The fate of foreign fighters has become a thorny issue amid US preparations to withdraw from Syria most of its troops. Even though the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have officially denied it, they are apparently handing over dozens of captured Islamic State fighters and their family members from the IS-held village of Baghouz, the last besieged stronghold, to Iraqi security forces. They include European nationals as well as citizens from Arab states and former Soviet republics. The Kurds, who risk losing the current external backing and protection, are reportedly discussing the option of releasing 1,100 militants and 2,080 relatives of the group’s members. The move may be a bargaining chip with the United States or other parties whose nationals are among the seized group of terrorists. Moreover, if the Kurds manage to secure Damascus’ cooperation on the issue, the matter may take on a new dimension. The Syrian special services are unlikely to miss the chance to compel the security forces of other states to establish contacts.
In turn, Iraq’s president has already mentioned 13 fighters of French origin who would be tried in a local court. Moreover, there are unconfirmed reports that the SDF has also handed over two French-born fighters to the Syrian regime.
In the meantime, the Iraqi legal system has been subject to severe criticism. Human rights organizations have reported hasty court proceedings and scant evidence provided. Sometimes only rumors have corroborated the accusations, which creates tension in the already fragmented Iraqi society and may trigger another Sunni insurgency. The first public report on the transfer of eight fighters to Lebanese Military Intelligence by the United States in August 2018 has also sparked many questions since the detainees were transferred in total secrecy without basic legal protections.
The European Union was sceptical about US President Donald Trump’s ultimatum to its allies from the international coalition about taking nationals who have joined the IS ranks back from Syria. European leaders have favored the idea of putting jihadis on trial, but insist on holding criminal proceedings in the countries where the crimes have been committed. Heiko Maas, Germany’s chief diplomat, told Trump that repatriation would be possible only if returning fighters could be immediately taken into custody, which would be “extremely difficult to achieve” without proper judicial information.
The fears over the threat of IS returnees to Europe are not unfounded as repatriated nationals have but once committed terror attacks. The attack of Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who had previously fought in Syria, was one of the first recorded cases. He opened fire on visitors at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in 2014. Theoretically speaking, all the interested parties could agree that fighters would go on trial on the ground while the sentence would be served at home. However, apparently militants can reproduce and disseminate radical ideas in prisons while summary trials along with scarce evidence can affect the domestic security of the foreign fighters’ native states.
As a result, Europe is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and is facing a serious legal precedent. It can refuse to accept a man — albeit a former radical militant — only if the person is deprived of citizenship. However, international law explicitly prohibits leaving a person without any citizenship.
Russia is vocally critical of the United States and Europeans’ unwillingness to assume responsibility either for the prosecution of foreign fighters or for the repatriation of their wives and children. Talking heads appearing in the media propagate unsubstantiated claims that since the United States suffered what they see as a defeat in Syria it seeks revenge by opening fronts. For this reason, the argument goes, its military helps relocate terrorists to Africa and Afghanistan — the latter to destabilize Central Asia. Trump’s call on European allies has been interpreted by some in Moscow as a sign that the militants will go unpunished, and as a pardon offered by Trump "to any invader seeking to overthrow the legitimate government."
For all the seemingly efficient mechanisms Russia employs against its own returnees, there are but a few problems with returning fighters in Russia as well.
On the one hand, both state-owned media and private liberal media outlets recognize that Indonesia and Russia are the only two countries that have managed to repatriate a number of women and children from Syria, with other countries taking back their citizens only from Iraq. In a Feb. 25 interview for Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, Anna Kuznetsova, children's rights commissioner for the president of the Russian Federation, said that in Iraq it had already become possible to bring back children not born in Russia, thanks to DNA testing. In addition, she noted that her office had received repatriation requests from Syria, but it was still difficult to “ensure law enforcement” on the territories outside of government control.
However, such episodes have taken place. Ziyad Sabsabi, special envoy for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for the Middle East and North Africa, is in charge of the repatriation program. The Syria-born Russian senator belongs to the mighty Quraysh tribe, of whom Prophet Muhammad was a member.
Russia’s efforts to return its women and children from the Middle Eastern war zones began after Kadyrov posted an RT video on Instagram in early April 2017. It depicted Russia-born children stranded in a Baghdad-based orphanage as their parents had joined the IS ranks. In 2017, Al-Monitor reported the subsequent stories of evacuating Middle East-born Russian nationals.
For all the positive developments, one should heed the following factors.
First, even if one reproaches the Europeans for their failure to once prevent IS supporters from flocking to the Middle East, one should admit Russia’s responsibility for the group gaining recruits. Before the Sochi Olympics took place and after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June 2014, the security forces started to drive Islamic clerics and activists out from the North Caucasus only for them to end up in the Syrian war. As Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, quipped, “Russian ultraradicals perfectly fitted in with the [Middle Eastern] militants. Moreover, they occupied high, if not dominant, positions in the hierarchy of terrorist organizations.” Some Chechens, for instance, became IS commanders, others formed their own units or brigades such as Katibat al-Aqsa.
Second, as Denis Kolchin, a journalist specializing in jihadism on Russian soil, told Al-Monitor, “The handover of Russian fighters captured in Syria and Iraq had never been high on the agenda.”
“Despite the Kabardino-Balkar Republic’s security forces reporting the return and trial of dozens of men, I suppose that these people are taken captive only to be executed shortly after. They started to come home long ago, but mainly one by one. The return in groups wasn’t rare either, but it was an apparent infiltration into the country to be involved in guerrilla warfare,” he said.
Third, the practice of returning women and children from IS was launched before Kadyrov publicly boasted the campaign. Marina Ezhova, commissioner for Children’s Rights in Dagestan, acknowledged her off-the-record participation in the children’s repatriation from war zones before Chechnya’s own efforts received the spotlight. Moreover, the adaptation of women and children who returned from Iraq and Syria is practiced differently in different regions of the North Caucasus. In Chechnya, for instance, the authorities mostly refused to prosecute the women who have been brought back from IS seeing their participation as a “product of manipulation and brainwashing.” These people are now allowed to live ordinary life. In Dagestan and Ingushetia, however, the vision of the situation is different, which is exemplified by the returnees getting arrested upon arrival in Dagestan while their surrender statements “disappear” from case materials.
As Kolchin argues, none of those women and adolescents who have come back have been caught participating in jihadist operations in Russia so far. However, the rehabilitation mechanism has yet to emerge. Under such circumstances, there is a risk that we will lose them again, leaving them with their problems and psychological traumas.
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