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Most Americans who joined ISIS don’t come back. What happens to the rest?

The El Hassani family, now being held in Northern Syria by Kurdish forces, are not the only Americans who went to land controlled by the Islamic State -- there are dozens known to have ventured to the so-called caliphate since 2014. What should happen to those families and their children now? Amna Nawaz explores the dilemma with Seamus Hughes of George Washington University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last night, we broadcast portions of the first interview with Sam El Hassani, an American woman who went to Raqqa, Syria, the ISIS capital, with her children. She was led there by her husband, who was later killed fighting for ISIS.

    Now Amna Nawaz follows up on this case, looking at the issue of Americans who fled America for the so-called caliphate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Our PBS colleagues at "Frontline," in partnership with the BBC, worked with filmmaker Josh Baker over the course of 18 months to find and interview Sam El Hassani, and tell her remarkable story.

    The El Hassani family are not the only Americans who went to land controlled by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They're among the dozens that we know of who have ventured to the caliphate since 2014.

    For more on their fates, I'm joined by Seamus Hughes. He's the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

    Seamus, thanks for being here.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's talk about this report you put out earlier this year.

    It examined the experiences of families like Sam's. These are Americans who have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS. For the vast majority of them, what ends up being their fate?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Most of them get — if they come back, they're arrested. If they stay there, they die. About 30 of the percent of the people that we looked at were killed in the battlefield. Another 40 percent or so are unknown. We just don't know where they ended up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The numbers are sort of murky when we talk about Americans who actually travel to join ISIS.

    Why are they so murky? What do we know about Americans?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Yes, very, very murky.

    So, the intelligence community talks about some 300 people that have attempted or have traveled to Syria and Iraq. At the Program on Extremism, we were able to identify 64 individuals by true name.

    And they go for a variety of different reasons. The earlier cases, it was because of the Assad atrocities they saw on TV. The later cases was this idea of perceived religious obligation.

    The announcement of the caliphate was a driver for a lot of these folks. And we have seen ones and twos, but we have already seen families, at least six American families who traveled and picked up from a regular life here and went to go join the caliphate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    From the ones that you looked at, you mentioned in the report, most who go don't come back.

    But let's talk about those who do come back. When they come back to the U.S., what's their fate? What should they expect in terms of consequences?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Well, most of them come back disillusioned, for starters.

    So, we have had about a dozen people return back from joining ISIS. Most of them got arrested when they came back, so ended up in handcuffs. Some of them got 20 years. Others got home release. It ran the spectrum on those individuals.

    A few of individuals, law enforcement decided not to arrest. They either didn't have enough information to build the case or they decided that these individuals were more useful on the outside.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And how is that decision made then? That's just prosecutor discretion?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Absolutely. It just depends on the prosecutor.

    And, to be frank, it's quite ad hoc. There's not a systematic way of in-taking Americans who joined a foreign terrorist organization. Depending on the prosecutor, you get material support to terrorism, which is 20-plus years, or you get another prosecutor and he decides not to bring a case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We featured the story of Sam El Hassani. As you mentioned, she's not the only one like that over there.

    I want to play a clip for you from that same documentary and talk about it on the back end. This is Sam talking about how she sees her life now.

  • Question:

    So why are you still here in Latin America?

  • Sam El Hassani:

    I'm not sure if it's by choice or not. I really don't want to go back.

  • Question:

    You don't want to go back to America?

  • Sam El Hassani:

    Not right now.

  • Question:

    But a lot of people will feel that you are choosing to keep your four children in a refugee camp, rather than return to the safety of America.

  • Sam El Hassani:

    Yes, you know, you're right. They can think like that.

    But, right now, I need to be able to sit and think what's best for my kids. I don't need anyone pushing me into making any decisions right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Seamus, for people like Sam and her family, her children, what's the standing U.S. policy towards them?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Completely all over the map. It depends on it.

    So, right now, you have a number of Americans that are being held by Kurdish officials, by Turkish officials, where it depends on the prosecutor and whether they decide to bring them back or not.

    For someone like Sam, she's probably facing some terrorism charges. Her children, obviously, the sins of a mother shouldn't be the sins of the child. And so how do you reintegrate these children back into society?

    These are questions we haven't grappled with in the U.S. government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what happens moving forward now? I think it's going to be hard for a lot of people to imagine there are American children over there who aren't under any kind of effort to repatriate them or rescue them in any way.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Yes, that's a problem. We're dealing with a lot of Western families. Think of France. It has 300 or 400 children who are believed to be in ISIS-controlled territory.

    America has a handful of people, at least a dozen that we know of at the Program on Extremism. And each one is different. So, you're hoping you can bring them back into a loving society, into a safety net, that you bring in mental health professionals, social workers, a loving family that can kind of them bring back into where they used to be.

    But each case is going to be different.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're in unique territory here.

    What would you like to see happen next?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    I would like to see the children come back to the U.S.

    I think we're a smart enough country to be able to figure this out. And they have been dealing with the trauma of being in a foreign terrorist organization. Again, the sins of the mother shouldn't be the sins of the child. And we should figure out a way to get them back into society.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seamus Hughes, thanks for your time.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Thank you for having me.

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