The Defense Department is lauding Macedonia’s decision Tuesday to repatriate a group of Islamic State foreign fighters captured in Syria, pressing other foreign nations to follow suit as part of an overall effort to address the growing issue of combat detainees taken off the battlefields of Syria and northern Iraq.
The repatriated fighters were being held by units from the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, the loose-knit network of Arab and Kurdish militias who were key in driving the terror group known as ISIS from its strongholds in the country, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said in a statement.
The move “marks a significant milestone in the much-needed cooperative effort to combat the global threat of terrorism,” Mr. Pahon said, adding that repatriation efforts remain “the best solution to prevent detained foreign terrorist fighters from returning” to battlefields in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere across the globe.
“Macedonia has set an important example for all members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the international community to follow,” he added, noting “ISIS and the foreign terrorist fighters it recruits are not just problems for Syria or the region. They are global problems that require global cooperation.”
Repatriation has remained the Pentagon’s course of action to deal with the growing number of foreign ISIS fighters rounded up by local government and militia forces, in the wake of the terror group’s defeat in the Middle East. Currently, 489 official ISIS detainees are in custody of Iraqi and SDF forces, with the majority being housed in Syria.
ISIS fighters in Iraq, both foreign and Iraqi citizens, have been placed on trial in federal courts in Baghdad. But the chaotic political situation in Syria, which is still in the throes of a civil war, poses a more difficult problem to the U.S.-led coalition.
In January, the Trump administration has voiced its support for re-opening the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to house ISIS fighters captured by coalition allies in Syria. Mr. Trump signed an executive order that month, to begin the process of preparing Guantanamo to take on more detainees.
But the White House and the Defense Department have been equally mum on how they plan to move forward from the administration’s executive order, calling for a 90-day reassessment of U.S detainee operations — including restarting transfers of terror detainees to the Cuban military prison — in May.
But tensions among GOP lawmakers have begun to boil over regarding the administration’s strategy in dealing with the new ISIS detainees. “They are in a makeshift jail, they are going to get out of prison … and these are real, hardcore killers,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told Attorney General Jeff Sessions during an April hearing on Capitol Hill.
“They are insisting on a fair process, and I intend to give them one … but they cut off the heads of American citizens,” Sen. Graham said. at the time. “I would appreciate it if you would push the administration to live up to the president’s promise” regarding the prison, he told Mr. Sessions.
The Justice Department chief replied that he would carry that message to the White House.