Repatriating ISIS Foreign Fighters Is Key to Stemming Radicalization, Experts Say, but Many Countries Don’t Want Their Citizens Back
A woman and child are handed over to Uzbek diplomats on May 29, 2019. Uzbekistan has repatriated more than 318 individuals affiliated with ISIS from Iraq and Syria — all women and children. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
A review of the 10 countries that yielded the most individuals affiliated with ISIS found varying levels of commitment to repatriation and prosecution.
In the two years since the self-declared Islamic State lost its last physical stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, thousands of ISIS foreign fighters, along with their wives and children, have remained in limbo, mostly in Iraqi custody or in Kurdish detention camps in northeastern Syria.
The question now is what to do with them — an issue that gained urgency following a United Nations Security Council briefing last month on a resurgence of ISIS in Syria.
Roughly 40,000 traveled to the self-declared Islamic State from 81 countries. Some fought in Iraq and Syria for ISIS, while others, including some women and their children, were victims of violence. Whether they came willingly or not, those who remain — some 64,000 from 57 countries, mostly women and children — live amid dire conditions that human rights groups have described as breeding grounds for future radicalization.
What should happen next to the fighters is relatively clear, according to international law experts. “All terrorist crimes need to be prosecuted,” said Naureen Fink, executive director of The Soufan Center, a global security research institute, echoing a sentiment expressed by all 17 extremism and counterterrorism experts with whom FRONTLINE spoke for this story.
Who should be responsible for holding those trials is not so straightforward. There is no international tribunal with a mandate to prosecute ISIS-related crimes, and the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction in Iraq or Syria. Iraq has tried more than 20,000 cases of ISIS-related crimes. But with a judicial system internationally criticized for due process and human rights violations, Iraq poses a dilemma for countries with conflicting human rights standards. And while they’re considered an ally by the U.S. in fighting ISIS, the Kurdish forces running the camps in northeastern Syria are not recognized as a government with the authority to hold trials.
Meanwhile, a FRONTLINE review of the 10 states that yielded the largest numbers of ISIS foreign fighters and family members found that most of these countries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, are reluctant to repatriate their citizens. Children and women — the latter of whom are often seen as victims — have been the primary exceptions, especially in Central Asian countries.
For some European leaders, “repatriating terrorists would be political suicide,” said Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Belgium. European nations also claim that home-country courts might not be able to successfully prosecute fighters due to a lack of battlefield evidence, Renard said.
That’s an issue the UN attempted to address in 2018 by establishing an investigative team, UNITAD, with a mandate to collect criminal evidence and to identify and bring witnesses back to testify in home-country courts. To date, UNITAD, has provided evidence for 30 trials in 10 countries.
In the U.S., the official policy under former President Donald Trump was pro-repatriation. The State Department said 28 American ISIS fighters and their family members have been returned to the U.S. to date — from a total of about 300, based on statistics provided by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. President Joe Biden’s administration will do the same, a State Department spokesperson told FRONTLINE.
Of the 28 people repatriated, 12 adults have faced charges related to terrorism, according to the State Department. “We encourage countries to take back their foreign terrorist fighters and associated dependents from Syria and Iraq,” the State Department wrote in an e-mail to FRONTLINE. “The United States believes that repatriation, prosecution as appropriate, and rehabilitation and reintegration is the best way to keep fighters off the battlefield and address the humanitarian crisis in detention centers and [internally displaced people] camps in [northeast] Syria.”
Many countries either don’t know or don’t disclose the number of citizens who traveled to join ISIS — including all countries in the top 10, save for Russia — and many don’t make public the number of returnees brought to trial. “Lack of transparency translates to lack of accountability,” said Fink of The Soufan Center. “It helps countries not to be transparent, because they don’t want to talk about what they’re doing when [fighters] come back.”
Fighters who do come home, either by government intervention or on their own, are considered a “great security threat for countries upon their return,” said Gina Vale, co-author of a 2019 International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) report that offers the most recent estimates of individuals affiliated with ISIS by country.
FRONTLINE spoke with 20 experts — legal and regional specialists, as well as foreign ministries to understand if, and how, the 10 countries that produced the most foreign fighters are pursuing repatriation and prosecution of ISIS-related crimes.
How the 10 Countries with the Most Individuals Affiliated with ISIS Approach Repatriation
Turkey: Estimated 7,476–9,476 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Unlike the U.S. and some of Europe, Turkey — long a back door to ISIS territory, given its shared border with Syria — did not criminalize travel to Syria or Iraq, except in cases where it could prove intent to join ISIS.
For Turkish citizens who return from ISIS and are convicted of membership in a terrorist organization, the typical sentence is five to 10 years, said Berkay Mandıracı, a Turkish policy analyst at the International Crisis Group. In practice, however, time served is often three to four years under the “active remorse clause,” which allows returned Turks to trade information — including testifying against others — for shorter sentences.
Mandıracı also cited other ready sources of evidence, including ISIS identification documents seized at the border and intelligence from Turkish security units stationed in northern Syria. Turkey’s information pipeline gives it an advantage in seeing ISIS-related cases go to trial, Mandıracı said, although the Turkish ministry hasn’t released the number of prosecutions or repatriations to date.
“Prosecution processes of [ISIS]-affiliated women … imprisoned in Iraq have been going on for a while,” the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., wrote in a statement. “We have conveyed our request to relevant Iraqi authorities to transfer those convicted to Turkey to serve the rest of their sentences.”
Officials did identify the number of individuals affiliated with ISIS it has deported: at least 8,000 from 43 countries. That includes at least 77 European detainees who escaped into Turkey following an October 2019 Turkish military incursion into Syria. According to the Egmont Royal Institute, 73 of those Europeans were women and children.
Tunisia: Estimated 4,000–6,500 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Tunisia represents the world’s most ISIS fighters per capita. Its shared border with Libya, where ISIS held territory, acted as a key entry point for fighters both foreign and domestic.
Tunisia has not taken a public stance on repatriation. “More than 800 of [its] fighters have already returned — and quite a few of them undetected,” said Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler, a senior director at the Geneva-based Counter Extremism Project. In February 2019, Human Rights Watch called Tunisia’s efforts to repatriate its citizens “scant” and reported that the number of returned fighters may be closer to 1,500. As of July 2019, ICSR had identified at least 970 returnees.
Common charges for returnees who are prosecuted — a number that’s not public — include membership in a terrorist organization and endangerment of national security, both of which fall under a terrorism law that has been widely criticized for overreach. “When you read it, you can apply it to protestors,” Schindler said.
In January 2020, Tunisia repatriated six orphaned children of ISIS-affiliated parents from Libya, the most recent publicly acknowledged repatriations. The Tunisian government did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
Russia: Estimated 4,000–5,000 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Facing new threats from ISIS-affiliated groups around Afghanistan’s northern borders, Russia has adopted a policy of transparency, publishing personal information about its foreign fighters. The country’s Federal Financing Monitoring Service, meant to counter terrorism and weapons financing, lists the names of over 10,600 citizens who have participated in foreign extremism —including ISIS, among insurgencies in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It’s a move designed to discourage radicalizing youth, according to three Russian counterterrorism experts who spoke with FRONTLINE.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is actually maintaining transparency because this is a message to others that they will be found and tried and imprisoned and punished,” Vladimir Sotnikov, a policy analyst on international terrorism at St. Petersburg’s state-run Russian Academy of Sciences, told FRONTLINE.
But according to Colin Clarke of The Soufan Group, an intelligence and global security consultancy, countries like Russia and China might overestimate their numbers of extremist fighters in order to enact stricter laws and justify civil rights abuses. “I’ve long suspected countries of both under-reporting and over-reporting,” Clarke said. “They say, ‘Look, this is this massive threat in our country,’ almost as a justification to some of the really draconian and horrific things we’ve seen take place.”
Russia has openly called for the return of Russian children, and Russian media outlets have reported that at least 150 children had been repatriated as of February 2020. The numbers of adults who have been repatriated and have stood trial is not available.
Russia’s longest counterterrorism sentence is 15 years; a mild sentence is five to seven years, Sotnikov said. Neither the Russian foreign ministry nor the Russian embassy in the U.S, responded to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
Saudi Arabia: Estimated 3,244 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Saudi Arabia’s track record on ISIS-related repatriation is murky, said Adam Coogle, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
ICSR identified approximately 762 Saudi returnees as of July 2019. But according to Coogle, both Saudi Arabia and Jordan “regularly censor publication of information that could be embarrassing, and this would certainly fit the bill.”
Under a 2014 royal decree, any Saudi citizen who fights in foreign conflicts could face three to 20 years in jail. Human Rights Watch has found that former Saudis affiliated with ISIS can avoid charges by entering rehabilitation, as part of the country’s Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare strategy. An unknown number of others have been prosecuted in trials Coogle calls “laughably unfair.”
“Defendants do not get a lawyer or even learn their charges until they are brought to their first trial session,” Coogle said.
The Saudi government did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
Jordan: Estimated 3,000–3,950 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Jordan’s official policy is to prevent “terrorists or their families” who traveled to Iraq or Syria from returning home, although ICSR estimates that about 300 Jordanians affiliated with ISIS have done so.
According to Coogle, that number could have been higher. Allegations have arisen that Jordan has prevented citizens from returning via unofficial border crossings with Syria — a common route before 2018.
Those who voluntarily make their way to foreign consulates or embassies are usually sent for interrogation and then on to Jordan’s State Security Court, which often prosecutes on “vague charges,” Coogle said. The number of trials to date is not available. “Convictions are obtained nearly always based solely on the person’s confession, which is often tainted by torture/ill-treatment,” Coogle said — criticism backed by the Geneva-based human rights group Al Karama.
The Jordanian government did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
As in Saudi Arabia, sentences range from three to 20 years.
Uzbekistan: Estimated 1,500–2,500 individuals affiliated with ISIS
“[Central Asian countries] are pretty united with rejection of bringing men home,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. “They judge the men harshly.”
Like other countries, Uzbekistan has had difficulty tracking men who return on their own accord. Uzbekistan has relaxed border regulations with Russia to allow for labor migration, making it hard to distinguish between types of travel.
Unlike men, women are seen “as having little choice,” Speckhard said. More than 318 Uzbek citizens — all women and children — have been repatriated from Syria and Iraq over the course of three missions, according to Javlon Vakhabov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the U.S.
The women who are prosecuted — an unknown number — face charges of religious extremism and international terrorism. “If they are found guilty, of course we will bring them into justice by law,” Vakhabov said. “But at the same time, we prioritize to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into normal life, rather than punishing them, depending on the severity of their crimes.”
Tajikistan: Estimated 1,899–2,000 individuals affiliated with ISIS
In 2015, Tajikistan announced amnesty for ISIS fighters who returned home voluntarily, expressed remorse and renounced ties to foreign militant groups. By 2019, at least 100 citizens had accepted the offer — with mixed success.
As of 2018, there were at least 30 known cases of recidivism, with Tajiks re-joining the Islamic State. “It comes down to the question of stigma,” said Gavin Helf, Central Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “One of the government officials in Tajikistan [we spoke to] said they never expected the people to come back. The state media demonizes these people as defects duped into going [to ISIS territory] and irredeemable.”
Experts told FRONTLINE that Tajikistan has actively repatriated mostly women and children, largely as a way to gain more political leverage with the United States and other Western countries. Having international support is “a convenient way to get assistance or justify behavior towards their own population,” Helf told FRONTLINE.
With the February 2019 announcement of its plan to repatriate children, Tajikistan policy preceded that of many Western and Arab states. By December 2020, Tajikistan had arranged for the return of 200 citizens — mostly women and children — from Syria. The total number of repatriations to date is not available.
Although Tajik officials did not respond to FRONTLINE’s inquiry, the Tajik ministry of foreign affairs released a statement in February 2021, saying “works are underway” to bring women and children back from “war-torn countries in the Middle East.”
France: Estimated 1,910 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Although France has strict terrorism laws allowing defendants to stand trial in absentia, that practice is uncommon. The government also tends not to repatriate, according to Egmont’s Thomas Renard.
The return of 10 orphans of French nationals from Syria on June 22, 2020, brought the country’s total ISIS-related repatriations to approximately 35 — all children.
“France is on the tougher end of the spectrum, and there is the possibility to pass quite long sentences” for crimes related to terrorism, said Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But terrorism events in France since 2015 — including the ISIS-claimed attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris that killed more than 100 people — have made repatriation less politically acceptable.
Nevertheless, the government came under public fire after 11 French nationals were sentenced to death in Iraq on June 3, 2019, as France does not practice capital punishment. President Emmanuel Macron had insisted that Iraq could try the cases, despite international concern over Iraqi courts’ human rights record.
In February, 10 French women detained in northeastern Syria staged a hunger strike as a means of pressuring France to repatriate them, according to The New York Times.
“It’s always in the short-term easier to leave them there,” said Dworkin. “The difficulty is seeing what’s going to change that dynamic now.”
The French government did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
Germany: Estimated 1,268 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Germany has conducted very few repatriations, according to Hannah Neumann, one of the country’s elected members of European Parliament who sits on the human rights and security committees. The Egmont Royal Institute put the total around seven as of October 2020. In December 2020, Germany repatriated three women and 12 children from Syria, bringing the total to 22. This doesn’t include an unknown number of Germans deported by Turkey. Prior to December, ICSR estimated 357 total German returnees.
According to the German Federal Foreign Office, any ISIS returnees who are brought to trial — an unknown number, to date — typically face charges of membership in a terrorist group, which carries a 10-year sentence. Other charges include occupying a living space from which ISIS victims have fled, which constitutes the appropriation of property — a war crime, according to the Foreign Office.
Reaching prosecution on either charge is difficult, especially in cases where German nationals hold dual citizenship. There’s also a reluctance to repatriate citizens from areas under Kurdish control, given Germany’s strong relationship with Turkey, which does not recognize Kurdish jurisdiction in Syria.
In light of potential security risks, Neumann has argued for Germany to play a more active role. “At one point or another, these people will eventually escape, or they will be released. Even a Kurdish administration cannot keep them there for 10 to 20 years,” she said. “They have not undergone any deradicalization programs. They are free-floating. We don’t know how they are or where they are. From a security perspective, doing nothing is the worst of all options.”
There has been one sign of movement. In April 2020, what is believed to be the world’s first trial related to charges of genocide committed against the Yazidi — an Iraqi minority group, of whom ISIS captured and enslaved approximately 7,000 women and girls — began in Germany, as one of the defendants is German. The trial is ongoing.
Kazakhstan: Estimated 1,136–1,236 individuals affiliated with ISIS
Kazakhstan’s approach is “almost entirely humanitarian in nature,” Yerzhan Ashykbayev, the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, in January 2021.
Like most of Central Asia, Kazakhstan almost exclusively repatriates women and children and has received global commendation for its efforts to bring home and reintegrate Kazakh citizens — at least 700 in total, according to the Kazakh embassy in the U.S. In 2019 alone, Kazakhstan brought back an estimated 524 individuals from former ISIS territory. Of those, 33 were men, all of whom were prosecuted as ISIS fighters.
Rehabilitation efforts have included giving the children of ISIS fighters Kazakh birth certificates and Kazakh names. But Helf, of the United States Institute of Peace, told FRONTLINE that children are struggling to readjust, and some women have refused to work with authorities. Meanwhile, other women have rejected the invitation to return.
“Kazakhstan tried, but some people don’t want to come back,” Helf said. “But the door is open.”
The Kazakh government did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for comment.
April 16, 2021, update: The press department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to FRONTLINE post-publication on April 15 and said that, as of March 2021, 274 children had been evacuated from detention camps but did not mention men or women. In a post-publication response to FRONTLINE on April 13, the Kazakhstani embassy in Washington, D.C., said participation in ISIS is forbidden in Kazakhstan, and terrorist activities, including recruiting members and distributing terrorist propaganda, are considered crimes against public security and order. Prison sentences range from 8 to 14 years for men.
Correction: This story has been updated to properly identify the Counter Extremism Project, The Soufan Center and The Soufan Group.