RMEILAN, Syria — The imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria announced last week will leave thousands of foreign Islamic State fighters and their family members piled up in prisons and camps in this remote corner of the country, wanted by neither their home governments nor their captors and posing a new threat to the region.
The foreigners, more than 2,700 of them, flocked to join the Islamic State at the height of its territorial expansion but instead wound up being captured on the battlefield or surrendering to U.S.-backed forces.
Governments that enthusiastically supported the U.S.-led war against the militants when the Islamic State’s conquests were threatening global stability are refusing to repatriate their citizens, citing the risk that they would spread radical ideology or perhaps carry out attacks back home.
But the local administration doesn’t want responsibility for guarding and feeding so many militants and lacks the capacity to stage trials for people on charges of war crimes and other abuses, according to Abdulkarim Omar, who jointly heads the foreign affairs department of the Kurdish-led self-styled administration in northeastern Syria.
“It’s a huge number. Some of them are very dangerous people, and we live in a very unstable area,” he said.
Now, with U.S. troops preparing to withdraw, a new war could erupt at any time, jeopardizing the Kurds’ continued ability to guard the prisoners. Neighboring Turkey has been threatening to invade to root out what Ankara considers Kurdish terrorists, and the Syrian government has vowed to reassert its authority over the territory.
“It’s a big risk. There could be big instability here. If some of them escape, they could make their way back to their home countries and carry out bombings,” said Omar.
He dismissed a report last week by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group that Kurdish forces are considering releasing the detainees. He said the primary concern is that a withdrawal of U.S. troops without a solution to the problem of the imprisoned Islamic State members would create “a security vacuum that these criminals could exploit to escape and pose a danger to all of us.”
All of them say they want to go home, according to their captors and interviews with several prisoners, to face justice and prison time if that’s what it takes.
“I regret this, and I miss my family, and if I go home, I will do my best to help Germany,” said a 36-year-old German man who asked to be identified by his nickname, Soufian, and was interviewed at a base in the town of Rmeilan belonging to the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The men are being held in prisons that U.S. forces have helped guard, while the women and children are housed in tents in special sections of three refugee camps, surrounded by barbed wire.
They come from 44 nations and include 900 male fighters, around 600 women and more than 1,200 children, Omar said. He declined to break down the nationalities by number, at the request of the governments concerned, but he said Turks make up the largest group, followed by Moroccans, Tunisians and Russians. Americans constitute one of the smallest groups, with barely a handful in custody.
The Kurds don’t allow journalists to visit the prisons, but they have received visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the refugee camps are open to journalists and aid workers. The United States has contributed to the costs and sought to persuade countries to repatriate their citizens, U.S. officials say.
‘Trapped and tricked’
In interviews conducted at the Kurdish base and at one of the camps where the wives and children of fighters are being held, four Europeans — two men and two women — vowed that they would not cause problems if they were allowed to go home. They consented to the interviews, in the presence of Kurdish guards, saying they hope to persuade their home governments to let them return. They withheld their real names because they wish to resume their former lives and don’t want to encounter harassment from neighbors when they do.
The interviews were conducted on the condition that no questions be asked about the circumstances of their captivity or their fellow prisoners, but all of the captives seemed in good health.
A German convert to Islam, Soufian said he traveled to Syria in 2015 for a muddle of motives that included being threatened in Germany by someone he knew and the conviction that it was his duty as a Muslim to make the journey. He said he spent the entire time he was living in the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa providing prosthetics for injured fighters and civilians at a medical facility.
“Look at me. I could never fight. I could never kill anyone,” said Soufian, who trembled throughout the interview, seemed agitated, and described three kinds of djinns, or devils, that he said had contributed to his circumstances.
“I have German citizenship. My blood is German. My grandfather is German,” he pleaded, explaining why he believes he should be allowed to go home.
A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, Soren Schmidt, said German citizens who traveled to join the Islamic State have the right to return to Germany. But, he added, in the case of Syria, the German government “cannot provide imprisoned German nationals with legal and consular assistance due to the ongoing fighting.”
Many governments, especially Western ones, take the attitude that those who chose to join the Islamic State surrendered their citizenship rights when they decided to leave their countries, said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow based in Canada for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue who recently visited northeastern Syria and interviewed detainees.
“The broader argument is: You went over there, you renounced your citizenship, and you joined an organization that gave no second chances to anyone,” he said.
More specifically, foreign authorities are concerned that returnees might not be genuine in their remorse and could spread radical ideology or plot future attacks, he said.
Umm Mohammed, 36, a Dutch woman who traveled to Syria with her husband and three children in 2014 full of hope for a new life, said governments should worry less about people who return from the Islamic State, also called ISIS, than those who never made the trip. She was interviewed at Roj Camp, a bleak cluster of U.N.-provided tents on a bare, windswept hillside near the Iraqi border occupied almost entirely by the wives and children of Islamic State fighters.
As a conservative Muslim living in a small Dutch town, Umm Mohammed said she was insulted and harassed by her neighbors. They taunted her, calling her “penguin” because of her niqab, she said. Stickers were posted on her door, saying, “No jihad on our street.”
She saw media reports about atrocities and abuses committed by the militants, but her treatment at the hands of her neighbors made her assume that they were untrue.
“I thought the Western media was just biased against Muslims,” she said. “I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in a society like this, and also I didn’t want to change myself to shut them up, so I wanted to live in an Islamic state.”
Almost immediately, she said, she was disillusioned. The family went to Mosul in Iraq, where they planned to open a grocery store. Instead, her husband was badgered to become a fighter. They spent the next three years attempting a series of escapes that culminated in their surrender to Kurdish forces in Syria this year.
“We were trapped and tricked,” she said. “The ISIS propaganda depicts a life that is not reality. Many people really came with this dream of a caliphate. But when you get there, they just want you for the fight.”
When asked what her family thought of her decision to go to Syria, she broke down in tears. Her parents have severed contact with her, and she said she would gladly spend years in prison if it meant she could see her mother again.
“I understand that our countries are afraid of us,” she said. “But they should be more afraid of people who don’t know ISIS, the ones who still have this perfect image of ISIS. They don’t need to be afraid of the ones who have been here. The people who don’t know what ISIS is really like are more dangerous than those who have lived the Islamic State.”
Confronting the image
It is far from clear whether there would be enough evidence to prosecute and imprison many of these volunteers, especially in Western countries where evidentiary standards are high. Unless they were well-known figures or featured in videos committing war crimes, it would be difficult to make any charges other than minor ones stick, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI investigator who now runs the Soufan Center, dedicated to the deradicalization of extremists. The volunteers could claim they only traveled to help fellow Muslims in distress and were unaware of the group’s atrocities, he said.
That’s what some do claim.
During the three years that Umm Khuwaylid, a 29-year-old Turkish German convert to Islam, and her German husband lived in Raqqa, she stayed at home. She said she didn’t know what he was doing when he disappeared for days on end. She said she began having doubts about the group only after she was injured in a U.S.-led airstrike during the siege of the city last year and the nearest hospital gave her shoddy care, favoring injured Islamic State fighters over civilians.
Soufian said he sometimes saw the bodies of crucified Syrians splayed out on the streets of Raqqa when he was traveling to and from his job but assumed the killings were justified because the victims were accused of spying for the U.S.-led coalition. He said he turned against the Islamic State after his best friend, also a German, was executed by the Islamic State for making a video in which he urged Muslims to blow up kindergartens, a position deemed too extreme even by the militants.
Abu Bakr, 29, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents, traveled to Syria with his wife and children in 2014 because, he said, he had heard that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was committing atrocities against Muslims. He said his wife began warning him shortly after they arrived that the group was not living up to the idealistic image it projected, but he was too busy fighting on the front lines to notice.
When he began to have doubts and shared them with fellow fighters, they told him his thoughts were “the work of the devil.”
“It was difficult to refuse orders. If you disobey them, they put you in prison,” he said.
‘We cannot handle this’
Some countries have taken their citizens back, said Omar, the Kurdish foreign affairs official. Indonesia repatriated an extended family of 30 people. Russia flew back hundreds of women and children, mostly from Chechnya. This year, the United States took custody of Samantha Marie Elhassani, whose husband was killed in an airstrike in Syria after they traveled there with their two children. She is now facing charges in Indiana on two counts of providing material support to the Islamic State, charges she denies. The children were put in the care of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
The FBI did not respond to questions about why the United States has not repatriated other citizens.
U.S. officials, in the meantime, are urging all nations to take back the volunteers. “What’s very important is that we address this properly and particularly where appropriate return them home for prosecution,” Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in October.
But many governments refuse to engage with Kurdish attempts to discuss the issue, Omar said. “They tell us, the crimes were committed in your country, so you should prosecute them,” he said.
That is a complicated proposition. The Syrian Kurds administer a de facto statelet in northeastern Syria, but it has no international recognition. Many European states are reluctant to deal with the administration because of its close affiliation with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been waging a decades-old insurgency against Turkey and is designated by many countries as a terrorist organization.
The fledgling administration lacks the resources and capacity to put on trial, or detain indefinitely, so many people, Omar said. In neighboring Iraq, where foreign fighters were also captured, the Western-backed government liberally dispenses the death penalty, earning the condemnation of Western human rights groups.
The leftist ideology embraced by the Syrian Kurds rejects the death penalty and focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Most of the thousands of Syrian Islamic State fighters captured on the battlefield have either been released or absorbed into the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces after stints in prisons where they sleep in bunk beds and are given classes in woodwork, pottery and the ideology of jailed Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Language and cultural barriers preclude rehabilitating and absorbing into Syrian society so many foreigners from so many different countries, Omar said. “The problem is bigger than us. We cannot handle this.”
Mohammed Hassan and Khabat Zan in Qamishli, Syria; Ghalia Alawani in Beirut; and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.