The first high level detainee in America’s war on ISIS isn’t just a terrorist, its also a female child sex trafficker.
And U.S. forces have no clue how long they’ll hold her, or where she’ll go next.
The indefinite detainment of the wife of a high-level ISIS commander is raising questions about the Obama administration’s strategy for attacking the militant group and the legal and political challenges it could face once more fighters are taken into American custody.
The issue is the same faced by the Bush administration over its detainment of Al-Qaeda terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.
Detainee Umm Sayyaf, the wife of Abu Sayyaf, the ISIS leader killed in a gunfight in Syria last month by American special-operations forces, will remain in U.S. custody for weeks or months more but officials have not yet determined where she will go afterward.
She is being interrogated at a secret location in Iraq for her participation in the Islamic State’s kidnapping and ransom operations. She is widely regarded as a key ISIS sex trafficker, coordinating the child sex slave markets frequented by ISIS soldiers.
The options for her next destination include:
Computers and other electronic equipment captured in the raid on Abu Sayyaf “have absolutely” provided key intelligence, U.S. military officials said, yet Umm Sayyaf’s information hasn’t yet been verified.
“There are words coming out of her mouth. We have yet to determine whether those words are helpful,” a defense official stated on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. military, highlighting just how uncoordinated the response to ISIS has become, fully intended to take Umm Sayyaf into custody when it launched the raid yet had no plan for what to do with her afterward.
Spokespeople for the National Security Council, the FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence all refused to comment on the blunder.
The Obama administration is now playing catch up, and has to come up with a legal basis for holding Umm Sayyaf indefinitely.
“If she’s a member [of ISIS], she’s detainable” under the Obama administration’s rationale, said Bobby Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and an authority on detainee policy.
But while the legal issues will likely be cleared, there is significant political pressure not to capture more ISIS fighters. More captures will require the U.S. to build a new detention program that would see hundreds of militants held indefinitely in American custody.
“The problems here are really more political problems than they are legal problems,” Chesney said.
“The Obama administration has come full circle on exactly these issues that it and others had criticized the Bush administration for,” said John Belligner, a legal adviser to the State Department and National Security Council during the Bush years.
For an administration that came to power in opposition of the Bush-era detention policies, re-opening similar detention programs would further solidify its reputation as ‘more of the same’, something Obama is keen to avoid.
Coming into office on the promises of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Transparency’, the Obama administration has upheld none of those. It is regarded as the most secretive presidency in history, routinely removing hostile reporters, limiting exposure to the press and conducting nearly all foreign policy negotiations in secret.
It has continued the Bush-era drone strikes and global war on terror, yet did manage to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camps.
This now puts the U.S. on tricky footing – how do we fight a war without the ability to capture and detain high level ISIS leaders?
Given there is only one year left in his presidency, expect the Obama administration to find temporary solutions to this problem in order to leave it to his successor and avoid further damage to his legacy.