The UK government’s reluctance to repatriate Isis fighters being held in custody in the Middle East is creating an “untenable” situation for local Kurdish forces who may not be able to hold them indefinitely, US defence secretary Mark Esper has warned.
Mr Esper was speaking on his first official visit to Britain since being confirmed in post two months ago. He is due to meet prime minister Boris Johnson today in a relationship-building mission in which the pair will discuss a “checklist” of issues, but said the question of how European countries including the UK should take responsibility for bringing their own Islamist militants home to face justice was “an important issue that we need to deal with, that we need to resolve”.
The UK Home Office has caused controversy by stripping some Isis recruits — such as teenage Jihadi bride Shamima Begum — of British citizenship and refusing to allow them back into the country. Hundreds of European Isis supporters and their family members are currently being detained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria,
“It’s an untenable situation, right, how long can this last? Our view has been that they should be repatriated and dealt with appropriately,” Mr Esper told reporters yesterday. “So that’s the message. Otherwise it’s a risk to the region. How long can they be guarded in these camps by others? You’re talking about several thousand fighters in total but there’s a little bit over 2,000 foreign fighters, many of which come from Europe.”
The defence secretary suggested that the US-backed SDF might not be able to provide custody for foreign fighters indefinitely, raising the risk of a new security threat if they are released. “We don’t know [whether the Kurds would let them go], that wouldn’t be a good situation. We’re asking a lot of the folks there, the Kurds, to hold them. How tenable is that, and for how long?”
Mr Esper was also dismissive about the removal of citizenship as a solution to the wider problems of how to neutralise the risks posed by former fighters. “[Taking away their passports] doesn’t resolve the fact that . . . there are foreign fighters, in Syria, being guarded, and how long will that last?,” he said. “The US’ government message is that they should be repatriated . . . back home and dealt with by their countries of origin. I think they should all go back to their home countries to face justice.”
The US and UK are currently negotiating the fate of former Britons Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh, who are said to have been members of a four-man cell of militants in Iraq and Syria known as “The Beatles”, because of their English accents. The two men, who are being held in custody in northern Syria, could potentially be extradited to the US for trial but their families are trying to force the Home Office to repatriate them to Britain through court proceedings. Both have been stripped of their UK citizenship.
European countries such as France, Sweden and the Netherlands are also battling with the problem of how to bring former Isis fighters to justice. The Swedish government is spearheading attempts to form a new international tribunal based in Iraq to prosecute Isis fighters and military personnel, although critics have said this is a transparent ploy to keep potentially dangerous European nationals in the Middle East.