On August 30th, the Trump administration is considering a plan to send hundreds of captured ISIS members to an Iraqi prison, while sending several of the “highest-value fighters” to the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to five US officials and two European diplomats cited by NBC News.
The US is considering the move after other countries refused to take the prisoners. The US in February 2018 sent letters to a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Gulf nations, and others – nearly four dozen in all – informing them the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is holding their citizens. The letters included names and as much personal identifying information as possible for each person. The letters said the SDF could not hold these fighters long term and arrangements needed to be made for transfer and continued detention.
According to the five cited US officials, no country agreed. Over the next several months the US convinced several nations to repatriate their citizens. Earlier in August, Macedonia took seven fighters, and Lebanon took custody of eight.
Two unnamed senior US defense officials say that both Tunisia and Kazakhstan have expressed some willingness to take custody of fighters being held in Syria. A statement released by the Trump administration on August 27th said that Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, was due to travel to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco this week to discuss “foreign terrorist fighters” among other issues.
But other countries have continued to decline U.S. requests. Another issue is the nearly 2,000 women and children – wives and kids of ISIS militants imprisoned or killed in fighting – who are now held in refugee camps. Their home countries don’t want them back for fear they could bring radical ideology with them.
The SDF is currently holding about 600 prisoners, some of who will be sent to Iraq. The prisoners that are to be sent to Guantanamo include Alexandar Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were members of a group of four jihadis dubbed “The Beatles” by observers because of their British accents. They are accused of participating in the murder of Americans and other Western hostages.
Those who would be sent to Iraqi prisons under the plan would be held in Iraqi custody, but US would seek to retain the right to prosecute them if their home countries continue to refuse to accept them. The US would also further require having access to them for interrogations.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on options for detained foreign fighters or the “disposition of specific cases.”
“Our partners in Syria are detaining terrorists who were captured or surrendered, including many foreign terrorist fighters,” said the spokesman. “All options will be considered. The president and his national security team will pursue the option that best protects the national security interests of the United States.”
NBC also cited the State Department who refuse to comment on whether a move to send prisoners to Iraq and Guantanamo is among the alternatives considered by the Trump administrations.
There are also critics of the Guantanamo plan, mostly Democratic members of Congress, who say they should be tried in a US federal court. According to them, if the prisoners are sent to Guantanamo they would be held indefinitely without charge.
However, there have been numerous cases of ex-US prisoners who have taken part in terror attacks and in various positions in ISIS or other terrorist formations. The most famous example is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is the leader of ISIS. He was arrested by US forces in Iraq in February 2004. On December 8th, 2004, he was released as a “low level prisoner” after recommended for a release by the Combined Review and Release Board. On August 23rd, 2018, ISIS released an audio message said to be from their leader al-Baghdadi, his first in almost a year. The message called on his followers to ‘persevere’ despite heavy losses in Iraq and Syria and called for more attacks around the world. He also commented on recent events, suggesting that the audio message was recorded recently amongst many rumors that he had been killed.
There have also been numerous reports of unmarked, allegedly US helicopters evacuating ISIS members in Syria, as well as assisting ISIS members in Afghanistan. This paints a troublesome picture.
The US rejects reports that it is involved in any such activities. However, the key question remains what will happen with the ISIS prisoners that are held by the SDF under supervision of the US-led coalition? Is there a chance that they appear somehow in key conflict zones around the world once again creating a justification of the US military there?