WASHINGTON - A 42-year-old man from Brooklyn, New York, is back on U.S. soil, charged with fighting for the Islamic State terror group as a sniper before rising through the ranks to become an emir.
Charges against Ruslan Maratovich Asainov were unsealed Friday, a day after U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces handed him over to U.S. law enforcement officials.
The U.S. military then flew Asainov to New York, where he appeared before a judge Friday.
According to court documents, Asainov, a naturalized citizen who came to the U.S. from Kazakhstan, traveled to Syria in late 2013, where he began fighting with IS as a sniper.
Eventually, he became one of the terror group's emirs, responsible for establishing training camps for IS recruits and for teaching them how to use weapons.
He also began communicating with a confidential informant for the FBI, asking for money while periodically sending the informant photos of himself and other IS fighters in combat gear.
"We [IS] are the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed," he allegedly wrote in one communication, adding he wished to die on the battlefield.
In other messages, officials say Asainov talked about fighting in places like Kobani, Deir el-Zour and Tabka.
In addition to the messages, U.S. officials said in court documents that some of the evidence against Asainov is based on interviews with "at least one other individual who provided material support and resources to ISIS during part of the same time period as the defendant."
Asainov has been charged with providing and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
"The United States is committed to holding accountable those who have left this country in order to fight for ISIS," Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement, using an acronym for the terror group.
"We hope countries around the world, including our European allies and partners, will likewise repatriate and prosecute their own citizens for traveling to support ISIS," he added.
Holding foreign fighters
Since the collapse of the Islamic State's physical caliphate in Syria this past March, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have been holding an estimated 2,000 foreign fighters from more than 50 countries in make-shift prisons. In addition, the SDF has processed tens of thousands of civilians linked to IS, including the wives and children of the foreign fighters.
There are no official estimates for how many of the IS prisoners were U.S. citizens or residents. But in comments to VOA this past June, Kurdish officials suggested more Americans were in custody.
"It's up to the U.S. government whether it wants to take back more of its citizens held by our forces," said Kamal Akif, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria.
Independent research by The George Washington University's Program on Extremism has identified 80 U.S. citizens or residents who traveled to Syria or Iraq to join extremists groups since 2011, 75% of whom aligned themselves with IS.
Most recently, this past June, the U.S. repatriated two American women accused of joining IS, along with their six young children. So far, the women have not been charged.
Four other U.S. citizens - three men and one woman - who left the country to join IS have also been brought back to face charges.
Most recently, the U.S. brought back Warren Christopher Clark in January.
Last July, the U.S. repatriated Ibraheem Musaibli and Samantha ElHassani from Syria. Musaibli, a resident of Dearborn, Michigan, was charged with joining IS in 2015.
ElHassani was charged with providing material support to IS and with helping other individuals join the terror group. Her four children, who also came back with her from Syria, were placed in the custody of officials with the U.S. state of Indiana.
In June 2017, the U.S. brought back Mohamad Jamal Khweis of Alexandria, Virginia. Khweis, who was found wandering in Iraq by Kurdish peshmerga forces, was found guilty of providing material support to IS.
U.S. officials have said they continue to work to verify the U.S. citizenship of those individuals in the conflict zone on a case-by-case basis.
U.S. counterterrorism officials estimate that more than 45,000 foreign fighters flocked to Syria and Iraq following the start of the Syrian civil war, including 8,000 from Western countries.
An independent estimate by researchers at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, just published by the Combating Terrorism Center's CTC Sentinel, estimates IS still counts almost 53,000 foreigners among its ranks in Syria and Iraq, including more than 6,900 foreign women and up to 6,600 foreign children.