Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Detainee Dilemma

More than three years ago, the international coalition dealt ISIS’s self-proclaimed ‘state’ in Syria and Iraq its final defeat, capturing the terrorist group’s last remaining pocket of control of al-Baghouz in eastern Syria.

The military achievement, secured in close coordination with our local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, closed out a nearly five-year military campaign fought at great cost to all involved. ISIS’s false claims of legitimacy and credibility were torn apart and Syria and Iraq were offered a chance to look forward to better futures.

In the months and years since that final battle, forces in Iraq and Syria have sustained their efforts to contain and defeat ISIS, whose threat now exists in the form of terrorist and insurgent attacks. Much of those efforts have borne fruit too, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi both killed in targeted operations in October 2019 and February 2022, respectively. Though the group continues to sustain a steady campaign of deadly attacks, concerns over a possible resurgence have not come to reality – at least not yet.

Today, ISIS’s best chance of a resurgence lies in what remains of their previous territorial incarnation. Three years since ISIS’s defeat in al-Baghouz, more than 12,000 former male fighters and 60,000 associated women and children remain in makeshift prison facilities and squalid, insecure internment camps in eastern Syria. This represents an acute and immediate security challenge, as well as a troubling humanitarian crisis – neither of which appear even close to resolution.

At least 2,000 of the 12,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters are non-Syrian or Iraqi citizens, and at least 700 of them are minors.

ISIS’s dramatic and large-scale assault on the al-Sina Prison – a former school with rudimentary security walls and checkpoints – in Hasakeh governorate in January 2022 served as a stark warning of how these vulnerable facilities, controlled by a non-state, poorly resourced militia, are to attack.

The attack itself involved several hundred ISIS militants, and the week-long battle that followed killed more than 500 people. Subsequent investigations have also revealed that ISIS had infiltrated SDF forces in the area to facilitate the operation, and that ISIS militants inside the prison had easy access to cell phones to plan and coordinate the attack.

Dozens, if not as many as 150 prisoners escaped on that occasion, including several senior commanders. To this day, no judicial mechanism has been established to charge or prosecute foreign detainees held in Syria and their countries of origin have shown no desire to repatriate them for trial at home.

Of the more than 60,000 women and children in camps, at least 13,000 are citizens of more than 60 countries other than Syria or Iraq, and at least 70% of them are children. More than 700 have died of untreated disease, malnutrition or insider attacks since 2019, half of them children.

In recent months, male fighters have infiltrated the largest of the camps, known as al-Hol, and armed men and women have conducted deadly attacks involving rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and grenades. ISIS leadership figures have issued public calls for further attacks inside al-Hol in 2022.

Although the rights and protection of children is a clear requirement under international law, when faced by this acute humanitarian crisis, most Western governments have resisted calls to repatriate women and minors, citing security concerns, political constraints and judicial limitations.

When faced by public calls to do better – particularly from the US government – some governments have stripped women of their citizenship, and others have repatriated small numbers of children, separating them from their mothers.

Since 2017, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia and Uzbekistan have accounted for 85% of all third country returns, while European Union countries plus Norway, Canada, Australia and the United States have repatriated a total of 145 adults. At the current rate of repatriation, it would take at least 30 years to bring all children home, by which time they would be middle-aged. This is an untenable situation and demands urgent attention and a serious policy response.

The challenge of returning Syrian and Iraqi women and children – the vast majority of those held in the camps – faces a number of profound obstacles too.

For Syrians originally from areas now controlled by Assad’s regime, the SDF and the international coalition are legally unable to facilitate their return, given the likelihood they would face immediate and unpredictable prosecution, torture and possible extrajudicial execution.

For Syrians from elsewhere, returns remain a matter of delicate, slow and unpredictable negotiation with local authorities and tribes. For Iraqis, while Baghdad remains open and largely supportive of returns, local communities remain acutely resistant.

So far, less than 6% of Iraqi families currently in al-Hol have managed to return to Iraq.

Leaving ISIS detainees and family members of makeshift prisons and squalid camps does nothing to advance our collective security nor to secure justice to ISIS’s many crimes. When the West last kept large numbers of extremists in detention for a prolonged time – in Camp Bucca in Iraq – they went on to direct ISIS’s unprecedented expansion into a global threat in 2014. Finding a lasting and equitable solution to this problem has never been more urgent.