WASHINGTON – A federal court on Monday will begin hearing the case of Hoda Muthana, a woman who secretly fled Alabama in 2014 to marry an Islamic State fighter in Syria and is now seeking to return to the United States with her 18-month-old son.
The Trump administration has barred Muthana, 24, and her son from returning to the U.S., contesting her claim to U.S. citizenship in a move that, if successful, could have serious and far-reaching implications for American citizens all over the world.
Her father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, a former diplomat at the United Nations for Yemen who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, filed the lawsuit earlier this month seeking to overturn the Trump administration’s characterization of her as someone who was never an American citizen in the first place, thus denying her right to re-enter the country.
Muthana joined the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, after telling her parents she was going to Atlanta as part of a field trip connected with her studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Instead, she withdrew from college and used her tuition reimbursement to purchase a plane ticket to Turkey. She traveled from there to Syria.
In Syria, she twice married ISIS fighters who later died in combat. In December of last year, she fled to a refugee camp, as ISIS lost control of its territory in Syria and Iraq. Muthana is thought to be one of only two Americans of an estimated 1,500 foreign women and children being held at the al-Houl refugee camp in northeast Syria.
While in Syria, Muthana called for the death of Americans on social media and spread propaganda about the militant group. Now, she says she was brainwashed, has expressed remorse and is willing to face the U.S. justice system and serve jail time.
The Trump administration has determined Muthana, who was born in New Jersey, never qualified for U.S. citizenship because her father was a diplomat at the time of her birth. A person born in the U.S. to a foreign diplomat is not subject to U.S. law and is also not automatically a U.S. citizen at birth, according to the Immigration and Nationality Act.
But the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, a Texas-based group representing Ahmed Ali Muthana, says that Hoda Muthana was born after her father left diplomatic service. A family representative shared an official U.N. document with USA TODAY that seems to substantiate their claim, and their attorneys say U.S. immigration authorities issued Muthana a U.S. passport based on that document – twice.
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The plaintiffs argue that only the courts can decide the citizenship question, and they have blasted the Trump administration’s decision as a “unilateral” move designed to bypass the legal process. “Wish though they might, neither the secretary of state nor even the president of the United States have the power to determine an individual’s citizenship by fiat,” says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.
The case also raises questions about some of the protections American citizens, especially immigrants who become American citizens or U.S. nationals who commit crimes or partake in potentially treasonous activity abroad, enjoy under the law: Should they be entitled to due process? Is there a higher burden to prove their citizenship?
The case mirrors that of Shamima Begum, a woman from London who joined ISIS in Syria four years ago aged just 15. She, too, has a young son with whom she wants to return home to Britain with, but the British government is trying to stop her.
Hassan Shibly, a Florida-based legal representative for the family, said that Muthana wants to return to the U.S. to take responsibility for her actions, and for the sake of her son. Muthana has said she realizes she would probably be charged with terrorism-related charges and could go to prison if she’s allowed to come back.
“She’s a terrorist,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told USA TODAY over the weekend. “She put American’s soldiers’ lives at risk. You ask the family members, those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines all across world, who were serving, trying to take down the threat from radical Islamic terrorism … We’ve lost American life. And this woman, this woman chose to use her life to try and kill those people.”
Pompeo added that “if the court rules properly she will not be permitted to return to the United States. She has no legal basis for her claim of U.S. citizenship.”
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The U.S.’s top diplomat has won plaudits among some residents of the suburban city of Hoover, Ala., where Muthana went to high school, and where her father still lives.
“She’s not welcome in Hoover as far as I’m concerned,” said John Lyda, a city councilman. He said city residents were aghast at Muthana’s decision to move to Syria.
“It was so against everything this community stands for,” he recalled, adding: “We’re in the heart of the Bible Belt … It’s a very patriotic and nationalistic town.”
According to social media posts compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based press monitoring group, Muthana said of Americans in 2015 in a now-suspended Twitter account: “Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parade.”
The Washington-based Pew Research Center estimates there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S., which means they make up about 1 per cent of the total U.S. population. Hoover has a population of more than 84,000 people. It’s about 70 per cent white, 17 per cent African-American and has smaller Asian and Hispanic populations. In Alabama, less than 1 per cent of adults identify as Muslim, according to Pew.
Muthana graduated from Hoover High School, which bills itself as “America’s high school,” in 2013. Lyda said that he doesn’t know Muthana’s family personally.
But from what he has heard, he said Hoda seemed to excel at school and did not have problems fitting in socially. Lyda said that Hoda Muthana’s remorse does not sway him, although he acknowledged the emotional pull of her circumstances.
“My heart breaks” for her parents, he said. “They’re doing something that as a parent, I would do as well. I would be fighting with every ounce of my being to bring either of my children home, even if they made the decision she did.”
“She made a choice, when she was 20-years-old, to join one of the world’s foremost enemies of America,” he said. “The decision she made is indeed a mistake and one that she will live the consequences of for the rest of her life. Regrettably it’s one her 18-month-old son is going to have to life with the rest of his life.”
Hjelmgaard reported from London.