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Human Rights Watch Film Festival Hoda Muthana
Six years ago, Hoda Muthana was a 20-year-old college student in Alabama who lied to her family about a trip and instead joined the Islamic State in Syria. When she arrived she was confined to a home for unwed women, with marriage to a jihadist the only way out. She married a succession of the group's fighters — the first two of whom were killed — and had a son with one of them.
On social media, she celebrated the burning of her U.S. passport and shared thousands of incendiary tweets under the name @UmmJihad, including writing that "America desrves (sic) everything it has coming to it, by Allah we will terrorise (sic) YOU! Until you submit to the Shariah" and urging others to attack holiday parades.
"Spill all of their blood," she wrote, "or rent a big truck n drive over them. Kill them."
Today, two years after Muthana said she took her young son and ran away from the Islamic State as it was collapsing under military assault, she is a refugee barred from the country where she grew up with a very different view of the group she had once so longed to join.
"When you are brainwashed, you don't realize it until you snap out of it. I took everything too fast and too deep," she tells Spanish filmmaker Alba Sotorra Clua in the new documentary The Return: Life After ISIS, available to watch through Thursday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
What she experienced in the Islamic State, Muthana, now 26, says in the film, was "this horrible way of life that I really regret for the rest of my life and that I wish I could just erase."
Clua spent a year and a half visiting Roj Camp in Syria where Muthana, stateless, has been in limbo since surrendering to the Kurds in early 2019 — sleeping in a tent with a dirt floor, no phone, no money and barely what she needs to care for her 4-year-old son.
Muthana, who is being held by Kurdish authorities, is far from alone: She lives in the camp along with roughly 1,500 women and children from more than 50 countries. There are other camps housing thousands of other women and children. After the Islamic State fell, various governments have had to weigh what to do with their citizens, men and women alike, who joined the group's ranks. Some 300 Americans tried or were successful in joining militants in Syria, NPR reported in 2019.
Their cases have drawn international attention and much discussion — especially those, like Muthana, who now plead manipulation and seek forgiveness from their record of betrayal.
"I was not part of any type of jihad, never shot a gun, never used any weapons or anything," Muthana said in 2019.
"I'm not sympathetic. These women had agency. They're not stupid," terrorism expert Max Abrahms, of Northeastern University, told PEOPLE that same year. "They knew exactly what the Islamic State was all about. It was notorious for flaunting violence over social media."
"We'll probably never know her full range of activities," Abrahms said then.
Hasan Shibley Hoda Muthana
Speaking with NBC News in 2019, Muthana said she knew that if she were allowed to return to her home country, "Of course I will be given jail time." But, she said, "I prefer America than anywhere else."
Some other Americans have been returned to the U.S. to face charges. But the U.S. government is not interested in Muthana: Citing the convolutions of diplomatic law (her father is a former Yemeni diplomat), they say she was never a citizen, despite being born in New Jersey and raised in Birmingham. The government says her passport, revoked under the Obama administration, was issued in error.
Her family has fought an as-yet-unsuccessful legal battle to bring her back to the U.S., clinging to the hope that an ever-higher court will side with them and that she and her son will be allowed to go home. It's not looking likely.
"I don't get the heartstrings deal," then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in 2019. "This is a woman who inflicted enormous risk on American soldiers, American citizens. She's a terrorist. She's not coming back to our country to pose a threat."
In January, Muthana's appeal failed. The judge said her only remedy would be naturalization — which seems impossible, given the government's opposition. Her lawyer tells PEOPLE they will file with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Muthan's father is "dying for her to be back home and he's doing everything [he can] to bring her back," Clua says.
She hopes her documentary, which includes emotional confessions from a small group of other women being denied citizenship by their home countries, will complicate and soften the public perception of these cases — such as so-called "ISIS brides" like Muthana.
"It's very unsafe to leave these people there," Clua says. "Having thousands of women and children in detention camps without a trial in poor conditions, it's the meat that the recruiters use to bring more people into the ideology. When there is an injustice, that's what is used. 'See what they do? You need to come and join.' We're giving them the narrative."
Back home, the women could help prevent other girls from becoming radicalized because they know how it happens, Clua says.
With her documentary, she allows the women space to explain themselves. For her part, Muthana tells a story of herself as an isolated teenager — feeling stifled at home and reaching out to other Muslims online for some connection.
"I didn't have much friends in high school and I was extremely shy, painfully shy. I think it was lack of social experience outside of school. I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere, not even to the mall," she says in the documentary. "I grew up as an American, born and raised in America, and all I had waiting for me in the future was an arranged marriage — the exact way my parents wanted it to be. So I had no time to dream about anything."
"Me and my mom didn't have such a good relationship and I thought I could improve it by being more religious because she's very religious, and I learned all of this on my own, online," Muthana says. (Earlier this year, her older sister was arrested in New Jersey while allegedly heading to join the Islamic State, authorities said.)
In Syria, Muthana insists, "I was expecting a happy place with Muslims, helping in hospitals, helping in schools, helping a community out and just being good decent Muslims to each other. I don't know. It was a big mess. It was hell on earth. Really."
She and the other women who spoke with Clua described an enveloping oppression: forced to marry and then marry again when their husbands were killed; with moral police screaming through car intercoms about infractions such as wearing sneakers with a pink Nike swoop that was too attractive or exposing your hands if you took your gloves off to take money out of your bag.
And all around, a war raged. One night, Muthana says, she and her son were sprayed with glass from a nearby explosion.
"I hated my surroundings and the way of living, but in pregnancy I hated [it] times a million," she says. "His father did die while I was seven months pregnant and I was very afraid of my son being born in this place that was so dangerous for him. But for a long time I've been thinking of trying to find my way out."
"This is such a crazy life," Muthana says in the documentary. "It's like a movie. It's worse than a movie." Although Clua has lost friends to the Islamic State and considers them terrorists, she says she grew sympathetic to the women's individual stories.
They were taken in by sophisticated recruitment when they were quite young, she says. "All the women I met there regret having went the moment they enter. But it's too late, because then you cannot leave."
She defends Muthana's tweets.
"She had a lot of time to be alone at home with her phone," Clua says, calling social media a too-tempting outlet. "[Muthana] realized the more radical her messages, the more followers she had, the more friends she had, the more successful she was, more popular. So she started to build a character that had nothing to do with who she was when she was the shy girl in school, in the university. She was sucked in by the fiction that she created for herself."
When the Islamic State was nearly defeated, Muthana says the conditions around her grew unbearable. They were so starved that her toddler son had to eat grass for dinner.
"I walked out despite there being [explosives] and not knowing the way out. I walked out with the Syrians just to find my way out, just to save my child and me," she says in the documentary.
Clua said she spent a long time with the women before they trusted her enough to tell the truth about what they had experienced. "In the last two months, they were living in underground shelters with bombs flying overhead and people dying around them. They needed to block their emotions, [to live] in survival mode," she says.
In the documentary, Muthana sometimes smiles while remembering her desperation. "There is a thing that we women share," Clua says. "When you recall things that are terrible, if you don't do it with a little distance, you drown."
But Clua has also seen Muthana break down as she considered her choices and their consequences.
"Hoda is the one with [the smallest] possibility to come back home. Her case is the most complicated one, so the moment that she realized that maybe she will never be able to go back home — ooph — that was very tough for her. And she feels so guilty for her kid."
The Return: Life After ISIS is available to stream through Thursday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.