Why you should care
Because how they are treated could set a precedent for other ISIS defectors.
This story has been updated to reflect President Donald Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he will block Hoda Muthana from re-entering the country.
In many ways, their stories started so differently.
Hoda Muthana was an Alabama coed and a recent graduate of Hoover High, a school once the subject of an MTV reality show about a high-school-football-obsessed town. When Muthana made the decision that would drastically change her life, she did so alone, lying to her parents while catching a bus to Atlanta and a flight to Turkey in the fall of 2014.
Shamima Begum was a British schoolgirl of Bangladeshi descent, who, with two other East London classmates, put together a packing list that seemed ordinary for any sleepover — makeup, bras, boots and an epilator — arriving in Turkey just three months after Muthana.
The two young students both crossed the Turkish border into Syria and joined ISIS. And so while their journeys began continents apart, their tales now have them intertwined: both exiled into remote Syrian camps, carrying young children and begging their nations to take them back. Both countries this week said no.
I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2019
“Growing up … I wanted to do journalism and become one of the first Muslim women anchors, believe it or not,” Muthana tells OZY in an exclusive interview. She also described herself as having political ambitions, obsessing over makeup and enjoying rap, hip-hop, country music and smooth jazz before becoming radicalized amid family strife.
It wasn’t until Muthana received a smartphone as a high school graduation present that she became radicalized, feeling friendless and angry with her strict mother.
In the last week, Muthana, 24, and Begum, 19, have told journalists that they are ready to return home, stirring anew the debate about balancing competing interests: the safety of a nation and the safety of a wayward citizen. Their lawyers argue the latter is of paramount importance.
“Ultimately, Hoda was an impressionable, naïve, vulnerable young woman who was brainwashed and manipulated,” argues Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Florida branch, who is representing Muthana and her family. “In a sense, the situation isn’t unique in that [ISIS] operates no differently than sex offenders and child predators and violent gangs that put a lot of effort in recruiting and brainwashing youth.” Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer for Begum, could not be reached but recently told BBC News: “She has been there for four years, and we would be surprised if she hadn’t been further damaged beyond the degree she has already been groomed into.”
Whether their arguments are compelling is hardly academic. It could set precedent for those Westerners who joined forces with the terror group, including more than 300 Americans and some 900 Britons over the last seven years. The answer isn’t so simple for those who are loath to forgive. Gemma Atkinson, an English actress and expectant mother herself, posted photos of the 22 people murdered in the ISIS-inspired Manchester Arena terror attack in May 2017, providing a voice to critics skeptical of the ISIS brides — particularly after Begum compared the attack to “women and children in Baghuz that are being killed” by British-backed Kurdish forces. ISIS’ “justification was that it was retaliation, so I thought, OK, that is a fair justification,” Begum told the BBC.
After her first husband died in battle in 2015, Muthana tweeted angry exhortations against America, such as “spill all of their blood.” Apologetic now, she has said others took over her account.
The contentious debate highlights the difficulty counterterrorism forces globally face as they try to quell extremism in their own backyards. Authorities face an unprecedented challenge in the digital age, says John McLaughlin, the Central Intelligence Agency’s former deputy director, including an inability to track homegrown terrorists. “After the fact, we usually discover there were some things to be suspicious about,” he says.
But before the fall? Then you get cases like Muthana, who was raised by strict religious parents — the youngest of five children born in the United States — yet was also encouraged to pursue the life of a regular American teenager. It wasn’t until she received a smartphone as a high school graduation present that she became radicalized, feeling friendless and angry with her strict mother. “I didn’t have the bond that I wanted, and I was very upset about that,” she says, leading her to seek friends in dark corners of the internet.
Eventually, that led to her recruitment, her fateful trip to Syria and three marriages to ISIS fighters (the first two husbands died). “Seeing bloodshed up close changed me,” she wrote in a letter obtained by OZY, and she eventually escaped. “Snipers were firing at her and her child,” Shibly says. “She went down a very dangerous trek. ISIS had placed IEDs to blow up individuals trying to escape their control. And now she’s speaking out against ISIS while very much still in harm’s way.”
Begum has shown less remorse, saying she wants to return to the United Kingdom but that she doesn’t regret going to Syria. This week the U.K.’s home secretary, Sajid Javid, sent a letter announcing that he would revoke her citizenship under the provisions of a little-used British law meant to safeguard public safety.
Muthana would likely face serious criminal charges if America lets her in, but President Trump’s Wednesday tweet indicates she won’t see a U.S. courtroom anytime soon. “She wants to atone — she is willing to pay whatever debt to society she owes,” says Shibly, who promises to sue the Trump administration so Muthana can see her day in court. “It’s wrong. She was born in the United States.” She claims her change of heart is partly motivated by the clarity of parenthood. “I was not so close to my mother,” she says, “but hopefully as a mother [myself], I can fix that.”
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