A former Islamic State fighter who survived for years with the terrorist group in Syria has pleaded guilty to terrorism charges back in Texas and is likely headed to prison for a long time.
The federal case against 23-year-old Omer Kuzu raises questions about the current status of U.S. strategy for reducing the threat from American citizen ISIS returnees under the Trump administration — and what that strategy would look like under a potential Biden presidency.
Among thousands of other foreign fighters captured in the "caliphate's" final demise, Kuzu presents the latest addition to a small but growing number of returned Americans seen as posing an attack threat unless carefully managed. Nothing about Kuzu inspired confidence that he would merely rejoin suburban Texas society as a peaceful man.
In 2014, Kuzu and one of his Dallas-area brothers of Turkish descent, Yusuf Kuzu, self-radicalized on the internet and traveled together through Turkey over the Syrian border. They joined a third brother, Murat Kuzu, and a cousin, Muhammad Kuzu, court records say. After weapons training with Yusuf, Omer spent his years supporting ISIS battlefield fighters in the "telecommunications directorate," packing his Chinese-made AK-47.
He took an ISIS bride and had a child, but court records make no mention of what became of anyone but Omer. The records say only that in March 2019, Omer surrendered with 1,500 other fighters to the U.S.- and European Union-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
After interviewing him in the Syrian Democratic Forces camp, the FBI brought at least him home, although it seems likely his wife and U.S. citizen child might also have returned if they survived. A sentencing hearing for him is scheduled for Jan. 22, and he faces up to 20 years in prison.
U.S. Prefers Prosecution and Punishment, with Exceptions
The American strategy under Trump is to repatriate all Americans who joined ISIS, prosecute those deemed threatening, and reintegrate those who are not, such as children. It's a somewhat flexible, case-by-case approach. Much about the program remains unknown, such as the calculus behind the decisions and what becomes of those not prosecuted.
U.S. policy is to repatriate all Americans who joined ISIS, prosecute those deemed threatening.
In response to my inquiries last week, a U.S. State Department spokesman disclosed that, in total, the government has repatriated eight adults and 15 minor children so far since the terrorist organization's 2018-2019 territorial decline and final collapse. Kuzu is the sixth repatriated ISIS fighter to be prosecuted, meaning two adult returnees were not, said the spokesman.
"Not only do we help countries repatriate [foreign terrorist fighters], but we also repatriate our own citizens who left the United States to support ISIS in Syria or Iraq and prosecute them where appropriate," the spokesman said.
The strategy apparently mirrors the Obama-Biden one from before the ISIS collapse. The Obama administration prosecuted another nine returnees, according to a study covering the period through 2017 by George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Three others of that era were not prosecuted.
A rationale usually underlies decisions to prosecute or free. For example, one 30-year-old returnee was prosecuted but not imprisoned after he was deemed to have collaborated with American intelligence. Some mothers were not prosecuted and were possibly placed in witness protection programs as victims. The Trump Department of Justice was willing to charge at least one returning ISIS bride and mother, Indiana resident Samantha Marie Elhassani, after determining that she remained a committed jihadist despite her protestations otherwise.
Under ISIS, adolescents and teens were subjected to plenty of ideological indoctrination and violence. Minors under 17 can't be federally prosecuted, so the number of repatriated adolescents and teenagers and what has become of them remains an open question. The American government would not, obviously, worry about the very youngest children of ISIS.
Former ISIS bride and British citizen Tania Georgelas, whose husband of 10 years, John Georgelas, became the highest-ranking American ISIS leader, is emblematic. Several years ago, the U.S. government allowed the British mother to resettle with their four young American children in Plano, Texas, where paternal grandparents are helping to raise them.
A Luckily Manageable Threat
Exactly how many Americans joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, started families, and survived is unknown. The total numbers matter because they reflect the threat. Are the men, wives, and children ticking time bombs or repentant and disillusioned by the global jihad? Or are they entirely innocent victims of ISIS?
The numbers are relatively small by any count, making for a more manageable threat. One of the more credible studies, by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, reported that an estimated 64 identified Americans from 16 states reached ISIS between 2011 and 2017. The study apparently missed the Kuzu brothers, however, meaning there are probably more.
Some 34 percent of those 64 had died by 2017, and 10 percent of them were caught overseas and repatriated to the United States. Five percent of those were not charged. Sometimes the Americans got it wrong. A returned Florida man, for instance, retained his jihadist fervor. He went back to Syria and conducted a suicide bombing attack.
In 2014, 23-year-old Ohio resident and naturalized U.S. citizen Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud returned from fighting with al-Qaeda in Syria with a plan to conduct a U.S. attack. He wasn't arrested until months later, in April 2015, while planning attacks on U.S. soldiers, police officers, and possibly a federal prison in Fort Worth.
The government is bestowing no benefit of the doubt on Kuzu. "This defendant, an American citizen radicalized on American soil, pledged allegiance to a brutal terrorist group and traveled halfway across the world to enact its agenda," U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox of the Northern District of Texas said in a statement. "The United States must do everything we can to prevent and deter this type of radicalization and prioritize prosecution of those that support the terroristic agenda of ISIS."
The challenge of processing people like Kuzu will likely persist for several more years at least. The American government can ill afford anything less than total attention considering what has happened in Europe.
A Sharp European Contrast
The American default to repatriation and mostly prosecution contrasts sharply with the European approach, although the numbers of European fighters who joined ISIS — as many as 5,000 — very far exceeded American ones. Scores of returnees to Europe have conducted terror attacks since at least 2014.
As a result, most European countries have chosen to leave ISIS families to their fates in Syrian Democratic Forces camps in parts of Syria or in Turkish refugee camps. The Trump administration has pressured Europeans to bring home all of their citizens, lest jihadists among them eventually strike American targets.
Neither do European governments resist as hundreds return to their home countries on their own. Governments generally eschew the tough-punishment option, putting returnees into "de-radicalization" programs for reintegration as free people, or sometimes prosecuting but handing out short sentences.
What Would a President Biden Do?
It's unclear whether Joe Biden, if he wins in November, would change the prevailing punish-prosecute-with-exceptions approach to American ISIS returnees. Nothing in his foreign policy platform references the issue.
There is some indication, however, that a Biden administration might veer toward bestowing more of a benefit of the doubt on returnees. In August, the campaign released a "Plan for Partnership" with the Arab-American community. It promises to review all issues of "surveillance, policing and counterterrorism" in close consultation with "leaders from historically targeted communities, including Arab Americans."
What the strategy toward ISIS returnees might look like with Arab-Americans' stamp of approval on it isn't hard to imagine.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.