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US military to release suspected American Islamic State fighter in Syria

The detainee will be left by authorities in an unspecified Syrian town or internally displaced persons camp
The unidentified suspect is said to have worked in many roles under Islamic State (Reuters)

A US-Saudi man suspected of fighting for the Islamic State (IS) group and currently in American custody will be released in Syria, court documents show.

The man, known only as "John Doe", has been subject to a legal battle since he was handed to the US military by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that played a key role in defeating IS in Syria last September.

Now, according to a court filing issued on Wednesday, the detainee will be released in an unspecified Syrian town or internally displaced person camp. The release is to happen “no sooner than 72 hours” after the filing.

The suspect, who been held by the US military in Iraq, was offered the choice of camp or town but has declined to choose.

'What the government is offering our client is no release - it's a death warrant. This is a disgraceful way to treat an American citizen'

- Jonathan Hafetz, American Civil Liberties Union

Jonathan Hafetz, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney who is representing the detainee, said in a statement: “What the government is offering our client is no release - it's a death warrant. This is a disgraceful way to treat an American citizen.

“Now, our fight for our client's right to due process has also become a fight for his right to life. We'll be asking the court to immediately intervene and ensure the safe release of our client.”

The ACLU says that the detainee is being held illegally, and has been fighting for his release and repatriation since September.

“The government has effectively admitted that it has no reason to continue detaining our client and that he does not pose a threat. But, instead of offering a safe release, they want to dump an American citizen onto the side of the road in a war-torn country without any assurances of protection and no identification,” Hafetz said.

“This is a country that the government itself has classified as an absolute 'do not travel' threat, encouraging citizens to 'draft a will' and 'leave DNA samples with [their] medical provider[s]' in the event they decide not to heed the government's warning.”

The US Department of Justice declined to comment on the case when contacted by Middle East Eye.

Conflicting reports

According to a court filing unsealed in February, the detainee first travelled to Syria in July 2014, returning in March 2015.

The US military says that “by his own admission” "John Doe" was an IS recruit, attended an IS training camp, swore loyalty to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and worked for the organisation for two and a half years until air strikes and an SDF offensive forced him to flee.

In court documents, the US military says the suspected fighter was picked up by the SDF at a “screening point” where the militia inspects those fleeing to check that no IS fighters are attempting escape by blending in with civilians.

The SDF was alerted to the detainee, who arrived alone on foot according to the documents, because his style of beard and clothing, while typical for IS devotees, did not resemble the traditional garb worn in the region.

The SDF believed that there was no reason a foreigner would be in the area other than to fight for IS, the filing says.

According to the documents, the suspect identified himself as “Daesh”, a common Arabic acronym for IS, which is often used in a pejorative sense.

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“He was carrying a thumb drive that not only contained [IS] administrative spreadsheets consistent with some of the work that he described, but that was filled with files explaining how to make bombs, how to use different types of weapons, and how to interrogate captives, as well as other how-to manuals for an [IS] fighter,” the court filing says.

“In addition, Petitioner was carrying over $4,000 in cash and a GPS device - both of which were recognised by the SDF as marks of an [IS] fighter, not a civilian.”

However, according to the documents, the suspect claims to have been in Syria in an attempt to work as a journalist and had obtained press credentials. He is said to have submitted work to US media outfits in 2014.

The US says the detainee worked as an IS administrator, responsible for distributing vehicles and money to members of the group. He is also said to have been a guard in an oil field, an imam monitor ensuring sharia requirements and an overseer of civilians in the heavy equipment office.

"John Doe", however, contends he was kidnapped by IS three days after his arrival in Syria, imprisoned for seven months, and then forced to carry out such actions.

The US originally sought to transfer the detainee to another country which has not been specified, but is thought to be Saudi Arabia.

However, the ACLU successfully argued that it was unconstitutional for a US citizen to be transferred to another country.

A federal appeals court in Washington agreed and upheld another court order blocking the suspect’s transfer to another country’s custody. No court has yet ruled on whether the suspect’s detention is lawful or not.

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