Monday August 2, 2021
By Ellie Hall
Eight-year-old Aminah Mohamad, the daughter of an American woman from Tennessee who joined ISIS in 2014, awaits her fate outside a Syrian detention camp.
An American-born girl who grew up under ISIS control was rescued from a Syrian detention camp last month after the girl’s mother — a US citizen who left the country and in 2014 joined the terrorist organization — and her father were killed while living under the terror group, according to a former US diplomat.
The 8-year-old girl is in a secure location in northeast Syria and on Saturday was interviewed by a member of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) about her life under ISIS.
The diplomat, Peter Galbraith, 70, has worked for the past three years to repatriate foreign women and children from detention camps that hold tens of thousands of people linked to ISIS. The camps are run by the Kurdish-led, US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Among Galbraith’s many formal roles, including serving as the US ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998, he spent decades as an integral figure in US dealings with the Kurdish people, a stateless ethnic minority in the Middle East who are spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Galbraith told BuzzFeed News that the girl, Aminah Mohamad, was rescued in large part due to the information provided by a Canadian woman who joined the terrorist group in 2014 but has since regretted that decision and denounced the organization. Galbraith helped secure the release of the Canadian woman, and she is now waiting in Iraq to be repatriated to Canada.
Galbraith and the Canadian woman, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from ISIS supporters, detailed their efforts over the past year and a half to rescue Aminah after she was left in the custody of one of her stepfather’s other wives — a Somali woman who remained an unwavering ISIS supporter. As the SDF reclaimed territory from the terrorist group, Aminah and her caretaker would eventually be forced to settle — in a Syrian camp for people linked to ISIS.
Aminah’s caretaker and her companions had gone to great lengths to hide her from the Kurdish guards who patrol the camps and anyone who might report that they had custody of an American girl.
“They knew the camp authorities were always searching for orphans,” the Canadian woman said, explaining there were sections in both the Roj and al-Hol detention camps in Syria where women of Somali origin lived together and “all helped each other avoid being identified by the Kurds.”
In the camps, Aminah was made to wear long robes and a niqab, a veil that exposes only the eyes, to conceal her identity and race, since her caretaker was Black and she was white and “very sickly and pale,” the Canadian woman said.
“It’s in no way part of Islam for children to wear niqabs, it was just a disguise,” she told BuzzFeed News.
On the night of July 17, a team of SDF soldiers descended on the Somali enclave within the Roj camp and retrieved Aminah, according to messages sent to Galbraith from a senior SDF official who had been briefed on the raid.
Aminah’s future remains uncertain; US officials from the State Department, FBI, and Department of Defense declined all requests for comment on her specific case. A State Department spokesperson would not confirm whether she had been rescued from the detention camp and if they are involved with her return to the US, but said that the country’s official policy is to “repatriate, prosecute when appropriate, rehabilitate when possible, and reintegrate their foreign terrorist fighter (FTF) nationals and associated family members currently in northeast Syria and Iraq.” There is a formal process, which includes DNA testing, to determine the citizenship status of orphaned children before they are returned to the US.
A return to America would be the beginning of a life unlike anything Aminah has known. She has spent more than seven years under terrorist ideology in a war-torn country with little schooling and no healthcare. Her parents and youngest brother are dead; her one remaining sibling is missing.
Aminah was born on Dec. 8, 2012, in a Chattanooga hospital weighing 7 pounds, 5.5 ounces with a length of 21 inches. As BuzzFeed News exclusively reported in 2015, Aminah’s parents met via a Muslim arranged marriage website in August 2011. Her mother, Ariel Bradley, grew up as an evangelical Christian in Tennessee and had converted to Islam a few months earlier. Her father, Yasin Mohamad, lived in Borås, Sweden, and before he and Bradley had ever met in person, they got engaged after a few months of Skyping and exchanging messages on WhatsApp.
In December 2011, Bradley took her first international flight to meet and marry Mohamad in Sweden, where they eventually settled. When Bradley became pregnant with Aminah, she returned to the US alone for prenatal care and to give birth in her hometown.
After Aminah was born, Bradley and her newborn daughter rejoined Mohamad in Sweden.
The family appears to have traveled to the Middle East sometime in early 2014, because in April 2015 Bradley tweeted that they had been living in ISIS-controlled territory for more than a year. According to her social media posts, the family was living in al-Bab, Syria, and Bradley had given birth to a second child — a son named Yaqub. His whereabouts are currently unknown.
Bradley’s social media posts from January to July 2015 reveal a picture of Aminah’s young life as the child of ISIS members. She wrote about the annoyance of bombs dropping in the early morning as she and her children ate breakfast and playdates in the park that ended with public screenings of the latest ISIS propaganda videos, and shared anecdotes that could have come from any mother.
“Turn around & my daughter is covered in white. Never leave baby powder at eye level of a 2-year-old,” she said in one tweet. In April, she posted several photos of Aminah, then a curly-haired toddler, looking out a window and pointing at birds in the sky, captioning one photo “How quickly they grow.”
Aminah Mohamad during an interview with ICSVE in northeast Syria on July 31, 2021. ICSVE / Via icsve.org
Soon after BuzzFeed News’ July 2015 story profiling Bradley was published, her social media accounts were suspended. Since then, no information about her or her children had been available — until now.
According to Galbraith and the Canadian woman, Bradley’s husband, Mohamad, who had joined the mujahideen — the word ISIS fighters use to describe themselves — died at some point after June 2015. The Canadian woman said that Bradley later remarried an Australian pediatrician, Tareq Kamleh, a prominent ISIS member who had appeared in several of the terrorist group’s propaganda videos. She had another son, Yousef, with him in 2016.
Since Bradley is an American citizen, all of her children are also citizens of the US. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the involvement in terrorist or other criminal activity by a US citizen parent does not impact the citizenship status of their children.
It was while Bradley was pregnant with her third child that the Canadian woman first met her and the children, she told BuzzFeed News in a WhatsApp conversation facilitated by Galbraith. She answered questions from Erbil, Iraq, where she had moved after being released from an ISIS detention camp in June.
She told BuzzFeed News that she had been friendly with Bradley and had visited the family’s home on a few occasions. The Canadian woman described Aminah and her brother Yaqub as “well-mannered… speaking very politely to their mother and guests, saying all their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous.’”
“When I was at Ariel's house one day, Aminah was helping her mom by sweeping the living room since her mom was pregnant,” she said. “I thought it was cute and funny because the broomstick was taller than she was.”
She said that Aminah had celiac disease and was thin as a result of that, and had brown hair and brown eyes. Like her mother, she only knew a little bit of Arabic and spoke English with an American accent.
The Canadian woman said that Bradley and her family successfully escaped the city of Raqqah before it fell to SDF and US-led coalition forces in October 2017. She said she saw Bradley in the city of Hajin in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate after the siege on Raqqah was over.
She told BuzzFeed News that Bradley and her third child, Yousef, were killed in an airstrike on a hospital, in a village near Hajin in late 2018.
Beginning in September 2018, SDF and American-led coalition forces launched a new wave of attacks on ISIS forces in this area as phase three of “Operation Roundup,” to reclaim the Deir ez-Zor governorate and surrounding areas from ISIS control.
Based on the information provided by the Canadian woman, it seems likely that Bradley and her youngest child died in a coalition airstrike on Al Yarmouk Women’s Hospital in the village of Al Sha'afa on Nov. 29, 2018. According to a report from Airwars, a nonprofit that tracks civilian deaths from airstrike attacks in conflict zones, the attack killed between 10 and 45 people, including medical personnel, women, and children.
In a Dec. 5, 2018, press release US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that the US had conducted airstrikes “near Hajin” on the date of the hospital attack (Al Sha’afa is approximately 9 miles southeast of the city). When asked specifically about a hospital attack, a spokesperson for US CENTCOM told BuzzFeed News that “after a review of all available strike records it was determined that, more likely than not, civilian casualties did not occur” as a result of US actions taken on Nov. 29, 2018.
Yet media reports of the Deir ez-Zor campaign back up what the Canadian woman said. Al Jazeera noted that the families of doctors lived on the second floor of Al Yarmouk hospital. It also quoted unnamed US officials claiming that the hospital had also been an ISIS command center.
Officials at the State Department, Department of Defense, and FBI would not confirm Bradley’s death, citing Department of Justice policy.
The Canadian woman told BuzzFeed News that after Bradley’s death, Aminah was taken into the custody of one of her stepfather’s other wives, a Somali nurse who had worked at the hospital with him. According to the Canadian woman, the nurse who has cared for the child for more than two years is a radical whose loyalty to ISIS has never flagged in these past years, even while living in detention camps.
And it was in one of these camps in northern Syria where the plan to rescue Aminah was born.
By 2020, Galbraith’s name was whispered about in the detention camps for his ability to successfully return mothers and their children — including repentant former ISIS members — to their home countries.
Galbraith has been a key figure in the United States’ foreign policy with the Kurds for more than 30 years. In 1988, while serving as a staff member on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he discovered proof that then–Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons on the Kurds and shared that information with the world. He actively supported the Kurdistan Regional Government during the drafting of Iraq’s constitution in 2005, which resulted in the formal recognition of an autonomous Kurdish-controlled region in the country’s north.
Galbraith said that his involvement in the detention camps began in 2018 when the Syrian Kurds asked him to consult on possible solutions to the crisis of the large numbers of foreign ISIS prisoners and family members of ISIS members in Syria whose home countries refused to take them back.
“This is a part of the world where I’ve worked for decades,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I have friendships and contacts in a part of the world where relationships are very important. I have the knowledge that goes with having spent a career as a diplomat, but liberated from the constraints of an official role.”
He was able to draw on that experience in November 2019, when he coordinated with the Kurds for the release and return of a German woman and her three children from the camps and also arranged for a young American orphan, the child of an American man who had joined ISIS and died, to be returned to the US. Abdulkarim Omar, cochair of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES), reported this news in a tweet on Nov. 23, 2019, and a State Department spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News that a minor US citizen was repatriated from northeast Syria at this time.
Eventually, Galbraith’s phone number circulated among some of the women at the al-Hol and Roj camps. Many of them, who say they no longer support ISIS but have not been allowed to return to their home countries even to face charges, have been stuck in the camps for years. Among those women in limbo who have been in communication with Galbraith are UK-born Shamima Begum and US-born Hoda Muthana, whom BuzzFeed News has also profiled extensively.
Peter Galbraith is pictured with former ISIS members Hoda Muthana, Shamima Begum, and the Canadian woman, whose face has been blurred at her request. Courtesy of Peter Galbraith
The Canadian woman, who is 30, contacted Galbraith in early 2020 in the hope that she and her young daughter could return to Canada. She told BuzzFeed News she joined ISIS in 2014 because she “was young and made a stupid mistake.” She said that she rejected the ideology while still living under ISIS control and attempted to escape, but was caught and threatened with death if she ever attempted it again.
The Canadian woman, knowing the risk she faced if women in the camp learned what she was doing, passed along “extensive” intelligence from within the camps to Galbraith over the past year “related to the recovery of children and information to possibly assist in the criminal prosecution of ISIS members for law enforcement in the United States and other countries,” he said.
In one of her early calls, she told Galbraith that she knew a group of radical Somali women in the detention camps were hiding an American girl whose mother, an American woman known as “Umm Aminah,” had died in an airstrike in 2018. Galbraith said he shared this information with the FBI, who he said identified her as Bradley. The FBI has declined to comment to BuzzFeed News.
The Canadian woman told BuzzFeed News she wanted to help Aminah and other children get out of the camps “because it was the right thing to do,” and Galbraith emphasized to BuzzFeed News that she shared the information “without expectation” of any sort of quid pro quo arrangement.
“Children in the camps have the worst start to life,” the Canadian woman said. “They are already traumatized by losing one or more parents and growing up around violence, poverty, and misery. They deal with constant danger, lack of food, lack of education, and their lives are simply going to waste.”
Galbraith said the children are victims of ISIS and that the detention camps are the “perfect breeding grounds for the next generation of jihadis.”
“[The children] haven’t committed any crime, their mothers have,” he said.
Once he learned that Aminah was alive, Galbraith said he “couldn’t just leave her there if it was possible to get her out.”
“I’d feel this way about any child, but the fact that she was an American, that also counts. It’s in my DNA to be looking out for American citizens,” he said.
Citing his longtime relationship with the Kurds, Galbraith said that last year he made a personal request to the head of the SDF, Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi, to retrieve Aminah.
But at this time, Aminah and the Somali nurse were living in the largest of the ISIS detention camps, al-Hol, which houses more than 60,000 people, and it was determined that the operation was too risky as there was a significant threat that Aminah would be smuggled out of the camp if her caretaker learned that people were looking to return the child to US custody.
Galbraith traveled to Iraq and Syria in March 2021 to coordinate the release of 12 children of Yazidi women who had been forced into sex slavery by ISIS from an orphanage. Also on that trip he was able to bring the sister of the Canadian woman to Roj camp and secure the release of her 4-year-old daughter into her aunt’s custody, but not that of the woman herself.
In the first of two trips to Syria in June, Galbraith had a one-on-one meeting with Mazloum to once again ask the Kurdish commander to stage a raid to retrieve Aminah from the custody of the Somali nurse.
In the time since Galbraith had first asked Mazloum to intervene in Aminah’s rescue, the young girl and her caretaker had been moved into the Roj camp, the smaller and more secure detention facilities for women and children with foreign citizenship.
During this meeting, Galbraith asked Mazloum if he would commit his forces to the rescue mission, and if he would release the Canadian woman from the camps before it was carried out.
The general, he said, agreed to both requests. The Candian woman was released into Galbraith’s custody later in June after an SDF investigation determined that she had not been an active participant in ISIS’s terrorist activities, as had been previously reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is currently waiting for the Canadian government to repatriate her.
Mazloum kept the promise he had made to Galbraith: On July 17, a team of SDF soldiers raided the area of the Roj camp where Aminah and the Somali nurse had been living, the diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
While few details are known about the raid and how it transpired, Galbraith said an SDF official contacted him hours afterward to tell him that Aminah was now in their custody. He said she was found in the exact place the Canadian woman described to Galbraith and the Kurdish authorities.
“Without her, [Aminah] would not have been saved,” Galbraith said.
Galbraith said that he was the person to inform the State Department and the FBI that she had been rescued. According to Galbraith, Aminah is at a rehabilitation center in northeast Syria waiting for the US government to certify her citizenship and begin the process of returning her to the country. Custody arrangements for orphaned children of Americans who joined terrorist organizations are handled by individual states, a State Department spokesperson said; Aminah’s maternal grandparents, as well as her aunts and uncles, live in the suburbs of Chattanooga.
On Saturday, a member of the ICSVE met with Aminah as part of their ongoing series of interviews with former ISIS members and the children who grew up under the terrorist group’s control, ICSVE Director Anne Speckhard told BuzzFeed News.
“She clearly self-identified as Aminah and talked about her family with deep sadness,” Speckhard said. She said that the girl was fluent in English but “doesn’t have clear context as to where she is from.”
Speckhard emphasized the importance of placing Aminah in “a safe, predictable and loving environment to replace the traumatic one [she] lived under.”
The State Department declined to go on the record to discuss the matter with BuzzFeed News, only saying, “The United States has repatriated 12 adult US citizens and 16 US citizen minors from Syria and Iraq. Of the adults, DOJ has charged ten with federal criminal charges. We have no comment on specific numbers of US citizens remaining in facilities in Northeast Syria.”
While the young girl’s future remains unknown, Gailbraith told BuzzFeed News that he wants to do whatever he can to ensure that it will be a life very different from the one she has known so far; where she plays with other children, attends school, and “gets the counseling and the mental health support she’s clearly going to need.”
“My ability to do anything is limited, but I want the people who make the decisions to know where she came from and what she went through,” he said.