WASHINGTON - Two American women accused of joining with the Islamic State terror group, along with their children, are heading back to the United States.
Kamal Akif, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria, told VOA the women and six children were turned over U.S. custody Wednesday in the city of Ain Issa.
“U.S. government representatives were present today when the transfer of those women and children took place,” he told VOA in a phone interview, adding the U.S. had been investigating their claims of citizenship for months.
The U.S. State Department Wednesday said it was assisting with the repatriation of Americans from Syria, though officials declined to provide specifics.
“We can confirm that several U.S. citizens, including young children, have been safely recovered from Syria,” a State Department official told VOA.
“The safety and security of U.S. citizens is our highest priority,” the official added. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have been holding more than 2,000 IS foreign fighters from more than 50 countries since the collapse of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate this past March.
The SDF has also processed tens of thousands of civilians linked to IS, including the wives and children of the foreign fighters, many of whom also come from outside of Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. and other coalition countries have been providing the SDF with aid and resources to repair and build prisons and detention facilities while the fate of the captured IS foreign fighters is being decided.
The U.S. has been pushing for Western nations, especially, to repatriate their foreign fighters and prosecute them.
Prior to Wednesday, the State Department said it had repatriated three U.S. men from Syria and Iraq, all of whom were prosecuted for IS-related crimes. A woman and her four children have also been taken back.
But at times Washington has balked at taking back some of those with ties to the U.S., such as American-born 24-year-old Hoda Muthana, whose father had been a Yemeni diplomat around the time of her birth.
There are no precise figures for how many U.S. citizens are in the custody of U.S.-backed forces in Syria following the collapse of IS’ caliphate.
Still, Kurdish officials have been asking for the U.S. to ease the burden for its forces, which are still engaged in operations to root out IS sleeper cells across northeastern Syria.
“It’s up to the U.S. government whether it wants to take back more of its citizens held by our forces,” Akif said.
For their part, U.S. officials have said they continue to work to verify the U.S. citizenship of those individuals in the conflict zone on a case-by-case basis
“U.S. authorities realize the crunch that SDF is feeling from the resources it has to devote to keeping thousands of foreign nationals from former IS areas under its care,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The Americans are trying to find a mechanism that they can work out in partnership with the SDF to be able to show other Western countries that there can be a careful, phased repatriation of Western nationals from Syria to their home countries,” Heras said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials estimate that more than 45,000 foreign fighters flocked to Syria and Iraq following the start of the Syrian civil war, including 8,000 from Western countries.