The head of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria [AANES] recently announced that the authorities in northeast Syria (Rojava) will be conducting trials of the many ISIS prisoners held by the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] beginning in early 2021. Sheikhmous Ahmed, the head of the AANES office for internally displaced persons and refugees, mentioned in the announcement that Swedish observers whose government has indirectly expressed support for the upcoming trials of both men and women will monitor them, along with observers from other countries as well. The news comes after an official Swedish diplomatic delegation visited the region for several days, though the delegation clarified that Sweden would not be officially sponsoring the locally administered trials and other sources have also told ICSVE that the AANES announcement that Swedish observers are going to be involved is not accurate. Indeed, Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a retired U.S. diplomat who has been asked by the AANES authorities for advice on prisoner issues, states, “I doubt that any government would sanction foreign monitors of AANES trials, or pay for the monitors.”
In the face of most Western European countries alongside many others refusing to repatriate their citizens, most of whom entered Syria illegally to ultimately join ISIS, the SDF has been calling for an international tribunal to hold trials in Northeast Syria. However, that solution was a nonstarter given that the SDF, as a nonstate armed force, is not an internationally recognized governing body and the Assad government, having also committed as many if not far more war crimes than ISIS, would also fall under the jurisdiction of a UN tribunal. Therefore, the hybrid solution going forward now arose with the AANES holding local trials planned to take place this coming January under, according to their hoped-for claims, monitoring by European, namely Swedish, officials.
The SDF has been preparing to conduct locally administered trials of all foreigners in their custody for quite some time, and trials were set to begin, without international monitoring, early in 2020, but were postponed due to COVID-19. According to ICSVE’s sample of 129 ISIS prisoners and detainees held in NE Syria, the American military had collected biometric data from the captured and surrendered male ISIS prisoners upon intake. However, it was not until this summer that the SDF began to collect this same data from the women held in Camp al-Hol, which has become notorious for housing some women who are still deeply committed to ISIS. Indeed, in ICSVE interviews in Camp al Hol and the now disbanded Camp Ain Essa, the security situation described both by the ISIS women themselves and their guards has been dangerous, chaotic and dire. In registering and transferring some of them to an annex built on to Camp Roj with stricter security protocols, the SDF was trying to assert control, crack down on the smuggling of ISIS women out of Camp al Hol and perhaps also hoping to place additional pressure on Western countries to repatriate their nationals. This is also likely a goal of the upcoming trials, although when facing the complete refusal of most countries to repatriate their ISIS cadres and family members, the SDF and AANES also made statements that to try them where they had committed their crimes was just because it is the Syrian people who suffered the most at the hands of ISIS. While the legal arguments still rage, it appears the trials will go forward in January.
The trials are likely to raise some serious issues in regard to European and other countries who have thus far refused repatriations. For instance, where evidence is lacking or there is evidence that supports innocence, acquittals are possible. Likewise, many ISIS members have been held for three years or more, and if short sentences are given for less serious crimes, many will serve out their sentence in a short span of time. In both cases, this leaves the home countries in the quandary of what to do about a citizen who is now legally freed by the SDF and AANES and who may claim a right to return home.
As former Ambassador Galbraith explains: “Trials conducted by the AANES authorities will easily be fairer than those conducted by the Iraqi or Syrian Governments and, while not perfect, can provide an element of justice. But, there are practical difficulties. Even if an individual is found not guilty – or deemed to have already served her or his sentence during their time in SDF detention – they cannot be released into the general population of Northeast Syria. And, there is no reason to think that the governments that now refuse to repatriate their citizens will consider an acquittal in an AANES court to mean the person is safe to bring home. However, the trials of radical foreign women could have one practical advantage with regard to their children. Right now, these children are being raised in an environment where they may become the next generation of jihadis, suicide bombers, and murderers. The AANES authorities have been unwilling to take children from their mothers in the detention camps for fear of being criticized by human rights groups. However, if the mothers are convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison, new arrangements will have to be found for their children. This could facilitate the repatriation of children to countries that are unwilling to accept adults.”
Notably, the first women registered in Camp al-Hol were Canadian and Australian. The first author interviewed Canadian Kimberly Pullman last year. Kimberly was already a deeply traumatized woman with a claimed history of rapes, mental illness, and suicidality even before she went to Syria. In the interview, she stated that she succumbed to ISIS recruitment and traveled from Canada to Syria, thinking that if she was going to kill herself, she might as well travel to Syria and carry out God’s will, risking death while helping Syrian children as a nurse. Indeed, Kimberly worked for ISIS as a nurse, although it appears she treated more than just children. Likewise, according to her story, she was extremely mistreated by ISIS against whom she spoke out while inside the group. According to her accounts, Kimberly was imprisoned and raped by ISIS. While we have not had access to review her medical files, Kimberly’s mental illness claims prior to traveling to Syria are likely true, as her papers legally adjudicating her as medically disabled tragically arrived the day after she left for Syria. Kimberly, according to her self-report, is presently seriously suicidal and ill with hepatitis. Interestingly, she welcomes the upcoming trials and hopes she will be among those tried as she has a possibility of being acquitted on these very grounds.
Jack Letts is another ISIS cadre interviewed by the first author. While Jack left the UK as an adult, he has a well-documented history of obsessive-compulsive disorder that he entrained to Muslim rituals after converting. He is currently imprisoned with no medication and surrounded by other prisoners who have concluded he has “jinn” – an Islamic belief in possession that at times results in the victim being beaten until the jinn leave his body. He too could likely argue convincingly for a mental illness-based acquittal due to his dire need for treatment, although given he allegedly made threats on social media aimed back home and was a fighter, he might face more difficulty than Kimberly pleading his case. Shamima Begum may also be acquitted based on her minor status when she decided to travel. Both Shamima Begum and Jack Letts have had their UK citizenship revoked and are lightning rods in the UK in terms of strong societal revulsion to their ever being repatriated. However, a UK court did rule this summer that Shamima can return in order to appeal her citizenship removal, a ruling that is about to be contested in the UK’s Supreme Court.
Kimberly Pullman, a dual citizen with American and Canadian passports, is rejected by her Canadian homeland, although she appears well-suited for repatriation. According to her claims, she is completely disillusioned with ISIS and appears very unlikely to pose any threat to society. Yet, she remains in Syria. Perhaps such streamlining of legal processes by the SDF and AANES will, at best, facilitate her safe return home or, at worst, pose a deep humanitarian quandary for her government if she is freed by local courts.
Other ISIS women held by the SDF are more wary of the new protocols. ICSVE researchers have found evidence of women using Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram to fundraise to pay smugglers to take them out of Camp al-Hol. The women have reportedly paid smugglers up to $20,000 to be brought to Idlib or Turkish-controlled areas. A common grievance in the social media posts coming out of ISIS women in Camp al-Hol is that many European women are reportedly being transferred to a more secure annex in Camp Roj, where a burka ban and other strict regulations are enforced. Given that the women claim that those being transferred to the new Camp Roj annex were previously transferred to al Hasaka prison from Camp al-Hol, it is possible that these same women will be tried with ISIS-related crimes in the upcoming trials. One social media post described such transfers as a “de-radicalization move of Kuffar.”
There is still very little information regarding the details of these potentially Swedish-monitored trials thus far, but myriad questions have arisen in response to this new step. In nearby Iraq, trials are conducted without the need for evidence to produce convictions. In Iraq, confessions, even those obtained under torture, often form the basis for long prison and even death sentences. While the SDF and AANES are committed to operating with a strong commitment to democratic principles and respect for human rights, without cooperation from the defendants’ home countries, their futures remain unclear. While the men may receive lengthy sentences, the women likely will not and, unlike in Iraq, death sentences are off the table, at least in the SDF-controlled parts of Syria. Some will be acquitted, and others sentenced to very short prison terms. Where will they go upon release? Are they passport-eligible if they manage to make it home? Are their countries obligated to take them back? Some have had their citizenship stripped, but it may be possible to argue against these actions. If their countries do repatriate them, will ISIS men and women acquitted by the SDF or who have already served a sentence in Rojava be able to be tried again or detained for security reasons without a home country conviction? Attorneys may argue that because the AANES is not an officially recognized government entity, the convictions are moot. And while they are imprisoned in Syria, whether the SDF will manage to hold the territory it currently holds and retain control over ISIS prisoners also remains an important question, as this is one of the bargaining points forced upon the SDF with the Assad government in fall of 2019, when President Trump ordered U.S. troops back from the borders with Turkey and greenlit the Turkish incursions. Surely any ISIS men and women turned over to the Assad government risk extreme torture and death sentences. Do home countries have any responsibility in this regard, to prevent that from happening?
It is also noteworthy that the treatment of ISIS women and children, and ISIS men, for that matter, is something that family members, friends and militant jihadist sympathizers the world over are carefully watching. Injustice, perceived or real, has been and continues to be a strong motivator for joining groups like ISIS who promise to deliver justice to the oppressed Muslims of the world. For instance, the spokesman for ISIS family members from Belgium, frustrated by the arbitrary detentions, recently told the Middle East Eye, “The situation in the camps, the arbitrary detention, the wiping out of the rule of law, for me they feel and look like the first steps towards the wrecking of democracies.” Thus, it is important to remember that any unjust treatment of these ISIS prisoners may contribute to further radicalization. Likewise, as U.S. Central Command commander Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie remarked, keeping the ISIS children detained throughout their entire childhoods may contribute to raising another generation of those we will meet on the battlefield.
Questions also arise surrounding what to do with the ISIS children. In the recent announcement about the upcoming Swedish monitored locally administered trials, an AANES official expressed willingness to “repatriate the orphans and the humanitarian cases to Sweden.” It is unclear whether “humanitarian cases” includes the many currently detained children of ISIS parents, many under the age of 7, who have not, or would not, even be capable of having committed crimes.
There are estimated to be around 9,000 foreign children held in Camps Hol and Roj in NE Syria, around 750 from Europe, and most are not orphans. Their repatriation has been called for by many organizations, ICSVE among them. However their repatriation does pose many thorny problems, including whether or not their mothers and fathers could then also claim family reunification rights and thereby find their way back to Europe. Beatrice Eriksson, head of Repatriate the Children, who spoke at an International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] online event in June, states that her organization is committed to bringing all ISIS children with Swedish citizenship home. She expressed that bringing these children back to Sweden should be a first priority in response to the recent AANES announcement of the trials.
The current status quo for many Western countries is to prioritize repatriating orphans, while rejecting adult members of ISIS and their children, although some mothers have expressed a willingness for their children to be repatriated without them. If the ISIS women are soon convicted in the Rojava trials, however, what will become of their children? Countries are obliged to act in the best interest of the child, which is typically considered to be keeping them with their family, but if their mothers are imprisoned rather than simply held in SDF camps, or the camps themselves are judged as seriously dangerous, the best interest of the child might be to bring them home. If the children are repatriated either before or following their mothers’ convictions, repatriation of their mothers, and fathers, after serving their sentences may also ensue, as mentioned above, in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, which holds that families ought to remain together.
These are legal, moral, humanitarian and ethical questions that have been asked since the fall of Baghouz and will continue to be asked as foreign fighters and their families remain in legal limbo in Rojava. Perhaps the upcoming trials will open the door to a smoother and more thoughtful process of repatriation.