WASHINGTON — He was an unruly college student in Louisiana where he mixed booze and gambling with classes on electrical engineering. A decade later, he was guarding an Islamic State oil field in Syria and storing bomb-making files and military handbooks on thumb drives.
This still-unidentified dual American-Saudi citizen, who’s been detained by the U.S. military in Iraq for nearly five months, has become a test case for how the government should treat U.S. citizens picked up on the battlefield and accused of fighting with ISIS militants.
U.S. authorities say that when he surrendered in mid-September to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, he was carrying thumb drives containing thousands of files. There were 10,000 or more photos — some depicting pages of military-style manuals. There were files on how to make specific types of improvised explosive devices and bombs. There also were nearly a dozen spreadsheets in Arabic, including one, dated Nov. 11, 2016, titled: “Islamic State Spoils and Booty Bureau.”
The government made its case against the detainee in a public version of a sealed document filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington. It said he voluntarily signed up to be an ISIS fighter, worked for the group for 31 months and has an extensive social media history espousing pro-ISIS philosophy.
The government also said it discovered the detainee’s name, biographical details and information labeling him as an ISIS fighter on another thumb drive the Defense Department obtained separately in November 2015. That drive, full of what appear to be intake forms for new ISIS recruits, was recovered by local Syrian forces in July 2015.
While the government’s more than 150-page filing doesn’t identify the detainee or say when or where he was born in the United States, it discloses extensive detail about his activities and travels worldwide leading up to his surrender at a Syrian battlefield checkpoint.
The detainee, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, has black hair, brown eyes, is about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 140 pounds.
An individual who met the detainee in July 2005 in New Orleans where he was studying told the FBI that he was a “wild and typical” college student, who drank and partied. He said the detainee used marijuana and gambled at Harrah’s casino in the city. The detainee didn’t work, he said, but received “a sizable amount of money from the Saudi Arabian government each month” and that his “mother was very wealthy.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington said Thursday that it is common for the Saudi government to provide monthly stipends to students studying abroad to cover living expenses.
The associate said the detainee lived briefly during 2005 or 2006 in Covington, Louisiana, where he frequented casinos and strip clubs. After an argument with friends about not repaying money he used to gamble, the detainee left the United States for Saudi Arabia.
Between 2006 and 2014 the detainee got married and lived in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, working in various family businesses, including a women’s tailoring shop and a construction company. While his wife was pregnant, he traveled on business to Indonesia, Singapore, China and Malaysia.
While in Asia, the government said, the detainee tweeted pro-ISIS messages, including one that said: Muhammad “is the messenger of God and those who are with him are harsh against the infidels and merciful among themselves.”
The associate from New Orleans said the detainee stayed with him briefly in the summer of 2014 when he tried unsuccessfully to get a U.S. passport for his daughter. He said the detainee returned with his wife and child on a second visit to New Orleans in late 2014.
He lost contact with the detainee, but said he had heard he had disappeared. He described him as being “enthusiastic to an extreme” and “having a good heart, but noted that he could be misled,” the government said. The associate said the detainee had spoken “very passionately” about how the Syrian regime needed to be overthrown and how ISIS was justified in beheading captives.
In early 2015, he flew to Athens, Greece, and then to Gaziantep, Turkey, where he paid a smuggler $300 to get him into Syria. He arrived there with $40,000 in his pocket.
The detainee said that three days after he entered Syria he was kidnapped by ISIS militants and imprisoned for seven months. He said he was released only after agreeing to work for ISIS. He spent two months at an ISIS training camp near Mayadin, Syria, before being assigned to a brigade responsible for guarding the front lines in Deir el-Zour province.
After that he worked getting fuel for ISIS vehicles, handling brigade expenses and guarding a gate of an oil field. He left the oil field without permission one day and headed to Deir el-Zour, where he was apprehended by ISIS military police. After another stay in ISIS detention, he worked for IS monitoring imams and prayer callers and civilians running heavy equipment.
Upon learning that he had a background in electrical engineering, ISIS gave him a car to drive to Raqqa, Syria, where ISIS militants told him about a project to “use a type of machine, similar to a satellite dish, to transmit microwaves that could bring down an airplane,” the government document said. The detainee declined to work on the project.
In late 2016, he rented 200 acres in Hamah, Syria, from ISIS for $750 and spent at least $12,000 on olive and almond trees. He spent another $4,000 to buy 80 sheep. “He hoped to flee into Turkey as a shepherd,” the government said.
He remained in contact with his wife and last spoke with her via WhatsApp in July. He told his sister via text and through WhatsApp that everyone was leaving the ISIS and he was leaving, too. He was captured three weeks later at the checkpoint.
He told the American-backed SDF forces that he was “daesh,” which is another name for ISIS, and said “he wanted to turn himself in and speak to the Americans.” When he surrendered, he was carrying the thumb drives, $4,210, a global positioning device, hats, clothes, a Quran and a scuba snorkel and mask.
The government claims presidential authorities as well as congressionally approved war powers written after 9/11 provide the legal basis to hold the detainee as an enemy combatant linked to IS.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the detainee, argues those war powers pertain to al-Qaida and the Taliban and don’t apply in the battle against ISIS.
The ACLU claims the government has not provided any evidence that he took up arms against the United States and notes that he was imprisoned by ISIS. The detainee said he had press credentials to do freelance writing about the conflict in Syria, although the FBI hasn’t found any published articles or blogs he authored.
“The bottom line is that the government is holding him illegally,” said ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz. “If the government wants to continue to detain him, they should charge him with a crime.”
The government says it’s still deciding what to do with him.
Government lawyers say options include continuing to hold as an enemy combatant or charging him in U.S. federal court — possibly with providing material support to terrorists. One other option is to hand him over to another country, perhaps Saudi Arabia because of his dual citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan has ruled that the government must provide 72 hours’ notice if it wants to transfer the detainee so that it can be contested in court.