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What should happen to thousands of foreign ISIS fighters?

In Syria, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are retaking the final territory of the Islamic State. As the caliphate dissolves, however, what will happen to the 40,000 foreign fighters who joined the terror group’s ranks over the past few years? Many of them have been detained, but the path for prosecuting them, and preventing them from driving an ISIS resurgence, remains unclear. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly five years ago, ISIS self-declared a caliphate, a historic term for an Islamic state that leads the Muslim world.

    That so-called caliphate is nearing destruction, after a brutal war that stretched across Iraq and Syria, killing tens of thousands. But what now for those fleeing and those who used to run that state detained by American allies?

    Here now, our Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They escape with only what they can carry, and their children carry the weight of war. Entire families are winding their way out of ISIS' final stronghold. Syria's been at war longer than these children have been alive. Their parents say they have escaped ISIS, and consider themselves lucky.

  • Hala Omar (through translator):

    An elderly women couldn't walk or climb the mountain, so we fled, and left them behind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Left them behind in Baghouz, Syria. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are trying to recapture the final square mile of what was once ISIS' caliphate.

    ISIS released this propaganda video of fighters' last stand. The fighting has been tough, and made more difficult by all the people fleeing, many of whom are foreign. This Iraqi woman says she is fleeing with her husband. This Ukrainian woman admits, in broken Arabic, her decision to travel to ISIS-held territory with her husband was — quote — "madness."

  • Man:

    We have people from all over the world. We have brothers from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia, Australia, U.K.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those women's husbands were among the 1,000 foreign fighters who, back in 2014, joined ISIS every month.

  • Man:

    I'm your brother Shoaib from South Africa.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At its peak, ISIS propaganda celebrated 40,000 foreign fighters from 40 countries. They proudly ripped up their home countries' passports. Many of these men are dead. But many others, like this Irishman, have been captured, and the U.S. is calling on those 40 countries to repatriate them.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Forty thousand foreign fighters showed up in Syria and Iraq, and those countries have the responsibility to take back their citizens and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seamus Hughes is a former intelligence officer who warns the 1,000 foreign fighters currently detained are a security risk unless transferred and prosecuted to their home countries.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    If they don't step up right now, it allows to ISIS to reconstitute themselves. You are going to have individuals who had experience in the Islamic State who are going to have military experience and an ability to be in a terrorist organization, and they're going to spread out across the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the last month, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have released photos of foreign ISIS fighters they have captured. But repatriating them will not be easy to countries where law enforcement is weak, such as Tunisia, or even to Western Europe.

    In 2014, then-15-year-old Shamima Begum was captured on CCTV leaving London to join ISIS. This week, she told a Times of London reporter about life inside the caliphate.

  • Shamima Begum:

    It was like a normal life, the life that they show in the propaganda videos.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those propaganda videos depicted the caliphate as family-friendly, but they also showed ISIS' brutality. And even today, Begum told The Times' Anthony Loyd she didn't regret fleeing to Syria when the violence became every day.

  • Anthony Loyd:

    Did you ever see executions?

  • Shamima Begum:

    No, no, I never, no, but I saw a beheaded head in the bin.

  • Anthony Loyd:

    In the bins?

  • Shamima Begum:

    Yes, in the bin. It didn't faze me at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That attitude led British Security Minister Ben Wallace to tell sky news today, if she managed to return to London, she would be charged by authorities.

  • Ben Wallace:

    Anyone who goes out to fight or support organizations, such as ISIS, dreadful, horrendous terrorist organizations, should expect to be investigated, should expect to be interviewed, and should at the very least expect to be prosecuted.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But there's no guarantee of that, says Hughes.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    In the U.S. context, it's relatively easy to build a legal case against an ISIS fighter. In Great Britain and France, you don't have the same strong legal frameworks that you would have that you would be able to arrest somebody for joining the Islamic State.

    You need to put it in context of the legal frameworks in 2013-'14. It wasn't illegal for a British citizen to go to Syria and Iraq in 2014.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's also humanitarian concerns about sending detainees to states with poor human rights records and to states without reintegration programs.

    And there is the huge question of what to do with thousands of children born inside the caliphate.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    I don't think the sins of the mother or father should be the sins of the child. And so it is going to be incumbent on the state to create programs to deal with, let's be fair, PTSD and other things That they witnessed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What they witnessed was unspeakable violence committed by fighters who are now in detention. But it's unclear who will deliver those fighters justice.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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