Good morning. Thank you, Charles, for those welcoming remarks, and thank you to the Middle East Institute and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation for convening us to discuss a critical counterterrorism challenge that we must work to confront – today and for years to come.
Approximately 4,000 to 5,000 non-Syrian fighters are detained in northeast Syria. Tens of thousands of their family members reside in crowded displaced persons camps. These staggering numbers point to a serious and ongoing security and humanitarian threat for the region and broader global community.
Leaving fighters and family members in northeast Syria is not a viable option; we risk these individuals migrating from conflict to conflict in a way that creates new strife and instability elsewhere, threatens our collective security, and presents serious threats to innocent civilians.
In short, and as my colleague Ian Moss said in London last month: we cannot ignore the serious risks posed by the detainee and displaced person populations in northeast Syria, because those risks will not ignore us.
This is a difficult topic with no easy solutions. Rather than dwell on each dimension of this profound crisis, I want to discuss how – those in government and civil society focused on this issue – can work together to face these challenges in northeast Syria. I also want to address head on what I believe is the key impediment to more substantive progress in northeastern Syria and what can be done to address it.
But before I do that, let me situate where I think we are in this moment in terms of the historical context of our counterterrorism fight in order to demonstrate what the stakes are if we fail.
On February 3rd, 2006, a tunnel over one thousand feet in length was dug from the women’s prayer yard in Al-Awkaf Mosque to the cells of the Political Security Central Prison in Sana’a, Yemen. Among the dozens of escapees were
Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Qasim Raymi, who would lead al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula for the entire decade of the 2010s.
On July 21st, 2013, a coordinated attack freed more than 600 prisoners – mostly experienced fighters – from the Taji and Abu Ghraib detention facilities in Iraq. This attack was the pinnacle of a years-long strategy which released thousands of fighters who would go on to participate in the Syrian conflict. Several of these fighters were key figures in the founding of ISIS.
I mention these key moments in the history of our counterterrorism efforts because we face a similar dilemma in the Middle East today, only on a much larger scale. ISIS knows that prison breaks work. They are time tested and generate long-lasting results. That is why, in January this year, ISIS tried to free thousands of its fighters from a detention facility in Hasakah, in northeast Syria. Thanks to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and with Coalition support, ISIS failed. But there are a range of detention facilities in northeast Syria, and we know they will try to attack them again.
The ISIS prison raid this past January was a reminder of how high the stakes are and how precarious the detention situation is in northeast Syria. An incursion by Turkey into northern Syria, a wavering in our own commitment to this region for whatever reason, and numerous other factors could tilt the balance and potentially enable an ISIS resurgence.
This takes me to my key message – and how those in government and civil society focused on this issue can work together. We believe the only durable solution to the challenge we face in northeast Syria is for each country to take back its nationals from detention facilities and displaced persons camps. This includes those who fought for ISIS as well as those who remain in displaced persons camps in northeast Syria.
We used military means to ensure ISIS would not hold any territory for its brutal so-called “caliphate”, but we cannot fight our way out of this phase of the battle. We must find ways to keep committed and experienced fighters off the battlefield. This also means repatriating non-combatants. We can do this in a controlled manner where we can oversee their repatriation and subsequent rehabilitation and reintegration as well as, where applicable, prosecution and incarceration.
There is great urgency to this issue, but we do not have to solve the entire problem all at once. Nor do we have to solve the most complex problems first. Instead, we can start by working together on challenges that are more resolvable. I would suggest three:
First, we can surely work together on repatriating women and especially children. Half of the nearly 60,000 people in the Al-Hol displaced persons camp are children under 12 years old. Already governments represented in this room are making progress on returning some of their youngest nationals, including France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, and I laud the efforts of these countries and others to face the problem head-on.
Second, as my colleague Andy Plitt at the U.S. Agency for International Development will outline later today, we can work together by funding vital humanitarian and stabilization assistance in northeast Syria. We cannot artificially separate our concern about the displacement and detention issues from the situation residents of northeast Syria face. Conditions are so harsh in northeastern Syria in particular that we are seeing a greater openness by residents to ISIS’s return now than at any time since the fall of the physical “caliphate” in 2019. The more ISIS can leverage local support to train and reorganize, the more sophisticated and frequent their efforts will be to free detainees and recruit in the displaced persons camps.
Third, help us work with governments in the region to repatriate their nationals. I am particularly optimistic about our ability to facilitate transfers and repatriations of Iraqis to either face justice or be effectively reintegrated back into communities. I would like to applaud the Government of Iraq for its efforts and willingness to confront this problem directly and for the work they have already done to repatriate more than 600 fighters from SDF detention and nearly 2,500 displaced Iraqi nationals from al-Hol in the past year and a half. Iraqis comprise half of al-Hol’s population and approximately one out of every three detained fighters in northeast Syria. Progress on helping Iraq repatriate and safely detain and/or reintegrate its nationals can make a huge difference in reducing the complexity of the challenge in northeast Syria. Our Iraqi counterparts have been forward-leaning on this issue, but we seek your assistance in supporting the Government of Iraq in this endeavor.
We can work together and build momentum to gradually reduce the size and complexity of the challenge in northeast Syria. This will open up new opportunities to resolve issues that seem intractable today. Remaining focused on this issue means we will be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities to address the more complex cases when they arise. Put simply: we must collectively work the problem.
Finally, I want to address head on the key challenge in repatriating nationals from northeast Syria – it is not technical; it is political. We hear time and time again that leaders and their public do not want to repatriate their nationals. The fighters, if they are successfully prosecuted, still risk radicalizing prison populations to violence. And fighters who cannot be prosecuted for various reasons pose risks such as planning future terrorist attacks or spreading violence-promoting ideologies. There is also the fear that women and even children can pose a security risk to communities if and when they are returned.
I understand that point of view. The risks of radicalization and recidivism is real. However, this must be balanced with the alternative – the possible resurgence of ISIS – an extremist group which, at its height, controlled a geographic area larger than the United Kingdom. We believe the balance of risk is far greater leaving our nationals under the same kinds of tenuous circumstances that have led to previous prison breaks than if we developed a secure and structured way to remove them from an area of active conflict. This is a collective action problem. If we work together, we can reduce the risk we face both individually, for our own countries, and globally for all. We have the tools to help mitigate the individualized risk that each country faces in terms of bringing their nationals home from northeast Syria. These tools not only mitigate the risk each country faces in bringing its nationals home but also reduces the greater global risk of a return of ISIS.
Moreover, as practitioners and experts on terrorism and political violence, we have to educate our leaders and our publics that counterterrorism is not risk free for democratic societies. With more than twenty years of experience fighting terrorism since 9/11, we have learned that we cannot hope to defeat our terrorist adversaries on faraway battlefields alone. We must honor the sacrifice of many young men and women in the counter-ISIS fight by remaining focused on this new mission, which is reducing the potential for a violent re-emergence of ISIS. The best way to ensure this is through repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and where appropriate prosecution and incarceration.
This is achievable, and far cheaper in terms of blood and treasure than the military effort that was required to defeat the so-called ISIS caliphate. The United States has worked to lead by example and has taken back 39 of our own
citizens, and we support repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration efforts around the world. We will continue to assist countries to repatriate their nationals and facilitate those repatriations on a case-by-case basis. We will also continue to support our partners as they prepare to investigate, prosecute, and where applicable, incarcerate terrorist offenders securely and humanely.
And with that I just want to say thank you. My team has participated in many discussions on this topic, and I look forward to hearing more about what we learn in today’s sessions. I, along with my team at the Bureau of Counterterrorism, remain committed to staying focused on this critical issue.