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American ISIS Suspect Is Freed After Being Held More Than a Year

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has freed an American citizen whom the military imprisoned without trial for more than 13 months as a suspected Islamic State member, U.S. officials said Monday. His release brings a close to a legal saga that raised novel issues about the scope of the government’s national security powers and individual rights.

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Charlie Savage, Rukmini Callimachi
Eric Schmitt, New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has freed an American citizen whom the military imprisoned without trial for more than 13 months as a suspected Islamic State member, U.S. officials said Monday. His release brings a close to a legal saga that raised novel issues 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 U.S. 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 important historical precedent: The U.S. 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 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 Alsheikh’s U.S. 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 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.”

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, 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 Islamic State registration form, which recruits typically filled out in Islamic State dormitories across the Turkish border in Syria, is dated July 15, 2014.

The court filing also attributed to Alsheikh a Twitter account that in 2014 took part in Islamic State hashtag campaigns and shared photos of the Islamic State insignia in front of landmarks around the world, behavior that security officials said looked like that of an Islamic State member. (The filing did not name the account, but The Times identified it: @AbinAlAbbas.)

In fall 2014, 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 the Islamic State, first in an administrative role and later as an oil field guard, he told investigators. But 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 Alsheikh in September 2017 and turned him over to the U.S. 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 Islamic State administrative records.

The Pentagon soon announced that it was holding an unnamed American citizen as an “enemy combatant,” prompting alarm among ACLU lawyers that the Trump administration was imprisoning an American without trial.

While lawyers there initially did not know Alsheikh, the ACLU 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 U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia ordered the military to let ACLU lawyers talk to him, clearing their way to pursue a case. Through his new lawyers, he eventually asked a judge to keep his identity confidential.

The Times identified Alsheikh in part through a trove of uncensored Islamic State intake forms it has obtained. One matched the redacted form filed in his court case. It said he was born in the United States on July 16, 1980. (A handful of Baton Rouge traffic tickets that someone with his name received from 1999 to 2006 indicate instead that he may have been born on July 14 or July 18.)

Though the intake form indicates he signed up to be a “fighter,” the other two choices were the more extreme options of suicide fighter or shock trooper; he is not accused of having fought for the Islamic State.

Hafetz said that the government’s assertions about his client “were riddled with inaccuracies, and had the government been forced to put their case on trial consistent with the Constitution, it would have painted a very different picture.”

During internal deliberations, prosecutors raised concerns that if they brought Alsheikh to the United States and charged him with providing material support to a terrorist group, a judge might rule their evidence inadmissible — and then they would have to free him on domestic soil.

For example, the intake form came from a thumb drive found by Kurdish forces in the war zone, so no witness can attest to its authenticity. And Alsheikh stopped talking to interrogators after being warned of his constitutional rights.

National-security officials saw Alsheikh as unimportant and they were keen to avoid a ruling on whether they had legal authority to indefinitely detain a suspected Islamic State member as a wartime prisoner, lest an adverse decision in the detention case undermine the broader war effort.

But as they looked for another way to stop holding Alsheikh, his habeas corpus case complicated those deliberations. An appeals court ruled that the government could not forcibly send him to another country without proving that it had authority to hold him as a wartime detainee in the first place. As a result, Alsheikh was able to block plans to send him to a Saudi prison or release him inside the war zone in Syria.

Alsheikh proved to be such a headache that several officials said the Pentagon would try hard to avoid taking custody of citizens who may be captured by allies in the future — unless prosecutors say they can be charged.

“The most chilling proposition of this case is that the government thought it could dispose of the liberty of an American citizen without any involvement of lawyers or courts,” Hafetz said. “A resounding message is that the government is going to think long and hard before it tries to detain an American citizen without charges again — and it should.”

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