Hello and good afternoon everyone. Thank you all for coming. Thank you to ICSR and MEI for convening us to discuss this important topic.
Thank you Shiraz for that kind introduction. As Shiraz said, my name is Ian Moss, and I am a Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
Today I’d like to talk about three things: the challenge we are facing in resolving the situation in northeast Syria, what we in Bureau of Counterterrorism at the Department of State are doing about that challenge, and how – if we are to meet this challenge with success – it will require a concerted effort from all our governments.
But first, I want to share a simple truth: we cannot ignore the serious concerns posed by the detainee and displaced person populations in northeast Syria, because those concerns will not ignore us.
Despite the challenges, we can make progress. Repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and, where applicable, even prosecution are achievable—and the United States will continue to assist countries to repatriate their nationals and facilitate those repatriations on a case-by-case basis.
Solving this problem demands our collective commitment and action. We cannot accept that any durable solution includes these two foreign populations – the displaced and the detained – remaining in northeast Syria. We have but one option: we must work together to safely and securely return to their places of origin the approximately 4-5,000 non-Syrian fighters and the tens of thousands of associated family members residing in displaced persons camps.
If we fail to address this problem, the instability in northeast Syria will only increase and further destabilize the region, threaten our homelands, and all but guarantee that we will again face a more capable and resurgent ISIS. Not only will the people in the region continue to suffer but failing to address this problem will undermine those who are bravely working to secure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
For the public officials attending this conference – my government has worked closely with many of you to encourage, facilitate, or otherwise support your repatriation efforts. We are committed to working with you and to providing assistance, including with the collection of evidence to support prosecutions.
For the researchers, journalists, advocates, and practitioners here – my email inbox is open to you as you grapple with the complexities of this challenging issue. I want to thank you for your commitment and attention to this issue and for helping infuse our efforts with new and creative ideas, as well as for your help in raising public awareness of what is a very real and serious problem we face.
First, I want to outline the challenge ahead. Although I am optimistic, I am also clear-eyed about this multidimensional challenge. You all know well the vast numbers of people detained or displaced in northeast Syria. Some of you have visited these areas and witnessed the conditions there firsthand. I am planning to travel to northeast Syria in the near future.
There are 10,000 fighters detained in northeast Syria, half of which are detained in more than twenty makeshift facilities. There are also tens of thousands displaced persons residing in al-Hol and Roj camps. Many lack proper documentation, almost half are children under twelve, and nearly two-thirds are under 18 years old.
These children have little to no access to education, and many are illiterate. Too many have died preventable deaths due to malnutrition or disease.
I also want to speak about and acknowledge our partners in northeast Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces. Our SDF partners continue to make tremendous sacrifices of their own – the bitter harvest of a costly victory recapturing the territory from ISIS’s so-called “caliphate.” To succeed in our shared mission, we must also support the SDF’s efforts to secure detention facilities to prevent the kinds of prisons breaks we narrowly averted in January. We must also support their efforts to keep residents of the displaced persons camps safe from violence.
All of this and more informs our policy and strong belief that if we are to achieve a durable solution to this problem, we must, again, collectively, work to return all foreign nationals to their countries of origin whenever possible. It is a moral and strategic imperative.
Second, let me talk briefly about what my team and the broader offices in our Bureau are doing to address this issue.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last summer, the current situation regarding detained ISIS fighters and their families in Syria is not sustainable.
We will continue to underscore the urgency of repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and, where appropriate, prosecution. We will continue to facilitate the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and associated family members on a case-by-case basis. And we share lessons learned with regards to repatriation to help other countries as they work to take back their citizens.
Rehabilitation and reintegration is a policy priority for the Bureau of Counterterrorism. While realizing that rehabilitation and reintegration is a complex and contextual endeavor, we work to help countries develop and build capacity for effective rehabilitation and reintegration programs. This approach includes different lines of effort.
First, we work bilaterally with receiving governments through different platforms to support and enhance their capability to rehabilitate and reintegrate FTFs and family members. For example, this includes support for rehabilitation efforts in countries like Morocco, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, Albania, Mali, and Kosovo.
In Morocco, for example, we’re building the capacity of social workers and practitioners to provide appropriate and targeted post-incarceration psychosocial and professional support to foreign terrorist fighters and family members. We also help promote the successful rehabilitation and economic reintegration of returned women into Moroccan communities.
We also collaborate with multilateral organizations including NGOs and UN bodies on rehabilitation and reintegration. For example, we work with the Global Counterterrorism Forum or GCTF, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund or GCERF, which is funding the program in Albania, and the Hedayah Center for CVE Excellence in Abu-Dhabi, among other partners working on rehabilitation and reintegration.
Hedayah, for example, developed its Blueprint for a Rehabilitation and Reintegration Center: Guiding Principles for Rehabilitating and Reintegrating Foreign Terrorist Fighters and their Family Members. We urge you to consult this resource for best practices and share it with others who will benefit from it.
In addition, we have a rehabilitation and reintegration team in the Bureau of Counterterrorism. This team leverages external experts to encourage informed and contextual rehabilitation and reintegration information and recommendations for policy and programmatic efforts, including with other governments.
Lejdi Dervishi, who runs the GCERF-funded CVE Center of Albania, is doing an amazing job bringing together civil society, law enforcement, and psycho-social practitioners to reintegrate Albanians returning from northeast Syria. I urge you to speak with Dervishi to hear what Albania is doing on this front. You will be impressed and motivated.
I want to thank and congratulate Albania for their recent successful efforts through the Albanian Centre for Trauma and Torture Victims — or ARCT. This center is the only facility in Albania with experience in the rehabilitation of survivors of torture and organized violence and prevention of torture.
Finally, the United States leads the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which serves as a forum to share good practices, works to prevent FTF travel, and helps build capacity to rehabilitate and reintegrate fighters and family members from conflict zones. I appreciate the UK government’s efforts to lead the Coalition’s efforts focused on the strategic communications dimension related to this problem set.
This brings up my third and final point about how we can work together to solve this problem, and specifically what we ask of you.
First, please share your experiences with repatriating, rehabilitating, reintegrating, and, where appropriate, prosecuting your nationals from northeast Syria. Many of the countries represented officially and unofficially in this room have deep experience with this issue and have critically important lessons which can benefit other partners.
Many of you have shared some of these lessons this morning during private discussions in which myself and my colleague Ben Farley have taken part. But there is more we can do today and tomorrow, and more to discuss that. As I said before, we have to keep working this problem together.
Second: Fund D-ISIS Coalition efforts to secure detention facilities, improve conditions in displaced persons camps, and stabilize communities that are reintegrating returned Syrians and Iraqis.
The ISIS attack on the Hasakah detention facility in January of this year highlighted a situation about which we have long worried and long warned regarding both the security of the detention facilities housing approximately 10,000 detained ISIS fighters and the priority ISIS places on getting those fighters back into its ranks.
However, the ISIS attack in January highlighted greater dimension to the urgency of this problem. It underscored the urgency of our mission not only to address the FTF dimension of this issue, but also our abiding concern for the tens of thousands of victimized children growing up in the displaced persons camps. We cannot ignore the fact that ISIS views these individuals – in some cases grooming them – as potential recruits. There are significant humanitarian concerns and we must seek humanitarian solutions to mitigate these risks. I therefore urge you to increase support for vitally needed services at the camps, such as education and trauma care.
The attack made clear that we cannot artificially separate our concern about the displacement and detention issues from the broader political context in northeast Syria for the simple fact that the more financial resources and room to operate ISIS enjoys, the more complex and/or frequent their efforts to free detainees and recruit in displaced persons camps will be. We hope you also see the political conditions in northeast Syria as connected to the specific challenges posed in the detention centers and the displaced persons camps.
Third: work with us to help Syrians and Iraqis return home from the camps. We hope to see Syrians from al-Hol and other IDP camps continue to return and reintegrate into their communities. With regard to the other foreign population, Iraqis, I am particularly optimistic about our ability to facilitate their return to either face justice or be reintegrated back into their communities. I would like to applaud the Government of Iraq for its efforts and willingness to confront this problem head-on.
Iraqis comprise half of al-Hol’s population and approximately one out of every four detained fighters. And thanks to hard work by many, particularly Iraqis at all political levels, there are mechanisms in place or being developed at the national level, as well as in partnership with tribal leaders and civil society, to facilitate their return and reintegration into communities in Iraq.
We can make meaningful progress on helping Iraqis and Syrians reintegrate safely if we work together.
I’d like to conclude with the message I started with: we cannot ignore this problem because this problem will not ignore us.
I am not a stranger to seemingly intractable problems. I have worked, in one way or another, on issues relating to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade. And I have helped reduce the population of that facility to the 37 that remain there today – and we continue our effort to close the detention facility.
Much of the success we had with reducing the population of Guantanamo came because we worked together. The lessons I learned from my Guantanamo-related experiences are that continued pressure, focused attention, well-informed optimism, and creative diplomacy are critical. The scale and complexity of the detained and displaced populations in northeast Syria is several orders of magnitude greater than the challenge of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo, but in some respects the politics are similar.
With that I just want to say thank you. I look forward to meeting many of you and to participating in the discussions today and tomorrow. I remain eager and committed to remaining in contact on this critical issue.