The final fall of ISIS's false caliphate in March 2019 after the liberation of the Syrian town of Baghouz was greeted with relief by every sane person. It left behind, however, the problem of what to do with the tens of thousands of fighters and family members who were detained in the aftermath. Everyone agreed they should be prosecuted – or dealt with more humanely, in the cases of children and those who could prove they had been held against their will. The questions were: where, and by whom?
The issue was – and remains – particularly pressing when it comes to the thousands of foreigners who had flocked to ISIS’s black banner. Some countries were prepared to take their nationals back. Malaysia, for instance, has repatriated a small number. Two who returned last November are currently being tried and face up to 30 years in jail if convicted, while others have gone through rehabilitation programmes and are being monitored.
European governments, on the other hand, have been extremely reluctant to do the same. Along with the US, they have held discussions about western nationals captured in Syria being transferred to Iraq, which has long been trying and convicting ISIS terrorists. Last summer, 11 French defendants were sentenced to death in an Iraqi court – with the full approval of President Emmanuel Macron's administration. The French president's attitude is backed up by a French public that, opinion polls show, is overwhelmingly ready to wash its hands of its extremist compatriots.
Iraqi officials insist the trials are fair. United Nations officials, however, disagree. “The sub-contraction of trials,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN special rapporteur for human rights, “to an ill-resourced, under-funded, ill-equipped criminal justice system in Iraq can only be described as an abrogation of responsibility.” That was last May. The following month Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights chief, called the trials “flawed” and said that family members should be repatriated, “unless they are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards".
Seven months on, the lack of a proper solution – and the failure of western countries to take responsibility for their own citizens or agree to create an international tribunal – has angered the Kurdish authorities in Syria to the point that they recently announced they would start trying the 5,000 prisoners of varying nationalities they have been left holding. There have already been calls for the Australian government to bring back its own citizens before the trials start. This is understandable; even with the best of intentions, there should still be concerns about the ability of the hard-pressed Kurdish autonomous region to ensure the highest and fairest standards of justice.
The unwillingness of western governments to own the problem of what to do with their radicalised nationals is bad enough – especially since those countries that took part in the invasion of Iraq must acknowledge that their actions and inactions helped to create the circumstances in which the appalling evil of ISIS could arise and flourish.
Most odious of all, however, is the attempt by some countries – notably the UK and Denmark, although others are looking into it – to deprive their own ISIS-linked nationals of citizenship.
The most famous case is that of Shamima Begum, the teenager who ran away from her home in east London to join ISIS. Currently languishing in Al Roj camp in Kurdish Syria, last week she lost the first round of her appeal against the decision by Sajid Javid, then UK home secretary, to strip her of her British citizenship in 2019.
Some might condemn her, as she is said to have been an enforcer for ISIS’s notorious “morality police”. Others might pity her. She was an impressionable 15-year-old when she left. In the five years since she has borne three children. All have died.
Neither is the point. It is illegal to render an individual stateless – as the former UK prime minister Theresa May conceded when she was home secretary in 2014 – and that is what the British government has done. The recent ruling claimed that Begum “was a citizen of Bangladesh by descent”, and was therefore not stateless, even though she had never held a Bangladeshi passport and had never been to the country. Further, the foreign ministry in Dhaka declared last year that she had been “erroneously identified” as a citizen and that there was “no question” of her being allowed into the country.
So despite the ruling, this is clearly a case of the UK trying to pass the buck.
As Areeq Chowdhury, head of the UK think tank Future Advocacy, tweeted over the weekend: “She was born in Britain, raised in Britain, radicalised in Britain, and failed by Britain. She's Britain's responsibility, not Bangladesh's.” Nor should she be Syria’s or Iraq’s.
The way countries like the UK are trying to duck their fundamental responsibility towards these citizens is either to claim that an individual is simply too dangerous to return – to which I would say, let life imprisonment be life imprisonment then – or that the country lacks the appropriate legislation to secure a long enough sentence or cannot gather the necessary evidence to press charges successfully.
This is a bald-faced cop out. Governments with the stomach to do so could easily pass emergency laws specifically to deal with such cases. Civil libertarians might be upset but no one who stayed with ISIS until the end could claim they did not know what a wicked, criminal and bloodstained organisation they were a part of – even if they were just washing the dishes.
It is time for western countries to face up to their own liabilities. If Malaysia, which has strong anti-terrorism legislation, can take its citizens back, so can they. It is the least they can do if their stated concerns about the peoples of Iraq and Syria are genuine and not just meaningless platitudes from politicians who are happy to intervene abroad but never to deal with the aftermath.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum