US pushes to reintegrate militants after Islamic State fight

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Article Summary
A senior State Department official told Al-Monitor the administration is working to help Middle Eastern and African countries reintegrate thousands of fighters who joined the Islamic State and its affiliates.

The Donald Trump administration is working to help Middle Eastern and African countries reintegrate thousands of fighters who joined the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates, a senior administration official said Dec. 5.

Speaking at an Al-Monitor Middle East Mornings breakfast, Denise Natali, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), said the bureau is developing policies and programs to help foreign officials identify whether former Islamic State fighters and affiliates can be deradicalized and re-integrated into their communities.  

“What do we do with tens of thousands of militia, non-state armed groups that won’t reintegrate into national armies, won’t give up their arms and are having a difficult time reintegrating?” Natali asked.  “There’s an easier or more willing path to reintegrate [former fighters from nationalist groups] than it is from Boko Haram, Al-Shabab,” she added, stating that West Balkan states have taken back several hundred Islamic State fighters from Syria.

The challenge of detaining more than 10,000 foreign IS fighters who remain in Syria has been a key point of contention between Trump and European leaders, as the United States slimmed its presence to around 600 troops in the war-torn country this month. The Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have struggled to control overcrowded camps such as al-Hol since Turkey launched an incursion into the war-torn country on Oct. 9.

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At a press conference during a NATO summit in London Dec. 3, Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron sparred over the issue, with the French leader insisting European returnees were a “tiny minority of the overall problem” of IS remnants.

But in Syria, all American aid programs — except for the assistance to the volunteer White Helmets — are currently running on foreign funds from Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom, two former US officials told Al-Monitor. Congress appropriated $40 million in stabilization aid for opposition-held areas that the White House has allowed to be released, the former officials said, despite pushback from the State and Defense departments.

Natali, the State Department official, cautioned that many fighters will not be able to be reintegrated.

 “You’re going to have a whole host of thousands of people who are not integrateable,” Natali added. Earlier this year, CSO launched its Instability and Monitoring Analysis Platform (IMAP), which is a full-screen monitoring program that can remotely anticipate political instability, election violence and atrocities at a national and subnational level across the globe. In one case, in Keyna, the bureau used data driven analytics and stabilization advisors to collaborate with Department of State officials and Keynan authorities to prevent rising sales of machetes ahead of elections a few years ago.

Following a visit to Iraq earlier this year, Natali said Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units are hindering stabilization and the return of more than 1.5 million people displaced in the five-year conflict against IS. 

Meanwhile, Natali said Saudi Arabia’s Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDRPY) has had "very positive traction," citing contributions to stabilize the currency and allow the official Government of Yemen to pay salaries to government workers. Natali said "there are places where we will find that we can work" in Yemen, despite violence and instability in other parts of the country. Al-Monitor reported last month that the Pentagon is also proposing a new program to provide protection for diplomats serving in conflict zones.

But aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations have questioned the Saudi-led coalition’s commitment to the stabilization effort. The United Nations in July called out Saudi Arabia and the UAE for only paying a "modest portion" of their $750 million in humanitarian pledges made this year, which led to bigger contributions announced at the world body’s general assembly in September.

“The United States has had to use diplomatic capital on it,” a source familiar with US talks with Saudi Arabia told Al-Monitor. “They were spending time and phone calls on this issue that could have been devoted to trying to ending the war,” the source added.

Editor's note: Dec. 6, 2019. This article has been updated since initial publication.

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Found in: Islamic State

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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