October 11, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Justice for Islamic State Prisoners and Victims

As the so-called Islamic State collapses, it leaves behind millions of civilians who suffered violence, displacement, death, and destruction—along with thousands of men and families who were once its fighters and supporters.

• Instead of fighting to the death, more than 1,000 fighters and supporters of the so-called Islamic State surrendered after a short fight for the town of Hawijah in Northern Iraq.

• Many former fighters tried to downplay their roles in sustaining the group’s brutal rule, claiming they had only been clerks or cooks.

• Governments and rebel forces in Iraq and Syria will now have to deal with thousands of Islamic State prisoners, including many guilty of crimes against humanity. 

• Processing so many people in a truly lawful manner is a challenge with long-lasting consequences for all parties involved.


As the so-called Islamic State collapses, it leaves behind millions of civilians who suffered violence, displacement, death, and destruction—along with thousands of men and families who were once its fighters and supporters. Restoring some sense of justice and legality to communities devastated by the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is a critical long-term challenge for both Syria and Iraq. The consequences of that effort will be significant, as no recovery can be completed without a thorough and legal accounting of the crimes committed by the Islamic State. Governments that fail to do so and engage in the arbitrary detention and killing of suspects risk surrendering some of the good will they reclaimed when the Islamic State was pushed out.

Hawijah was one of the last Iraqi towns still held by the Islamic State when it fell to U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on October 5. Unlike the months-long battle for Mosul, which saw brutal, sustained fighting with few prisoners taken, the fight for Hawijah took only a few days. According to one New York Times report, as the fight wound down, more than a thousand men from the Islamic State surrendered to Sunni Kurdish peshmerga forces; an indication, as with a previous surrender on the Syria-Lebanon border, that morale may be weakening as the group loses its hard-core believers. The Hawijah fighters said their Islamic State ‘leaders’ had told them to surrender to the peshmerga, not the Shi’a popular militia, or Hashd. While there are very real concerns about sectarian and reprisal killings of Islamic State fighters at the hands of Shi’a militias, for the most part those concerns have not materialized—at least at the scale some feared. However, even in defeat, the Islamic State remains trapped in its sectarian ideology.

Understandably, many of the Islamic State prisoners have tried to downplay their roles, with most claiming to have been cooks or clerks—leaving one to wonder who helped sustain the group’s bloody rule for the past three years. Most captives have denied killing or fighting for the group, claiming they only joined it for a short period of time and then only because they were forced to do so. Some of those confessions may be true, given the Islamic State’s ravenous consumption of young men. But many of these men are likely responsible for horrible crimes against their fellow Iraqis or Syrians. Determining individual guilt when so many have committed crimes is a massive challenge for any society; though as demonstrated by post-war Germany and post-apartheid South Africa, a commitment to justice and reconciliation can produce a foundation for a society striving to put an ugly past behind it.

Even as its towns and cities fall, the Islamic State is preparing to continue a years-long struggle in Syria and Iraq as a terrorist group and insurgency. It would be difficult, even in the best of times, for a divided state to hold fair and impartial trials for crimes against humanity—and in Syria and Iraq, these are far from the best of times. While public trials are essential for rebuilding a lawful society, though there will be great pressure in both states to hold mass trials in secret, both for logistical and security reasons. The anti-Islamic State coalition that has helped topple the group must now provide as much assistance as possible in helping to bring about something resembling an orderly and fair legal system to try some of the worst crimes of a young century. The rebuilding of Iraq and Syria can’t truly begin until there is a firm foundation of justice; both for those who committed crimes and for those who suffered so much at the hands of the Islamic State.


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