Last week President Donald Trump called on European countries to take 800 ISIS members that are in U.S. custody in Syria or “we will be forced to release them.”
It is estimated there are thousands of ISIS widows and children who are based in Iraq and Syria, many from Europe. Last week, the Guardian newspaper reported that some “1,500 foreign women and children” are in a refugee camp in northern Syria. In November 2017, the United Nations reported that more than 40,000 foreign fighters left 110 countries to join terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.
The fate of these family members is indelibly influenced by the extremism they were exposed to by kin, their suitors, or through other paths to radicalization. Such persons may remain in those conflict zones or are repatriated to their home countries, then prosecuted, rehabilitated, or otherwise integrated into society. Alternatively, as witnessed among released former GITMO detainees, these persons may support terrorism, including carrying out attacks.
Indeed, radicalized individuals may leave their home countries to enter an area controlled by a terrorist group with the aim of contributing to the cause. In doing so, they can meet a future spouse there, as they solidify their zeal for the cause. Such a circumstance developed between a former Alabama college student, Hoda Muthana, and her husband, Australian jihadist Suhan Abdul Rahman. In November 2014, Muthana left Alabama for Turkey and then Syria. The couple met and married in the Islamic State–controlled part of Syria. In March 2015, Rahman was killed after their nuptials in Syria. Despite his death, Muthana continued to recruit for ISIS through social media. Her second husband was killed; she married a third time in Syria. In February 2019, she expressed a desire to return to the United States with her 18 month-old son.
Daniela Greene was a Czechoslovakian-born, fluent-German-speaking former FBI contract linguist with a top-secret clearance. Her suitor was Denis Cuspert, German ex-rapper (Deso Dogg) turned ISIS propagandist and fighter Abu Talha al-Almani. Things did not turn out well for either of them. Instead of investigating Cuspert, in summer 2014, Greene traveled to Syria and married him. After a short time, she appreciated her mistake, and returned to the United States, where she was arrested. She pleaded guilty to making false statements in relation to an international terrorism investigation and served two years in prison until summer 2016. In January 2018, German authorities disclosed that Cuspert was killed while fighting for ISIS in Syria.
Some couples intend to join terror groups but never make it. Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla had grand plans for their new life in the so-called Islamic State. Young resolved to aid injured ISIS fighters. Jaelyn also informed an undercover agent she was good in chemistry and math, which might aid the group. Young, too, hoped to raise Islamic State cubs (children). Dakhlalla, with competency in computers and media, expected to serve as a warrior or in media relations for the group.
The couple met while students at Mississippi State University and married in an Islamic ceremony in Mississippi in June 2015. Jaelyn was a convert to Islam while Muhammad had been raised as one. Both were US citizens. Jaelyn’s father was a policeman and Navy veteran. Muhammad’s father was a local Muslim cleric.
The FBI took notice of Jaelyn’s social media presence supportive of ISIS in May 2015. In a disturbing post, Jaelyn’s expressed her joy and support for Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s 2015 jihadist shootings in Chattanooga, which killed five military personnel. Later, FBI undercover operatives, purported to be ISIS recruiters, connected with Jaelyn and Muhammad. These government officials facilitated the couple’s plans to live in Dawlah (ISIS-controlled territory).
The couple was arrested in August 2015 at a Columbus, Mississippi, airport. From Columbus, they had planned a trip designed to get them to Syria. By March 2016, the couple had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS. Muhammad was sentenced to eight years. Jaelyn received four additional years, as she was perceived as being more fervent than her husband.
In July 2017, Iraqi forces captured sixteen-year-old, German-born Linda Wenzel in Mosul. Wenzel was discovered with other foreign-born ISIS-aligned women. Wenzel, a convert to Islam, left Germany in July 2016 after being radicalized in online chat rooms. Once in Syria, Wenzel found a jihadi fighter suitor. While predisposed to radicalism, he further enticed her to contribute to the caliphate. In September 2017, Iraqi prosecutors initiated criminal charges against Linda. She faces the death penalty for her collaboration with ISIS.
My research of 118 families involved with terrorism found 43/138 or 31% comprised from cases involving husbands/wives; the largest of all family relationships. These results are attributable to the bonds that coalesce during courtship and marriage. Dealing with the family members once (or still) aligned with ISIS will be challenging for the foreseeable future. This dilemma will continue whether they remain in that region or return to their home countries, including the US and UK.