Disarmed but not defused

The defeat of the ISIS caliphate left this Moroccan militant and about 2,000 other suspected foreign fighters detained in northeastern Syria. Will they pose a greater threat there or back in their home countries?

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Disarmed but not defused

The defeat of the ISIS caliphate left this Moroccan militant and about 2,000 other suspected foreign fighters detained in northeastern Syria. Will they pose a greater threat there or back in their home countries?
By , ,

TANGIER, Morocco — The phone had nearly stopped ringing by the time Mariam dared to answer. The number was unusual, American, she thought. Did someone know what had happened to him? She was starting to shake, unsure she could bear the news.

It had been 3½ years since Mariam’s son Othman had turned into a person she said she barely recognized. A year since his letter from Syria, where he had journeyed along with thousands of other foreign fighters to join the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. Eight months since a letter from the Red Cross with a red-inked stamp declaring him “safe and well” in custody.

But since then — silence. Dramatic battles had raged as the Islamic State fought fruitlessly to salvage its ruthless reign; she knew that. She also knew hundreds had died.

After the Caliphate: This is part of a series about the perilous aftermath of the Islamic State, which fell in March, and the militant group’s prospects for revival.

Part one: Castaway from the Islamic State Part two: ISIS at a crossroads

“Pick up,” her sister urged Mariam. “Before it goes to the mailbox, pick up.”

Mariam took a deep breath, she later recalled, and did so.

“Hello?”

The call came from Syria. “We met a man called Othman,” said a reporter on the other end.

“He’s my son!” she said, as tears stung her eyes. “How is he? Is he okay?”

But Othman’s survival, and ultimately his fate, had become tangled up in a much larger issue: how the world has confronted the legacy of the Islamic State. The defeat of its caliphate early this year left some 10,000 suspected Islamic State fighters in detention in Syria — more than 2,000 of them foreign — and governments around the world have struggled with questions of whether and how to bring them home.

Days before the phone call, in early August, Kurdish intelligence officials had led Othman into a small, dingy room with flowery curtains that blocked the view of northeastern Syria outside. When a guard pulled off Othman’s blindfold, the skinny young man with a convict’s buzz cut looked exhausted. His skin was sallow. During a 30-minute interview with Washington Post reporters, he rarely dragged his gaze up from the ground.

Othman, 24, said he had trained for months as an Islamic State fighter but later soured on the group, if not on some of its beliefs. Held by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on terrorism charges, his future remained unresolved.


Othman, a Moroccan citizen from Tangier, is accused of joining the Islamic State. He is seen here in a prison in northeastern Syria on Aug. 5. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

“I’m just a prisoner,” he said. “I have no say.”

He looked down at his hands.

“Maybe even my parents think I’m dead,” he added. He offered his mother’s name and phone number.

After learning in a call from Post reporters that Othman was alive, Mariam would launch a personal crusade to bring him home, rallying the families of other Moroccans imprisoned in Syria and lobbying diplomats and security officials, including the chief of Morocco’s domestic security agency, as she was drawn into a debate roiling governments around the world. (Othman and his family members spoke on the condition that they be identified only by their first names to protect their safety.)

Othman wrote a letter to his mother in August 2018 from a prison in northeast Syria. (Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
A close-up of Othman’s signature on the letter. (Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Othman wrote a letter to his mother in August 2018 from a prison in northeast Syria. (Joyce Lee/The Washington Post) RIGHT: A close-up of Othman’s signature on the letter. (Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The Kurdish-led SDF lacks the money and manpower to detain the suspected fighters indefinitely, and the situation on the ground in Syria has grown even more precarious in recent months. A major prison break could breathe new life into the Islamic State insurgency, jeopardizing the gains made by the U.S.-led coalition in rolling back the jihadist movement.

But many countries fear repatriating suspected Islamic State fighters. Leaders face popular hostility to the idea, and security officials worry militants could give domestic courts and police the slip. Afraid of reimporting a terrorist threat born on their shores, many governments have tried to buy time as a global peril mounts.

The vigorous debate inside Morocco’s security services has echoed that in other countries. One part of the security services has argued that it would be better to repatriate fighters than to risk their escaping from foreign custody or being released, and potentially disappearing to pose a renewed threat to Morocco. Another has opposed the idea, concerned that fighters remain radicalized and pose too great a risk.

As summer turned to fall, and then winter, that struggle would ebb and flow.

Much more than Othman’s fate would hang in the balance.


The headquarters of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations in Salé, Morocco. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

‘The signs were there’

The young man’s transformation had not seemed unusual at first, according to family members’ accounts. Teachers in his home city of Tangier, where the family led a comfortable, middle-class life, said that his grades were slipping and that he was spending less and less time in the classroom. He’d started to chase girls, close himself in his room. A typical teenager, Mariam had thought.

She and her husband turned to two of their neighbors’ sons, Mohammed and Bilal, who were older than Othman, in hopes they could talk some sense into him.

But Othman’s parents learned too late that the young men’s lives had also been changing fast. Mohammed was gaining a reputation for verbally abusing women who dressed in ways he considered un-Islamic. Bilal had demanded his wife wear a niqab, or face veil, and his brother had already left for the caliphate.

The more time Othman spent with them, the less time he spent with his family. He grew a beard and changed his clothes, trading his jeans for a djellaba, a traditional Moroccan robe. He stopped shaking hands with women. When his aunts visited, he refused to greet them with the usual kiss on the cheek.

“One day he came out of his room, crying after he had been watching some video, and said he has failed in life because he had been far from God,” Mariam recalled during an interview in her living room, shaking her head.

He became obsessed with the bloodshed in Syria’s civil war. “The signs were there, but we didn’t see them,” she said.

The coddled child who once told her everything had been replaced by a man with secrets.

Coming home late one evening from her job as an Arabic teacher, Mariam found Othman waiting at the dinner table long after he should have finished. “He said, ‘Mom, let us eat together. There will come a day when you will wish to eat with me,’ ” she recalled. “I know what he meant by that now.”

He left home on a winter morning in 2016, telling her he was going camping. Instead, he flew to Turkey and was arrested with friends from northern Morocco as they tried to cross into Syria. Othman spent a year in Turkish prisons. In photographs from his cell, the gangly 21-year-old holds one finger aloft in a religious salute.


A busy street this summer in Tangier, Morocco, Othman’s hometown. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

Othman told his mother in phone calls that he had abandoned his dream of joining the caliphate. Weeks after his release, smugglers helped slip him across the border into Syria.

Othman said in an interview that he was sent for training in religious dogma and law and then received military training for three months in desert camps outside the city of Hama, where he learned how to use weapons to serve on the front lines. He applied to study architecture at an Islamic State-administered university in the Iraqi city of Mosul and found a wife — a devout widow from the Syrian city of Aleppo — through fellow Moroccans in the caliphate.

“We have reached the land of Islam,” his mother recounted his telling her by phone. She recognized his voice but said she felt she barely knew him.

Preventing a resurgence

The Islamic State’s project to establish a proto-state and expand its domain across a broad swath of Iraq and Syria attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters from at least 80 countries, from as far afield as Alabama and London and the coasts of the Caspian and Java seas. About one-third came from Europe, and nearly half from the Middle East and North Africa, according to researchers from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.

More than 1,000 were Moroccan, according to Abdelhak El Khayyam, the director of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations.

Some security experts say it is crucial for countries to repatriate and prosecute their nationals if the jihadist movement is to be prevented from rising again. They add that due process also requires this.

But the difficulties are many. Some governments don’t even know how many of their nationals are being held, who they are or how deeply they were involved in Islamic State atrocities. Many countries lack the laws to prosecute alleged fighters, and even if the laws are on the books, it is often unclear whether evidence from the battlefield would hold up in court. If they are convicted, they could radicalize others in custody and then be released after sentences as short as three years, leaving already overburdened police to keep unrepentant militants from turning to violence again.

Western European countries, in particular, have been resistant to bringing the prisoners home, citing obstacles ranging from national security to domestic politics. The issue is challenging for the United States, which has only two suspected Islamic State fighters in SDF custody, according to researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Foreign affiliates returning home

Data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show the countries of origin for more than 50,000 Islamic State affiliates (including women and minors). About 8,000 have returned home.

Total affiliates

Total returnees

1-

10

11-

25

16-

50

51-

100

101-

250

251-

500

501-

1,000

1,001-

5,000

More

than

5,000

U.S.

Russia

Morocco

Tunisia

Egypt

Saudi Arabia

S. Africa

Source: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate by Joana Cook, Gina Vale

 

Foreign affiliates returning home

Data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show the countries of origin for more than 50,000 Islamic State affiliates (including women and minors). About 8,000 have returned home.

Total affiliates

Total returnees

1-

10

11-

25

16-

50

51-

100

101-

250

251-

500

501-

1,000

1,001-

5,000

More than

5,000

Canada

U.K.

U.S.

Russia

Kazakhstan

Germany

France

Turkey

Morocco

Tunisia

Syria

Iraq

Egypt

Saudi Arabia

South Africa

Source: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate by Joana Cook, Gina Vale

 

Foreign affiliates returning home

Data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show the countries of origin for more than 50,000 Islamic State affiliates (including women and minors). About 8,000 have returned home.

Total affiliates

Total returnees

1-10

11-25

16-50

51-100

101-250

251-500

501-1,000

1,001-5,000

More than

5,000

Canada

U.K.

U.S.

Russia

Kazakhstan

Germany

France

Turkey

Morocco

Tunisia

Syria

Iraq

Egypt

Saudi Arabia

Source: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate by Joana Cook, Gina Vale

 

South Africa

Foreign affiliates returning home

Data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show the countries of origin for more than 50,000 Islamic State affiliates (including women and minors). About 8,000 have returned home.

Total affiliates

Total returnees

1-10

11-25

16-50

51-100

101-250

251-500

501-1,000

1,001-5,000

More than

5,000

Canada

U.K.

U.S.

Russia

Kazakhstan

Germany

France

Turkey

Morocco

Tunisia

Syria

Iraq

Egypt

Saudi Arabia

Source: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate by Joana Cook, Gina Vale

 

South Africa

Foreign affiliates returning home

Data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show the countries of origin for more than 50,000 Islamic State affiliates (including women and minors). About 8,000 have returned home.

Total affiliates

Total returnees

1-10

11-25

16-50

51-100

101-250

251-500

501-1,000

1,001-5,000

More than

5,000

Canada

U.K.

U.S.

Russia

Kazakhstan

Germany

France

Turkey

Morocco

Tunisia

Syria

Iraq

Egypt

Saudi Arabia

Source: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate by Joana Cook, Gina Vale

 

South Africa

Morocco is among a handful of countries that have been more forthcoming, experimenting with an approach to repatriate, rehabilitate and, ultimately, reintegrate nationals affiliated with the Islamic State. Eight were brought home in March. They were questioned by the security services and then turned over to the Moroccan judiciary to face trial, Khayyam said.

The process has been trying, especially because Moroccan authorities do not communicate directly with the Kurdish-led SDF, but through U.S. and French intermediaries.

“To identify every person, whether he’s Moroccan or not, or just says he’s Moroccan, it’s real work, and I can’t just go there and start taking people. Impossible,” Khayyam said.

Even if the prisoners’ identities can be confirmed, Moroccan authorities have limited ability to determine which ones to repatriate.

“It’s not like we can pick who we want back. The Kurds chose the ones,” said a senior Moroccan intelligence official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss national security matters.


This Moroccan man was accused of being a member of the Islamic State and repatriated after his capture in Syria. Morocco brought home eight suspected fighters in March. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

‘We had a different image’

Since his capture by SDF troops in April 2018, Othman has spent his days in a network of prisons arrayed across northeastern Syria, a twilight zone of misery. Some of the inmates have been there for years. Men are rail thin and packed in so tightly that their bony legs intertwine. Some had lost eyes, ears and limbs in combat. Boys as young as 9 are among them and poke their heads through holes in the iron doors to beg for help.

During the interview with Othman this summer, held inside a squat SDF building on the rural outskirts of Rmeilan and observed by two Kurdish officials, he said he had turned against the Islamic State because life inside its caliphate was not what he had imagined. This is a common refrain from captured Islamic State members, making it challenging for security officials to sort out who is still supportive of the group and who is less likely to pose a threat if sent home.

“We had a different image based on what we saw on the media: that it was a state led by God’s law,” he said in a whisper. “But when we arrived, we found injustice. … People were killed for no reason.”

He added, “If you don’t work for them, they’d follow and could kill you.”

When he complained one night in the caliphate about the Islamic State’s leadership, Othman said, he was branded a traitor. Turning to a smuggler he trusted, Othman paid with money sent to him from Morocco to be slipped back into Turkey, sending his wife on ahead. He was seized by SDF forces just shy of the border.

Despite his criticism of the Islamic State, he showed few signs of relinquishing his extreme religious views and faulted his homeland, the Muslim-majority country of Morocco, for a lack of piety.

“There are appearances of Islam but no Islam. … This is the condition in Morocco,” he said, dismissing the common sights of mosques, bearded men and veiled women as deceptive. “God’s law isn’t practiced in Morocco,” he said. “Rulings aren’t made in accordance with God’s almighty laws.”

If he were to move back to Morocco with his wife, Othman said, he would insist that she continue to conceal herself beneath a head-to-toe covering known as a burqa. His recently acquired understanding of Islam required this, he said.

Would he even want to return to Morocco?

“It’s not up to me,” he said.

‘He deserves a second chance’

In her living room days later, Mariam wept as she looked at a photograph of Othman during his interview, taking breaks from conversation to fix pots of sweet tea as she grappled with her emotions.


Othman’s room in his family home in Tangier. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

“I am sure my son did not kill anyone, and he deserves a second chance,” she said.

In the waning weeks of summer, word of his survival would turn that scared mother into an activist. She helped set up a WhatsApp group she said grew to 90 families seeking news of relatives trapped in Syrian prisons or displacement camps. She said she and her husband repeatedly traveled to the capital, Rabat, pressing officials at the Foreign and Interior ministries to bring Othman home.

She packed his school certificates each time, as well as notes she had recently asked his former teachers to write describing what a good student he had been. “I wanted them to know who my son was, how nicely people had spoken of him,” she said.

Her story was not unusual, according to a Moroccan intelligence officer. “You hear about how nice they always were, how they would kiss their mother’s head,” he said. “I would sometimes like to tell them: ‘I am sure your son was once a nice person, but now he is a terrorist.’ ”

Officials in Rabat told her it wouldn’t be easy to bring Othman back, in part because the SDF did not govern a proper state, so there are no diplomatic relations.

After repatriating the initial eight Moroccan prisoners in March, security officials said they were investigating how to bring home 100 more who were still being held by the SDF. But their case was running into resistance, in part because so few countries had stepped up to take back their nationals, officials said. Then some European governments made matters worse by proposing that their nationals with Moroccan roots could be stripped of their citizenship and sent to Morocco instead. Moroccan officials clashed with their European counterparts.

“We told the Europeans that we refuse to receive people who were born in Europe and have been radicalized in Europe. Morocco is not responsible. Europe is,” the senior Moroccan intelligence official said.

Another Moroccan security official said there were questions about how Othman could be reintegrated into society, especially since he had tried several times to reach the caliphate and repeatedly lied to his parents about his intentions. Othman, like other prisoners to be returned, would be thoroughly questioned to determine whether he rejected the group’s ideology now or simply wanted out because of the Syrian war’s brutality, the official said.

In Othman’s favor were his parents, neither of whom had extremist backgrounds and who were willing to cooperate with the authorities.

Nowhere to be seen

On Oct. 6, Turkish military forces and their local proxies rolled into northern Syria, seeking to eject rival Kurdish forces from along the border. Any plans to repatriate Othman and other Moroccan prisoners were thrown into disarray.

Mariam watched the news in horror.

“She would barely sleep,” her husband, Abderrazak, said in an interview last month. His increasingly exhausted wife stayed glued to her cellphone day and night, he recalled. “Whenever she heard something about fights or explosions close to prisons, she would be up and wondering: What if Othman was there?”

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area, effectively greenlighting the Turkish invasion, left the SDF vulnerable. The Kurdish-led force turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army for protection. The reports left Mariam distraught. She said she didn’t imagine the Syrians would distinguish between hardcore radicals and a son who, she still maintains, knew he made the biggest mistake of his life by traveling to Syria.


A U.S. military convoy carries equipment Oct. 28 from a base in northern Syria to Deir al-Zour. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

The Turkish invasion sapped Morocco’s momentum toward bringing the prisoners home, officials said. Moroccan security officials said the SDF was too preoccupied battling its Turkish foes to engage with other countries to return their nationals. And in Rabat, security officials said the United States, which has played a crucial intelligence and logistics role in repatriating suspected foreign fighters, put the issue on the back burner amid the troop withdrawal.

Moroccan officials feared the prisoners could escape, taking advantage of the chaos in Syria and the reduced presence of SDF guards, to slip home unnoticed.

To date, the prisons remain securely under SDF control.

“But for how long?” Mariam has asked officials.

She has scrutinized every photograph she can find from the cells. Among a sea of orange jumpsuits and broken men, Othman is nowhere to be seen.

‘I need to know’

After Mariam learned Othman was alive, she grew determined this fall to figure out what went so wrong that her son had left to join militants in a faraway war.

She questioned her family’s dynamics. Her husband had been very hard on Othman, raising him in what she called a “military style.” Othman’s younger brother told Mariam that it was her fault for pampering him. Mariam wondered whether, to protect Othman from a severe father, she had kept him so close that he rebelled.

On a rainy evening last month, accompanied by a reporter, Mariam set out to find answers.

She called Mohammed, the neighbor’s son, who was back in Tangier and working as a taxi driver again after doing time in a local prison for trying to travel to the caliphate. Because Mariam’s husband wasn’t home, Mohammed wouldn’t come to her apartment, and so they agreed to meet where it all started — at the mosque where he and Othman once prayed.

She grabbed her coat, ran into the downpour and got in her car. After a 20-minute drive through darkened streets, she asked the driver to park a few blocks from the meeting point. She crossed the road by the old white-brick mosque, dodging a maze of cars. The evening call to prayer sounded from the minaret.

Mohammed, still wearing the fist-long beard he grew when first radicalized, got out of an old white Mercedes. He did not shake her hand.

“I need to know my son. How did Othman end up in this?” Mariam asked him as they stood beside the mosque. “Was it you who told him to travel there?”

To her surprise, he said no. It was a coincidence, he said, that he and Othman had flown to Turkey the same day, bound for Syria. They had been arrested before they could cross. Mohammed ultimately turned back and headed home.

“But who told him to go to Turkey in the first place?” she pressed.

He didn’t know, he answered. “You never know what is inside a person’s heart.”

‘People can change’

More than 2,000 miles away in northeast Syria, the man in the blindfold looked older and thinner than ever during a prison interview earlier this week. Gone were the baby cheeks from Mariam’s photographs. He looked exhausted. Weeks of nothing stretched out behind and before him.

Of the political winds outside his prison walls, he knew nothing. Word of the Turkish invasion did not appear to have reached Othman’s cell. Nor had news that the caliphate’s longtime leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had died two months earlier in a U.S. raid. “Everything is as it was,” he said quietly. Morocco hadn’t called.

Sitting in a room just big enough for a chair and a broken table, Othman this time wore the orange prison jumpsuit that reminds Islamic State inmates of how they once dressed their victims for execution. He expressed frustration at times, and apprehension, too. “People should be forgiving,” he said. “People can change.”

He insisted he would do his best to reintegrate and practice a more moderate faith if Morocco brought him home. His religious practices had been based on ignorance, he thought. “That was a mistake,” he said, twisting his hands nervously as he spoke. He was shaking.

He said he knew the challenges would be steep, but at times did not seem to comprehend the extent of them. He acknowledged, with some disbelief, that some people might view him as an “assassin.”

He sounded hopeless. Again and again, his thoughts were turning to his family. “The only thing I think of is to see my parents,” he said. “I just want to know how they are doing.”

Beyond that, he saw nothing.

“I don’t think of anything really.”

Amira El Masaiti in Rabat and Joyce Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Design and development by Irfan Uraizee.

Credits: Souad Mekhennet, Louisa Loveluck, Khabat Abbas

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