Good morning. I want to thank Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and our Hungarian partners, for convening us to discuss the ongoing threat that ISIS poses and what to do about it. And thank you all for coming.
My name is Ian Moss, and I am the Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for Terrorist Detentions and Countering Violent Extremism in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
One of the focal areas of my work relates to the ISIS fighters detained in northeast Syria and their affiliated family members in displaced persons camps, specifically al Hol and al-Roj. We assess the situation in northeast Syria detention facilities and displaced persons camps to be both a security and humanitarian crisis that will continue to worsen if nothing is done to address the situation.
Today there are about 10,000 ISIS fighters detained by our partners in northeast Syria, including approximately 5,000 Syrians, 3,000 Iraqis, and 2,000 ISIS fighters from outside Syria and Iraq.
Half of these fighters are in purpose-built detention facilities, while the others are held in about two-dozen makeshift facilities. These include repurposed schools and community centers. Hundreds of those detained are under the age of 18.
In addition, there are nearly 56,000 displaced persons, including family members of ISIS fighters, in al-Hol camp, by far the largest in northeast Syria. Approximately 28,000 are Iraqi nationals, more than 18,000 are Syrians, and about 10,000 are from approximately 60 countries outside Syria and Iraq.
Most of these individuals arrived at al-Hol after the fall of Baghuz in 2019. Thousands more reside in al-Roj displaced persons camp. The majority of residents in both camps are under 12 years old.
I want to bring this situation into the discussion today and share two things from my point of view as they relate to the continued threat from ISIS Core.
First, I want to talk about the continued threat posed by the detained ISIS fighters and what we can do to mitigate it. Indeed, what we must do to mitigate this very real threat.
Second, I want to talk about the more complex situation in the displaced persons camps in northeast Syria and what we must do to address it.
The most direct pathway to the re-emergence of ISIS Core is the population of detained ISIS fighters in northeast Syria, which constitutes the single largest concentration of terrorist fighters in the world. (Repeat for emphasis)
The ISIS raid on the largest detention facility in Hassakah this past January, and our continued efforts to prevent the resurgence of ISIS through more recent operations in northeast Syria, are important reminders of how high the stakes are and how precarious the situation involving the detained fighters is in northeast Syria. The situation in northeast Syria with regards to ISIS is tenuous. Without considerable effort, there remains the possibility of an ISIS resurgence.
Indeed, the January attack provided an opportunity for ISIS to learn lessons that surely will be applied to future similar attempts. It also communicated to the detained fighters that their terrorist brethren haven’t forgotten about them and will come to try and free them. We must be ready.
Prison breaks are critical to sustaining terrorist movements. On February 3rd, 2006, a tunnel more than 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 al-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 battle-tested fighters became key figures in the formation of ISIS.
I mention these key moments in the history of our counterterrorism efforts because it is indisputable that we face a similar situation laden with many of the same dilemmas in the Middle East today, only on a much larger scale.
ISIS knows that prison breaks work. They are time tested and generate results. So far, we have prevented ISIS from freeing these fighters. But there are a range of detention facilities in northeast Syria, and we know they will try to attack them again.
Understanding the threat posed by the continued concentration of ISIS fighters in northeast Syria points to the need for action: the only durable solution to the challenge we face in northeast Syria is for each country to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and where appropriate, prosecute their nationals for crimes they have committed.
I know many of our leaders and our publics are hesitant to address the challenge of what to do with the detained ISIS fighters. To address those concerns, let me say first that cooperation among our counterterrorism institutions is much better now than it was ten years ago and we must leverage this framework along with the relationships we have developed to meet the challenge we currently face in northeast Syria, and particularly as we undertake efforts to return these individuals to their countries of origin.
The rise of ISIS and the related foreign fighter threat brought many of us together in ways that made more efficient our cooperation. We wrote new laws, improved our tools, and strengthened our ability to cooperate and communicate. We can use this counterterrorism architecture to mitigate the potential risks your governments face when bringing your nationals home from northeast Syria.
Many of the governments represented here in this room have heard from me and or from my leadership directly the United States’ strong view that the only durable solution to the problem of foreign terrorist fighters and associated family members in northeast requires their repatriation.
We have heard from some of your governments either a reluctance or refusal to repatriate your nationals from northeast Syria. While other governments have to date, only repatriated women and children. To be sure repatriating anyone is not just commendable but necessary to resolving this problem.
However, there continues to be resistance to repatriating male foreign terrorist fighters. These individuals too must be repatriated and where possible prosecuted. We appreciate that the decision to repatriate these individuals, experienced fighters, is not an easy one, it is nonetheless a decision that mut be taken if we are to reduce the detainee population to a size that is more manageable for our partners in northeast Syria while we work collectively to identify permanent solutions for those who committed crimes and violence.
While regrettably, it ultimately may be the case that governments are unwilling to change their policies and repatriate fighters, these individuals cannot permanently remain in the facilities where they are currently detained.
It is incumbent upon our governments to step up contributions to D-ISIS efforts to stabilize northeast Syria. That includes, but is not limited to, supporting the secure detention of nationals who have not yet been repatriated.
For those countries reluctant to repatriate ISIS fighters, it is imperative that you increase your contributions to D-ISIS efforts and increase the rate at which you repatriate women and children from northeast Syria.
This population is in some ways easier to address because many of our concerns are fundamentally humanitarian. For example, fifty percent of the al-Hol camp population are children. These are kids, not threats. But left without education and access to opportunity to see and experience something other than the despair of their current circumstances, the likelihood of them becoming threats is real.
These children deserve our compassion and a chance to live a peaceful and productive life.
There are also many women who are victims, not perpetrators, of the violent atrocities this coalition was formed to defeat. A recent security operation in al-Hol, for example, found four women chained in tunnels with signs of having been tortured by ISIS. There are many more victims in northeast Syria’s displacement camps, and we can and must do more to find them and help them.
At the same time, we cannot ignore that, without rehabilitative assistance, and in some cases criminal prosecution, some women in the camps may pose security concerns. This is why the United States is committed to providing assistance and working with partners to improve the prosecutorial, reintegrative and rehabilitative capacity of receiving governments.
Finally, ISIS is a challenge in these camps. ISIS sees these camps as a front in the current phase of its struggle to survive. We cannot let atrocities committed during ISIS’ cruel reign go unpunished, and we must prevent ISIS from exploiting these camps in their efforts to re-emerge.
To honor the sacrifice of many young men and women in the counter-ISIS fight means remaining focused on this new phase of our mission, which is reducing the potential for a violent resurgence of ISIS. The best way to ensure this is through repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and, where appropriate, prosecution and incarceration of FTFs and associated family members and displaced persons in northeast Syria.
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 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 incarcerate terrorist offenders securely and humanely.
I know there are obstacles that hard work has struggled in the past to overcome. But we have nonetheless made significant progress and can make more. I hope we can discuss these issues honestly here, in appreciation of the inevitable truth that this problem will not solve itself.
With that, I want to thank our hosts for welcoming us to Budapest and thank you all for coming. I look forward to meeting you and to participating in these important discussions. I remain eager and committed to remaining in contact on this critical issue and look forward to learning more from all of you here.