The U.S. Department of Defense plans to forcibly release a Saudi-American dual citizen in Syria who has been detained by the military for nine months on suspicions of fighting for the Islamic State, according to court documents filed on Wednesday.
The U.S. military gave the unnamed suspect, known only as John Doe, the option of release “either in a town or outside an Internally Displaced Person camp” in Syria, but the suspect refused either option, as revealed in the court document.
Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union representing Doe want to challenge the notion that he is an “enemy combatant” and question the legality of the U.S. detaining him in the first place, but the U.S. wants to transfer him to Syria and release him there before he can do so.
Doe’s counsel opposes the decision, claiming the U.S. military could not have legally detained the suspect, believed to be an ISIS fighter, under the congressional stipulation passed after 9/11 called the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. They said the authorization doesn’t apply to Doe because the legislation does not broadly cover the use of military force on ISIS terrorists or the war on the Islamic State.
Doe claims he did not go to Syria to join ISIS, but rather to document and report on the violence in the country. He did attempt to get press credentials by news organizations whose names were redacted from the documents, according to court filings.
Justice Department lawyers and the government report that Doe attended ISIS training camp in Syria from March 2015 and swore allegiance to a deputy of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Subsequently he held several positions over the course of two and a half years, working for the ISIS bureaucracy, providing fuel for ISIS vehicles, handling expenses and doing other administrative work.
Doe was eventually captured at a checkpoint in Syria in September 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Pentagon-backed militia fighting ISIS in Syria, as he tried to escape air strikes in the country and flee to Turkey. Court documents reveal he identified himself as “daesh” (an alternative name for ISIS) and was carrying, among other things, “military style handbooks” about bomb-building. (RELATED: ISIS Militants Leave Damascus Under Evacuation Deal As Assad Takes Full Control Of Capital)
Despite this, government officials said they don’t have enough evidence to charge the suspect in a federal court and instead will release him within the next 72 hours.
“The government has effectively admitted that it has no reason to continue detaining our client and that he does not pose a threat,” he said. “But, instead of offering a safe release, they want to dump an American citizen onto the side of the road in a war-torn country without any assurances of protection and no identification,” Jonathan Hafetz, an ACLU lawyer, said in a statement according to reports by Politico on Wednesday. “We’ll be asking the court to immediately intervene and ensure the safe release of our client.”
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C. upheld a previously appealed decision by the Justice Department that they could not forcibly transfer an American citizen to a foreign country without that individual having the opportunity to challenge their enemy designation. The courts also ordered that the Justice Department give 72 hours notice before a transfer was made, which they honored in the Defense Department’s motion on Wednesday.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Department is filing this Notice of its intent to release Petitioner in the town specified in the Declaration no sooner than 72 hours hence.” This will likely be appealed by ACLU lawyers before the release can be fulfilled.
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