Next in the Fight Against ISIS, Captured Militants Must be Rehabilitated

Haid Haid

US- and Russian-led campaigns have successfully recaptured most ISIS-held territories in northeastern Syria. But success in the battlefield will be squandered unless the main protagonists and their local allies follow up on two issues. The first is to provide a suitable counter narrative to the ideology that ISIS uses to recruit to its militant force. The second is to figure out what to do with the thousands of captured fighters. In fact, the two go together, and the failure to come up with a cogent strategy on even one of these fronts spells trouble for the future. Something must be done.

For now, the situation on the ground does not augur well. Recently, a group of ISIS detainees escaped from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) detention center in northeastern Syria. The worry arising from this incident was not so much the profile of the escapees. Rather, it was that any escape was possible in the first place. Indeed, there is now a growing concern that more and larger jailbreaks might occur. According to SDF officials, they already hold under detention thousands of ISIS fighters. And the number continues to swell because of ongoing operations against ISIS sleeper cells. Thus, the detention centers will face increasingly greater pressure to prevent captured fighters from returning to the battlefield.

Next, the dependence on ad hoc detention centers, such as the SDF prison, has elevated concerns that these facilities – badly run at the best of times – will be exploited by ISIS to regroup and to develop new networks. This is particularly worrying since the genesis of ISIS in Iraq is linked to its leaders’ incarceration under similar conditions. Then, there is the matter of foreign fighters that no one wants anything to do with. Among the SDF’s captured ISIS fighters, most of them Syrians, are at least 500 others from 40 countries. Despite US-led efforts to repatriate them, many of their home nations are reluctant to accept these prisoners.

Finally, there is the problem of law. Take the case of the SDF. It is unable to prosecute detained fighters because it does not have specific counter-terrorism statutes it can apply. Consequently, detainees are being held in a state of legal limbo. Without recourse to judicial settlement, most will be under detention for the foreseeable future – enough time, certainly, for mischief planning (that is, if they don’t manage to escape).

In short, the battlefield victories against ISIS may be undone by success. Unless a mechanism is in place to securely hold captured fighters and then counter-indoctrinate them, possibly involving a recourse in law, the victors of the recent campaigns against ISIS are storing up trouble for the future. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

And it is, to a degree. But not well and certainly not to any satisfaction. The SDF, for its part, has made deals to release small numbers of ISIS fighters. This is counterproductive on many levels. The outline of such a strategy began during the battle in the city of Tabqa, when the SDF offered protection to ISIS militants and their families in exchange for their surrender. It continued more formally after the capture of Raqqa, when, at the behest of local leaders, the SDF released fighters who were captured or surrendered during battle. The group claimed its strategy was inspired by its desire to strengthen ties with local communities. But such deals have not been universally welcomed by locals themselves, who felt that well-known ISIS members and commanders who had committed atrocities were being freed without any sort of accounting. Additionally, some of those released were integrated into the ranks of the SDF, adding to tension with locals.

Other strategies to deal with militants have emerged with other rebel groups, such as in northwestern Syria. In the city of Atarib, for example, former ISIS members, after formally denouncing the group, have been allowed to settle in the city since 2014. But the number of former fighters involved and the scale of the violations they committed are both small. A more formal process was recently established in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, with the first rehabilitation center for ISIS members. It is still unclear how effective the centre is, but its capacity is limited to just a couple of dozens of ISIS fighters – almost twee and bijou in the face of the magnitude of the problem.

But to be fair, the situation is even worse in regime-controlled areas. In fact, the Damascus regime under Bashar Al Assad has made no effort to rehabilitate former ISIS fighters or supporters, or even to try to reconcile former militants with local communities.

The mistake made by protagonists of the anti-ISIS campaign is the belief that battlefield victories are sufficient to drain the terrorist group’s toxin from the land. However, by failing to define and execute cogent strategies to rehabilitate and counter-indoctrinate captured ISIS fighters, they risk allowing the group to re-emerge in another form, equally potent and equally vile. Outside powers fighting ISIS in Syria also need to understand that ISIS is a by-product of the Syrian conflict. Thus, until the root causes of the civil war are properly addressed and fixed, ISIS and other brethren terrorist groups will mine grievances in Syria and the chaos of Assad’s war to prosper through the perpetuation of indiscriminate misery. Regrettably, in all these areas, the key parties still don’t understand what they must do.

Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.