Just four percent of foreign ISIS fighters held by Syrian Kurdish authorities have been repatriated since 2019, statistics find.
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) recently announced their plan to begin trials for the estimated 2000 foreign ISIS fighters they hold in detention, alongside an estimated 8000 Syrians and Iraqis. The decision was reported as a ‘unilateral’ move, which took foreign diplomats ‘by surprise.’ The current position of the United States, which is partnered with the AANES and their military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the fight against ISIS, is that foreign fighters should be repatriated to their home countries to face trial.
But only 74 foreign ISIS fighters have been repatriated since ISIS’ defeat in 2019, analysis based on research provided by the Rojava Information Center shows. Over 75% of those were repatriated in 2019, since when the rate of repatriation has fallen dramatically, with no repatriations at all in 2020, eight in 2021, one in 2022, and none again so far in 2023. The repatriation of ISIS-linked women and children has also slowed in recent years, with only 2586 repatriations documented by the RIC, an independent news and research center based on the ground in North and East Syria (NES). This leaves an estimated 12,500 foreign women and children held in SDF-run facilities – again alongside tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis.
Among major Western powers, only the U.S. has repatriated all 28 of its nationals held in North and East Syria (NES). States like France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Belgium, and the UK have all failed to repatriate a single male fighter. As the statistics suggest, US efforts to push their state partners in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS to follow suit and repatriate their own nationals have fallen on deaf ears – with the UK even preferring to allow the U.S. to extradite and put two British nationals on trial, rather than bringing the members of the so-called ‘Beatles’ terrorist quartet to the UK.
“The AANES has spent five years caring for these criminals, keeping them in prison without trial, which doesn’t comply with international standards,” says Bedran Chiya Kurd, co-chair of the AANES Foreign Affairs Bureau. Speaking at a press conference to explain why the AANES felt forced to begin trials on its own account, Chiya Kurd pointed to repeated breakout attempts, including a major uprising in January 2022 which resulted in the deaths of 374 ISIS members, 117 members of the military and prison staff, and 4 civilians; a deadly ongoing ISIS insurgency which killed hundreds more, including 87 civilians, throughout 2022; radicalization, particularly of minors, in prisons and detention facilities; and the AANES’ lack of resources, meaning the region is struggling under the unsupportable burden of securing and caring for thousands of highly-radicalized individuals on behalf of far richer foreign powers.
The mooted trials are controversial since the AANES lacks formal recognition as an autonomous political entity, meaning many foreign states refuse to engage in diplomatic, humanitarian, or political relations with the region. “While the US-led Coalition cooperates with the SDF within a security and military framework, the West is reluctant to initiate real political engagement with the AANES as a legitimate actor in Syria,” says RIC researcher Samantha Teal. But given the near-total lack of movement on either repatriations or the establishment of an international justice mechanism for trying ISIS – a previous demand of the AANES – it’s unsurprising the region has chosen to begin trying foreign fighters, in line with procedures established in domestic courts which have already charged thousands of Syrian ISIS members.
Exact figures on some repatriations are unclear, as when states announce the repatriation of ‘families’ without specifying the number of individuals involved, while other repatriations may not have been made public. Nonetheless, the report gives a clear picture of several key trends.
The twelve largest individual repatriations were all conducted by post-Soviet states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia), or in one instance, by Kosovo. These states have all taken a considerably more open approach to repatriating their nationals than U.S. allies have. Nearly half of all male fighters repatriated have returned to just one country, Kazakhstan, which has brought back 33 male fighters as well as around 700 women and children. The Kazakh model, which sees women and children placed into an initial state-run rehabilitation program providing ‘health care, family support, housing, education, and job opportunities’ followed by ongoing support and monitoring, alongside trials for men who participated actively in ISIS, has been endorsed by Washington and can and should be replicated by far richer Western powers. Given that over half of the population in Roj and Hol camps which hold the vast majority of third-country national ISIS members are under the age of 12, repatriation and rehabilitation are urgently needed both on a humanitarian basis and to prevent the emergence of a new generation of radicalized Islamist militants.
For its part, the U.S. must recognize that its current policy of encouraging other nations to follow suit is not working. Again, nearly half of all repatriations to date occurred in 2019, since when the rate of repatriation has roughly halved. Some Western powers such as Germany, France, and Sweden have now repatriated the majority of their women and children, but continue to adopt the policy of either repatriating only orphans, or only women and children, leaving behind the most dangerous male ISIS members in NES.
The UK is particularly recalcitrant when it comes to dealing with its own nationals, having repatriated only 10 children and one woman, or less than 20% of the estimated total. Moreover, the UK stripped the British nationality of prominent young female ISIS member Shamima Begum, on the basis she is also eligible for a Bangladeshi passport, leaving her effectively stateless since Bangladesh has stated it will not countenance taking custody of Begum, who has never visited the Asian country.
However, the UK has re-taken custody of another member of the British ‘Beatles’ terror cell, putting him on trial after he was deported from Turkey, where he had been jailed following a conviction on terror charges. Teal notes there are multiple reasons for international powers’ refusal to take custody of their nationals, with repatriations typically highly unpopular domestically, while it can prove difficult to secure appropriate convictions given difficulties in gathering evidence from ISIS’ former zone of control. But a short-sighted unwillingness to engage with the AANES, for fear of angering Turkey given that country’s deep-seated opposition to the Kurdish-led polity, also plays a crucial role in preventing Western states from seeking a resolution to the ever-growing crisis occasioned by the detention of foreign ISIS fighters in NES.
As with the deportation of the man known as ‘Jihadi Paul’ to the UK, Turkey has managed to deport at least 8000 convicted ISIS members to 43 countries, showing the extent to which the lack of repatriations from NES is a matter of political will rather than legal necessity. Indeed, the fact that some repatriations have occurred further demonstrates that foreign powers could easily follow the U.S.’ lead. For example, one UK delegation to repatriated orphaned children born to ISIS members was framed by other press accompanying the UK delegation as a ‘daring SAS raid’: in reality, the delegation was chauffeured across the region’s standard border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, and enjoyed tea, biscuits, and a photo-shoot with local politicians before driving back across the border, in a standard procedure already repeated scores of times by dozens of foreign governments.
Given international powers’ politicized decision not to repatriate their nationals, there are two routes available for the U.S.: either supporting the AANES in their domestic legal efforts or finally taking the initiative to establish a new, specialized justice mechanism to try foreign ISIS members.
While precise details remain unclear, the AANES is expected to conduct any legal procedure on the basis of the terrorism law currently employed in the ‘People’s Defense Courts’ through which the civil administration has been trying Syrian ISIS suspects since 2014. While imperfect, these courts guarantee higher standards of the rule of law and due process than those of any other party to the Syrian conflict or neighboring power. It’s worth noting that a survey of trials conducted using this law found that around 10% of the 8000 ISIS suspects tried by these courts to date have been found innocent and released, 10% were handed the maximum sentence of 20 years to life, and the remainder were handed sentences somewhere in between.
These statistics suggest a clear break from the situation in neighboring Iraq, where ISIS suspects have often been rapidly sentenced to death without due process. “We have prosecutors, we have a group of specialized judges, and we also have years of experience,” Chiya Kurd says. “They will be public trials – monitors, observers, experts, lawyers, will be welcome to these trials. We have been in contact with several European authorities. We want them to be a part of this process. They can send their lawyers to defend their own nationals, or observers to follow the process.”
Admittedly, the AANES lacks the resources and expertise to conduct trials according to Western standards, but their commitment to equitable, just settlement is readily apparent. Chiya Kurd highlighted that the region remains hopeful of Western support and engagement in the establishment of trials for foreign fighters, from either states or NGOs. Rather than speaking up only to criticize the AANES for shortcomings in humanitarian and security provision, the West should play a proactive role in helping the AANES implement fair, legal, and humane trials, along with equipping the region with proper detention facilities rather than the repurposed schools and other ill-suited buildings where half of ISIS suspects are currently held.
Regular amnesties and small-scale but commendable efforts at rehabilitating young male ISIS members, providing rehabilitation programs in detention camps and prisons, and outreach efforts to promote inter-communal tolerance and women’s rights in former ISIS strongholds now under AANES governance all also speak to the region’s commitment to finding a lasting solution which ensures ISIS’ enduring defeat. Again, the West should meet these programs halfway by providing further resources and training.
Alternatively, Washington could itself take unilateral action to establish a justice mechanism on its own account, relieving the AANES of the responsibility. UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2249, which provided for the establishment of the Coalition, also enjoin the 80 member states to “bring [ISIS] to justice, in accordance with international law.” Were there to be the political will, these resolutions could readily be used as the basis for the formation of an alternative justice mechanism, perhaps more palatable to Turkey than trials conducted by the AANES itself—though the AANES would, of course, continue to play a key role.
The ‘unilateral’ announcement is, therefore, part of a much broader conversation, doubtless intended, in part, to provoke a response from global powers. After losing 13,000 of their citizens in the military struggle to defeat ISIS, only to be left to care for tens of thousands of ISIS-linked members who regularly continue to kill their security forces, political representatives, medical personnel, and civilians, they surely have every right to expect one.
The AANES has proved itself the West’s best partner in the fight against ISIS and should be trusted to seek a just, enduring solution to the crisis it is currently facing due to global powers’ unwillingness to take responsibility for their own actions. Unfortunately, Teal observes, it seems “the preferred option is to continue as before: pushing the obligation of dealing with these imprisoned fighters onto the AANES while denying the latter the political backing it needs to build genuine and sustainable security in NES and ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS.”
(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)