The Trump administration’s push for allies to take custody of foreign-born Islamic State fighters held in makeshift prisons in Syria is yielding only limited results, fueling mounting anger in Washington in the effort to secure long-term defeat of the terror group.
President Trump’s frustration over the matter boiled over in recent days, with the president telling reporters at the recent G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, that America won’t foot the hefty bill of jailing the jihadists at the U.S. detainee center at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S., Mr. Trump suggested, might be forced to “release” hardened ISIS detainees back into their homelands if countries such as France and Germany continue to balk at taking them back.
“It’s unfair for the United States to take them, because they didn’t come from the United States,” Mr. Trump said.
U.S. officials say the provocative comments were meant to add public pressure to what has actually been an intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic campaign during recent months to convince resistant allies to first house, then prosecute the fighters — hundreds of whom are believed to hold European Union citizenship.
Syrian Kurdish officials say some countries, including Russia, Sudan and Malaysia, have agreed to take back their nationals, but for others, it’s an appeal that has fallen mostly on deaf ears.
Several governments are wary of political blowback that could come with accepting and taking on the cases of prisoners who may hold dual citizenship in both North African and European Union nations. There are also legal issues in most Western European countries that would need to be reformed in order to successfully convict terrorism suspects without explicit involvement of those suspects’ roles as ISIS terrorists.
“The bottom line is these countries don’t want to deal with it,” one official told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Trump, who initially made headlines in February by tweeting a request for “Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” appeared to lose patience with the issue last week.
“We’re holding thousands of ISIS fighters right now, and Europe has to take them,” he told reporters at the White House.
“We fought; we have them captured,” he said in a speech later that day. “They’re all captured, thousands, ISIS. But now, Europe has to take them, and different countries, where they came from, have to take them.”
Mr. Trump hit the issue again on Monday at the G-7 gathering. “They came from Europe, in almost all cases, and we’ve told Europe, ‘I hope you’re going to be able to take them back and do something,’” he said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While the president has suggested the number of captured fighters with EU citizenship is higher than 800, U.S. counterterrorism officials have declined to comment on the figure.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for the international coalition against ISIS, has said there 10,000 seasoned “terrorist fighters” being held in northeast Syrian prison camps managed by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed alliance of predominantly Syrian-Kurdish militias.
“About 8,000, are Iraqi or Syrian nationals, and we have efforts in place, they’re going slowly…but they’re going, to move the Iraqis back to Iraq, and the Syrians to be placed on trial,” Mr. Jeffrey told reporters in early August.
One U.S. official speaking anonymously this week said the other 2,000 held by Kurdish forces in Syria includes a mix of individuals from a range of countries, including North African nations, Gulf Arab states, Russia, Western Europe and other regions.
The official also said it’s unclear how many ISIS fighters are separately being held by authorities in Iraq because the government in Baghdad is not sharing such data with U.S. officials, although the number is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said this month that U.S. officials have had “some successes” in convincing other countries to take the ISIS fighters from Syria.
“Countries like Kazakhstan and Kosovo have been able to repatriate dozens — and in some cases hundreds — of fighters and their family members, prosecuting people for crimes and, as far as families and children are concerned, placing them in rehabilitation and reintegration programs and de-radicalization programs.”
“Italy recently announced that it was repatriating one fighter, and that person will be investigated for prosecution,” said Mr. Sales. “We’d like to see more Western European countries follow suit. … No one should expect the United States to solve this problem for them or the SDF or anyone else. This is a problem that fundamentally is owned by the countries where their citizens were radicalized back at home.”
But the issue of radicalization is a politically sticky one for countries like Germany and France. In addition to attempting to integrate war refugees who fled the Mideast for Europe at the height of Islamic State’s reign, they are also fear some foreign fighters may have already slipped back to their home countries to carry out attacks or recruit followers from the refugee population.
The U.K. has angered allies by revoking the British citizenship over more than 100 ISIS captives who held dual passports, leaving them for another government to deal with.
“This power is one way we can counter the terrorist threat posed by some of the most dangerous individuals and keep our country safe,” a British Home Office spokesman told the Telegraph newspaper after one recent case this year.
In Germany, Mrs. Merkel won praise from human rights groups in by allowing in more than 1 million refugees from Syria and other mainly Middle Eastern war zones. But the “open door” policy came with political risk. The chancellor’s approval ratings subsequently plunged after a series of terrorist attacks carried out by asylum seekers.
Mrs. Merkel was cautious at her joint press conference with Mr. Trump on Monday.
“I should say that we have already accepted a number of family members, among them primarily children,” she said after a reporter asked whether Germany would make a commitment to take back ISIS fighters from Syria.
“We have committed ourselves — all the European Union countries — to work together and to try and find a solution here to work together with the United States on this one,” the German chancellor said. “We want to find a solution together.”
But French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet reportedly resisted U.S. pressure on the issue in February, saying Paris would only take back ISIS fighters on a “case-by-case” basis and asserting that France would not cave to Mr. Trump’s demands.
The diplomatic efforts since then have failed to cool Mr. Trump’s anger at the stalemate, and the question of what to do with a large group of Islamist militants being held in legal limbo.
“If you want to demonstrate to your voters that you’re taking the terrorist threat seriously and you’re protecting your people from terrorists roaming around the world at will, the way to do that is to bring them home, put them in front of a court, have them tried, and then if they’re convicted, make sure they serve lengthy sentences,” Mr. Sales said. “The way to be tough on foreign terrorist fighters is to prosecute them.”
He said there have already been a number of attempted jailbreaks in the Syria, adding that “the risk that they could get out is not trivial.”
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump once promised to “load up” the Guantanamo detention site in Cuba with “some bad dudes.” But President Trump has firmly ruled out taking the Islamic State captives to Guantanamo, even though the facility now holds about 40 prisoners.
European allies “say to us, ‘Why don’t you hold them in Guantanamo Bay for 50 years?’ and you just hold them and spend billions and billions of dollars holding them,” the president said last week. “I’m saying, ‘No, you’ve got to take them.’”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last week that the fighters detained in Syria “present a risk to the world.” But Mr. Pompeo acknowledged the complexity of the issue, suggesting U.S. officials are struggling with what to do with captured fighters that nobody wants.
“There’s a broader issue,” he said, “which is there are many whose origins are unknown or for whom they’re not going to be returned to their country, and we all collectively … need to provide a mechanism by which we can continue to detain these people,” he said.
“I don’t want your kids, your grandkids to go have to catch these terrorists again,” the secretary of state added. “The world needs to find a process by which we can collectively continue to detain these known terrorists in a way that is consistent with the rule of law and prevents them from ever rejoining the battlefield.”