Holding ex-Islamic State members in Syria not sustainable, says thinktank

·3-min read

Tens of thousands of former Islamic State members held in detention in north-east Syria need to be put on trial or repatriated and deradicalised, a security thinktank has said.

Researchers at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) argue that the current situation, in which 30,000 adults and 40,000 children from more than 60 countries are being held in camps and jails by Syrian Kurdish forces, cannot endure and requires a new global taskforce to resolve.

“The current international response is one of containment, but this is not sustainable,” write Sabin Khan and Imogen Parsons. “As well as denying justice to those who have suffered abuses, there is a growing security threat,” they say, because local forces cannot “securely hold these people indefinitely”.

They propose creating a “hybrid court”, ideally based in the region – a half national, half international approach used in East Timor, Kosovo and Cambodia – to try those accused of participating in terrorist atrocities. Those found guilty should serve prison sentences “in their country of origin”.

Children should be assessed and prioritised “for repatriation and support” in their countries of origin, where possible with their families, as part of a wider process led by a specially created UN- or Global Counterterrorism Forum-led taskforce.

The report has been endorsed by Sir Mark Rowley, formerly Britain’s leading counter-terrorism police officer, who argued that many of those held needed to be put on trial “to remove the sense of impunity for atrocities” and “incarcerate many of those who threaten future security”.

An estimated 70,000 IS followers have been held by the Syrian Kurds in jails and camps since the defeat of the former caliphate in 2019, including 2,000 fighters from outside Syria and Iraq as well as 27,500 foreign children.

They include about 1,000 men, women and children who came over from the UK and EU, the best known of whom is Shamima Begum, who fled east London to join IS aged 15 in 2015 and had three children, who all died, before she was captured.

Begum, who is trying to get her British citizenship reinstated, said in a TV interview in September that she was willing to stand trial in the UK and face down allegations that she was engaged in terrorist acts. “I know I did nothing in IS but be a mother and a wife,” Begum said.

Most countries, including Britain, France and other European nations, have refused to allow the repatriation of the vast majority of former IS fighters and followers, believing it is more popular politically to let them remain in Syria.

The report authors argue the deadlock needs to be broken. “Failure to act would not only be a repeat of the mistakes made prior to 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks, but there would be generational consequences for global peace, security and prosperity,” Khan and Parsons write.

It is not known exactly how many people originating from Britain are held in Syria. Many, like Begum, have had their citizenship removed. It is estimated that 15 women and 35 children from the UK are held in either al-Roj or the larger al-Hawl camp.

Others endorsing the report include the crossbench peer Alex Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who said “concerted international, multilateral action is the correct way to empty the holding camps”.

Another backer, Suzanne Raine, a former head of the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, said: “A stalemate which includes impunity for perpetrators should be unacceptable.”