Yet again, why nations should not be in a rush to repatriate ISIS FFs

The recent 15-month sentence handed down to an ISIS terrorist/ex-Irish soldier is a timely reminder that the West is unprepared to deal with this threat.

Over the past couple of years we have on occasion been exposed to reports in the mainstream media about the horrendous conditions faced by the residents of the Al Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria. Tens of thousands, mostly women and children, are housed there in abominable conditions. Lousy food, inadequate schooling and violence are all too common. It is certainly no place to live.

Some label these denizens ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) from the Syrian civil war of the post-Arab Spring era. While that may be true to some extent it is missing much of the reality. In fact, a large percentage of those who call Al Hol ‘home’ are actually the leftovers from the ‘Caliphate’ created by Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014.

In other words, terrorists.

The picture is complicated by the presence of women and children: we have a tendency not to see this swath of society as terrorist in nature (certainly, and rightfully, so not children: the women are a completely different matter). Hence there have arisen a number of calls to repatriate these individuals – they hail from dozens of countries around the world as ISIS inexplicably attracted followers from as many as 140 nations on Earth – to save them from their fates.

I have weighed in on this argument on many opportunities with what some have labeled a heartless position. My lack of sympathy? I have stated that the ISIS terrorists should face trial and punishment in the lands where their crimes were committed, i.e. there, not in their homelands (that leaving to join a terrorist group may in itself constitute a crime in many countries is offset by the severity of the group’s actions in Iraq and Syria: mass killings, rape, torture, etc.). At the same time I have called for the children, who most clearly did not sign up for ISIS, to be returned to their extended families in their native lands or placed in state care. NB I have also weighed in that anyone who took a child to live amongst ISIS terrorists is, by definition, an unfit parent. Some see my views as ‘inhumane’.

To my point that these terrorists should face trial in Iraq/Syria many have countered that:

a) the locals do not have the facilities to arrange trials;

b) local ‘justice’ is inadequate (use of torture, lack of representation, short hearings, capital punishment, etc.)

c) the Kurds, for one, have asked that countries take back their own; and

d) they will all face trial and imprisonment in their homelands – hence bring ’em home!

Which brings me to Lisa Smith.

The former member of the Irish Army has just received a 15-month (15 MONTH!!) sentence for her decision to join ISIS between 28 October 2015 and 1 December 2019. The court acknowledged the suffering she had faced in Syria while with ISIS from her terrorist husband, but did not seem to care as much about the suffering she imposed on the terrorist group’s victims. As if her ordeal was more important that that of those brutalised by the world’s most brutal terrorist group.

(NB A Swedish court handed two men an 8-month sentence for wanting to join ISIS – looks like Swedish and Irish courts are equally ignorant of what ISIS stands for!)

The ‘bring them home’ advocates promised the returnees would face justice for their crimes. I wonder if they think that a 15-month sentence is a fair cost for having been part of ISIS?

Now, in fairness, I did not read what Smith had done while with the so-called ‘Caliphate’ and I do not know whether this information came out in her trial. She may have been a lesser figure in the organisation. Whatever she did or didn’t do, I cannot accept that a little more than a year behind bars is the right decision.

The bigger issue here is this: did any witnesses from Iraq and Syria testify at her trial? Did anyone who saw her there speak to her crimes? I don’t think so, although I cannot be sure. But the point is that in the vast majority of cases where ISIS terrorists have been ‘repatriated’ I severely doubt that the vast body of evidence that could demonstrate what they did to innocent civilians was available or used. Locating, securing, convincing and transporting witnesses to the West would be a herculean task.

Which is why I maintain to this day that the trials of ISIS terrorists who made their way to the Middle East- the ‘foreign fighters’ we hear a lot about – MUST occur over THERE, not over HERE. We will never see true justice done and, more importantly, neither will the victims, until these terrorists face their victims where the crimes were committed. This can only be done in foreign jurisdictions.

To critics who say that fair trials cannot be guaranteed, let alone make allegations of torture, there are ways around this. Help locals (Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds) to set up internationally-recognised court rooms and abide by international norms. It has been done before and can be done again. In the end, however, if local law calls for these terrorists to receive capital punishment, of which I am not a fan, so be it: who am I or anyone else for that matter, to tell Iraqis/Syrians/Kurds how to apply their own laws? How arrogant!

The Lisa Smith case is the tip of the iceberg. If more FFs are returned, in part because of their ‘fanbase’, equally unsatisfactory trials with ludicrously short sentences will ensue. And I have not even addressed the threat to public safety/national security that returnees pose. That is a whole other blog.

Keep the jihadis where they are now and make sure they pay the price for their decisions. This is the only fair option.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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