An American teenager taken by his parents to live in Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria as a minor has been charged alongside his father with terrorism offences, a decision experts have called “troubling”.
Emraan Ali and son Jihad Ali, 19, appeared in federal court in the US on Wednesday charged with material support for terrorist group Islamic State (IS).
Mr Ali, a US citizen born in Trinidad and Tobago, travelled with his wife and six children to Syria in 2015, according to an indictment filed at the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
The filing states that Mr Ali asked Jihad, at the time aged 14, if he wanted to join IS. “Jihad was not sure if he could speak freely and go against the desires of his father,” an FBI agent said Jihad later told him during interviews.
The father and son allegedly both received military and religious training and served as fighters for IS.
Jihad, who is facing up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to the terror group, was given an AK-47 and assigned to the Anwar al-Awlaki brigade, named after the American-born al-Qaeda terrorist killed in a 2011 drone strike by the US.
He told the FBI his father made him do the training, which he described as “cool but also scary in parts”, "and that he did not want to attend training because he was scared to be separated from his family."
The FBI says it has WhatsApp recordings Jihad sent to his mother that prove he took part in fighting.
Jihad claimed he was “listening to radio traffic from the attacks”, but was not “directly involved in the fighting”. He claimed the rhetoric he used in the messages was meant to “impress other fighters near him.”
Prosecutors also allege that Mr Ali forced his 14-year-old daughter to marry an older British IS fighter.
The two men were captured by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces during the final days of the battle against IS in Baghouz, eastern Syria, in the spring of 2019.
Mr Ali told the FBI during questioning last year that he did almost no fighting for IS, saying he got a medical discharge after experiencing heart problems after going on his first and only raid. He claimed he made a living doing construction work and other odd jobs for IS.
“This announcement should serve as a warning to those who travel, or attempt to travel, to join and fight with ISIS,” said John Brown, FBI Executive Assistant Director for National Security, of the charges. “We remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism as well as hold terrorists, and those who provide support to terrorist organizations, accountable for their actions. We will continue to work closely with our US government and international partners to present a united front against global terrorism.”
They claimed the men were the last two Americans to be repatriated to the US, however the Telegraph is aware of at least one other American who had her citizenship revoked and remains in Syria, as well as a number of dual nationals.
Thousands of foreign children were taken to Syria and Iraq by their parents, some of whom will have come of age in the caliphate.
How to treat returning child soldiers who served in IS’s barbarous regime has become a thorny issue for Western countries.
Experts said the US Department of Justice’s decision risks stigmatising children who are brought to warzones as minors.
“In the interim between when they were taken and when they were arrested, these boys have become adults, which means their protected status is lost,” Mia Bloom, professor of Middle East studies at Georgia State University and author of Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, told the Telegraph. “It’s unfortunate and troubling that he should be held accountable as if he was an adult who chose to go."
She said it was not a surprise Jihad had mixed feelings about his time in the caliphate.
“Some child soldiers I’ve studied had positive experiences during that time and were left conflicted. They became one of a cohort, a band of brothers,” she said. “These children came from societies where minors are usually disempowered. In the caliphate, they were empowered as adults, even given the power to decide whether prisoners live or die. This can become a real impediment to reintegration.”