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An American family is home after years in a Syrian camp for ISIS militants' relatives


About a dozen American citizens are now back in the U.S. after years in a Syrian desert camp for refugees and relatives of ISIS militants. The family arrived early this morning on a military aircraft after complicated international negotiations led by the State Department. One of them was arrested soon after landing at JFK Airport in New York. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team has more on who these people are and why they were in Syria. Hi, Sacha.


SHAPIRO: So, who was on that flight?

PFEIFFER: There were two groups. The first group is a family of 10 - a mother and her nine children. The mother's name is Brandy Salman. She's 50 years old. The children range in age from about 7 to 26. It was one of the adult daughters who was arrested this morning. The father had been in Syria, too, but he was eventually killed, and the mother and kids ended up in these camps. Other than the daughter who was arrested, the rest of the family will live with Brandy Salman's mother in New Hampshire. And Ari, it's unclear for now if other family members will be arrested, too.

SHAPIRO: Any idea why the daughter was arrested?

PFEIFFER: Yes, I got the complaint from the Department of Justice. The daughter's name is Halima Salman. She's now 24. She's alleged to have gotten military training from ISIS, likely to be part of an ISIS battalion of female fighters. She was scheduled to appear in a Brooklyn courtroom this afternoon.

SHAPIRO: You said there were two groups on the plane. The first was the family of 10. Who else?

PFEIFFER: There were also two young boys, one age 7, one age 9. They are the son and stepson of a Minnesota man who pleaded guilty to providing support for ISIS, the terror group. This man surrendered in Syria. And when he did, he had these two boys with him. They ended up in an orphanage. The U.S. was able to rescue them. They are going to live with their grandparents in Minnesota until their dad gets out of prison in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: How did these American citizens wind up in Syria?

PFEIFFER: This is the wild question. Some of them are basically innocent victims. Other appears to have gone intentionally to work for ISIS. In the case of the Minnesota man, court records say he got radicalized online when he was a teenager. He believed that joining ISIS would make him a, quote, "real Muslim." In Syria, he ended up fathering a boy and marrying a woman who already had a boy. Those are the two kids who ended up basically becoming casualties, in a sense, of their dad's actions.

In the case of Brandy Salman and her nine children, one of her kids told officials that their father told them they were going camping in Turkey but ended up in ISIS territory in Syria. But keep in mind, Ari, the daughter says that - the daughter is alleged to have purposely gotten ISIS training, so the stories don't really match.

SHAPIRO: And any idea what drew her there?

PFEIFFER: No, but a State Department official who works in counterterrorism, Ian Moss, told me he sees a whole universe of reasons for why American citizens wind up in these Syrian camps. Here's part of what he told me.

IAN MOSS: Perhaps there was an affinity for the ideology, bad decisions. There's certainly no shortage of individuals who may have been deceived and ultimately ended up there.

PFEIFFER: And Ari, he also told me there are about two dozen additional Americans being held in these camps, but finding and identifying them is tricky. And even if located, not all of them might want to return.

MOSS: Folks may not want to come back because they might be concerned about what form of accountability may await them. They may have been gone for such a length of time that they've lost touch with their families. It may simply just be fear of the unknown.

SHAPIRO: Well, Sacha, apart from the humanitarian concern, why does the State Department believe it's important to get these people out?

PFEIFFER: These camps are a huge global problem. They hold about 45,000 people from more than 70 countries. They're filled with ISIS family members plus refugees and other displaced people from all the tumult in the Mideast. They are considered training grounds for jihadism and extremism. It's extremely concerning, obviously, to have young children in that environment, and kids account for about two-thirds of the population of the camps.

So the U.S. government and other countries are working to bring some of these people home. Many countries are very concerned that bringing them home could be the equivalent of importing terrorists. But U.S. officials make the case that there is more of a terrorism risk if they stay in the camps. So they argue that, for long-term global security, you've got to get those people out of there and reintegrate them into society.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.