Send ISIS prisoners back to their countries of origin

Send ISIS prisoners back to their countries of origin
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U.S. battlefield successes against the Islamic State have paradoxically created an urgent situation: deciding the fate of hundreds of captured foreign fighters in Syria.

During the liberation of cities like Raqqa, local groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized foreign fighters, who are now languishing in temporary detention facilities in Syria. While some U.S. policymakers argue that these detainees should be sent to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a better option is to have allied countries of origin take custody of them.


This problem has been building over the past four years. In 2014, Islamic State columns advanced out of Syria and rapidly made their way to the outskirts of Baghdad. At its peak in late 2014, the Islamic State controlled over 100,000 square kilometers containing nearly 12 million people, mostly in Iraq and Syria.


The Islamic State’s seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria, the charisma of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the group’s social media prowess attracted over 40,000 Sunni fighters to the region.

According to U.S. government estimates, most of these fighters were from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, followed by such countries as France, Belgium, Germany, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

By the end of 2017, nearly three quarters (roughly 30,000 fighters) were still alive in Iraq or Syria, 17 percent (roughly 7,000 fighters) had left the region and more than 10 percent (roughly 5,000 fighters) had died. 

The so-called caliphate has now largely collapsed, including in its heartland of Syria. The primary ground-fighting element consisted of the SDF, which was dominated by Kurdish militia and supported by U.S. air strikes and military forces.

But the Islamic State’s downfall has led to an increasingly tenuous situation: There are hundreds — if not thousands — of foreign fighters currently detained by SDF and other forces in Syria. These foreign fighters were rounded up as the SDF drove the Islamic State out of cities and towns in eastern Syria. 

To deal with this situation, the Trump administration should pursue a deliberative approach. Washington should begin by working with the SDF and other allies to take an accurate count of the number of detainees, as well as collect biometric data and identify their countries of origin.

The next and more difficult step should be deciding what to do with the fighters. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently remarked, not all are hard-core terrorists:

“We have hundreds of prisoners who don’t have quite the same amount of zeal they once pronounced when they were winning that they would fight to the death. It seems like hundreds of them are not quite that committed,” he said. 

There are several options. The first is to do nothing and let the SDF and other local forces sort them out. But this is not a palatable option. Most detainees would likely be shot or released.

As Secretary Mattis remarked: “We want to make certain that foreign fighters are taken off the battlefield and they don’t show up someplace else — right now I want to hold with that.” 

A second option is to hand the detainees to the Syrian government, since they are on Syrian territory. But this is a non-starter. The Trump administration can’t give these fighters to a regime that has used chemical weapons against its own population.

In April 2017, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE even authorized the U.S. military to fire five dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government airbase that housed many of the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks.

The third is to send some or all detainees to the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay. In January 2018, President Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. military leaders to keep Guantánamo Bay open.

As President Trump remarked during his State of the Union address:

“I just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. I am also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists — wherever we chase them down."

But transferring most of them to Guantánamo Bay makes little sense. With President Trump’s push for greater military and economic burden-sharing by European and Asian allies, why should the United States house, feed and pay the costs of prosecuting individuals that are citizens of other countries?

Besides, no new detainees have been sent to Guantánamo Bay since 2008. They have either been handed over to other countries or tried in U.S. civilian courts. 

A fourth option, and the most sensible one, is to extradite most of the detainees to their countries of origin. According to commanders like Sipan Hemo, head of the SDF’s People’s Defense Units, more than half of those detained in Syria are foreign fighters from Russia, Europe and Arab countries. These countries have an obligation to take back their citizens. 

Yet, implementing this approach won’t be easy. Many of these governments have been unwilling to take back detainees unless they have sufficient evidence to prosecute them, which is often difficult to collect in battlefield captures. Still, the United States can share intelligence with their governments and ensure an orderly hand-off. 

The United States has successfully weakened the Islamic State. This achievement makes it more important than ever to adopt a sensible approach toward detainees. 

Seth G. Jones is the Harold Brown chair and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is the author, most recently, of “Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State” (Oxford University Press).