The decimation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is forcing dozens of governments around the world to grapple with a prickly question: What should they do with their nationals who went to fight in Iraq and Syria and are now being tenuously detained in the war zone?
With the Islamic State surrendering its territory, President Donald J. Trump has called for the two thousand U.S. troops remaining in Syria to come home. If the United States follows through, the Kurdish and Arab allies it will leave behind—known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—have threatened to release thousands of Islamic State detainees in order to defend themselves against their foes in the region, such as Turkey and the Syrian government.
In overcrowded prisons and refugee camps, the SDF is currently detaining about one thousand men and twelve thousand women and children from fifty countries. One such camp, al-Hol, holds seventy-five thousand people in total, including Syrians and Iraqis who lived under the Islamic State. Most of the occupants of the camp, which faces shortages of food, water, and medicine, are children.
Foreign women and children are held apart from the main population, under the watch of armed guards. With some nongovernmental organizations unwilling to help there, observers describe desperate conditions: rampant malnutrition, untreated injuries and disease, and inadequate shelter and sanitation.
The SDF has urged foreign governments to take back their citizens, but most are unwilling. Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have said they will not risk the lives of their troops to retrieve detainees, citing their lack of diplomatic relations with Syria as a complicating factor. Some countries, including Belgium and the UK, have revoked the citizenship of nationals who sought to return home. Meanwhile, France has allowed seven of its citizens to be handed over to an Iraqi court, which sentenced them to death by hanging.
Countries that have taken back their citizens face significant legal hurdles prosecuting them, including difficulties obtaining evidence of alleged crimes or a lack of legal justification to bring charges. Since 2015, many EU countries have outlawed membership in designated foreign terrorist organizations. These laws, however, typically cannot be applied to those who traveled to Iraq and Syria before they took effect.
And then many governments worry that even if they are able to convict someone on terrorism-related offenses, that prisoner may attempt to recruit or indoctrinate other inmates.
Can Returnees Be Reintegrated?
In response, some countries, including the United States, have established programs in prisons or in independent facilities designed to deradicalize returnees. Many were created in the mid-2000s to handle foreigners who had joined al-Qaeda, and later those affiliated with terrorist organizations ranging from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. While the United States has had scattered initiatives, the scale of the issue is smaller than it is elsewhere; fewer than three hundred U.S. citizens left to join the Islamic State, compared to more than 1,900 French citizens.
The goal of these programs, which may provide services including counseling, mentoring, and job training, is to reintegrate individuals into society and thereby defuse a potential threat. However, few studies have measured their effectiveness, and scholars debate their success.
In the meantime, it seems that most governments are simply not willing to gamble that they can either successfully prosecute or deradicalize their nationals after they bring them home. As a result, the humanitarian situation in these camps will likely only grow more dire and the SDF’s position more tenuous.