While the focus of the nation has been squarely set on the presidential primaries (or March Maddness for sports fans), several other news stories have passed without serious attention. In particular Americans involved with ISIS has been a subject in multiple stories. Most prominently may be the news about Bowe Bergdahl, who is under trial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for the five years before he was traded for 5 Guantanamo detainees (3 of which have since re-entered ISIS combat forces).
Bowe Bergdahl, a PFC when he abandoned his post in Afghanistan and promoted to Sergeant when he was recovered due to time held as a prisoner of the Taliban, was the subject of massive media exposure due to the exchange executed by the Obama Administration in violation of law. Several articles have been made detailing the delayed charges from the Army, and the political influence applied to this case. The charges against Bergdahl could result in life imprisonment. It also should be noted that military trials are under the jurisdiction of the UCMJ, which means that the presumption of innocence does not apply unlike civilian courts.
According to the Washington Post on March 17, 2016, lawyers for Bergdahl have released the full transcript of the interview of Bergdahl. In that transcript Bergdahl states that he understood the nature of his situation, saying
“Your [Army Investigator] discernment is your discernment and I’m not going to have a problem with that. What you choose to do is for a reason that you choose for the better of the situation.”
Additionally, Bergdahl made the claim that his decision to abandon his post was “a self-sacrifice thing.” But at the same time, following a popular theme in many criminal cases recently, Bergdahl injected his upbringing in his defense for his actions, stating
“I wasn’t raised in a very social environment and my parents raised me in a very strict, very religious setting… [Bergdahl’s father] raised me knowing how to shoot weapons… However, it wasn’t the best house to be in.”
The full interview was released by Bergdahl’s lawyers in an attempt to gain public support. It would appear that the defense team believes that civilian influence could affect the military court-martial. They also injected a question of impartiality, with civilian attorney Eugene Fidell stating,
“Clearly, we have believed from the very beginning that transparency was a very important interest in this case, and the more the American people know about this case, the better.”
Similarly, in the case of Mohamad Jamal Khweis, noted regret and bad decsion making in his choice to travel to Iraq to join ISIS. Mr. Khweis, an American from Virginia, is accused of fighting for ISIS. According to Kurdish military Mr. Khweis was among ISIS fighters that had engaged in a firefight prior to Mr. Khweis surrendering this week. Though some 250 Americans are suspected of joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Mr.Khweis was not on any terrorist watch list or a figure of interest by intellegence agencies.
Like the lawyers for Bergdahl, Mr. Khweis reached out to the American public stating
“At the time I made the decision, I was not thinking straight… I found it very, very hard to live there. I decided to return back home… Life in Mosul is really, very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion.”
Both Bergdahl and Khweis face future court decisions that will determine their fates. It’s unclear if their efforts to shift the blame for their actions, respectively, on how they grew up and clouded decision making will beneficially impact the results, but there may be a recent case of a naturalized American aiding ISIS that may hint at the likely outcome.
Mufid Elfgeeh, a naturalized American who had originally lived in Rochester, NY, and originally from Yemen was caught in the act of trying to recruit FBI informants for ISIS, He had plead guilty in December 2015 with a plea deal to limit the maximum penalty of the 30 years in jail and $500,000 in fines he faced. Mr. Elfgeeh admitted to providing passports, money and training to aid ISIS. He was also recorded as wanting to kill US military forces as well as Shi’a Muslims in New York.
The sentencing by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford on March 18, 2016, was for 22 1/2 years – the maximum available under the plea deal. This took into account the statement by Elfgeeh, after his arrest, rejecting ISIS – the sincerity of which Federal prosecutors would not comment on. This sentence is the harshest in any conviction case of Americans aiding ISIS to date. Since 2013 more than 80 Americans have been arrested and charged with supporting ISIS in various means.
If the sentencing of Elfgeeh is an example of the direction of the nation in such cases, Bergdahl and Khweis may be facing long prison sentences. Critical to how these and other cases will be resolved may well lie in the future president and the make up of Congress in 2017. Even so, the discussion of how to address – if it can be addressed – this national security threat, and the Americans that have promoted it, remains a discussion for the American people.