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After years in a Syrian ISIS camp, a 10-person American family is back in the U.S.

A woman carries a child as she walks through the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria in Oct. 2023.
Delil Souleiman
/
AFP via Getty Images
A woman carries a child as she walks through the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria in Oct. 2023.

A family of 10 American citizens who were held for years in a Syrian refugee camp and detention center for relatives of Islamic State militants are now back in the United States, the result of complex negotiations that also returned two young sons of a Minnesota man who pleaded guilty to supporting the ISIS terrorist group.

As an additional part of that coordinated international effort, Canada and two European countries — Finland and the Netherlands — this week brought home 11 of their citizens held in those camps, the majority of them children.

In total, 23 people, including 14 minors, were repatriated to their home countries or resettled in other countries, according to the U.S. State Department, which led the operation. It concluded early Tuesday morning, when a U.S. military aircraft landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport carrying 50-year-old Brandy J. Salman and her nine children, as well as the 7- and 9-year-old sons of a 27-year-old man who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb. That man, Abelhamid Al-Madioum, faces prison time for having fought for ISIS in Syria when he was a teenager. One of Salman's adult daughters — Halima Salman, 24 — was arrested this morning for allegedly getting ISIS military training in Syria, possibly to join a battalion of female fighters.

Their complicated homecomings make a tiny dent in a massive and pressingglobal problem: What to do with the roughly 45,000 people from more than 70 countries being held in huge, primitive desert camps in northeast Syria near the Iraq border. More than 90% are women and children, two-thirds are under age 18, and about half are under age 12, according to officials. Yet the camps, which include orphans, have limited health care and schooling and are sometimes violent.

Beyond being a humanitarian crisis, the presence of so many minors living among current and former ISIS members poses a global security threat. The camps, where children continue to be born, have been called terrorist breeding grounds, so the U.S. is pushing other countries to help shrink the camps' numbers by bringing their citizens home.

"The longer we leave them there, the more vulnerable they are to radicalization and to exploitation by extremists," said Ian Moss, the State Department's deputy coordinator for counterterrorism. "And they're vulnerable. I mean, certainly these kids are vulnerable."

But repatriation and resettlement can be a hard sell. Many countries are reluctant or unwilling to allow people who have been in the camps to return, out of fear that they would be importing jihadists.

Still, said Moss, "we really have an obligation to reduce the population and give these folks a shot at a life where they are not susceptible to extremist forces to the extent that they might be if they remain there."

To help them reintegrate into society, he added, government officials provide a wide range of support, including "psychosocial professionals and social workers," as well as trauma counseling and connections to family members.

Some returnees could face prosecution and imprisonment. In fact, of the 40 other Americans returned from Syrian camps in recent years, at least 14 have been prosecuted due to their involvement with ISIS.

Moss said bringing camp residents home could prevent future terrorist attacks, and the U.S. hopes that repatriating nearly a dozen of its own citizens this week — the largest number returned from northeast Syria in one fell swoop — will set an example for the rest of the world.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: "The only durable solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the displaced persons camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and where appropriate, ensure accountability for wrongdoing."

It is unclear whether Salman, whose nine children were born in the U.S. and range in age from about 7 to 26, will face criminal charges. Initially, at least, she will live with her mother in New Hampshire, officials say. Salman was born in the United States and married a Turkish-American man, who took her and their children into Islamic State territory around 2016 and was later killed. According to an account of one of the children, the father may have tricked his family into entering Syria by claiming that they were going on a camping trip to Turkey. But the allegations against Halima Salman, the daughter who was arrested, suggest she went to Syria willingly. It's unclear whether additional Salman family members could also face charges.

Camp Roj in northeast Syria, where relatives of ISIS fighters are held, in Oct. 2023.
Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Camp Roj in northeast Syria, where relatives of ISIS fighters are held, in October 2023.

Eventually, Salman and her children were taken into custody and sent to a Syrian camp. Some of them were housed together there and others were sent to separate facilities for adolescent boys and men.

Salman was born in western Massachusetts and public records show that she has also lived in Michigan, New Hampshire and New York City. Her father, Stephen R. Caravalho, lives in Hot Springs, Ark., and her sister, Rebecca Jean Harris, lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The 7-year-old and 9-year-old sons of Al-Madioum, who is awaiting a sentencing hearing to learn how much prison time he will serve, will live with their grandparents in Minnesota, according to court records.

Those records say that Al-Madioum, who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minn., snuck off to Syria via Turkey during a family trip to their native Morocco in 2015. He was 18 at the time and had become "convinced by an expert ISIS recruiter" on social media to "test his faith and to become a real Muslim" by joining ISIS and to ask himself, "How can you in the West sit in your bedrooms knowing that Muslims are suffering overseas?"

He became an ISIS soldier but was injured in an explosion, breaking both legs and losing part of an arm. He surrendered with his sons in 2019, was sent to a Syrian prison camp, returned to the U.S. in 2020, and pleaded guilty in 2021 to providing material support to a designated terrorist organization.

The 7-year-old is Al-Madioum's biological son by an ISIS widow he married, making the child a U.S. citizen. The 9-year-old is the woman's son by a previous relationship, Al-Madioum's stepson. The woman later died.

After Al-Madioum was imprisoned, the boys landed in an orphanage in Syria, and after being discovered there they were able to have weekly video visits with Al-Madioum's parents in Minnesota, who will be their foster parents while Al-Madioum is in prison. Once he is released, he will live with his parents and children, according to court records.

The 9-year-old stepson is not a U.S. citizen but is being resettled in the U.S. through "significant public benefit parole," which admits people into the country for "urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."

Because many children in the Syrian camps have mixed nationalities, "we have to think creatively and be flexible in order to preserve family units in instances like that," Moss said.

U.S. officials estimate that approximately two dozen additional Americans are being held in Syrian displacement and detention camps, but finding and identifying them is an ongoing challenge. Even if located, not all Americans might want to return.

"Folks may not want to come back because they might be concerned about what form of accountability may await them. They may have been gone for such a length of time that they've lost touch with their families. It may simply just be fear of the unknown," Moss said. "Some of these individuals have been in these camps for four or five years and that has become their day-to-day reality."

As for how they wound up in the camps, "perhaps there was an affinity for the ideology. Bad decisions. There's certainly no shortage of individuals who may have been deceived and ultimately ended up there," he added.

Of the 11 Canadian and European citizens who were repatriated this week, six minors went to Canada, one adult in his 20s went to Finland, and two women and two minors went to The Netherlands.

In addition to the women and children in Syrian camps, roughly 8,800 former ISIS militants are confined in prisons in northeast Syria that hold the largest concentration of detained terrorists in the world. Additional displaced men are held in Syrian refugee camps, the largest of which are called al-Hol and Roj. What to do with those men remains an even more difficult problem .

However, said Moss, "the alternative to repatriation is a possible resurgence of ISIS."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.