ISIS prisoners in detainee camps could “sow the seeds of a new form of Daesh” if they are not rapidly processed through the judicial system, the deputy commander of coalition forces in Iraq said.
Maj Gen Kevin Copsey urged the anti-ISIS coalition to address the problem of 7,000 prisoners held in temporary camps, warning that within two years a new form of violent extremism will emerge.
ISIS propaganda is also continuing to inspire "lone wolf" attacks by “self-radicalised” extremists around the world, the Royal United Services Institute webinar in London heard.
There are currently 60,000 refugees in the Al Hawl camp on the Syria-Iraq border controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well the 7,000 prisoners, including foreigners, mostly guarded by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.
They are living in poor conditions that are believed to be fuelling extremist ideology and the spread of propaganda, as well as battlefield experience.
But there is no fixed pathway to process them through the judicial system.
“If the detainee problems are not unlocked, certainly within the next two years, you could actually see the seeds of a new form of Daesh, a new form of violent extremist organisation grow from it,” said Maj Gen Copsey, the senior British officer in the Combined Joint Task Force in Iraq.
“If that is not addressed, then unfortunately we will be back here in years to come, doing a similar mission.”
There are also concerns that prisoners are escaping from the camps, with reports that up to seven have absconded in the past month.
The officer said they were giving the SDF the “skills and tradecraft” to safely control the detention centres, but it was still a challenge.
Ultimately, the coalition would like to repatriate and reintegrate many of the detainees back into society, or find a "judicial pathway from which they serve a prison sentence or attend de-radicalisation programmes," he said.
The webinar, titled From Ensuring the Enduring Defeat of ISIS to Stabilising the Region, was also told that an unintended result of the Covid-19 pandemic had led to Western forces giving Iraqis more operational control.
"The Iraqi security forces saw that they were actually better than they thought they were when they take the fight to ISIS," Maj Gen Copsey said.
The conference heard that ISIS propaganda is continuing to radicalise people across the world, including ‘lone wolf’ attackers, thought to be responsible for several murders in America.
"Daesh continues to issue calls for violence through information propaganda that it believes will allow it to attract recruits from vulnerable populations," said David Schlaefer, the US deputy special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS.
He called for the tech industry hosting websites and social media platforms to work with the coalition to prevent terrorists from exploiting vulnerable people.
“We see individuals who don't have any explicit ties or connections to ISIS, who, in effect, are self-radicalised by ingesting their propaganda that ISIS disseminates openly on the internet and encrypted sites.”
He added: “We all know the type of pain and the suffering a single individual can cause who does self-radicalise and then acts upon it.”