Around 130 French citizens believed to have joined ISIS in Syria will be released from jail and repatriated to their home country, according to a new report.
The former fighters are currently being detained in northern Syria by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have expressed grave concerns regarding their ability to safeguard the jails once U.S. forces withdraw from the region. And the question of what to do with these hundreds of other foreign ISIS fighters who are citizens of countries that don’t want them back has yet to be resolved, despite news of this latest release.
The Soufan Center, a risk advisory company, estimates at least 2,000 French citizens joined ISIS since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. And French prisons are already estimated to house 500 men who traveled abroad to fight on behalf of ISIS but have since returned.
French authorities have declined to confirm the details of the BFMTV report that the jailed fighters will be sent back. But it has mandated that all who do return will be subject to “due process.”
Despite desperate requests by Kurdish authorities who say they don’t have the means or the money to continue holding the ISIS fighters – and the number is only growing as the final bastions of territory are being taken from the militants – most countries, France included, have staunchly resisted allowing their citizens to return, claiming they should be tried abroad.
Countries like Britain and Australia have even stripped some ISIS members of their citizenship, while other nations have taken softer approaches, preferring repatriation rather than criminal prosecution.
Legal experts have also expressed concern that countries taking back foreign fighters, especially in the United States or Europe, may also struggle to produce enough evidence of ISIS participation to bring effective charges. This could lead to further spread of extremism or violence within communities, or in the prison system, analysts have long lamented.
More than 800 fighters from 48 countries have been captured by the SDF in recent years and are languishing behind bars. Very few have been taken back by their governments.
While two Americans were captured by SDF earlier this year, it is not clear exactly how many U.S. citizens remain in SDF jails. Kurdish authorities have put the number at “a handful,” and indicated there are far fewer Americans in jail than citizens of some other countries.
The impasse isn’t limited to fighters. Kurdish forces are also being forced to host the wives and families of foreign fighters, who are being monitored in special sections of displacement camps. There are an estimated 500 women and more than 1,300 children. And there are next to no professional rehabilitation or repatriation services to the women and children.
Nonetheless, almost all jailed foreign fighters and their spouses have communicated a desire to return to their homelands.
“It was a mistake,” Hamza, a 27-year-old Belgian-born fighter told Fox News last year, questioning why his government had not made contact with him, admitting that he first became radicalized after joining a homegrown Salafist group entitled “Sharia4Belgium.”
In contrast to the Syrian dilemma, in which there is no long-term strategy in place, Iraq has been fast and firm – much to the chagrin of many human rights organizations – to prosecute both foreign and domestic fighters, and has executed hundreds.