NYC woman charged with getting ISIS training in Syria says her father forced her to join

NEW YORK — A Brooklyn woman who was repatriated from Syria with her family faces criminal charges for getting AK-47 training from ISIS — though she maintains through her lawyer that she was drummed into joining the terrorist group at age 17 by her father.

Halima Salman, an American citizen, flew into Kennedy Airport with her mother and eight siblings on Tuesday, as part of a complex repatriation effort hailed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “the largest single repatriation of U.S. citizens from northeast Syria to date.”

She was arrested after she landed, though, and charged with knowingly receiving military training from a terrorist organization. The charge carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

The rest of her family is staying with her maternal grandmother in New Hampshire.

The FBI and federal prosecutors allege that she and her now-deceased father left the U.S. on a flight from JFK in 2017 and headed to Syria by way of Moscow, then Turkey.

When she turned 18, she got AK-47 training, married an ISIS member, and joined an all-female battalion made up of ISIS brides, the feds allege, presenting an image of a military document they obtained as proof of her willing involvement.

“The defendant was not conscripted to join ISIS. Women were not conscripted to join ISIS. Instead, it was something that the defendant sought out as an adult,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Shami said at her Brooklyn Criminal Court arraignment Tuesday.

She was captured by anti-ISIS forces in 2019, and in an FBI interview last year, she told a special agent she never received training and never owned a weapon.

Her lawyer, Samuel Jacobson of the Federal Defenders, argued Tuesday that prosecutors have it all wrong, and that she was a victim of her father’s scheme to join ISIS and not a willing member.

“In many ways, it’s shocking that we’re here today,” he said.

Jacobson said in court that her father tricked the family into traveling to Syria by telling them he was taking them to visit Turkey. Instead, he took them to al-Mayadin, an ISIS-occupied town in Syria. The Syrian Army recaptured the town in October 2017.

“Halima was a teenager. She had no idea that her father had any sentiments that were pro-ISIS, had any interest in joining ISIS,” Jacobson said. “Halima’s father also arranged a marriage for Halima while she was still underage. She was 17 years old. She didn’t have a choice in the matter. … She was a kid. Her father took her to this territory.”

After her father was killed in a rocket attack, she paid a smuggler to help get her out of Syria, ditched her husband and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, knowing she’d wind up in a detention camp, the defense lawyer said.

“Such was her desperation to get out of this place and to get out of the situation that her father had put her in, that her husband had put her in,” Jacobson said.

She was reunited with her mother and siblings soon after, and was bounced between camps and a prison facility for the next five year as she pleaded to be repatriated, he said.

Jacobson said she never received training, and was never a part of a battalion, questioning the validity of the printout that said otherwise. And he scoffed at the contention that she could be seen on video walking with an AK-47.

“if she picked up an AK-47 once, who cares? Everyone has an AK-47 in these towns. That doesn’t mean she’s a danger,” he said.

Shami countered that her husband’s phone has “other pieces of information, photographs, intimate photographs, intimate notes that corroborate that the relationship that she had was a loving one, and that corroborate that she is not the victim that she is portraying herself to be right now.”

The prosecutor said that Salman is trying to put forth a “narrative” that’s at odds with her past statements to law enforcement about her relationship with her husband, and questioned the defense lawyer’s statements that Salman had no contacts in Syria.

“The defendant admitted that they had a loving relationship and that there was a lot of love between them,” Shami said. “The idea that it’s ‘who cares’ if she picked up an AK-47 is not actually (valid) — people care. People care if you receive military training from ISIS.”

Magistrate Judge Robert Levy ruled Tuesday that prosecutors had enough to establish Salman as a possible flight risk or danger to the community, and ordered her held without bond.

Jacobson plans to challenge that ruling at a preliminary hearing later this month.