Thank you for joining us today to discuss one of the most important counterterrorism tasks we face as an international community: the repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of ISIS-affiliated individuals currently in northeast Syria. Thanks to Jordan for serving as co-chair and helping to lead this conversation.
As you are all aware, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured hundreds of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) as they liberated territory in Syria and put an end to ISIS’s false “caliphate”. As a result, there are now more than 2,000 FTF detainees from over 60 countries in SDF custody, residing in makeshift prisons that have been refashioned from schoolrooms, factories and warehouses. An additional 74,000 ISIS-associated family members currently reside in a small number of crowded internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. We applaud the SDF’s capture and detention of these dangerous individuals and their associated families. But we are deeply concerned about our partners’ capacity to detain this massive population indefinitely. Critically, we seek to prevent seasoned fighters from returning to the battlefield.
Having won a decisive victory on the battlefield and dismantled the so-called “caliphate”, the international community needs to act decisively to ensure these facilities and camps do not become incubators for ISIS 2.0.
Given these daunting hurdles, the United States urges our partner governments to identify their citizens in SDF custody and take them back. FTFs need to face prosecution and accountability for their significant crimes. Repatriation to countries of origin, followed by effective prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, is the best way to ensure these dangerous individuals remain off the battlefield and that ISIS – for now a defeated husk of its former self – never again imposes its brutal rule over millions of victims.
The United States is leading by example and has repatriated our own citizens. We’ve charged six adults with a variety of crimes, and we’ve also repatriated a number of children.
I note that the co-sponsoring countries at this event – Kazakhstan, Morocco, North Macedonia, and Russia – have shown admirable initiative by repatriating their nationals. They serve as an important example to all members of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) of how we need to work together to address this complicated issue.
Some of our partners have proposed to set up a new international tribunal to try ISIS fighters. The United States appreciates their focus on this issue, but we do not assess that such an untested mechanism would handle effectively the thousands of people potentially implicated in ISIS atrocities. National courts have proven themselves to be entirely capable of holding terrorists accountable for their crimes.
Furthermore, we would need significant resources and time – time we do not have – to establish such a tribunal. I remind the group that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in May 1993 and issued its final judgment in November 2017. The ensuing two and a half decades saw 10,800 trial days, 2.5 million pages of transcripts, and 762 million euros, and resulted in just 161 indictments and 90 convictions. Finally, all of the challenges some have cited to avoid repatriation will await us in an international tribunal. Battlefield evidence will need to be introduced, there is a chance of acquittal, and fighters will need to be monitored after they complete their sentences.
Given these facts, repatriation to countries of origin is superior to any other potential disposition options. We strongly encourage our partners – in particular, the countries of western Europe which for so long have been standard-bearers in the fight for justice and accountability – to take back their citizens and subject them to prosecution and rehabilitation as appropriate.
Today we will hear from partner governments who have repatriated their citizens from northeast Syria and we have a chance to learn from their experiences. We will also highlight good practices to help navigate the complexities of repatriation. It is our hope that more GCTF member states will implement these proven measures, as well as exchange their relevant experiences on rehabilitation and reintegration. The United States has launched such exchanges with Kazakhstan, and we will expand this cooperation with other countries over the next few months.
Thank you all for your active support and participation in this effort, and best wishes for a productive conversation.