It’s Not Only Iraq and Syria

By Seamus Hughes, Jon Lewis
Friday, August 23, 2019, 8:45 AM

Nearly a decade ago, five young men from the Washington, D.C., suburbs disappeared. Confusion about their whereabouts caused a panic within the national security community, which was only made worse by their reappearance a few days later when they were arrested in Pakistan for allegedly attempting to join Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization. The arrest shocked the public and counterterrorism policy circles because of the seemingly well-integrated nature of the five suspected terrorists. By all outward appearances, they were successful, all-American young men and were excelling in their educational pursuits. The FBI dubbed them the “Five Guys,” and their story was featured in major newspapers across the U.S., including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

A few months after their arrest, the five—Umer Farooq, Ramy Zamzam, Aman Hassan Yasir, Waqar Khan and Ahmed Abdullah Minni—were sentenced to 10 years in a Pakistani prison. The men, no longer so young, are slated to be released soon. It is unclear what awaits them upon their return to the United States. The Department of Justice declined a request by the authors to comment on whether the men will face terrorism charges in America or if U.S. prosecutors see the past decade in a Pakistani custody as sufficient punishment. If they do return, will they be monitored by law enforcement? If so, for how long? Beyond the Five Guys, these questions will become increasingly common as Americans engaged in jihadist conflicts abroad return home—willingly or unwillingly.

The Five Guys and these more recent cases raise similar issues for the Justice Department and for the American public: What is to be done with an American jihadist who is set to be released from custody in a foreign nation? A database we maintain at the Program on Extremism has identified nearly a dozen Americans known to be in foreign custody in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Turkey. For example, Kary Kleman, a Florida native, was arrested in April 2017 at the Turkish-Syrian border. Traveling with his wife and three children, Kleman had left his home in 2015 and moved his family to Syria. Turkish authorities state that Kleman admitted he traveled there to live in Islamic State territory—a claim that he allegedly conceded, yet he denied swearing allegiance to the Islamic State or its caliphate. Instead, he said he was there for strictly humanitarian purposes. A court in Turkey disagreed and, in January 2018, Kleman was sentenced to six years and three months in a Turkish prison.

The U.S. Justice Department has so far not publicly sought extradition for Kleman or the Five Guys. At the time of their arrest in 2009, however, the U.S. government reportedly made a modest effort to extradite Farooq and his four associates but relented when the Pakistani government expressed a strong desire to prosecute. This was likely due to the local terror connections of the Five Guys. The desire to keep the Five Guys in Pakistan would likely change at the conclusion of their sentences. It would seem preferable for Turkey or Pakistan to deport the individuals or transfer them to the U.S. upon their release from custody rather than let them go free within their own countries, especially those who do not have dual citizenship.

Despite Turkey’s and Pakistan’s tenuous relationship with the current administration, it seems unlikely that the interests of either in Kleman or the Five Guys is such that they would fight their extradition or make efforts to protect them from deportation to the United States. As a result, the U.S. government can presumably seek to freely prosecute Kleman and the five upon their release from prisons in Turkey and Pakistan. It is important to ask, then, what purpose an American prosecution of individuals previously charged in foreign countries would serve and what impact that prosecution would have on Americans who hold dual citizenship?

The pending release of the Five Guys illustrates the growing need to address the fate of those U.S. citizens who (1) traveled to join a foreign terrorist organization, (2) were captured, and (3) are currently in foreign prisons or those who have committed acts of terror against Americans or U.S. interests abroad. Matters will only get more complicated as the United States has yet another problem to contend with: Americans who traveled to Syria and Iraq and are being held in custody with no prosecution in sight. As the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said recently, “We all have an obligation to keep [individuals in custody] from ever returning to the battlefield … the most effective way to do that is for countries of origin to take back their citizens and prosecute them for crimes they’ve committed.” It will be telling if that “obligation” in Iraq and Syria extends past their borders to other countries where Americans are being held.

The Department of Justice may have filed charges under seal against a number of these individuals, such as Kleman, who are being detained outside former Islamic State territory. It must, however, decide whether to seek another prison sentence on federal charges for material support to a foreign terrorist organization, or whether the foreign sentences result in probation or time served.

In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has announced the transfer of several Americans from Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) custody in Syria to face prosecution in the United States. But not all who have returned have been charged with federal crimes. For example, in June, SDF transferred two American women and six children to U.S. custody. At the time of their return, a U.S. State Department official said that the U.S. government would continue to repatriate and, when appropriate, prosecute its citizens. However, media reports indicate the women will not face federal charges. While this case-by-case approach to both repatriation and prosecution of foreign fighters allows the Justice Department to judge each case on its own merits, it must be accompanied by a strategy that includes a long-term plan for these individuals after their return to the United States. The recent release of John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who was captured in 2001 while fighting for the Taliban and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, laid bare the underlying issue: There is no comprehensive strategy to address the full range of individuals—from those in SDF camps to those in foreign and domestic prisons—upon their release into society. As the Five Guys are set to be released soon, we shouldn’t wait another decade to decide what to do with those who return from foreign terrorist organizations to U.S. shores.