Up for Debate: ISIS detainees

While ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria has come to an end, the threat presented by the group and others like it is alive and well. Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, both foreign and local, as well as their families and children, are now in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi military and security services, presenting an immediate and pressing challenge. We asked five counter-terrorism experts to assess the situation and answer one key question: What should be done with ISIS detainees?


Charles Lister

The ISIS that surged so spectacularly through Syria and Iraq in mid-2014 was the largest terrorist organization in modern history and benefited from the most significant foreign fighter mobilization ever measured. Although tens of thousands are thought to have been killed, tens of thousands more remain alive — many in prison and some still active, operating in secret. Then there are the family members: thousands upon thousands of women and children, most of whom reside in squalid camps under tight security conditions.

No strategy has been developed to deal with this unprecedented challenge. In Iraq, the plan appears to be mass detention and, whether acknowledged officially or not, to accept a long-term ISIS IDP population. That may provide a sense of resolution, but in truth, it is only a stop-gap. In Syria, the vast majority of captured ISIS militants and families are in various forms of detention and holding facilities controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but as the SDF has made clear, this is highly unsustainable. When it comes to foreign fighters and families, there’s no plan at all — remarkable given how long the international community has had to consider one.

Going forward, as sovereign governments, we have a responsibility to process and try our citizens for crimes committed abroad. We are locked in a war of values and we must recognize that there’s no deterrent value in abandoning radicalized citizens abroad. Soon-to-be ISIS recruits in 2014 were not considering their life prospects amid an ISIS defeat five years later, and neither will prospective jihadist recruits who consider travelling abroad to fight in the future. This is a long-term, decades-long struggle that demands a strategy befitting its scale. Tactical measures haven’t worked in the past and they’ll come back to bite us if we resort to them today.

Elizabeth Dent

Until we come up with a long-term solution, we must ensure they’re securely detained

The recently announced territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria has raised a number of questions about how to handle the tens of thousands of ISIS members, including thousands of family members, who are being detained by the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The fact of the matter is most countries — Western ones in particular — have outright refused to take back fighters who have been rounded up in the field, choosing instead to strip them of their citizenship or simply leave them in the hands of the SDF or the Iraqi judicial system. It is understandable why countries would not want to reintroduce citizens to their societies who have proven to be a threat, but the current policy of leaving them in the hands of the SDF, coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces, is simply not a sustainable solution.

It will be critical to ensure the SDF has the necessary resources and capability to detain fighters for the foreseeable future. This means that coalition partners, especially those who have a large number of fighters in detention, must contribute funding or personnel to help maintain the infrastructure of detention centers. Absent a path forward to the resolution of the Syrian civil war, which may at some point entail the return of detainees to a state-like structure, or an international tribunal, which at the moment appears unlikely, we should use our money and personnel to ensure a reliable force is keeping an eye on these dangerous people to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and potential attacks against our homelands.

Tore Refslund Hamming

We need to be smart about this

Our first task is to de-securitize the challenge. If we continue to only view ISIS detainees through the lens of the alleged security threat they pose, we will remain unable to handle the challenge while the risk of settling on counterproductive strategies will heighten. We need to be smart about this, and decisions based on desire for revenge or avoidance of responsibilities will not get us far.

ISIS detainees should be divided in two general categories: locals and foreigners.

In the case of locals, i.e. Syrians and Iraqis, the international community should invest in local institutions to handle such cases. This should include tangible aspects like funding and expertise but also assistance to ensure that judicial proceedings are in line with international standards and legislation. Court proceedings lasting a few minutes or involving children as we now see in Iraq should not take place.

In the case of foreigners, we can view the challenge from three different perspectives — from a judicial, a moral, or a security perspective. Judicially, countries are obliged to take back their citizens. Morally, no country can leave this immense task to institutionally weak and politically unstable countries like Syria and Iraq. From a security point of view, countries are more secure taking back their nationals than leaving them to potentially roam freely in Syria, Iraq or wherever they escape to, thus countering the common perception in the West that a country’s security suffers if its foreign fighters are allowed home. Based on these three dimensions I see no meaningful arguments not to actively repatriate foreign fighters detained in Syria and Iraq.

Joana Cook

Foreign detainees should be returned home

Foreign detainees should be returned to their home nations and monitored, investigated, detained, and prosecuted as appropriate. All should be required to undergo deradicalization programming where available, which should be conscious of the diverse, gendered roles and dynamics of their participation in ISIS and disengagement from the group. Current concerns about returnees revolve around the lack of evidence available for trials, and security concerns they may pose. Yet, these persons can provide important evidence and intelligence about others they interacted with in Syria and Iraq, potentially assisting in prosecutions. Foreign detainees will also likely not be held indefinitely by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and may remain security concerns both locally and internationally. Some persons may, in some select cases, also provide powerful counter-narratives to the realities of life under ISIS, and help deter future support and membership.

For foreign minors currently detained in Iraqi or SDF custody their repatriation and rehabilitation must be prioritized. These minors are largely victims of their parents/guardians’ choices, or have been born into this group where their only identity may be that within ISIS. Our research at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation has demonstrated at least 4,460 foreign minors must be accounted for (a vast underestimation due to data gaps). This population is particularly vulnerable to long-term, inter-generational concerns including radicalization, alienation (both from local and home communities), and a lack of opportunity to live a normal life.

Returning these people to their home nations is not charity — it is pragmatic in relation to future security concerns, and for the justice and recovery of local populations who suffered most under ISIS. Foreigners who remain in theater only aggravate and further stretch already over-burdened judicial and detention systems, risk radicalizing others in detention, and overwhelm what few deradicalization and recovery mechanisms exist in the region. We must take responsibility for our citizens.

Seamus Hughes

We already have a robust legal framework for this

The United States had a relatively small number of its citizens travel to Syria or Iraq to join jihadist organizations. All told, some 300 individuals attempted to or successfully migrated. The Program on Extremism at George Washington University has identified at least 76 Americans who successfully arrived in Syria or Iraq to join the ranks of terrorist groups. They tend to be male, and, with an average age of 27, young. They also didn’t make the journey alone. The vast majority traveled with friends, spouses, or children. At least 13 returned home, most disillusioned and disenchanted with their time in the Islamic State. In fact, only one individual was known to have successfully returned with the expressed intent of carrying out a terrorist attack. The United States has a well-worn system for addressing returning foreign fighters. The Department of Justice has charged at least 11 with either providing material support for terrorism or making false statements to law enforcement. On average, they are sentenced to about eight and a half years. While this is considerably longer than most sentences in Europe, it is well below the recommended sentence of 20 years for material support. This speaks to the intelligence and information returning travelers have provided to federal authorities.

The United States is well positioned to address returning foreign fighters for two reasons. First, unlike some other countries, the numbers of U.S. citizens in the Islamic State are small and manageable. Second, the material support clause has a proven track record of law enforcement success for more than 20 years. Putting aside the moral questions of a considerably broad statute, its elasticity does provide law enforcement with the room to charge individuals with violations that other Western countries cannot. There is considered case law and a functioning, albeit flawed, process of adjudicating battlefield evidence and classified information. By some estimates, over 40,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries traveled to Syria or Iraq during the height of the Islamic State’s power. These countries have both a legal and moral responsibility to provide some semblance of justice to the Iraqi and Syrian victims of crimes perpetrated by this foreign fighter cadre. Additionally, the United States has a robust legal framework to address the issue. The United States would do well to lead by example and continue to repatriate its citizens back to America to face the consequences of their actions.

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