Syria: The festering threat of informal ISIS prisons

Only a handful of more than 800 foreign ISIS fighters have been transferred back to their home countries

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Omar Sanadiki/Files/File Photo
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As US-backed forces move to take the last remaining areas from ISIS, the militant group that once exacted brutal control across swathes of Syria and Iraq, The National has asked two activists and journalists to speak about their experience of living under the group's dark rule. These accounts are published alongside analysis and news looking back at the years-long war against ISIS and to what the future holds for a group defeated on the battlefield but far from wiped out. 

The territorial defeat of ISIS will not spell the end of the militant group if a solution is not reached to resettle the hundreds of foreign fighters languishing in informal detention centres in Syria, experts and Kurdish officials have said.

Only a handful of more than 800 foreign ISIS fighters captured by US-backed forces have been returned to their home countries from Kurdish-run prisons in the country’s north-east. Meanwhile, the number of detained foreign fighters continues to grow as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wrap up operations east of the Euphrates River.

With no long-term strategy in place to deal with these foreign fighters and many countries of origin ignoring the issue, experts and officials are warning that conditions that contributed to the rise of ISIS more than five years ago may be replicated.

“We cannot assume stability in Kurdish territory,” says Jesse Morton, a former radical who expressed support for Al Qaeda and was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years in the US for making violent threats.

Mr Morton who has since become an anti-extremism advocate, co-creating the counter-radicalisation non-profit organisation Parallel Networks in 2017, said it is important to “remember the prison breaks that preceded the rise of ISIS”, warning of a repeat of what he described as a “Camp Bucca scenario”.

Camp Bucca was a sprawling US detention centre in use in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 that held hard-line militants, including ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and other radicals who would go on to become senior members of the group.

The origins of ISIS have been commonly traced to the prison, which accidentally served as a networking hub and a learning ground for hardened militants – many of whom managed to escape the facility.

There are major differences between conditions in Camp Bucca and Kurdish-run prisons, which do not allow militants the same degree of autonomy to network and recruit. But instability in Kurdish-held parts of north-east Syria makes these detention centres just as vulnerable to prison breaks.

Such a scenario would spell catastrophe.

The ‘burden’ of foreign fighters

Foreign fighters from 48 different countries are held in prisons run by the US-backed SDF, says Abdulkarim Omar, who jointly heads the foreign affairs department of the Kurdish-led self-styled administration in north-eastern Syria.

They include a large number of Arabs and Europeans, he said, declining to disclose their exact nationalities. There are also more than 800 Syrian ISIS fighters currently held in SDF jails, he said.

Mr Omar said these foreign fighters are a “big burden,” adding that their countries of origin are “evading the problem” by refusing to take them back.

These states argue that foreign ISIS fighters are now in Kurdish-held territory and are therefore the responsibility of Kurdish forces. Many of them have cited the risk returning fighters would pose to stability back home to justify their refusal to repatriate them.

The UK, for example, stripped British citizenship from two foreign ISIS fighters, referred to as "the Beatles", and refused to take custody of them after they were captured by the SDF.

France has also said it will not take back fighters and their wives.

Most European and Arab countries have adopted a similar posture, Mr Omar said.

“This poses a very grave threat because these ISIS prisoners are being held in an area that is not stable," he said. "This area is subject to numerous threats from Turkey and other parties,” he added, referring to plans by Turkish officials to launch a military offensive against Kurdish groups in north-east Syria.

“Any form of chaos, fighting or power vacuum in the area could lead to the escape of these detainees, which would pose a threat not only to our region but also to the international community and their countries of origin,” he said.

The problem is not confined solely to fighters.

Kurdish forces are also hosting relatives of foreign ISIS fighters, including 1,300 children and 550 women, who are being kept in camps for the internally displaced in the north-east, Mr Omar said.

These children “were raised under an ISIS mentality”, he said, adding that he believes they are in need of “rehabilitation and reintegration into their countries of origin”.

In the absence of such rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, these young children may grow up to become the next generation of terrorists who would carry out attacks both inside Syria and against foreign countries, he said.

Seeking solutions

Mr Omar said only a small number of states have so far agreed to take back foreign fighters and their families: 40 Chechens, including women and children, have been returned to Russia following talks with Moscow. Another 25 people were returned to Indonesia. Two Sudanese women and three children were returned to Sudan. One American woman and four children were handed over to the FBI. Five Kazakh ISIS fighters and 11 women and 30 children were returned to Kazakhstan on January 5 with assistance from the US, he added.

The January 5 transfer was the first time that Washington has directly facilitated repatriation efforts, by co-ordinating between the SDF and the Kazakh government, Mr Omar said. All previous operations were a result of direct engagement between the countries involved and the Kurdish self-administration.

Kurdish officials are not engaging with Damascus over the possibility of transferring fighters to government detention centres, because they want to “deal with these prisoners in a manner that complies with international law”, Mr Omar said, alluding to the possibility of torture and other human rights abuses in Syrian government facilities.

They are, however, working with the US. He said that Kurdish officials have met with US diplomatic figures on numerous occasions to discuss a solution. They include US State Department adviser, Ambassador William Roebuck, who visited north-eastern Syria in August 2018.

The Kurdish official said the US also believes it is necessary to repatriate foreign ISIS fighters. US National Security Adviser John Bolton said this month that Washington is seeking a "satisfactory disposition" for ISIS prisoners held by US-backed forces.

Speaking during a visit to Israel, where he laid out a set of conditions for a planned US withdrawal from Syria, he said that talks were ongoing with European and regional partners about the issue of ISIS prisoners, without providing more details.

Red Cross support

Kurdish officials have also met with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) which is interested in humanitarian cases among relatives of ISIS fighters, especially cases of children, Mr Omar said.

He said the the ICRC has offered to provide logistical support to secure travel documents and official papers, which is one of the obstacles hampering repatriation efforts.

Many relatives of ISIS fighters, especially children who were born in Syria, do not have official documents.

In some cases, women have kids from different fathers, further compounding the issue. There are also protection issues involved in separating kids from their mothers. Mothers may in some cases be guilty of crimes and not just innocent victims like the kids, which then complicates the process of repatriating families.

According to ICRC spokesperson Anastasia Isyuk, her organisation regularly visits four camps run by the Kurdish administration, where caseworkers attempt to reestablish family links between the women and children and their relatives in their countries of origin.

By the end of September, the ICRC had collected 1,295 Red Cross messages from the camps, Ms Isyuk said.

“We cannot afford to cast these foreign fighters – or their families – as exceptional others for whom international laws do not apply,” Ms Isyuk said, explaining why it was important to provide such assistance. “Security and accountability can be balanced with treating people humanely.”

The ICRC is particularly worried about the women and children languishing in camps. The children have no access to schools, and some are effectively stateless. Both women and children are vulnerable to abuse and health risks.

“Some countries of origin appear to have abandoned them,” she said.

The ICRC “recognises the complexity, both legal and practical,” of returning foreign ISIS fighters and their families to their countries of origin, Ms Isyuk said, but a solution must be found.

“We recognise that there is no easy solution. But these people must not be left in limbo. Looking the other way is not an option for anyone, including countries of origin. If we do, we fear this will fuel hatred in future generations.”