As the last bastions of the Islamic State fell in Syria, thousands of the group's fighters surrendered to the advancing Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed paramilitary force comprised mainly of Kurdish militias along with a number of smaller Arab formations. The numbers have grown rapidly, swelled by refugees who fled as the last towns held by the Islamic State fell and as more fighters surrendered or were captured.
The counts and categories remain slippery. According to United Nations officials, the main SDF camp at Al Hol, as of April 18, 2019, held an estimated 75,000 persons, 65,000 of whom had arrived in the previous 100 days. (1) Of these, 43 percent are Syrians, 42 percent are Iraqis, and 15 percent are foreigners. Ninety percent are women and children; children alone account for 66 percent of the total. (2)
According to one report in March 2019, the SDF held 8,000 Islamic State fighters, including 1,000 foreign fighters in its prisons. (3) (Syrians who were recruited or impressed into the ranks of the Islamic State were allowed to change sides and fight in the ranks of the SDF or were sent home. (4)) The number of foreign fighters continues to change. On February 18, 2019, the SDF claimed that it held 800 foreign fighters. (5) Another source put the number at 1,000. (6) But other reports in March and April suggested that the number of suspected foreign fighters could be 2,000 or more. (7) In addition to the foreign fighters, there are thousands of their wives and children. (8)
The changing totals reflect a fluid situation as the refugees and detainees are sorted out. Children are being born in the Al Hol camp--and some die. Some of the foreign fighters try to conceal their identity. But the lack of clarity on the numbers also reflects the chaos of the region following the territorial demise of the Islamic State. The situation is still unstable, which poses risks. (9)
What the world does or does not do about these foreign fighters and their families could affect the future stability of the region and the countries from which the foreign volunteers came. Will policies be guided by the parables of recovery and return or by calculations of risk?
Are the foreign fighters and their families lost sheep to be recovered and returned to the fold? Are they turncoats who deserve to be cast out and forever banished beyond the nation's walls? Were they dragged along by fanatic fathers and husbands or lured into the jihadi maelstrom by adolescent illusions of romance and adventure? Are they torturers and murderers who must be punished for their crimes? Are they unrepentant fanatics bent upon avenging their defeat? Are they villains or victims? Future terrorists or reclaimable allies in dissuading others from following their path? Subjects for rehabilitation or beyond redemption?
The human debris of the Islamic State probably includes all of these scenarios. Sorting out their motives for traveling to Syria, their roles in the ranks of the Islamic State and experience living under Islamic State rule, and their current attitudes and apparent readiness to atone will assist in making judgments. But can their intentions ever be known with certainty?
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on May 8, 2019, that "we have an expectation that every country will work to take back their foreign fighters and continue to hold those foreign fighters, we think that is essential," (10) but Britain's home secretary Sajid Javid vowed that he "will not hesitate" to prevent the return of Britons who traveled to join the Islamic State. (11)
A former head of the British army, General Lord Dannett, has argued that Britain's foreign fighters in Syria must be brought back to the United Kingdom because they are the United Kingdom's responsibility. "They have got to be held while they are talked to and if there is sufficient evidence against any of them... they have to be put through due process and imprisoned if that is the right thing to do. But I think it is also important that we treat them fairly with justice and tempered with a bit of mercy as well because... the way we treat them may well have important significance for the way other people view our society." (12) Other security officials who agree that foreign fighters from their countries should be repatriated and investigated add that, personally, they do not want to see them come back. (13)
Public attitudes, partisan politics, domestic and international law, the probability of successful prosecution, the potential risk to public safety, and humanitarian concerns (though, for most, a secondary concern) all influence and complicate policy decisions. Some countries have already addressed this issue in an ad hoc manner, but there is still no overall strategy or plan.
The challenge is to create a comprehensive approach to deal with a large number of individuals according to individual circumstances and with a lot of unknowns. By resolving each case in a transparent process in accordance with the law, bringing terrorists to justice while assisting those who are the victims of Islamic State terror, the United States and its allies can portray the defeat of the Islamic State not as a military victory, but the outcome of successful counterterrorism policies.
This essay examines the pros and cons of various options that have been put forward for dealing with the foreign fighters and their families. It is intended to provoke comment and, hopefully, move the discussion toward pragmatic measures by providing a hard surface for concrete debate. The essay concludes that there is no obvious single solution, but there are some immediate actions that can improve the situation. As a first step, however, it is important to appreciate the complexity of the problem. (14)
A Diverse Population
The inhabitants crowded into the SDF camps comprise a diverse population. Displaced townspeople and villagers who were able to flee from Islamic State-held towns as battlelines grew nearer appear to be the closest to genuine refugees. Many can be described as victims of the Islamic State's cruel occupation, but as in previous wars, others among them may have been collaborators. Some of the latter, no doubt, acted under duress--the Islamic State viciously punished any resistance to its rule--but others may have shared the jihadis' ideology or profited from its presence. Still others may fit somewhere in the middle, thus further complicating the situation.
Those judged to be genuine refugees can be dealt with through existing channels, but that still requires some vetting to sort out those who were combatants or willing supporters from those who were innocent bystanders, which is not so easily done. The numbers are slippery and the divisions murky.
Those who actively supported the Islamic State when it ruled the land will provide the support structure for a continuing underground fight, but trying to segregate Islamic State victims from Islamic State collaborators may not be possible and certainly will not be easy. One question of immediate concern is whether unidentified Islamic State supporters may be intimidating other residents in the camps. Is repudiating the Islamic State dangerous?
The attitudes of the fighters themselves also vary. Some presumably remain convinced jihadis, determined to continue the armed struggle if they can. Others, disillusioned by their experience, may desire only to return home and lead normal lives.
The families of the fighters themselves also represent a diverse group. In a number of respects, the wives and widows of Islamic State fighters represent a thornier problem than the fighters. Some of them were brought to Syria by their husbands; others traveled to Syria seeking jihadi husbands. Their experiences and their attitudes vary greatly. Some suffered terrible ordeals. They married into continuing captivity although with different warders. They were exchanged as sex slaves or assigned to new partners as previous spouses were killed off.
In accord with salafi ideology, most women were confined to purely domestic roles. Others, however, became active participants in special units that enforced Islamic State rule and were involved in the abuse of other women, including the enslaved Yazidis. (15)
Their ideological commitment varies from traumatized victims to committed fanatics who will indoctrinate their children and others they come into contact with--a continuing source of radicalization and violence. In 2 016, an all-female cell attempted to carry out a terrorist attack in France. (16) Another all-female cell was arrested for plotting a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. (17) (None of them had traveled to Syria, although at least one had indicated a desire to go.) These incidents have hardened attitudes toward women.
The children pose an even greater challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Infants and toddlers have no appreciation of ideologies. They must be regarded as innocents, although the older ones may require counseling to address what they have witnessed and suffered and were taught in Islamic State schools and training camps. Traditionally, international law has regarded children as victims rather than perpetrators, but this view has begun to change precisely because of how the Islamic State and other irregular military formations have deliberately enlisted children in their violent campaigns. (18) Islamic State videos, for example, depicted children ostensibly executing prisoners or holding up the heads of decapitated victims. These were not just exceptional events staged for propaganda purposes, but were part of a systematic effort to inculcate brutality among succeeding generations. The Islamic State was widely reported to have forcibly sent children as young as 13 to training camps where, after showing pupils videos of actual beheadings, instructors distributed large knives and "infidel" dolls with blond hair and blue eyes...