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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Captured ISIS foreign fighters pose threat to international security

Deal with detained ISIS fighters now or face a deadly threat in future, commander warns

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on patrol in central Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of ISIS they recaptured in October 2017. David Pratt for The National
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on patrol in central Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of ISIS they recaptured in October 2017. David Pratt for The National

Hundreds of foreign fighters held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS will continue to pose a deadly threat until countries of origin find a way to bring them to justice, a senior general in the international coalition has warned.

Major General Felix Gedney, the deputy commander of the Baghdad-based coalition, said the ranks of captured foreign fighters had swelled by hundreds since Washington revealed last month that the SDF was holding 400 such combatants.

"They are very secure. The SDF is very effective but in the long term we will have to find a pathway to deal with that issue because they will become a threat to us," he said on Friday.

With the capture of Raqqa and other ISIS strongholds in eastern Syria, the SDF has taken on the task of guarding the thousands of extremists captured on the battlefield. But it is a non-state militia and not equipped to run long-term detention facilities, much less oversee a process of trials.

Maj Gen Gedney said the coalition was pressing its member states to either repatriate the foreigners being held or to find an alternative framework for punishing their alleged crimes. A global solution was necessary to forestall the regional or international dangers of the men resuming the fight at some point in the future.

Despite the collapse of ISIS across swathes of Syria and Iraq, the group retains strongholds in north-east Syria and the Euphrates river valley. Operation Roundup, which is ongoing and is designed for the last phase of the battle against the group, would continue for several months over the summer.

ISIS is a "learning enemy" that has regenerated its media activities and reshaped its tactics for last-ditch defence of its final bastions. "I don't think they changed brand, they changed tactics," he said.

Maj Gen Gedney also revealed that a controversial truce that allowed 3,500 ISIS fighters to evacuate Raqqa in a bus convoy last October came about under UN pressure for a humanitarian pause. But for that, many "would be dead by now" and thus not posing a continuing battlefield threat.

Two of the foreigners held by the SDF have already called on their home country to take them back to face trial. In media interviews Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee ElSheikh said Britain should allow them to face a trial even though both have been stripped of their UK citizenship and rendered stateless.

British officials have rejected the idea. The two are alleged to be part of the notorious Beatles, a group of British-accented, balaclava-wearing killers who beheaded hostages on camera.

Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El Sheikh, members of a group of ISIS fighters known as the the "Beatles". Reuters
Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El Sheikh, members of a group of ISIS fighters known as the the "Beatles". Reuters

“I don’t think they should ever set foot in this country again. I am glad they have been hunted down and now is time for them to be held to account,” British defence secretary Gavin Williamson said in February.

Experts are not so sure the authorities are on a firm legal footing. Lord Carlile of Berriew, a lawyer and former independent reviewer of counterterrorism laws, said since the men went to Syria as British citizens, a trial in the UK was the proper forum. “Their victims include British nationals and their families, who have a legitimate expectation that the UK government will use its best efforts to ensure that a trial to ‘rule of law’ standards will occur," he said. "The fact that the pair no longer have UK citizenship is not a bar to trial.”

Meanwhile Iraq conducted several air strikes on a pocket of ISIS control in Syria. Several attacks have been carried out by Iraq or the international coalition since Thursday against the centre of Hajin, the last major area held by ISIS.

Hajin is in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, about 50 kilometres from Iraq's border, where at least 65 senior ISIS leaders live.

It has been surrounded since the end of 2017 by the SDF, who have held back from a final assault in part because several hundred prisoners are still held there.

The strikes are the latest by Iraq's air force on ISIS-held Syrian territory close to the border between the two countries.

ISIS seized a third of Iraq in 2014, before the government declared victory in December, but the military has continued regular operations along the porous Syrian border.

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