Sen. John McCain on Thursday challenged senior Obama administration officials over the government’s decision to hand an Islamic State detainee to Kurdish officials in Iraq instead of bringing her to the United States for trial.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, McCain expressed displeasure with the decision announced last week by the Pentagon and the White House to transfer the woman to Iraqi Kurdish authorities.
“Umm Sayyaf was clearly involved at the top levels of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is in a state of hostilities,” McCain wrote.
Using a common acronym for the Islamic State, McCain added: “Indeed, the White House has said that she was ‘complicit’ in the illegal captivity of Kayla Mueller, the U.S. citizen and aid worker who was abducted and held by ISIL in Syria until her tragic death earlier this year.”
McCain requested “a detailed explanation in writing for why Umm Sayyaf was not extradited to the United States to stand trial.”
Umm Sayyaf is the nom de guerre of the wife of an Islamic State financial kingpin killed by U.S. Delta Force commandos May 15 during a raid and gunfight in eastern Syria. She was captured in the raid and had been held since by U.S. forces in Iraq. Her real name is Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim.
The Defense Department said it would not discuss McCain’s letter with journalists.
“The secretary (Carter) always responds in writing to all congressional correspondence,” Navy Cpt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told McClatchy. “It would be inappropriate to preempt the secretary’s response by responding in the media.”
The Justice Department did not reply to a request for comment.
Mueller, who was kidnapped in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2013, was a native of Prescott, Ariz. McCain is an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In an unusual statement, the Islamic State announced Feb. 6 that Mueller had died during a Jordanian bombing raid targeting the group in northern Syria. The United States did not confirm that claim, but did confirm that Mueller had died.
News reports, citing unnamed intelligence officials, have reported that Mueller had been held at least part of the time during her captivity by Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State official killed in the May Delta Force raid.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made reference to the reports when he addressed questions about Umm Sayyaf last week.
“We do suspect that Umm Sayyaf was a member of ISIL and played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and we do believe that she and her husband are complicit in the captivity of a U.S. citizen, Kayla Mueller,” Earnest said.
Pressed on why the United States had not extradited Umm Sayyaf, Earnest said she is an Iraqi citizen and that her transfer had been “conducted in full coordination with the government of Iraq.”
Earnest said that before the transfer, U.S. personnel had interrogated Umm Sayyaf “for an extended period of time to maximize the collection of available and useful intelligence.”
In a separate statement the same day, the Pentagon made ambiguous references to Umm Sayyaf’s transfer.
“Umm Sayyaf is now being held by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Interior,” the statement said.
However, it later cited “the decision to transfer Umm Sayyaf to the Iraqi government” in saying that action “would be appropriate with respect to legal, diplomatic, intelligence, security and law enforcement considerations.”
Umm Sayyaf is believed to be the first Islamic State detainee of the United States. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has held hundreds of alleged al Qaida-linked terrorists at a U.S. Navy prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, releasing some over the years to other countries.
But President Barack Obama's attempt to close the Guantanamo prison and transfer its remaining detainees to a maximum-security prison in the United States has been blocked by lawmakers. McCain introduced legislation in January to prevent such a transfer, so his call for Umm Sayyaf to be extradited to the United States appeared to be at least somewhat contradictory.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq that, while not fully sovereign, exercises a substantial degree of self-government.
The U.S. military has worked closely with Kurdish authorities in Iraq dating back to the first Gulf War in 1991. While Iraqi Security Forces have fled during some battles against Islamic State militants, Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria have proven to be strong ground fighters in the yearlong U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State.