As nations worldwide debate how to handle thousands of their citizens who became fighters for the Islamic State, some people argue for revoking their citizenship, barring them from their homelands. This would leave ISIS ex-fighters in an uncertain detention in Syria, denying them normal judicial processes. Defenders of this idea cite ISIS’ extreme brutality — and some argue that vengeance is justified, in part to protect ISIS’ victims. As a former ISIS hostage painfully familiar with that brutality, I must reply that our only viable path is to bring these fighters home to face justice in courts of law.

Families, ex-residents of the Islamic State, have lived since 2019 at the al-Hol camp. Governments have been slow to repatriate their citizens from this and other detention centers in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Families, ex-residents of the Islamic State, have lived since 2019 at the al-Hol camp. Governments have been slow to repatriate their citizens from this and other detention centers in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

An estimated 43,000 foreign former residents under the Islamic State — a mix of fighters, their families and others from 57 countries — have spent roughly two years in desperate conditions at prisons and detention camps guarded by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northeast Syria. The United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark and France are among countries where policymakers have tried or succeeded in revoking citizenship to keep these former ISIS residents from returning. This effectively condemns these people — some guilty of crimes but many innocent (7,000 are children) — living in a desperate limbo, vulnerable to violence, COVID, a lack of health care and even insufficient water.

The impulse to abandon these people is driven largely by fear. In public discussion, people imagine that their countries will be safer by keeping the former ISIS residents abandoned at a distance instead of bringing them home either to resettle into communities or, if accused of crimes, to face trial. This is disastrously wrong. The desperate conditions, lack of hope, and a lack of control within even the camps for women and children, risk creating conditions for a new generation of extremism in this population. Indeed, following a series of killings among detainees in the massive al-Hol camp this year, Kurdish forces entered the camp in March to hunt for new leaders of ISIS cells there.

The questions for governments are immediate. Nine nations with the most citizens “affiliated with ISIS” in Syria have repatriated only a relative few, according to the U.S. investigative reporting project Frontline. These (with their minimum estimated number of nationals in the prisons) are Turkey (7,500), Tunisia and Russia (4,000 each), Saudi Arabia (3,200), Jordan (3,000), Uzbekistan (1,500), Tajikistan (1,900), France (2,000) and Germany (1,270). Kazakhstan, with about 1,200 citizens in the Syrian camps, has done a better job of bringing significant numbers home. The United States, with an unknown number in detention, says it has repatriated 28 and charged 10 with terrorism-related crimes.

In the public discourse, some people seem to feel, even if they do not say, that this abandonment is a justifiable response, a kind of revenge, for acts of jihadist terrorism. Yet vengeance is the opposite of justice. Indeed, it is precisely the jihadist approach to righting a past wrong. Our only path to avoid breeding a new generation of violent extremism and vengeance-seeking from the remains of the Islamic State is to repatriate the people it left behind, holding visibly fair trials for those accused of crimes, and offering reconciliation for the innocent.

A Hostage’s Story

I urge this path not simply as an expression of universal human values, but because it is the only solution that works. I have gathered my evidence for this first as a journalist, covering wars and jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere. In 2013, my education intensified on a reporting trip to the Syrian city of Raqqa. Walking out of a grocery, I met four masked men with Kalashnikov rifles who seized me. Soon I was joined in a prison cell with other journalists and aid workers taken hostage by ISIS — including the American James Foley and British photographer John Cantlie. Some of our governments, including mine, negotiated deals with ISIS that I am sure included either ransoms or other concessions to win our freedom. Other governments, including those of the United States and Britain, would not negotiate and their citizens, including Foley, were brutally executed on camera to create ISIS propaganda. Two of Foley’s killers, who were among the guards who tormented and toyed with us in their prison, will face trial in the United States.

French journalist and author Nicolas Hénin now analyzes extremist groups and counterterrorism strategies. ​ ​ ​  ​
French journalist and author Nicolas Hénin now analyzes extremist groups and counterterrorism strategies. ​ ​ ​ ​

In the months after ISIS released me in 2014 to return home to France, some of my former captors followed me to Europe — to kill. One night in 2015, ISIS struck a few hundred yards from my home, at Paris’ Bataclan Theatre, killing 130 people there and elsewhere in the city in the deadliest attack on my country since World War II. I discovered that my time with these men had given me information that could help investigate and prosecute their violence, and I have worked with authorities to do so.

I also continue to investigate violent radicalism, partly through a new mission to prevent it. My most important step has been to visit dozens of prisons, mainly in France, meeting hundreds of prisoners. Many were somewhere along a path of radicalization, some are convicted terrorists, and some are returnees from ISIS. Whenever possible, I meet these men alongside a close friend whose experience carries many similarities to mine. He is Mourad Benchellali, a French citizen who was Guantanamo detainee number 161. After going to Afghanistan, Benchellali had been arrested after 9/11 by Afghans who told him they were selling him to the Americans for a $5,000 bounty. He spent three years at Guantanamo before U.S. authorities returned him to France. When Benchellali and I visit prisons and tell our stories side by side, the effect on prisoners is powerful, demonstrating that justice and injustice are not characteristics of any nationality or cultural identity — but rather are our acts of choice, as people or as nations.

Prosecution and Reconciliation

This dual approach — pursuing fair prosecutions for crimes while building reconciliation wherever possible — is the global community’s only path to defeat ISIS and other jihadist networks. For the victims of terrorist violence, the knowledge that their attackers face accountability in a court of law can be a vital part of their own recovery from the traumas inflicted on them.

Trials also lay the moral foundation that erodes the cycle of vengeance and radicalization — thus serving not only our ethical but our security goals. Terrorism of any kind is fueled by extremists’ narratives of victimization — an argument that violence is necessary to impose “justice” through vengeance. I support repatriating those who imprisoned me, and who killed my friends, for trials in which they will have every opportunity to defend themselves. That is an opportunity that they did not afford their victims. I am compelled to respect both law and the humanity even of my attackers, not only to maintain my own identity as a person, but to pragmatically win a war. Counterterrorism unrooted from our morality, and our innate understanding of justice, is doomed to failure.

Alongside trials, we need reconciliation. For those guilty of crimes, we should offer rehabilitation along with a sentence. For the innocents — children and many family members of ISIS fighters or adherents — we should build paths for their disengagement from jihadism and its community. This requires repatriating them to offer them new places as restored citizens within the behavioral norms of our own communities. In all cases, the success of rehabilitation or reconciliation is not guaranteed. Both the entry into radicalization and the exit from it are done by the individual. ISIS recruiters cannot truly radicalize another person, but only exploit his or her feelings and needs to encourage that change. In the same way, rehabilitation can only provide the best environment for a person’s voluntary return from an extremist worldview.

Amid the emotional, polarized political atmosphere of many countries, the arguments I offer here are difficult to make. Survivors of terrorism can quickly meet hostility from our compatriots when we pursue this humanistic line of thinking. That hostility is a victory for jihadists, who use their violence in part to breed hostile, racist or Islamophobic narratives from the societies they attack. Indeed, terrorism thrives on those divisive, bigoted narratives as its fuel for recruitment. Only a discourse of justice, firm in its rejection of discrimination, can interrupt this spiral.

Nicolas Hénin is a French journalist, counter-extremism analyst and author of Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State.

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