U.S. President Donald Trump said in a tweet on Oct. 18 that he had learned that some European nations are now willing to take back the ISIS fighters that came from their nations, without elaborating.
….I have just been notified that some European Nations are now willing, for the first time, to take the ISIS Fighters that came from their nations. This is good news, but should have been done after WE captured them. Anyway, big progress being made!!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2019
Trump told European nations in February to take back their citizens who had joined ISIS only to be captured by U.S. forces and their allies.
According to the U.S. government estimates, there were about 800 ISIS fighters detained in Kurdish prisons in Northern Syria. Kurdish officials have estimated that if ISIS prisoners’ families are included, the number of ISIS-linked individuals may reach 4,000, Bloomberg reported.
The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them……..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2019
According to a February report by Reuters, the French government had refused Trump’s request to take back their ISIS fighters, instead committing to making efforts to repatriate minors and other individuals on a case-by-case basis.
France’s Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said in response to Trump that France would not for the time being change its policy and would not repatriate ISIS fighters, according to Reuters.
Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian added that ISIS fighters were “enemies” of the nation who should face justice either in Syria or Iraq.
Germany said that it would only take back ISIS fighters if the suspects had consular access.
Danish MEP Anders Vistisen told Euro News that ISIS fighters should be tried and convicted in the country where the crime occurred.
European countries do not want to try their IS fighters at home, fearing a public backlash, difficulties in collating evidence against them, and risks of renewed attacks from fighters on European soil.
Europe Faces Dilemma With ISIS Fighters
Reuters reported in October that European states were trying to work out a plan to shift thousands of foreign ISIS fighters in Syria out of Kurdish prisons into Iraq.
The Iraqi government had already been conducting trials for thousands of suspected ISIS fighters, with many arrested in Iraq.
Eleven legal experts from EU countries first met in June to assess their options and made slow progress, partly due to European concerns over the fairness of Iraqi justice. But, Turkish attacks in northern Syria in early October spurred European countries to accelerate their efforts.
A group of six nations, from where the bulk of ISIS fighters held in Kurdish prisons came from, including France, Britain, and Germany, have pressed ahead with narrowing options after ruling out a fully international “ad hoc” tribunal. Such a body could take years to establish and was unlikely to get U.N. Security Council backing.
They last met on Oct. 11 in Copenhagen for discussions focusing on a hybrid structure involving international and Iraqi judges. Those discussions are running parallel with the talks with the Baghdad government, as there is no recognized legal system in the Kurdish areas of Syria.
Negotiations with Iraq, which is seeking millions of dollars in financial compensation for taking the European fighters, have not been straightforward.
“The Iraqis want money to pay for it, written agreements with every country and promises of no criticism of the proceedings,” Belkis Wille, senior researcher for Iraq at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
As the United States continues withdrawing their troops from northern Syria, and in the wake of Turkey’s military incursion, the risk is ISIS fighters currently held by U.S.-allied Kurds, also known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), will escape in large numbers and could eventually regroup.
There are 16 prisons with ISIS detainees in the 18-mile safe zone claimed by Turkey and as its offensive. Advancing Turks could eventually take control of these prisons. Turkey estimated about 1000 foreign fighters are held in these prisons.
According to Reuters, the Kurdish forces have said that protecting those prisons and camps is no longer their priority.
After the Turkish offensive started European countries accelerated their efforts to work out a solution to this issue.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Oct. 9 that the U.S. military has taken custody of two high-profile Islamic State militants previously held in Syria by Kurdish-led fighters and moved them out of the country.
Jean-Charles Brisard, President of the Terrorism Analysis Center in Paris, said that their policy of keeping their nationals in either Syria or Iraq to face trial had become “untenable”.
Former France’s ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud said, “…it was clear the Kurds wouldn’t keep them [ISIS fighters] indefinitely.”
“Sooner or late the jihadist question was bound to come up and obviously the only solution is to bring them back to be able to control them,” he said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report