Isis dilemma: should 800 UK jihadists return home for trial?

In Depth: with Syrian prisons overflowing, US and Britain debate what to do with foreign fighters

Iraqi government troops celebrate a victory over Isis fighters in Mosul in 2017 
(Image credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The US has called on allied nations to do more to help deal with the growing number of foreign fighters being held by the West-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

An estimated 30,000 foreign fighters joined Islamic State before the self-proclaimed caliphate began to crumble last year. Around 800 of them came from the UK, reports the BBC, and there is concern that these individuals will return home, or move elsewhere, and carry out further attacks.

Around a dozen members of the US-led coalition fighting Isis will meet for talks this week in Rome, where US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis will emphasise the need for countries to take back foreign Isis detainees.

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“We are working with the coalition on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin for disposition,” said Katie Wheelbarger, a US defence official.

However, most nations “would be unwilling to take back detainees unless they have the evidence to prosecute them, and that often is difficult to collect in such battlefield captures”, according to The Washington Post.

The issue has come to the fore following the capture of two British IS fighters, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh - the final members of a four-man terror cell known as ‘The Beatles’. UK Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood told newspapers including The Times it was important that “terrorists from any origin are transparently and fairly held account for their actions”.

Ellwood suggested it was the UK’s wish that the two fighters were tried at an international criminal court, according to the BBC. The news site says the pair are believed to have been stripped of their British citizenship.

Questions remain over whether returning Isis fighters may be sent to Guantanamo Bay, the notorious US prison in Cuba. President Donald Trump issuing an executive order last month that keeps the prison open, prompting speculation that additional detainees could be brought in.

“Guantanamo Bay created a new combatant status that bypassed the Geneva convention, used torture and failed to address a wider global jihadist insurgency that continues today,” Ellwood said.

He added: “Given the scale of foreign fighters, we should consider an agreed international process involving The Hague, which ensures terrorists from any origin are transparently and fairly held account for their actions.”

A number of countries “have openly criticised the use of Guantanamo, where detainees have been held for years without trial”, says The Washington Post. Experts have argued that the facility serves as a recruiting tool for extremist groups.

“Only a well designed and implemented Disengagement, Deradicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) programme can defeat terrorism,” writes David Otto, a counterterror advisor for security consultancy firm Global Risk, in an article for Newsweek.

“Designed and implemented effectively, these programmes have the potential to kill terrorism and turn returning jihadist fighters into a valuable source of information that may lead to the final eradication of Islamic State.”

US officials have told Reuters that there are hundreds of foreign fighters, and thousands of Syrian Islamic State militants, in SDF hands. “At one point, SDF forces were capturing 40 to 50 IS fighters, including Syrians, a day,” the news site says.

In October UK government minister Rory Stewart said that they only way to deal with converts who leave Britain to fight for Isis was to kill them “in almost every case”.

Stewart was echoing the words of Brett McGurk, a top US envoy for the coalition fighting Islamic State, who said his mission is to ensure every foreign Isis fighter in Syria dies in Syria.

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