Returning “ISIS Brides”- What happens now?


What should be done about the women who joined and married ISIS fighters?

It’s estimated that as many as 1,000 Western women may have left to join the Islamic State, but recent military losses in Syria have pushed them into an ever-shrinking pocket, destabilizing ISIS families. Now, some women who left the West to join ISIS are seeking to return home.

The cases of two in particular, Shamima Begum from the UK and Hoda Muthana from the United States, received much coverage in the last few weeks. Both women claim to have had changes of heart and ask to be allowed back into their countries of origin.

Challenges to Citizenship

Politicians, pundits, and lawyers are in disagreement over what should be done in the case of returning ISIS brides. Both Begum and Muthana are having their citizenships challenged by their respective governments.

  • In the UK, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced his intention to strip Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship. However, he clarified that the decision will not affect her child’s citizenship. [Edit 3/9/2019 Shamima Begum’s infant son has reportedly died. This was her third child to pass away in Syria.]
  • In the US, President Donald Trump tweeted that he will issue orders to bar Muthana’s reentry. Secretary of State Pompeo’s press release declares that Muthana is not a U.S. citizen and does not have any legal basis to enter the United States.

Immediate family members are disputing their government’s decisions and hoping the women are allowed back in.

Some Opinions and Perspectives:


  • For a quick reference on the various legal considerations at play, take a look at George Steer’s parsing of the issue for TIME.
  • Graeme Wood, author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, considers the moral implications of refusing to claim fighters. In a piece for The Atlantic, he argues that returning fighters are “in the end, products of our own societies, and no more capable of being disowned than any other villains we produce, either for domestic mayhem or for export. They are Japanese and American and British. We inflicted them on the world. They are our responsibility, and we have to punish them, rather than force others to punish them on our behalf. Remember that the main victims of ISIS were the local populations of Syria and Iraq. It would be perverse to expect those countries to bear the sole burden of prosecuting these women.”
  • Opinion commentators for The Hill, Chris Bosley and Leanne Erdberg, worry that stripping citizenship and leaving former members of ISIS in refugee camps might “prohibit meaningful progress”. Refugee camps are not designed to investigate, prosecute, or pass sentences, nor are they intended to rehabilitate or monitor for future threats”, they write, “And fragile countries, such as Bangladesh and Yemen that ultimately may be forced to accept them, suffer from significant capacity gaps in courts and prisons, increasing potential for further radicalization.”
  • While many commentators (and the ISIS brides themselves) emphasize that the women were “brainwashed” into joining ISIS, Mubaraz Ahmed opines in CNN that treating the ISIS brides as “victims” strips them of their agency and harkens back to stereotypical depictions of Muslim women.  
  • Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor, examines the legality of challenging Muthana’s US citizenship, adding that even if she were returned, “she can still be prosecuted for a variety of criminal offenses upon her return to the United States. State and federal criminal codes are replete with serious felony charges relating to Americans who conspire with terrorist organizations for the purpose of engaging in acts of violence on Americans, and others at home or abroad. Providing material support to terrorist organizations is also a criminal offense and her alleged actions as an ISIS propagandist would likely be charged as such.”

Related cases and reports of interest:  

  • Another American wife of ISIS militants, Kimberly Gwen Polman, 46, has received considerably less attention. A dual citizen of the US and Canada, Polman converted to Islam as an adult and left in 2015 to join ISIS. In the Caliphate, she and Muthana became friends and planned their escape together. Read about her case here.
  • Just last December, Australia’s “most wanted jihadist” Neil Prakash also had his citizenship stripped by the Australian Home Affairs Minister. He is the 12th dual citizen in Australia to have his Australian citizenship stripped.
  • The first dual-citizen to be stripped of citizenship was also in Australia. As covered in NYTimes, Khaled Sharrouf had “gained notoriety in 2014 after he posted a photograph on social media of his son, then 7, holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier.”
  • A report on the social media accounts of Hoda Muthana has been published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). A catalog of some of her most grisly tweets can be found, including a call to Americans to “go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them.”

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