal infrastructure within their own countries," said Bennett Clifford, an expert on violent extremist movements at George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
While Western countries have an obligation to fulfill their responsibility toward their citizens who joined IS, an ultimate solution should also account for those countries' security concerns, Clifford added.
"I believe Western governments have an ethical and moral obligation to the victims of ISIS's crimes in Syria and Iraq to bring back their citizens who were ISIS members and try them in court," Clifford said, using an acronym for the militant group.
"From a legal perspective, however, a comprehensive, internationally accepted solution will be difficult. Repatriation and prosecution works in the United States, where the government has successfully returned and prosecuted ISIS travelers, sentencing them to prison for as many as 25 years," he said. "In contrast, in a country like the United Kingdom where some estimates suggest there are over 400 returnees and only 1 in 10 has been prosecuted, repatriation may entail additional security concerns."