July 7, 2022

IntelBrief: France Repatriates ISIS-associated Women and Children, Reversing Earlier Position

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • This week, France repatriated 16 women associated with the so-called Islamic State terrorist group and 35 children from camps in northeastern Syria.
  • Most states that have repatriated citizens have brought back women and children, including unaccompanied minors, but the plight of men and older boys still in detention, remains dire.
  • While much attention has focused on the humanitarian dimension of repatriation, accountability for ISIS crimes and terrorism remains low globally.
  • Nonetheless, terrorist groups and other non-state actors have previously capitalized on these conditions to reinforce their narratives and recruit or otherwise garner support.

This week France repatriated 16 women associated with the so-called Islamic State terrorist group and 35 children from camps in northeastern Syria, the largest group to do so since the Global Coalition’s territorial defeat of ISIS.This move comes amidst mounting pressures for states to bring their citizens home as security and humanitarian conditions around the camps deteriorate. France has been among states reluctant to do so, arguing instead that all ISIS-associated members should be prosecuted in the areas in or closest to where the crimes were committed. However, long-running challenges in setting up judicial processes that meet the criteria of many Western states while also respecting the domestic laws and processes of Iraq have prevented the establishment of more efficient and timely legal mechanisms. The Hasakah prison break earlier this year and incidents like the hunger strike in Roj camp have highlighted the complex security and humanitarian challenges surrounding the camps and the imperative to address the situation of residents before these deteriorate further.

Most states that have repatriated citizens have focused on women and children, including unaccompanied minors. The plight of men and older boys, however, remains dire, as conditions in Hasakah have demonstrated. As Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights has also noted, there are serious concerns about the lack of attention to the cases of male children and adolescents close to the threshold of adulthood, as the focus has largely remained on the women and their accompanying children in camps. For several states, concerns about repatriation stem from the challenges in investigating and prosecuting individuals when much of the evidence remains out on the battlefield and inaccessible or inadmissible in Western courts, as well as the possibility of returnees mobilizing or perpetrating violence. The expense and complicated logistics – not insignificant factors for states potentially having to reintegrate hundreds of returnees – have also contributed to governments’ unwillingness to commit resources to resolve the issue, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic. Many human rights groups have criticized governments and accused them of racism in creating a de facto “second-tier” of citizenship for individuals of dual-nationality or background.

The lingering ambiguity surrounding the detainees’ future only serves to enhance several risks. While there is some debate among legal and policy experts about the obligation to repatriate citizens, there is no doubt that groups like ISIS can capitalize on the situation. Experts warn that the group is already imposing taxes on local communities and there are few guarantees that the Syrian Defence Forces will be able to maintain any semblance of security for the long term. While there has been a tremendous international focus on the conditions of the camps housing most of the women and children, like al-Hol and Roj, the lack of any widespread pressure to repatriate the men and older boys raises a greater risk that their uncertain future could be manipulated by ISIS or other groups seeking to take advantage of the unresolved conflict in Syria. Inattention to this issue will continue to fuel jihadist narratives and enable them to recruit new members.

While much attention has focused on the humanitarian dimension of repatriation, accountability for ISIS crimes and terrorism remains low globally. Although the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) found that the group had perpetrated war crimes, including genocide, and there is widespread global condemnation of its use of sexual violence, there have been few trials and even fewer convictions of ISIS-associated individuals. There are also opportunities for states to list ISIS-associated individuals who have used sexual violence and human trafficking to finance and support terrorism under UN counterterrorism (‘1267’) sanctions, though no state has yet done so. Several states that have repatriated a handful of women have also focused attention on the rehabilitation and reintegration component, with less attention to either investigating or charging them. The announcement that France will turn over the adult women to judicial authorities for screening, and who are expected to be charged in connection to their role vis a vis ISIS, sets an important precedent for promoting accountability while addressing the critical humanitarian needs and legal rights of the children.

As states turn their attention to new and pressing foreign policy challenges, the urgency of resolving the status and situation at the camps in northeast Syria fades from the headlines. Nonetheless, terrorist groups and other non-state actors have previously exploited these conditions to reinforce their narratives and challenge the idea that the West prioritizes human rights. Detention facilities and prisons can serve as incubators for extremist groups, as they allow individuals to exchange extremist ideologies and technical skills that can be used to support terrorism. For example, many prominent leaders of what would later become ISIS spent several years training and coordinating in Camp Bucca before their eventual release. Moreover, raiding prisons to free veteran members is a common tactic used by insurgent groups. Detention facilities and camps like the ones in NE Syria represent relatively vulnerable high pay-off targets for groups like ISIS, so it is important for the region’s long-term stability that these camps be responsibly depopulated. The drastic shift in France’s posture may also encourage other states that have taken similar positions to change their approach. In 2020, the inability of UN Security Council members to agree on a common global approach on this issue prompted the first-ever veto on counterterrorism in two decades. The increasingly urgent security and humanitarian needs associated with the camps appear to have affected an important shift in this regard. It is critical, however, that this standard for repatriation is applied more consistently, not only because all citizens irrespective of gender should have the opportunity for repatriation, but also because unless current policies change, these facilities will radicalize a new generation of ISIS adherents.