Provincial Internal Security Forces – Hasakah prison guards stand in northeastern Syria.

Between 2011 and 2019, tens of thousands of people left more than 60 countries to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Today, approximately 2,000 ISIS foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from outside Iraq and Syria remain in detention facilities operated by the non-State Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria.  The situation presents significant national security and humanitarian concerns; facilities are overcrowded, susceptible to violence and ISIS recruitment, and are insufficiently secure.  Secretary Blinken described this situation as ”untenable.” The most durable solution to address ongoing security and humanitarian concerns in northeast Syria is the safe return or repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecution and secure incarceration, as appropriate, of FTFs and associated family members. 

Repatriation and rehabilitation of FTFs and their family members is the best way to mitigate the burgeoning security and humanitarian crisis in Syria, prevent ISIS’s resurgence in the region, and hold fighters accountable for their crimes through prosecution in their countries of origin where appropriate.

Christopher LandbergSenior Bureau Official, Bureau of Counterterrorism

The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) collaborates closely with interagency and international partners to mitigate threats posed by detained ISIS fighters, in order to prevent an ISIS resurgence.  To date, CT and its partners have facilitated nearly 50 repatriation operations of FTFs and associated family members from northeast Syria and provided technical advice and assistance to more than 15 countries investigating, prosecuting, incarcerating, and rehabilitating and reintegrating their nationals. 

Thus far, CT Bureau support has contributed to more than 275 successful FTF prosecutions resulting in convictions. For example, in 2021 CT and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) supported a North Macedonian prosecutor who charged two returnees from northeast Syria with fighting in a foreign army, terrorist recruitment, and spreading ISIS propaganda.  The prosecutor did this by leveraging both social media and battlefield evidence military forces collected in Iraq and Syria, which the FBI shared for judicial use.  The totality of evidence resulted in both suspects pleading guilty and receiving two of the longest prison sentences for Balkan FTFs to date.

The CT Bureau, in partnership with the UN and DOJ, also provides technical assistance to at least seven countries managing more than 1,000 convicted and imprisoned terrorists and FTFs.  For instance, in Iraq, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Kosovo, and Tajikistan, the Bureau supported assessments and planning tools for these partners to effectively manage their FTF and terrorist prisoners, with secure incarceration and humane treatment.  The CT Bureau and its partners help prison officials to prevent inmates from radicalizing others to violence and plotting attacks, while also working to rehabilitate and, in many cases, reintegrate them into society.

Rehabilitating and reintegrating those who return from Syria – whether or not they serve prison time – is vital to ending ISIS’s cycles of violence and radicalization to violence.  From Morocco to Indonesia, the CT Bureau supports programs that reduce the likelihood people who return from northeast Syria will continue to support terrorist causes.  The Bureau also lends its expertise to the development of good practices in effective rehabilitation and reintegration of FTFs and associated family members and strives to include language in CT-related UN resolutions that recognizes the need for UN Member States to develop effective strategies to deal with returnees.

The risk of an ISIS resurgence in northeast Syria far outweighs the risks posed by FTFs and associated family members once repatriated.  Recognizing this, the CT Bureau will continue to support countries of origin in effectively managing their repatriation efforts.  As Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ian Moss said: “We cannot ignore our way out of this problem.  We must continue to leverage our counterterrorism cooperation to repatriate the remaining foreign fighters while also mitigating the risks.”

For more information, visit the Bureau of Counterterrorism

About the Author: Christine Asetta is a Program Manager in the Bureau of Counterterrorism, Office of Programs.

U.S. Department of State

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