Prosecution says Ibraheem Musaibli provided material support to IS and may have endangered lives of 'countless innocent people'
DETROIT, United States - Standing in the federal court room in Detroit on Wednesday, Ibraheem Musaibli answered affirmatively when asked if he understands the charges levelled against him.
The accusations are serious ones: providing and attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organisation. Musaibli, a US citizen, is the first suspected member of the Islamic State (IS) group captured in Syria to be tried in the United States.
Musaibli's family members argue that he has always been a kind and gentle human being who would not have wilfully joined the brutal militant group.
Standing calmly in his loose-fitting white jumpsuit, with shackled hands and feet, the suspect glanced repeatedly at his sister and teary-eyed mother who sat at the front of the courtroom on Wednesday.
Afrah Musaibli, the suspect's mother, told Middle East Eye that he is "friendly and generous", adding that he never displayed any signs of violent inclinations or religious extremism. "He is nice to everyone; he would would take out the neighbours' garbage without being asked."
She said her 28-year-old son was "fooled" into going to Syria and has long been trying to leave IS-controlled territory.
When he refused to support them, they imprisoned him, and he was left starving and fending for himself in an ISIS prison.
-Ibraheem Musaibli's brother
Still, the prosecution portrays the man differently. The federal indictment against Musaibli says he "knowingly" provided support to IS from April 2015 to June 2018.
Asked about the family statements on Musaibli being held by IS against his will, US prosecutor Matthew Schneider said the duration of Musaibli's support for IS is "significant".
"That’s not a small amount of time; that's a significant and substantial period of time," Schneider told reporters after the brief hearing.
The prosecutor promised more details on Friday, when the suspect will appear for a detention hearing. The prosecution will argue that Musaibli should not be able to leave prison on bond because he is a threat to national security. Bond is rarely granted in terrorism cases.
Federal courthouse in Detroit, where Musaibli will stand trial (MEE/Ali Harb)
Before moving to Yemen in 2015 to get married, Musaibli resided in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which is home to a large Arab population.
Schneider said that IS is a global problem, not a local one, dismissing assertions that the militant group is particularly recruiting people from the area.
Abe Musaibli, the suspect's brother, told MEE in a Facebook message that his brother has four children who are all US citizens. According to him, Musaibli travelled initially to Iraq to "help refugees", but was taken to Syria against his will by acquaintances who turned out to be IS operatives.
"They took his US passport and dragged him into the hell of war. When he refused to support them, they imprisoned him, and he was left starving and fending for himself in an ISIS prison," Abe said, using another acronym for IS.
The brother said Musaibli contacted the family seeking help when he gained access to a phone; family members in turn informed the FBI, but the US agency did "nothing" to help.
The family still has evidence of correspondence with the FBI, Abe said.
Abe also painted an image of a loving, good-natured husband and father when he described Musaibli, a stark contrast with the US government's claim that the suspect "may have endangered the lives of countless innocent people" with his support to IS.
In a statement on the case, Assistant Attorney General John Demers said on Tuesday that Washington will not tolerate any IS threats, "not least of all those that come from our own citizens".
"I am confident that he will face justice for his crimes, and I hope that his case sends a clear message that we will hold our citizens accountable who are apprehended overseas and tried to join a terrorist organisation such as ISIS," the statement reads.
Musaibli was captured by the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who pushed IS militants out of their de-facto capital Raqqa last year.
Hundreds of IS prisoners are held by the SDF, but Western governments have been reluctant to bring their citizens home for trial.
US citizen Samantha Elhassani, who lived for more than two years in Raqqa under IS rule, was charged this week with lying to the FBI and will also stand trial in the US.
MEE asked Schneider, the US attorney, if Musaibli's case will set a precedent for transferring and trying US citizens suspected of being IS members. He said determining policy is up to the Justice Department, and bringing federal charges against Musaibli in Detroit was in accordance with the specific details of the case.