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American ISIS Suspect Is Freed After Being Held More Than a Year - VA Online News
The Trump administration has freed an American citizen whom the military confined without trial for more than 13 months as a suspected Islamic State member, United States officials said on Monday. His release brings a close to a legal saga that raised novel problems about the scope of the government’s national security powers and individual rights. The man, a dual American and Saudi citizen, was captured in September 2017 by a Kurdish militia in Syria. The Kurds turned him over to the American military, which held him as a wartime detainee at a base in Iraq while a court battle over his fate played out. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was released in Bahrain, where his wife and daughter are living. The identity of the man at the center of the extraordinary case has been kept secret, so he has been called “John Doe” in court filings and public debates. But his real name is Abdulrahman Ahmad Alsheikh, The New York Times has learned, in part by obtaining an unredacted version of his Islamic State intake form and identifying public records about him. His release means that a major question his detention raised about how the United States fights war — whether the government has authority to use wartime powers against the Islamic State without explicit congressional authorization — will evade a definitive court ruling, for now. Even so, his case established an essential historical precedent: The American government locked up a citizen for more than a year without charging him with a crime. The issue of whether the government can or should imprison American terrorism suspects without trial as enemy combatants, rather than prosecuting them, has prompted recurring debates since the George W. Bush administration. The scope and limits of the government wartime detention power has never been resolved. Sending Mr. Alsheikh to Bahrain was a good outcome after a year of wrangling over “fairly terrible alternatives,” said Robert Chesney, a University of Texas law professor. But he said it was “disturbing” that the detention lasted so long without any court ruling on whether he was being detained legally. “The case was pending for a long time before the government tried to transfer him, and the court seemed in no rush to rule on even though it was an American citizen,” he said. “This gave the government a de facto authority to hold for many months, at least.” The State Department has canceled Mr. Alsheikh’s American passport, officials said, but he did not relinquish his American citizenship as part of the release deal, as an American-Saudi detainee captured in the Afghanistan war zone, Yaser Esam Hamdi, did in 2004. His detention led to a landmark Supreme Court case. “It has always been very important to him that he remain a U.S. citizen,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing Mr. Alsheikh. He did not confirm or challenge his client’s identity or that he has been released. “He has been fighting to regain his freedom, and he looks forward to putting this ordeal behind him.” Mr. Alsheikh was born in the United States but raised in the Middle East, officials have said. He attended college in Louisiana from 1999 to 2004, then left the country on a flight from Baton Rouge in 2006, a government court filing said. Someone with his name attended classes at Southern University in Baton Rouge from 2000 to 2005 but never graduated, a registrar said. In early July 2014, after his wife gave birth to their infant daughter, Mr. Alsheikh returned to the United States. While he told interrogators he stayed for months, a government court filing says travel records indicate instead that later that month he went to Turkey near the border with Syria, where the Islamic State was seizing territory amid the Syrian civil war and had just declared itself a caliphate. Officials think he crossed over; the ISIS registration form, which recruits typically filled out in ISIS dormitories across the Turkish border in Syria, is dated July 15, 2014. The court filing also attributed to Mr. Alsheikh a Twitter account that in 2014 took part in ISIS hashtag campaigns and shared photos of the ISIS insignia in front of landmarks around the world, behavior that security officials said looked like that of an ISIS member. (The filing did not name the account, but The Times identified it: @AbinAlAbbas.) In fall 2014, Mr. Alsheikh came back to the United States — this time with his wife and baby, whom he wanted to register for citizenship, the filing said. Soon after, by his own account, he went to Syria. He spent the next few years working for ISIS, first in an administrative role and later as an oil field guard, he told investigators. But Mr. Alsheikh denied that he had done so willingly. Instead, he told interrogators that he went to Syria intending to be a freelance journalist but was instead arrested by the Islamic State, then began working for the group seven months later to get out of prison. He applied for a journalistic credential before his trip, the court filing shows. Kurdish forces in Syria arrested Mr. Alsheikh in September 2017 and turned him over to the American military, saying he had identified himself as an American citizen and as “Daesh,” another term for the Islamic State, the filing said. He was carrying thumb drives with files about weapons and internal ISIS administrative records. The Pentagon soon announced that it was holding an unnamed American citizen as an “enemy combatant,” prompting alarm among A.C.L.U. lawyers that the Trump administration was imprisoning an American without trial. While lawyers there initially did not know Mr. Alsheikh, the A.C.L.U. filed a habeas corpus case on his behalf. The government argued that the group had no standing to file the case since it had no relationship with him, but Judge Tanya Chutkan of the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia ordered the military to let A.C.L.U. lawyers talk to him, clearing their way to pursue a case. Through his...