Alan Lis: Jihadists being released- the continuous issue of what to do with captured terrorists

Now that ISIS has been territorially defeated, some say that this is the end of this organisation, often regarded as the gravest terrorist threat of the current century. Although the Islamic State does not control any territory, the are problems caused by it, which still remain in place. To start with, there is the issue of its ideology. Territorial losses do not mean that the ideology that has driven ISIS’s fighters became any less appealing; quite contrary, it still attracts a good deal of new potential recruits who are, of course, less likely to travel to Syria and Iraq now, but nevertheless may pose a substantial danger in their countries of residence.

Another thing, already addressed some time ago, is the dilemma of what to do with captured ISIS’s fighters and their families, some of whom may still support ISIS. Although some countries repatriated a few women and children – what will be mentioned below – there are still thousands more in detention camps in Syria and Iraq. 

This piece, however, shall adhere to the issue of captured ISIS’s fighters, leaving the case of their families aside. The dilemma of what ought to be done with IS’s combatants demonstrates a problem that, by extension, applies to Jihadists of all kinds and affiliations, not only those imprisoned during the struggle against the Islamic State. In the United States, a considerable number of Jihadists caught during earlier stages of the War on Terror is being, or will soon be, released from prisons. The world media have recently put much focus on the example of the ‘American Taliban’, John Walker Lindh.

Lindh grew up in a rather wealthy family and converted to Islam in his teenage years. He had left the US for the Middle East in order to study Arabic, and after spending some time in Yemen he moved to Pakistan and joined Islamist militancy. He then was trained in terrorist camps, and even got to meet Osama bin Laden at some point. After September 11, he was fighting American forces in Afghanistan alongside Al Qaeda terrorists, until he was caught. The media quite rapidly nicknamed him as the ‘American Taliban’. Eventually, an American court sentenced Lindh to 20 years in prison. By the end of May, he was released from prison, still having three years to serve, due to his ‘good behaviour’ while in jail. His good behaviour does not mean, however, that when freed the ‘American Taliban’ would not pose a threat to his fellow citizens. Indeed, there are reports that Lindh still shows signs of commitment to and expressed support for the Islamic State. After his release, he will be obviously subjected to a restricted control, including his communication and travel. Nonetheless, even the toughest supervision regime may turn out not to be sufficient enough. 

The question of what ought to be done with captured Jihadists constitutes a strong dilemma for intelligence services, law enforcement, as well as politicians. There seems to be no ideal solution to this concern, as all of the possible ones are flawed to an extent. Capital punishment – which will be discussed below – does eliminate particular terrorists and thus the threat they pose, but may also serve the purpose of mobilizing and motivating new recruits to join Jihad and raises voices of protest amongst adherents of liberalism. Deradicalization programs, to which imprisoned terrorists are obliged, according to some reports, have not been of much success. Also, detaining Jihadists in places like Guantanamo Bay and then letting them go does not work either, as demonstrated in the report by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence1.

It was observed that quite a few of them re-engaged in terrorist activities upon their release. Notably, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS’s leader, was detained by the US-led coalition forces in 2004 and after several months let go. During his time in detention, radical views of his have embraced even more extreme nature. Indeed, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib prison, and other places the like may be said to have facilitated further radicalization. In fact, some academics and scholars came up with names quite adequately reflecting how faulty the detention system was and to what use it was to Jihadists, naming such facilities as ‘incubators for radicalization’2, ‘recruitment centres and training grounds’3, or ‘jihadi universities’4.

Very recently, seven French nationals who had been captured during the last period of fighting ISIS in Syria were sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. Subjecting them to the capital punishment does ‘take them off the streets’ and thus eliminate the threat that they pose, but, as mentioned above, it may well serve as a factor mobilizing new recruits to join Jihad and take revenge for those killed. French officials responded with mixed messages: while they still refuse to repatriate their citizens who fought in the ISIS’s ranks, they too are making official efforts to prevent the sentence from being carried out. France’s refusal to take its citizens back is understandable – it would be difficult to successfully try them in French courts – as are the official attempts to save those Jihadists from being hanged – after all France is a liberal democracy, which declared capital punishment illegal in 1981. Although Iraqi courts do not necessarily give any ISIS’s fighter a chance for a fully fair trial, they offer a minimum of justice, and what is certainly more important for France, as well as any other country whose nationals had been captured fighting in Syria and Iraq, they solve the problems for them. It is, therefore, unlikely for those states to make more meaningful attempts to alter the Iraqi courts’ decisions. 

The case of captured Jihadists is very problematic. Quite a good solution, but rather an utopian one, might be first to increase sentences for joining a terrorist organization and fighting in its ranks, maybe even sentencing all captured fighters without exception to life in prison without parole, because of the threat they are very likely to pose again upon their release. They ought to be imprisoned in closely guarded facilities with no prisoners of other kinds, so as to prevent them from having contact with non-jihadists whom they could try to gain for their cause. Furthermore, security in such a facility should be provided by multinational military units that ought to be composed of soldiers and guards strictly selected and subjected to background checks, as well as of impeccable moral attitude and psychological fitness – the latter being regularly checked. Security measures of such a prison should be of the highest possible level, and costs of such should be spread among prisoners’ countries of origin. Such a solution should, in theory, resolve the dilemma through removing Jihadists permanently from their societies, and should satisfy those opposing death penalty.

This is, however, only deliberation. In reality, Western states are hesitant to take responsibility for their nationals who were captured fighting in ISIS’s rank. They would rather leave it to the authorities of the country that the fighters are currently kept in, only occasionally raising their voice, just as French officials did- which was, nonetheless, rather calculated on not losing face in the public. It needs to be acknowledged, though, that France, along with the Netherlands and the US, have all repatriated a few of their non-militant nationals from Syria and Iraq (twelve orphans, two orphans, and two women and six children respectively). However, this obviously does not resolve the issue of overcrowded detention camps.

However, releasing Jihadists, of any affiliation really, from prisons will always remain a risk. It seems that the very minimum international community of states should do to contain the threat coming from captured terrorists is sentencing all of them to life in prison where they would be kept under strict control and in separation from other inmates, with no possibility under any circumstances and at any point to contact other prisoners.

1. Link to the summary of the report

2. Fawaz Gerges, ‘ISIS. A History’, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2016, p.84

3. Anrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri, ‘How America Helped ISIS. New York Times’, The New York Times, 1 October 2014

4. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ‘ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror, New York: Regan Arts 2015, p. 83