The State Department is working to repatriate a family of 10 American citizens stranded in Syria, where they are among the tens of thousands of people effectively imprisoned in desert camps and detention centers from the war against the Islamic State, according to officials.
The transfer would make them the largest group brought back to the United States from northeastern Syria, where they are being held by a Kurdish-led militia. The American government has repatriated 40 such citizens since 2016 — 25 children and 15 adults, according to the State Department.
The group consists of Brandy Salman, 49, and nine of her children, who range in age from about 6 to about 25, and all appear to have been born in the United States. Ms. Salman’s husband, who was from Turkey, seems to have taken her and their children into Islamic State territory around 2016 and was apparently later killed.
The detention centers in northeastern Syria typically hold the families of suspected Islamic State militants. Much remains unclear about the family’s interactions with the group before the collapse of the so-called caliphate.
That ambiguity, and the apparent delay in identifying them as Americans, reflects a broader, festering and complicated problem: Many countries have left their own citizens stranded in these camps, out of fear and uncertainty. One result is that tens of thousands of children are growing up there under brutal circumstances and are vulnerable to radicalization.
According to the account of one of the Salman children, a son who is now about 17, the family was taken into custody at Baghuz, where the Islamic State’s last major enclave fell in early 2019. Camp guards separated him from his mother several years ago under a disputed policy of removing adolescent boys.
It is not clear what the authorities intend to do with Ms. Salman, or where and how her family will be resettled. Some adults who traveled to Syria to join ISIS and were later brought back to the United States have faced prosecution on charges like conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism, while others have not.
Her sister, Rebecca Jean Harris, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., said in an interview that about four years ago, F.B.I. agents came to her house to ask about her sister. Ms. Harris added that Ms. Salman, informed about that visit by text, cut off communications.
Public records show that Ms. Salman has lived in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York City and Michigan. Ms. Salman’s father, Stephen R. Caravalho, of Hot Springs, Ark., said in an interview that the family has had only sporadic contact with her for years, and that he last saw her in person during a visit to New York around 2006.
The Kurdish-led militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., has been the United States’ main ally in the region battling the Islamic State. It has been stuck holding about 60,000 people — most from Iraq and Syria, but about 10,000 from about 60 other countries — even though it is not a sovereign government.
The situation is messy for many reasons. The S.D.F. does not have comprehensive and accurate records about all the people it is holding. Many nations, particularly in Europe, have been reluctant to allow their citizens to return, especially men suspected of being militants. Among other concerns, some fear that under their legal systems, any incarceration would last only a few years.
Even children who were brought to the Islamic State by their parents are frequently stigmatized. About 50,000 displaced people, mainly women and children, live in the largest camp, Al Hol, where by some estimates half its population is under 12.
The United States has campaigned for other nations to ease the problem by taking back their citizens, as it says it does, and has offered to help. Last month, for example, it flew 95 women and children to Kyrgyzstan.
Given the United States’ stance, it is unclear why the Salman family was not taken out of Syria long ago, said Letta Tayler, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who interviewed one of the Salman children, the son who is now about 17, in May 2022 at Houry, a center for teenage boys. Ms. Tayler said she told the State Department about him in November.
“It’s great that the U.S. is acting to take back this family, but why did it take so long given the horrific conditions that these U.S. citizens were subjected to?” she said. “That’s a question that deserves an answer from the U.S. government.”
Asked about the apparent delay, Ian Moss, a deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, demurred but noted that it can be difficult to definitively identify who is in Syria and where they come from.
“Whenever we find Americans, we work as fast as we can to get them out,” he said.
In meeting with Ms. Salman and five of her children at one of the camps in July, Mr. Moss said, she expressed her desire to return to the United States with her entire family, and his office has been working on repatriating them.
Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, interviewed the same teenage boy in July. Both shared notes from their conversations with him on the condition that The New York Times not print his name. The Times was unable to independently verify all the details in his account.
In about 2016, when he was around 9 and in Turkey, according to the boy’s account to Ms. Tayler, his father told the family that they were going camping. After several days of travel, his father revealed that they were in Syria.
There, his mother largely kept the children inside because she was afraid, according to notes of the boy’s account.
When the Kurdish-led militia took the family into custody at Baghuz, it sent his older brother, then about 17, to a prison for adult men, the notes say, separating him from his family. That brother, now about 21, is still alive, according to an official.
The younger teenager, who is now himself about 17, lived with his mother and other siblings at the Al Hol camp until early 2020. One day, at a marketplace area in Al Hol, guards seized the boy and several other teenagers without notifying their families or letting them collect their belongings, according to notes of his account.
He was held in what was apparently a latrine for about a month before being moved to the Houry center, which is sometimes described as a rehabilitation or deradicalization center for youths.
Human Rights Watch featured the boy — obscuring his face and using a pseudonym — in a video about children stranded in Syria after their parents took them there to join ISIS. In it, he said: “It’s not only me. We a lot of kids, you know. No one wants to stay, just like growing up here doing nothing. That’s what we all feeling.”
Ms. Ni Aolain, who is also a law professor, published a United Nations report after her visit to Syria that portrays the policy of “the forced arbitrary separation of hundreds of adolescent boys” from their mothers as a systematic violation of human rights. (Human Rights Watch has also criticized that policy.)
“Every woman she spoke with identified the snatching and disappearance of their juvenile and adolescent boys as their main concern,” the report said, adding that other boys she interviewed described their sudden removals as “violent and causing them extreme anxiety, as well as mental and psychological suffering.”
Officials with the militia have defended the practice on several grounds, saying that it reduces the risk of pregnancies in the camps and that young men will be indoctrinated by women who are still members of the Islamic State.
Over 3,000 people were repatriated from the S.D.F.’s custody in 2022, more than in the previous three years combined, and 2,500 more have been taken back by their home countries so far this year, the State Department said.
Still, about 9,000 adult male detainees remain imprisoned, about 2,000 of whom come from countries other than Iraq or Syria. Of the 50,000 residents of Al Hol, about 7,500 are from third countries, the department said. A smaller camp, Roj, has about 2,400 people in all, it said, and there are a few hundred teenage boys in the youth centers.
Since he was taken to the Houry center, the teenager told Ms. Tayler in May 2022 that an older sister had twice visited him, and that he had occasionally exchanged letters with his mother through the Red Cross.
In her interview with the boy, Ms. Ni Aolain said he expressed “great distress and worry” about his inability to meaningfully communicate with his mother and showed paintings and drawings that depicted them together. He also talked about hamburgers and missing rap music, she said.
“He seemed like a teenaged boy, except he happened to be a teenaged boy in this extraordinarily coercive and structurally abusive situation,” she said.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.