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
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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.”


Migrants stranded at sea for three weeks face deportation

Updated 19 min 23 sec ago
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Migrants stranded at sea for three weeks face deportation

  • Vessel carrying 75 illegal refugees, including 32 children, remained stranded 25 km off Tunisia

TUNIS: Tunisia has allowed dozens of migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, to disembark after three weeks stranded in the Mediterranean, so that they can return to their home countries, the Red Crescent said on Wednesday.

An Egyptian boat rescued at least 75 migrants in Tunisian waters last month. But local authorities in the governorate of Medinine said its migrant centers were too overcrowded to let them ashore, leaving the vessel stranded 25 km off the coastal city of Zarzis.

“After they were stranded for three weeks at sea in difficult conditions, Tunisia agreed to dock the ship, and migrants accepted to return to their countries in coming days,” Red Crescent official Mongi Slim told Reuters.

After a visit by officials from Bangladesh Embassy, the migrants agreed to return home, according to Mongi Slim, a Red Crescent official.

Earlier, Red Crescent representatives welcomed to port 64 Bangladeshis, nine Egyptians, a Moroccan, a Sudanese citizen, who left Zuwara in Libya in late May.

The migrants, which include at least 32 children and unaccompanied minors, are to be transferred to a reception center in Sfax from where they are set to return home, Slim added.

Worried about creating a precedent, Tunisian authorities said they accepted the migrants as an exception and for “humanitarian” reasons.

“We thank Tunisia’s renewed commitment to life and dignity,” said Lorena Lando, the head of the International Organization for Migration in Tunisia.

She added that it is urgent to put in place a collaborative approach to helping migrants in the Mediterranean.

Neighboring Libya’s west coast is a frequent departure point for African migrants hoping to reach Europe by paying human traffickers. But their numbers have dropped after an Italian-led effort to disrupt smuggling networks and support the Libyan coast guard.

At least 65 migrants drowned last month when their boat capsized off Tunisia after setting out from Libya.

In the first four months of 2019, 164 people are known to have died on the route, a smaller number but a higher death rate than in previous years, with one dying for every three who reach European shores, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.