American held by U.S. as ISIS backer sought press credentials

An American citizen being held by the U.S. military after allegedly working for ISIS in Syria repeatedly sought press credentials and offered to write news stories about the conflict in that country, according to newly unsealed court filings.

The U.S-born prisoner, who also has Saudi citizenship and has not been publicly identified, made numerous inquiries about press identification and claimed he actually had such documents from a media group and other publications.

"Petitioner claimed that he intended to enter Syria to be a freelance writer and that he obtained press credentials from the using his U.S. passport, as well as from other press outlets," an FBI agent wrote in the unusually detailed filings unsealed Wednesday evening as part of a legal challenge the prisoner is pursuing with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Search warrant returns … also revealed a number of emails in which [redacted] with the [redacted] and the [redacted] about obtaining an identification for $25 that identified him as a member of the press," the FBI agent declared. The name of the organization was deleted but appears to be an obscure website and not one of the major American press groups.

The FBI agent’s declaration also says the prisoner sent emails in 2014 offering to cover “various events and stories in a number of areas/countries in the Middle East," claiming that he "gathered a great deal of information living in refugee tents on the Turkish-Syrian border” and by interviewing “various individuals to obtain the true stories behind this Middle Eastern conflict."

Despite those efforts, U.S. authorities appear deeply skeptical that the prisoner had any bona fide journalistic mission.

"To date, FBI investigation has not revealed any instances where [redacted] published any news stories, blogs or any written accounts of any sort, whether they be related to events in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world," the unidentified agent wrote.

The FBI also reported that a friend who met the prisoner when he was in college in Louisiana was unaware of him being a journalist at any time. The Washington Post reported in October, about a month after the prisoner was captured in Syria by Syrian Democratic Forces, that official were dubious about the American’s claims to have acted as a journalist.

On the other hand, U.S. officials say there’s extensive evidence of the prisoner’s intimate involvement with ISIS and of his interest in weaponry and military tactics.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence against the prisoner was actually obtained by the U.S. nearly two years before he was captured.

In November 2015, the U.S. obtained access to a thumb drive containing a database of about 5000 ISIS "foreign fighter data sheets." One pertained to the prisoner, court filings indicate. The document calls him a "fighter" (passing up a choice as a "suicide bomber"), says he has a degree in electrical engineering, and joined up with ISIS in July 2014, a military intelligence report on the data sheet says.

At the time of capture by Syrian fighters, the prisoner had a GPS device, a scuba snorkel and mask, a Quran and more than $4,000 in cash, the court filings say.

The court filings don’t provide particularly compelling proof that the prisoner actually fought on behalf of ISIS, although there are numerous indications of his being sympathetic to the group, as well as facilitating their activities. U.S. officials reportedly believe the evidence is insufficient to charge him criminally with support of a terrorist group. As a result, American officials have been exploring the possibility of transferring him to Saudi Arabia.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan has ordered the U.S. government to give 72 hours notice before any such transfer so the prisoner and his lawyers can seek to block it.

The Justice Department has appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which has agreed to hear the case in April.

Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.


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