July 23, 2018

IntelBrief: Countries Don’t Want Their Fighters Back

Islamic State group fighters (AP Photo, File).
  • As noted in a July 18 NYTimes report, the issue of captured foreign Islamic State fighters is a growing concern.
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are holding 593 people from 47 countries accused of fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.
  • Most countries are refusing to repatriate detainees back to stand trial, creating an unsustainable situation with long-term consequences.
  • For years the headlines were about those who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, yet governments now do not want to deal with what comes next: trials and detention.


Since 2014, much attention has been paid not only to the phenomenon of foreign fighters, but the fears around what would happen when those fighters returned home.While precise numbers are unknown, there are likely a small but meaningful percentage of those who traveled to the so-called Islamic State that will seek to carry out the fight either in their home countries or in other countries. This was the case in the aftermath of the Afghan jihad in the late 1980’s and, to a smaller degree, after the height of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the mid-2000s. In considering the problem of returnees, it is important to note that the sheer scale and scope of the foreign fighter contingent for the Islamic State was huge, estimated at over 40,000 people from more than 110 countries.

There have been several attacks by returnees, specifically those sent back into Europe for the express purpose of conducting attacks. The most devastating of these was the November 2015 multi-phase mass-casualty attack in Paris that killed 130 people. Exact numbers on returnees—which includes disillusioned former members along with possible future attackers, a mix that is a nightmare for security and intelligence services to vet and assess—are difficult to confirm. The Soufan Center advised in its October 2017 report ‘BEYOND THE CALIPHATE: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees’ that at least 5600 people had returned home to 33 countries by that time, but with the true number of returnees who had gone home or to a third country likely higher.

As nation states continue to detect and disrupt the illegal or undeclared return of former Islamic State members or supporters, a known but under-addressed problem is growing in northern Syria. This concerns hundreds of captured Islamic State foreign fighters—a term meaning those who joined the Islamic State from places other than Syria or Iraq—being held in several detention facilities. As reported in a July 18, 2018 article in the New York Times, the primarily Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have over 1,000 Islamic State detainees; 593 of them are foreigners from 47 countries.

There are several pressing issues surrounding the status of these detainees with both short-and-long term consequences to global security.In some cases, countries, including the U.K., Canada, and Australia, have revoked the citizenship of those who left to join the Islamic State. Even if citizenship has not been officially revoked, many countries now want nothing to do with their citizens that have been captured in Syria and Iraq. The 593 foreigners being currently held, for example, are essentially stuck in limbo, unable to receive a trial by the SDF—a non-state actor with no established judicial system and no capacity for long-term detentions—but unable to return home to face trial there.

As noted in the NY Times article, the U.S. Defense Department is assisting the SDF with shoring up their detention facilities in northern Syria, even though it is clear that the situation is unsustainable in the long-term. The U.S. is pressuring other countries to repatriate their respective detainees to stand trial—while at the same time trying to avoid repatriating a U.S. citizen back to the U.S. The extra-judicial system of detention and trial at Guantanamo Bay also complicates the U.S.’ message that other countries must step up and take responsibility for their citizens. What is at stake is avoiding the creation of the next generation of fighters who may become massive security threats, as prisons are notorious breeding grounds for radicalization. The fight against the Islamic State is a global problem; figuring out what to do next, for the benefit of vulnerable populations around the world, will require a global solution.


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