The Obama administration has sent its first detainee in the fight against the Islamic State to Iraq, setting precedent for a war expected to continue for years to come.
On Thursday — following what National Security Council officials called “unanimous interagency consensus” — the Defense Department transferred Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim, an Iraqi woman also referred to as Umm Sayyaf, to Iraqi custody.
“We have a firm belief that she will be held to account for her crimes, though we cannot guarantee any particular result,” NSC spokesman spokesman Alistair Baskey told Defense One in a statement. “We stand ready to cooperate with authorities in Iraq to support a prosecution through to its completion, to assist in ensuring that justice is served.”
U.S. special operations troops captured Ibrahim in a May raid that killed her husband, Abu Sayyaf, who is believed to have helped direct ISIS’ illicit financial operations. Ibrahim herself is suspected of having played an “important role” in the group’s terrorist activities, and, along with her husband, of holding in captivity both a Yezidi woman and Kayla Mueller, an American citizen. Since then, the U.S. military has been interrogating Ibrahim in “a safe location” in Erbil, Iraq.
U.S. authorities had been preparing charges against her for a possible prosecution in the United States, but Baghdad opposed this, citing its constitutional ban on handing citizens to other countries’ authorities, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold, who first reported the transfer. Iraq is also eager to prove itself capable of responsible governance despite its reliance on the U.S.-led coalition in the year-old war against ISIS.
But American law forbids federal authorities to transfer detainees to any country with a record of prisoner abuse; Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented such abuse against women in Iraqi prisons. The Pentagon’s statement announcing the transfer acknowledged its obligation: “This transfer is consistent with DoD policy to detain, interrogate, and, where appropriate, seek the prosecution of individuals who are captured on the battlefield.”
U.S. officials said they pressured Iraq to hold Ibrahim accountable, and do so justly. “Prior to her transfer, the Government of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan Regional authorities committed to treat her humanely and in accordance with Iraq’s domestic and international obligations,” Baskey said.
He referred Defense One to the Justice Department on questions about whether the decision means the U.S. will not additionally seek its own prosecution against Ibrahim.
On Thursday, the Defense Department handed her to the Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Interior in “full coordination” with the Iraqi government, Baskey said. The Pentagon’s statement indicated Ibrahim’s detention by the Kurds will be temporary, though Baskey noted that Kurdish Regional Authorities are also Iraqi authorities.
“Umm Sayyaf was located and held in Erbil,” Baskey said. “We work closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government authorities and for various reasons, including the location of potential witnesses, it made sense to transfer her to the custody of Iraqi authorities in Erbil.”
Baskey emphasized that the U.S. did not act unilaterally in choosing Ibrahim’s disposition, but in tandem with “our Iraqi partners.” He also noted the decision to transfer her was unanimously supported by the various federal agencies involved. Obama also requires such interagency unanimity in detainee transfers from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo to other countries. Baskey said the agencies deemed the transfer “appropriate with respect to legal, diplomatic, intelligence, security, and law enforcement considerations.”
A senior administration official said those agencies consisted of the FBI, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury.
The Defense Department has held Ibrahim since May 15, after Delta Forces swept her up in a night raid that is the first known offensive action by U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. The administration has said it has gleaned valuable information from material taken during the raid, as well as from Ibrahim, regarding ISIS’s financial and leadership structure.
When asked recently about Ibrahim’s disposition and what the U.S. would do with future detainees from the ISIS war, White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed to the administration’s record of capturing people on the battlefield, debriefing them for intelligence and prosecuting them in U.S. courts. “We have demonstrated, despite the skepticism of a lot of critics on Capitol Hill, that that is an effective way to keep the American people safe,” Earnest said. “It also is an effective way for us to walk the walk when it comes to advocating our basic value we place on human rights.”
The U.S. launched the first strikes against the Islamic State on Aug. 8, 2014. A year later, roughly 3,550 U.S. personnel are in Iraq, and U.S. and coalition forces have conducted more than 5,900 airstrikes. Officials say they have made progress. “In my opinion, this is not the same fight as it was when it started,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, chief of staff for the anti-ISIS mission, Operation Inherent Resolve, just days ahead of its one-year anniversary. “They’re defending more than they are on the offensive.”