Fate of Daesh fighters captured in Syria a lingering question

US-backed Syrian Defense Forces to fight the Daesh group since 2015. (File/Reuters)
Updated 09 January 2019

Fate of Daesh fighters captured in Syria a lingering question

  • US-backed Syrian Defense Forces to fight the Daesh group since 2015
  • European nations have been reluctant to take back citizens with ties to the Daesh, not wanting the legal challenge of prosecuting them or the potential security risk if they are released

WASHINGTON: What to do with hundreds of foreign Daesh fighters captured in Syria has become a critical and growing problem for the Trump administration as it prepares to pull troops out of the country.
A senior administration official said Tuesday that resolving the fate of these prisoners is a top priority as the government lays the groundwork with allies to comply with President Donald Trump’s Dec. 19 order to withdraw the 2,000 American troops from Syria, where they have been working alongside the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces to fight the Daesh group since 2015.
But there are no easy answers. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said releasing the fighters, among them Europeans and some US citizens, would be “unacceptable” since they could simply rejoin the remnants of Daesh fighters in Syria or elsewhere.
“This matters because SDF holds hundreds of Daesh fighters, including many European citizens, and they might go free if no solution is found,” said Bobby Chesney, a national security law expert at the University of Texas.
European nations have been reluctant to take back citizens with ties to the Daesh, not wanting the legal challenge of prosecuting them or the potential security risk if they are released.
And moving former fighters to the United States poses some of the same challenges the US has faced with men detained at the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including whether it’s feasible to prosecute militants captured on the battlefields of northern Syria, according to experts.
“It’s one thing for the government to be very confident that an individual joined or tried to join Daesh. And sometimes it’s still another thing for the government to be able to mount confidently a criminal prosecution against that individual,” said Joshua Geltzer, a senior counterterrorism official under President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, the prisoner problem is only growing worse.
On Sunday, the Syrian Defense Forces announced the capture of five fighters, including two US citizens, one of whom has been identified as a former school teacher from Houston.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just began a tour of eight Middle Eastern nations to discuss the withdrawal of the American troops. National security adviser John Bolton returned Tuesday from a meeting in Turkey, where he was seeking a guarantee of safety for the Kurdish fighters who have fought alongside US troops against the Daesh.
There are fears that the US withdrawal will leave a door open for Turkey to assault the US-allied SDF fighters. Turkey views them as part of a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders. SDF commanders have warned that they will be unable to hold the 700 prisoners if Turkish forces invade Syria following a US withdrawal.
Administration officials so far do not have a plan for what to do with the prisoners, according to a separate US official, who said that few countries have been willing to accept any of their captured citizens. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose the information publicly.
In a recent case of an American suspected of Daesh membership, US officials wrestled for more than a year, never charged him and then ultimately released him in Bahrain.
The problem has been further complicated by conflicting reports of Trump’s timeline for recalling the 2,000 US troops from Syria. When he made his surprise announcement of the withdrawal three weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to complete it quickly. His abrupt decision led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat Daesh.
More recently, Trump and other administration officials have insisted they favor an orderly pullout. The senior administration official said the US will defeat remaining Daesh fighters on the way out to prevent a resurgence and that the US will oppose any mistreatment of opposition forces, such as the SDF, that fought with the United States against Daesh.
“These questions are hard enough, if you know the timeline on which you’re making them — if you know what the US involvement will or won’t be over that timeline,” Geltzer said.
One of the foreign fighters recently captured is Warren Christopher Clark, a former substitute schoolteacher from Houston, Texas, who was first identified by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Researchers spent months investigating to confirm his identity through multiple sources. The program has identified more than 73 Americans, by their legal names, who are known to have joined extremists groups.
“Clark is one of several dozen Americans to join the Daesh out of the around 295 whom intelligence officials claim have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group,” according to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism.
Clark was captured along with four other foreign extremists — two from Pakistan, one from Ireland and a fourth man, Zaid Abed Al-Hamid, who also is believed to be from the United States, although that has not been confirmed.
In a letter to Daesh that was obtained by the researchers, Clark submitted a resume noting that he had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston, had worked as a substitute teacher at the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas, and had done teaching stints in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“Dear Director, I am looking to get a position teaching English to students in the Daesh,” he wrote to the group in an accompanying cover letter. “Teaching has given me the opportunity to work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and learning capabilities.”

Utrecht attack: The Erdogan connection?

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a rally in Antalya, Turkey, on March 17, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Updated 5 min 43 sec ago

Utrecht attack: The Erdogan connection?

  • Saturday, 4 p.m.: Turkish president uses footage of Christchurch massacre to inflame election supporters
  • Monday, 11 a.m: Turkish gunman in Netherlands shoots three people dead in rampage on tram

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heavily criticized on Monday for using the New Zealand mosque terrorist’s video footage to inflame his supporters at election rallies.

After Erdogan spoke, a Turkish gunman in the Netherlands shot three people dead on a tram. Gokmen Tanis, 37, was arrested on Monday night after an eight-hour manhunt in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Police said initially the incident was a terrorist attack, but they have not ruled out a family dispute.

The Turkish leader used the video footage, filmed by Brenton Tarrant as he killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, at a series of election rallies the following day. He said Tarrant’s manifesto was to keep Turks from Europe.

As the footage of Friday’s attack played on a screen, Erdogan said: “What does it say? That we shouldn’t go west of the Bosphorus, meaning Europe. Otherwise, he would come to Istanbul, kill us all, drive us out of our land.”

Erdogan’s use of the video footage, which social media companies have been trying to block from their sites, was condemned in both New Zealand and Turkey. New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters raised the issue on a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.


“Anything of that nature that misrepresents this country … imperils the future and safety of the New Zealand people and our people abroad, and it’s totally unfair,” Peters said.

“We had a long dialogue on the need for any other country, or Turkey for that matter, to ensure that our country, New Zealand, was not misrepresented.”

Turkey’s main opposition CHP party spokesman Faik Oztrak, said: “Is it worth showing this bloody massacre in order to gain a few more votes?”

In Utrecht, the man arrested for shooting dead three people on a tram had been detained previously on suspicion of being connected to Daesh, after he went to Chechnya to fight.

Gokmen Tanis, 37, is from Turkey’s central Yozgat province, the scene of several anti-Daesh operations in recent years. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1993.

Tanis was known to police for both minor and major crimes, including a shooting in 2013.

Suspect Gokmen Tanis is from Turkey’s Yozgat province, the scene of several anti-Daesh operations in recent years. AFP

The shooting took place in Kanaleneiland, a quiet residential district on the outskirts of Utrecht with a large immigrant population.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened crisis talks immediately after the incident. 

“Our country has today been shocked by an attack in Utrecht. A terrorist motive cannot be excluded,” he said.

Dutch police issued an image of Tanis and warned the public not to approach him. 

“It’s frightening that something like this can happen so close to home,” said Omar Rahhou, whose parents lived on a street cordoned off by police. “These things normally happen far away but this brings it very close, awful.”