Sympathy for 100,000 ISIS detainees? How about their victims?

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The so-called Islamic State, the Caliphate which at its height controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq has been destroyed by focused and lethal military strikes by the United States and its allies. Yet in effect, the shattered group has now splintered and spread to key regions throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and beyond.

That’s the current assessment by the UN’s Chief Counterterrorism expert Vladimir Voronkov who warns, “the group remains at the center of the transnational terrorism threat. We must stay vigilant and united in confronting this scourge.”

‘Thousands of ISIS terrorists and their family members are in detention in Iraq and Syria given that “most member states have not yet assumed responsibility for the repatriation of their nationals.” ‘ / YouTube

Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) aka ISIS and in Arabic Daesh, maintains a growing online presence.  Equally the group has tried to reconstitute itself in lost territories in Iraq.

Estimates of the numbers of foreign fighters who ventured to Iraq and Syria to the “cause” still range between 20,000 and 27,000, according to the UN.

But here’s another looming concern.  The UN’s Voronkov states that thousands of ISIS terrorists and their family members are in detention in Iraq and Syria given that “most member states have not yet assumed responsibility for the repatriation of their nationals.”  In other words, fighters and their families, often from North Africa, Western Europe and Indonesia, are marooned in the Middle East. Many of these are hapless children.  The numbers in detention number almost 100,000!

While many are calling for compassion for these unfortunates, my sympathies and prayers extend to the victims of Islamic State; the Christians of the Nineveh Plain and Syria, the persecuted Yazidis, the Kurds and indeed the Muslims of beleaguered Syria and Iraq who were savagely brutalized by Daesh.

Chaldean Christian Archbishop Habib Nafali has warned that Iraqi Christians “endured systemic violence designed to eradicate them.” He added, “If this is not genocide, then what is genocide?”

There’s another concern among the fate of the so called “foreign fighters” very often Belgian, British, or French citizens who ventured to Syria to join the jihad.  Some have returned to Europe only to find themselves in prison.  Now according to Voronkov, “In Europe there are concerns over the anticipated release this year of approximately 1,000 terrorism-related convicts, including ‘frustrated travelers’ and returned foreign terrorist fighters.”

Given a number of recent violent acts by former “former fighters” what do countries like Belgium, France, and Germany not understand about letting “former” terrorists into mainstream civil society?  Months ago, a former “rehabilitated” terrorist killed two people in central London.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres advised in a recent report, “The threat posed by terrorist or radicalized prisoners is of continued concern.  They include returnees, ‘frustrated travelers’ who have failed to join ISIS abroad and perpetrators, supporters and planners of terrorist attacks, as well as other individuals radicalized while in custody.”

Frustrated travelers comprise terrorist wannabes who may have tried to get from Europe to Syria but were blocked from making trip. Many may wish to “prove themselves” on European soil.

During its height the Syrian civil war proved a magnet to international Islamic jihadi fighters.

Speaking in the Security Council, Indonesia’s UN Ambassador Dian Djani cautioned that beyond the clear humanitarian challenge facing these families, “the threat posed by returnees, terrorist perpetrators, frustrated travelers or radicalized prisoners is also of concern.” He added, “Despite some of them still being believed to be dangerous, they are expected to be released soon. We cannot afford to take risks.”

Security sources press the need for specific and tailored “de-radicalization” strategies to defuse and hopefully neutralize the threat from these foreign fighter returnees. The strategy must go beyond prosecution to de-radicalization and eventual rehabilitation.

For many militants leaving the Middle East or Indonesia, it appears the southern Philippines and the restive Muslim Sulu archipelago present foreign terrorist fighters a refuge of choice.

The renewed security challenge to the Philippines ironically comes at the time when President Rodrigo Duterte, has courted China politically and correspondingly has foolishly cut U.S. security cooperation links. Duterte’s cozying up to Beijing, while shunning Washington’s assistance, could very well create a dangerous political vacuum in the southern Philippines in which militants flourish.

Secretary General Guterres outlines the wider challenge. “The transnational threat of terrorism remains acute, with ISIL at its centre.  Since the loss of its last stronghold in the Syrian Arab Republic in 2019, the ISIL core has continued its rapid reconstitution into a covert network.”

The United States wisely maintains a small but lethal military component in both Iraq and Syria. Given past American investment in blood and treasure, it’s foolhardy to just walk away.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]