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I’d like to thank ICSR, the OCSE, and MEI for their invitation for me to speak today and your sustained leadership on this issue.

I would also like to thank the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe for hosting this event, as well as each of you for your participation.

I understand this discussion is taking place according to Chatham House rules, so I hope that encourages maximally candid discussion on this difficult set of issues over the next two days.

As you are likely aware, at this moment Secretary Blinken is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ministerial. Secretary Blinken will underscore to our counterparts and those in attendance that we do not see the status quo in northeast Syria as sustainable.

He will press for countries to prioritize efforts to repatriate their citizens and to increase their commitments to stabilizing northeast Syria to ensure ISIS does not re-emerge in Syria and Iraq. I can confirm that some pledges have already been made: the United States pledged $150 million, Germany pledged $100 million, and Denmark $85 million. And the Saudi Foreign Minister just today urged countries to repatriate their citizens. Our discussion here is taking place in the larger context of defeating ISIS and preventing its resurgence.

We have made real progress on repatriations from northeast Syria since I met many of you at ICSR’s first conference in London in June 2022.

More than 3,000 individuals were repatriated in 2022, more than the two previous years combined. This momentum has carried through to this year where already fourteen countries have repatriated approximately 2,000 of their nationals. Indeed, as Charles noted the Government of Iraq just a few days ago repatriated approximately 700 individuals, including 50 detained fighters.

We thank all of you for your support in this effort. I would particularly like to thank Kuwait, which continues to play an indispensable role in all of our efforts. In addition, among others, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, Barbados, Spain, Tajikistan, Norway, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, France, and Iraq have each repatriated women and children from al-Hol camp and should be commended for taking this action.

I also want thank Kosovo and Iraq, who have acknowledged by their commitment to repatriation the hard truth that countries must also take responsibility for the adult men who joined ISIS as fighters.

I’d like to point out as well that, while more than 60 countries have nationals in northeast Syria, 23 of these countries have fewer than ten nationals in the displaced persons camps. For these 23 countries, it is time for action. I respectfully urge you to repatriate your remaining nationals. There really is no reason other than political will stopping you from helping to solve this problem. The United States will help you bring your people home.

The challenge to actually solving this problem and to repatriation from northeast Syria is not technical, it is political.

We hear time and time again governments say their domestic publics are opposed to repatriation. The leaders and officials argue that the fighters, if they are successfully prosecuted, could risk radicalizing prison populations. They also express concern that returnees who are unable to be prosecuted could plan future terrorist attacks or promote violence.

We must address these concerns with effective messaging and programming designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals after they return home. We must also help prepare the communities that receive individuals after the return home, so that the returnees are not stigmatized but instead afforded opportunity to be contributing members of society.

We also must appreciate that failing to take meaningful action to solve this problem means we are complicit in an acute deprivation experienced by tens of thousands of children, many below the age of twelve, who are without access to education and increasingly vulnerable to radicalization. What does this mean for their futures and ours?

The United States continues to bring home American citizens. Just last month we repatriated a 9-year-old boy who now will have access to medical care he could not receive in northeast Syria, and to education and support that he deserves.

The risks associated with not repatriating is real. Indeed, in our view, ultimately the risks that arise by failing to repatriate individuals is greater than the risk associated with returning individuals to their home countries, in a managed fashion, where they can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

However, these risks must be balanced with the alternative—a possible resurgence of ISIS, which at its height controlled a geographic area larger than the United Kingdom, committed atrocities in areas under its control, and both planned and inspired terrorist attacks around the globe.

We must hold perpetrators accountable for crimes they have committed and rehabilitate and reintegrate those who cannot be prosecuted. This is a collective action problem. If we work together, we can reduce the risk we all face.

We have the tools to do this. We can not only mitigate the risk each country faces individually in bringing its nationals home, but also reduce the risk of an ISIS resurgence that threatens us all.

Increasingly we are seeing successful investigations and prosecutions of individuals that fought for or provided material support to ISIS. These successful prosecutions demonstrate the efficacy of our judicial systems and our ability to hold members of ISIS to account for their actions.

The United States can assist in those investigations, including with the provision of evidence from the battlefield. Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Sweden, among others, are investigating and prosecuting ISIS members.

We have seen a numbers of successful investigations and prosecutions in the context of ISIS. A couple such examples come from Germany, where recently the German Federal Court of Justice affirmed the sentence of Taha al-Jumailly to life imprisonment in November 2021 for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed against Yazidi victims.

German prosecutors also secured the conviction his wife, Jennifer Wenisch, also an ISIS member, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for her involvement in the enslavement, abuse, and killing of a five-year-old Yazidi girl as well as the enslavement and abuse of the child’s mother.

The Higher Regional Court of Munich sentenced her to ten years in prison and is considering adding to the length of the sentence because of the gravity of the offense.

We know our justice systems are up to the task, and we have frameworks to hold people accountable.

On January 10, 2023, Spain repatriated thirteen children and two women from northeast Syria. The women were arrested upon their arrival at Torrejon air base outside Madrid. A judge ordered they be held in pre-trial detention without bail on charges of “joining a terror organization,” ISIS.

The judge emphasized that the pair participated in activities supporting Daesh before and after moving to the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone with their husbands in mid-2014.

In February 2023, the Netherlands announced it plans to prosecute a Dutch woman, Hasna Aarab—who was repatriated from Syria in November 2022 along with eleven other women—for membership in a terrorist organization.

She will also face charges of crimes against humanity for enslaving a Yazidi woman.

The United States continues to prosecute members of ISIS. In November 2022 Allison Fluke-Ekren was convicted of providing material support to terrorism for her role in providing military training to over 100 women and young girls on behalf of ISIS and leading an all-female military battalion in Syria. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions and to our frank discussion at this event.

U.S. Department of State

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