What Happens When Americans Who Joined ISIS Want To Come Home NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Bennett Clifford, a researcher at George Washington University's Program on Extremism about what happened to Americans who had joined ISIS and wanted to come back home.
NPR logo

What Happens When Americans Who Joined ISIS Want To Come Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/696769808/696769809" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Happens When Americans Who Joined ISIS Want To Come Home

What Happens When Americans Who Joined ISIS Want To Come Home

What Happens When Americans Who Joined ISIS Want To Come Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/696769808/696769809" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Bennett Clifford, a researcher at George Washington University's Program on Extremism about what happened to Americans who had joined ISIS and wanted to come back home.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's look at the challenge that comes from a different group of extremists - Westerners who have gone to fight with ISIS and want to come back home now that the caliphate has collapsed. One woman from Alabama wants to return from Syria. The State Department says she's not a citizen so won't be let in. To talk about the broader picture, Bennett Clifford is here in the studio. He's with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Thanks for coming in.

BENNETT CLIFFORD: Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: How many Americans are believed to have gone to Syria to join ISIS, either as fighters or supporters?

CLIFFORD: Well, FBI Director Wray testified before Congress that 295 Americans either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join militant groups. If you'll notice, that figure includes people who were stopped at the airport as well as people who joined groups other than the Islamic State.

SHAPIRO: So close to 300 Americans. How does that compare to people in, say, Western Europe?

CLIFFORD: It pales in comparison to a lot of Western European countries. Two numbers stand out. In France, over 1,900 people traveled - successfully traveled to join the Islamic State. Even in a smaller country like Belgium, they report numbers of over 500 of their citizens who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.

SHAPIRO: And this person who's in the headlines - and they're from Alabama - is a woman. I imagine the majority of people who go over are men. What are the numbers there?

CLIFFORD: In the American context, the study that we conducted last year found that about 13 percent of American ISIS recruits were women. We think that's an underestimation. Their stories are not necessarily reported in Islamic State propaganda due to the lesser status of women within that organization. It makes it easier for them to slip through the cracks.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And as we have seen ISIS lose these big cities - Mosul, Raqqa - and its footprint shrink, how many Americans have tried to come back?

CLIFFORD: We know of 16 Americans who have returned to the United States after fighting for Syrian and Iraqi jihadis groups. The majority of them came back in handcuffs. They were either arrested by Syrian or Iraqi forces overseas or arrested after they came back into the United States.

SHAPIRO: The majority came back in handcuffs, but I understand you met with one who was released back into society. Tell us about him.

CLIFFORD: So this individual, who we refer to in our study as Moe (ph), is currently participating in an innovative program in New York that focuses on deradicalizing other people that may be heading down a similar path as him. Authorities in New York decided to give him leniency for the material support statute violation that he was facing in return for his participation and cooperation. Besides his participation in this program, we know as well that he's been cooperative in providing information related to the Islamic State, as well as potentially other Americans that fought for the group.

SHAPIRO: That seems to be a difficult judgment call whether you send somebody to prison or into a program that might allow them to help deradicalize others.

CLIFFORD: Yes, and it needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Part of the difficulty, I would say, in looking at these cases is it's very hard to determine whether an individual is disillusioned with jihadism, that they've rejected the ideology or whether they've rejected their group or whether they're simply putting on a face to avoid criminal punishment.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This woman from Alabama, Hoda Muthana, says that she is disillusioned with jihadism. She says she didn't fight for ISIS but was married to fighters. Has the U.S. typically treated these so-called ISIS wives differently from the fighters themselves?

CLIFFORD: One of the difficulties there is that women, in some cases, are able to draw on this narrative that since they were not fighting members of the group and relegated to either logistics or house management or other activities on behalf of the Islamic State - that they're less culpable for their actions. I don't think that's the case. I think that women participated in the Islamic State, particularly foreign women, in different ways than men did, but ones that don't make them any less complicit or culpable in what the Islamic State did.

SHAPIRO: And just in our last 30 seconds or so, how does the U.S. approach to these issues compare with other Western democracies?

CLIFFORD: We have the benefit of the material support statute which allows travel to join a foreign terrorist organization itself to be criminalized and punished by prison sentences of 15 to 20 years. Very few other Western countries have statutes like that. And if they do, they carry lesser prison sentences.

SHAPIRO: Bennett Clifford, thank you so much.

CLIFFORD: Thank you very much again.

SHAPIRO: He's with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN & THE BAD PLUS'S "AS THIS MOMENT SLIPS AWAY")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.